Here in the UK tonight it is the last episode of what has been rather a new series called ‘Sherlock’ and its quite elementary dear readers what it’s about, almost. Rather than being just another remake of the tales of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson it has been given a modern twist and is set in modern day London with Holmes using mobile phones, Bluetooth and various other modern items to solve cases. It should really be everything I hate as a true Holmes fan, however somehow it’s won me over and I think it’s great, well apart from the fact it’s only been three 90 minute episodes when I think it would have been better as six hour long shows. It has also made me turn once again to some original Holmes, I only hope its inspiring many people to do the same, and so I decided to read his second outing in Conan Doyle’s tale ‘The Sign of Four’.
As ‘The Sign of Four’ opens we are greeted by a bored Sherlock Holmes. Without anything to occupy or tax his mind he is regularly turning to cocaine much to the horror and concern of his friend and lodger Dr Watson. Before long however a young lady by the name of Mary Morstan arrives at 221b Baker Street with a mystery that goes back many years to the arrival from India of her father who promptly vanished on his first night back in London. Each year since she has received a box containing a single large pearl, only this year it has come with a message, a letter telling her that she is a wronged woman and should she bring friends with her she will be taken to meet someone who knows the truth.
It might almost sound like the case is solved then, after all if she is simply going to pop round to someone’s house and be told everything where is the story? Of course Conan Doyle throws in some twists and by the end of the evening not only does the mystery seem even more complicated but someone else has been murdered, and of course being a Holmes tale it has been done in almost impossible circumstances.
I read the entire Holmes back catalogue as a youth a good two or three times and again in my early twenties, it amazes me still that not only do I not remember the endings of these stories I also get them completely wrong second guessing as I go. As a younger reader I was amazed by the impossibility of it all, the fear (faces at windows have always bothered me) Conan Doyle can thrill you with and the dark atmosphere. As an adult reader I still love all this but in addition am also more and more impressed with Conan Doyle’s plotting and the complexity of a character like Sherlock Holmes who steps vividly off the pages (oh dear clichéd but true). It makes it very hard when you have read one of his mysteries not to dash straight off into the next one.
Originally, according to those who knew him at the time, Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t expecting that the Sherlock Holmes mysteries would be a huge hit with readers. The success of the characters and the mystery in ‘A Study in Scarlet’ meant of course that he needed a follow up and in doing so he changed things. ‘The Sign of Four’ is a story just of Holmes and Watson with snippets of adventure elsewhere, in this case India, as the book goes on rather than a second part which is just the back story and adventure its predecessor had and though the first was good ‘The Sign of Four’ feels a much fuller and concentrated tale and slightly more polished.
A book that will: have you guessing the whole way whilst immersing you in murder and adventure, and will have you reaching for the next in the series. 9/10
Savidge suggests perfect prose partners;
A Study in Scarlett by Arthur Conan Doyle – because like any good series you should start at the beginning and though a slightly weaker tale because of the way its done in two halves gives you a taster of Sherlock but also his wonderful adventure stories too.
I can’t think of a second suggestion because I don’t think I can compare any modern crime I read to Conan Doyle. I would compare Christie for plotting but none of her stories, though good, can match the atmosphere in the Holmes tales – but that’s probably due to the periods they are set in too. Who is watching ‘Sherlock’ on the BBC? Who has read other tale of Holmes and what did you think? Is he the greatest detective of all time? Can you recommend any others? Who still has yet to try any Holmes at all?