The Sign of Four – Arthur Conan Doyle

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?


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

16 responses to “The Sign of Four – Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. My father is a huge Sherlock Holmes fan and has been really enjoying watching Sherlock, I might get the DVD for his birthday if they bring one out. He does nag me from time to time because I have never read any of the Sherlock books.

    • I think what has been brilliant is that this new remake with a modern twist has been loved (in the main) by all the fans of Sherlock old which is great. Hopefully it will also introduce new fans to the original books.

  2. This is actually my least favourite of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries I’ve read to date – but I’ve only read the novels, not the short stories, so I still have plenty to discover. I loved the first half, the atmosphere, and the Holmes/Watson interaction, but sadly the ending made the whole thing more or less crumble for me. As for modern comparison, I’ll go with the obvious and mention Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series. Her Holmes is not quite Conan Doyle’s Holmes, but you feel that it *could* be him a few years down the road. And she gets the period atmosphere just right.

    • Interesting that this is your least favourite, I think my all time favourite of Sherlock’s is The Hound of the Baskervilles, I wonder if it will stand the test of yet another re-read?

      I must see if the library has the Mary Russell series.

  3. I have digitally recorded Sherlock and will have a mini-Sherlock marathon once the series finishes tonight – really looking forward to it!

    I haven’t read The Sign of Four yet but have loved the Holmes I have read. I have heard such wonderful things about the Mary Russell series and bought them for my boyfriend who really enjoyed them; I think I have suggested them to you before and also Neil Gaiman’s wonderful short story “A Study in Emerald”, a parody of Conan Doyle and Lovecraft.

    • Oh I hope you enjoy the mini-marathon Claire.

      I think you are one of the many who have recommended me the Mary Russell series, I must must get to them. Will see what the library can do for me. The Gaiman sounds brilliant too.

      I do have a Brazilian modern take on the series which a reader of this blog very kindly sent me so am looking forward to that too.

  4. teadevotee

    Am LOVING the TV adaptation: like you I thought it would be awful, but they’ve done it really well. Whoever would have thought that Tim would be the perfect Watson?

    • I know if I had judged it on the casting before seeing it (I missed the first episode and watched it on iPlayer) I would have possibly been a bit unsure but they were cast brilliantly.

  5. winstonsdad

    I love this book ,grew up reading holmes ,this has some great parts to it a wronged man ,a heroine ,greed and a canibal pygmy couldn’t get much better ,high gothic thrills ,all the best stu

  6. Read all of Holmes growing up, over and over again, and to me, nothing is really comparable although I will echo Nymeth and praise Laurie King who gives us something close to as pleasurable a read. Do prefer the short pieces to the novels though. Happy reading (and viewing)!

    • I think ‘Sherlock’ is coming your way in the not too distant future. I love how you can read Holmes over and over and over and over again, not many books you can say that about are there.

  7. Dot

    I have really enjoyed the series and it has made me dust off my Sherlock Holmes copies. I agree that six one hour episodes may have been better, I hope they make some more though!

  8. I watched SH and there were problems, but it was also very loveable (although that final cliffhanger ending was very yawnish, like we don’t think they’ll surive or something?). For greatest tv detctives ever well who could forget Columbo (hehe). DI Chapel in The Vice series or Red Metcalfe from Messiah are both fine detective(alright maybe I have a Ken Stott crush, but he shouldn’t have been Rebus in my opinion). Oh or Barnaby in Midsummer Murders (although he does tend to let a lot of murders happen before solving the case).

    • I loved it and I know its easy to pick holes but 6 episodes would have been amazing and meant you became more attached to some of the back characters. I also have to be honest and say Moriarty just really really didn’t work for me and it all became a bit rushed. They needed longer I think.

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