Rereading: THE SIGN OF FOUR by A. Conan Doyle


Photo found online, original novel publication, 1890.

Continuing my revisit to the Sherlock Holmes complete works via a free iBook, The second Holmes story, also the second novel, brings some new elements to the lives of Holmes and his roommate and companion Dr. Watson. In Holmes’ case we get a frank look at his drug use, and a wider view of the network of informants and confederates he has supplying him information. In Watson’s case we get romance!

Holmes and Watson are in their study having a long discussion of Holmes’ methods when a lady, Miss Mary Morstan, calls with a case for the detective. It involves the disappearance of her father some ten years earlier. Captain Morstan had served in India, then as a guard at a prison in the Andaman Islands, off the coast of India. The Captain had been hoping to meet an old friend and fellow officer when he disappeared, a Major Sholto, but the Major professed to know nothing about the matter. A few years later, Miss Morstan began receiving packages from an unknown source containing very valuable pearls, one each year.

What brings the woman to Holmes at this point is a letter she’s received asking her to meet someone who will explain the pearls, and perhaps more, but she must not tell the police. Holmes is intrigued, and insists that he and Watson go with her. They agree to meet later. Watson admits after she leaves that he finds Miss Morstan very attractive, and their shy courtship plays out through the rest of the book. Was this, perhaps, to resolve any questions about two middle-aged adult men living together, I wonder?

When the three are on their way to the meeting, Mary shows them an odd paper found among her father’s effects. It appears to be a map, and is labeled below, “The Sign of the Four” with four names, one English, the others Indian. At the rendezvous, they are met by a cab which brings them to a fancy apartment, and finally face-to-face with the man who has arranged all this, Mr. Thaddeus Sholto, son of the Major Sholto that was a friend of Mary’s father. He tells them a tale of wartime treasure tied up with a murder and eventually with the betrayal of the group by Major Sholto, who stole the treasure from them. Soon the three men and a lady are on to a large country manor, the Sholto estate, where Thaddeus’ brother lives, the former home of the Major. Thaddeus says Mary deserves a share of this treasure that was due her father, and wants to confront his brother about providing it.

When they arrive, they find the brother murdered, very recently, and in a quite unusual way, involving a poison dart. A hole in the ceiling of the brother’s bedroom on the top floor reveals a secret that will figure large in the mystery Sherlock Holmes must unravel. A chase is soon on for the suspected killer that puts Holmes and Watson in considerable danger.

I enjoyed reading this again, though I found the implied racism of the English control of India and its people, as if they were children to be guided by the wise Englishmen, rather depressing. Other racist attitudes emerge relating to the actual murderer as well. Still, it’s a product of its time, and has to be read in that light. Overall, there’s plenty of intrigue and action in this novel, including a fine chase scene and a satisfying conclusion.


The Sign of Four by A Conan Doyle

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