The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This novel is the second of the books in the Sherlock Holmes canon. It begins with a client (Miss Morstan) coming to see Holmes to acquire his advice as to whether she should make a rendezvous to which she has been summoned by mysterious means, Morstan being a beautiful young lady who is weary of showing up to a random public location, having been told to not involve the police. We learn some intriguing facts from the conversation, such as that she began receiving a pearl from an anonymous source each year and that her father (Capt. Morstan) has passed away.
With Sherlock and Watson in tow, Miss Morstan does attend the rendezvous, and we learn that the meeting is with the son (Thaddeus Sholto) of a man with whom her father served in the military at Port Blair in the Andaman Isles (Maj. Sholto.) The mystery of the pearls is cleared up as we discover that Maj. Sholto cheated Capt. Morstan out of his share of a treasure that the Major came into possession of while stationed in India, and his two sons (particularly Thaddeus) feel the need to make amends to Capt. Morstan’s heir, but would like to do so without dragging the family name through the muck or creating legal hassles.
It seems everything is wrapped up with a nice bow, when Thaddeus takes Miss Morstan, Holmes, and Watson to see his (more reluctant to be fair to Morstan) brother Bartholomew, who is the one in actual possession of the treasure. However, when they find Bartholomew dead and the treasure gone, the true mystery begins. The balance of the book involves a chase to find the missing treasure, the men who stole it, and to unravel the mysterious circumstances behind the treasure. The final chapter tells the elaborate backstory of the treasure, going back to India and to the titular four men, the four whose names were found at the scene of Bartholomew’s murder and who previously possessed it — one of whom serves as the storyteller. Along the way, a mangy bloodhound, the Baker Street Irregulars (street urchins employed by Holmes,) and – of course – the brilliant reasoning of Sherlock Holmes are used to solve the case.
Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the most intriguing fictional characters ever with Holmes. If he were just a brilliant man with supreme skills of observation and reasoning, he’d be no more interesting, and have no greater longevity, than any of the many other characters. But in Sherlock we see that brilliance always has a cost. Holmes is also an addict, is troubled by insomnia, and is – in some ways – socially dysfunctional. (e.g. When Watson develops a relationship with Miss Morstan, Holmes confesses that he can’t grasp the value of marriage / long-term intimate relationships.)
What the author does with character, he also does with setting by bringing into the story (through backstory) locales that are exotic and intriguing – e.g. Port Blair. Even by today’s standards there are always little tidbits of the exotic drawn into the story, even though most of the Holmes’ stories — this one included — don’t venture far from London.
If you enjoy crime and detection fiction, this book is a must. It’s highly readable and offers a compelling story. In terms of the Holmes canon, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly better or worse than others, but I don’t find there is a huge variation in quality among these novels and stories. It is one of the better-known titles (except that some call it “The Sign of Four” and others “The Sign of the Four” – the latter being the original title as far as I can discern.)
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