The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Treasure hunt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a young lady comes to Sherlock Holmes for advice, what at first seems like an intriguing mystery soon turns into a tale of murderous revenge. Mary Morstan’s father disappeared some years ago, just after he had returned from colonial service. He had been in the Andaman Islands, one of the officers charged with guarding the prisoners held there. A few years after his disappearance, Miss Morstan received a large pearl in the mail, and every year for the six years since then, she has received another. Now she has been contacted by a man who claims to know what happened to her father and says he wishes to right the wrong that has been done to her. He has asked her to come to his house where he will tell her the tale. Holmes is happy to accompany her because he is bored and seeking distraction from the cocaine bottle. Watson is happy to go along because he is falling in love…

The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light, – sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more. I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined to make me nervous and depressed.

Thaddeus Sholto tells them an astonishing story of hidden treasure and takes them to visit his brother Bartholomew. But when they reach Bartholomew’s house they find him dead, in a locked room. Holmes will soon solve the mystery and the companions will set off on a thrilling manhunt through London and down the Thames.

Like most of the long stories, this one takes the form of the first half being about Holmes solving the puzzle and tracking the criminal, and then the second half takes the reader back to learn the story behind the crime. In terms of the actual puzzle, this one is rather weak with not much opportunity for the Great Detective to show off his genius for deduction. He does however get to show us his mastery of disguise and his intimate knowledge of London’s murkier areas.

The story has a few other aspects, though, that I enjoy more than the basic mystery. The back story takes us to the time of the Indian Uprising of 1857, to the Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh where many fled seeking refuge from the fighting. Here we are told a story of fabulous treasure, greed and murder, oaths of loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Back in London, while the solving of the mystery is a little too easy, it leads to a manhunt in the company of the loveable dog Toby with the assistance of the Baker Street Irregulars, a gang of street urchins Holmes sometimes employs to help him find people who don’t want to be found, and the whole thing culminates in a thrilling chase as Holmes and Watson get on the trail of their suspect.

Last but not least, this is the story in which Dr Watson finally loses his heart for real. When I was a child reading these stories for the first time, my admiration was all for Holmes and his brilliant reasoning skills. But over the years my loyalty has shifted, as I came to realise that all the warmth and humanity in the stories comes from Watson. He’s a soppy old buffer who is manly enough to wear his heart on his sleeve and has always been susceptible to the fairer sex. But when he meets Miss Morstan, it’s the work of only a few hours for him to know that she is his soulmate. The course of true love has to go over a few bumps, though, before he can hope for his happy ending and there’s no guarantee he will win her hand in the final outcome.

Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand, like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.

Anyone who has read my blog will know I’m a devoted fan of Conan Doyle’s story-telling. He is fluent and easy, writing in a relaxed style that tends to hide the skilfulness of his technique. He shifts effortlessly between deadly peril and sweet romance, and the friendship between Holmes and Watson is beautifully done. Watson’s wholehearted admiration and love for his friend are there for all the world to see, but Holmes’ appreciation of Watson seems colder, until something happens – Watson is put in danger, or Holmes inadvertently hurts his sensitive feelings – when we see the mask slip, and are allowed to glimpse the strong affection that exists behind the great man’s unemotional exterior.

Mystery, thrills, romance, friendship and a lovely dog – really, what more could you want? If you haven’t read the Holmes and Watson stories yet, I envy you…

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32 thoughts on “The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. That’s true, Fictionfan; Watson adds so much to these stories, and I’m not talking about the solutions to the crimes. He does make them more human – he really does. And I’ve always liked the fact that Holmes respects Watson’s personal life, even though he himself doesn’t really have one. After Watson marries, Holmes understands that he isn’t free to jump up late at night and go off on an adventure. I contrast that, for instance, with Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel, who never quite ‘got it’ about Pascoe and Ellie. Well, at least not in my opinion…


    • Haha – yes, Andy wasn’t the most understanding boss in the world, was he? I love the Holmes/Watson friendship – it feels very realistic in that undemonstrative stiff-upper-lip Victorian way, and Watson is so open about his admiration for Holmes. It’s that as much as the stories that makes them such a pleasure to spend time with…

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  2. I’ve never read Holmes, always put off by his cold manner but I do love a ‘soppy old buffer’ and a dog called Toby, so you’ve given me at least two good reasons to give these stories a go!


    • Even Holmes has his moments of warmth and genuine feeling, but Watson is lovely – the perfect combination of softness, strength and loyalty! He’s pretty much my perfect man, in fact… 😉 If you decide to read just one, make it The Hound of the Baskervilles… great story and full of atmosphere… 😀


  3. What fun to end the week with a five-star review! This one sounds especially tempting — golly, just as I finish one book and think I’m making progress on my TBR, you go and coerce me to add another, drat! Ah, well, as long as we don’t look at the sheer numbers, we’ll be fine, don’t you think?!?


    • Hahah – quite right! If only I didn’t know how many books were waiting, think how relaxed I’d be! 😉 This one’s only novella length though, so you’ll hardly even notice it taking up space… 😀

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  4. I’m a huge Sherlock Holmes fan too! Of the long stories, this and The Hound of the Baskervilles are the ones I enjoy the most. Have you seen the animated film The Great Mouse Detective? Its a Disney film, of course and a different storyline, but Toby appears.


    • Ha! No, I haven’t but I must look out for it! I love The Hound too – I think it’s an almost perfect example of what a short adventure story should be. Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate the long stories even more than the short ones.

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    • I love his writing style – there’s something so fluent about it. It’s not overly simplistic but it’s so easy to read, which must take a lot of skill. Whenever I read him, it’s like sinking into a big soft sofa… 😀


      • I’ve just read The Hound of the Baskervilles and I’m in the middle of The Sign of the Four. I am enjoying his writing and settling right into it. Maybe I’ve just read his short stories before?


        • Some of the shorts are great too but they don’t have the same room for him to indulge in a spot of romance or usually an exciting backstory, which may be why Holmes comes over more as the main character in them. So glad you’re enjoying the longs! The Valley of Fear is great too… 😀


    • Oh, yes, I remember you mentioning it on your blog! It’s because of the backstories that over the years I’ve grown to prefer the long stories even over the shorts. He’s such a great storyteller – he makes it all so vivid!

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  5. I’ve always loved Watson. When I was a kid, my parents and I used to watch the Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett and I found him intriguing but a little creepy and much preferred Watson, who seemed like a kindly grandfather.


    • I wasn’t too keen on Jeremy Brett as Holmes – he was too humourless. Holmes can be cold but he loves his little jokes too! But I loved Watson in that too – in fact, I’ve loved most of the portrayals of Watson I’ve seen. He’s such a great character. 😀

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      • It’s been ages since I saw the old show but it’s still my strongest impression of Holmes. I do enjoy the recent Sherlock series as well; I think it shows their friendship better than the Jeremy Brett version.


        • I’m afraid I didn’t make it through the first episode of the Sherlock – it brought on a severe allergic reaction! I can be such a purist sometimes! It’s a pity, because I like the cast and from everything everyone says it’s very well done, but I just couldn’t take it… 😂

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