Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection -  Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry

“My mind,” he said, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation.

This is probably my favourite quote of all the Holmes canon. And, yet, isn't it funny how a re-read of a book can change your reading experience of it?


This was my third read of The Sign of Four and I took away some completely new impressions from it. When I read the story previously first I was focused on the adventure part of the story that tells of Jonathan Small's history and the exploits that are described to have happened in India. 


On my second reading, I was more interested in the mystery aspect of the story. How did ACD weave the discovery of the treasure and the "curse" that came with it as the start to the story within the story? 


On my third reading, I had lost almost all interest in the story behind the story, and in the mystery surrounding the treasure. So much so, that I wished the story had ended before we get to read Jonathan Small's account, because apparently, this now was old news to me and held little that was of interest on another encounter - and I believe this entirely due to one issue: The more often I re-read a story the less it is the plot that is of interest. To me a book proves its merit on the basis of the complexity of its characters and layers.


And unfortunately, only about the first quarter of The Sign of Four keeps me interested. 


Fortunately, tho, it is that first quarter that, to me, contain some of the most brilliant exchanges between Holmes and Watson and that shows us both characters with little filter: Having left their first exploit behind them, Holmes and Watson are settled at their home in Baker Street and have relaxed into that domestic routine that comes with sharing a residence. 


When Watson describes their living arrangements and how Holmes has usually risen before Watson, etc. I was almost expecting Watson to describe how they organise the day-to-day responsibilities of any shared flat: sticky notes on the fridge about buying milk, who's turn it is to take the bins out, etc. But of course, they had no fridge, and both the replenishing of milk and the disposal of rubbish would probably have been taken care of by Mrs. Hudson. That dear lady.


Then of course, all of their arrangements are unsettled by a woman.


That is, Holmes is still Holmes, but he now has to listen to Watson moon over Miss Mary Morstan. And what a lovestruck puppy he is!

In one scene where Watson listens to a potential patient, he is so absent minded that 

Holmes declares that he overheard me caution him against the great danger of taking more than two drops of castor oil, while I recommended strychnine in large doses as a sedative.

What I am getting at is that in the Sign of Four, we get to see both Holmes and Watson letting their guards down. Both are shown as humans: Holmes with his drug addiction, and his disregard for emotions, and Watson, not as a medical man of science, but a man in love. They both make fun of each other, and themselves, and it is in good spirit.


I really liked that. It sets up almost everything we know about the two, and will learn about the two in the subsequent stories.

But unfortunately, this is only the smallest part of this novel, which may be novella, but it just dragged and dragged, and no comic interlude, such as Watson collecting the famous Toby, could make up for it.

“Go on, you drunken vagabond,” said the face. “If you kick up any more row I’ll open the kennels and let out forty-three dogs upon you.”

“If you’ll let one out it’s just what I have come for,” said I.

“Go on!” yelled the voice. “So help me gracious, I have a wiper in the bag, an’ I’ll drop it on your ’ead if you don’t hook it.”

“But I want a dog,” I cried.