The narrative begins with a very bored Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street. With nothing to focus his incredible powers of deduction on at the present time, he decides to spend his days injecting a seven-percent-solution of cocaine. Conveniently a client with a particularly peculiar and complex case appears that very day. The potential customer, Miss Marstan, who wishes to employ the world’s only consulting detective explains the scenario. On the 4th of May for the last six years, she has received a rare and valuable pearl in the post. However, recently she has received an anonymous note from the sender of the jewels saying that they would like to arrange a meeting. She asks Holmes’ advice regarding what she should do. Holmes, no longer depressed and bored seems overtaken by a burst of energy and states that himself and Watson will accompany her to the meeting and hopefully shed light on these untypical events.
Once again written in the guise of Dr. Watson’s first-person perspective, The Sign of Four is my second favourite of Conan Doyle’s four full-length Sherlock Holmes stories. A Study in Scarlet was a good introduction but like many readers, I didn’t like the second half of that tale as it didn’t focus on everybody’s favourite master of deduction. In my opinion, Conan Doyle took everything that worked in that novel, structured it better, composed a superior story, and had some more colourful characters. It also mentions certain elements that build the Sherlock character and his working environment that people nowadays take for granted as being well-known facts about the character. Such as that he was an exceptional boxer, a highly adept violin player and a master of disguise. The Sign of Four also introduces Holmes’ youthful detective squad The Baker Street Irregulars and a bloodhound Toby who has an amazing sense of smell. In fact, Holmes states “I would rather have Toby’s help than that of the whole detective force of London.”
It was never going to be as simple as Holmes, Watson, and Miss Marston meeting up with the letter’s sender and a reasonable explanation being given regarding the pearls. Of course not. Holmes and Watson soon find themselves trying to figure out the facts behind a locked-door murder. Sherlock often assists the police in such cases and throughout this tale, the Detective in question is Alatheny Jones. Jones is presented as foolish although very excitable, often jumping to rash conclusions that we as readers know are incorrect as Holmes and Watson have just been unraveling the facts and tracked the highly probable sequence of events beforehand. Although he is presented as imprudent and maybe even half-witted he is very likable and Holmes patience with him is a nice touch. He is nothing like the Alatheny Jones that he would later become in Anthony Horowitz’s Moriarty where he presents deduction skills that rival those of Sherlock.
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
The Sign of Four is an intriguing and exciting entry in the Sherlock Holmes canon. It’s often thrilling, always detailed and features some amazing set pieces such as a steamboat chase across the River Thames. One of my favourite aspects of these detective classics is when Holmes leaves Watson to complete an unknown mission and like the Doctor, us readers are completely left in the dark as to what the sleuth is up to, which just works to heighten the emotions felt when it is revealed what he was doing and how it has impacted or benefitted the case. Also, like many of these stories, but I think this was the first time it was implemented in the chronological order of the tales releases, the case is often solved before the end of the book. At this point, Holmes will interview the perpetrator to get the full story. During these instances when you see the other perspective presented, the motives, objectives and past struggles, you may find yourself pitying and feeling sorry for a character who has been nothing but a villain through the whole story. The Sherlock Holmes full-lengths, barring this one and The Hound of the Baskervilles pale in comparison to many of the short stories but to say that Conan Doyle was perfecting the formula with this entry, I’m happy to call it a classic work of literature and a mystery masterpiece.
And at the end, when Holmes is asked what now remains for him he replies:
“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine bottle.”