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Saturday 18 June 2011

The Sign Of Four

By Arthur Conan Doyle

This, the second of the Sherlock Holmes adventures (and the second of the four full-length novels), has always been one of my favourite books and remains my favourite Holmes story. Holmes's first appearance in A Study in Scarlet had not been a commercial success and Conan Doyle had no immediate plans for any more Holmes cases.

This all changed when he was invited to dinner at London's Langham Hotel in 1889 by Joseph Marshall Stoddart - the editor of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. The U.S. magazine was looking to launch itself in Britain and was seeking British based writers to contribute to its pages. At the Langham dinner Conan Doyle was brought into contact, for the first time, with Oscar Wilde and both men accepted commissions to write London based stories featuring murders.

Wilde went away and penned The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel, and Conan Doyle wrote The Sign of Four.

The book gives you everything. Two heroes, a lady in distress, romance, a missing treasure, a one-legged villain, a clumsy policeman, a murder and a back-story set in colonial India. It is for all these reasons that this story is the most filmed Holmes adventure after The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It is also notable for its work in fleshing out the character of Holmes. It gives him a little more humanity and explicitly introduces his drug use which was only suspected by Watson in the first story.

Conan Doyle also writes a commendable female character in the form of Mary Morstan - Holmes's client and the object of Watson's affections. From the first she is presented as a strong woman who knows her own mind rather than the hysterical stereotype so often portrayed by male writers of the period. This reflected Conan Doyle's real opinion of women in general. He was ahead of his time in his attitude towards them and later fought for reform of divorce laws although he did, bizarrely, disapprove of the idea of women's suffrage.

This aside, the book is well worth the read. It is fun, never drags and shows Sherlock Holmes at his flawed best.

Reviewed by Alistair Duncan

Alistair Duncan is an expert on Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle. You can read his blog here.

He has written a number of books on the subject and you can find out more, and order a copy here.

Thanks very much to Alistair for sharing his thoughts on such a classic book with us.


Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

I have to admit that I haven't actually read any Sherlock Holmes books, but I have now downloaded some to my Kindle and intend rectifying that dreadful lapse in my education!

SH are my son's girlfriend's favourite books though and I'll point her in the direction of your blog.

Mike said...

It is good to be reminded, once in a while, that Sherlock Holmes is more than pipe and deerstalker, or Basil Rathbone (or Benedict Cummerbatch, for younger readers). Like Richard Hannay, Holmes has become more a construct of the visual arts than the literary - but gentle nudges like these prompt me to go and pull the stuff off the bookshelves once again.