Goodreads: The Sign of the Four
Series: Sherlock Holmes #2
First published in 1890, the second of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, The Sign of the Four is a classic of detective fiction and a forerunner of this now-ubiquitous genre. The story has everything – a beautiful damsel in distress, mysterious disappearances, a murder, a strange and lustrous pearl, a peculiar map, four desperate villains, an exotic treasure and, above it all, smiling superiorly as he moves with sure-footed confidence through the morass of conflicting clues, the inimitable Sherlock Holmes, investigator extraordinaire.
Usually I’m a fan of Sherlock Holmes stories and the way in which Holmes can deduce things by the smallest of clues and read into human nature with startling accuracy, but the structure of The Sign of the Four, as well as a focus on race that has not aged well, means this one is certainly not among my favorites.
The story stars with a beautiful young lady coming to Sherlock Holmes with a story about mysterious pearls she has been receiving since her father’s equally mysterious death (or disappearance) and a new note she received asking her to meet an unnamed person. Holmes, of course, vows to go with her and get to the bottom of what happened to her father, who is sending her treasures, and who wishes to meet with her. What seems a straightforward case (to Holmes, if no one else) quickly takes on new complications, which helps keep the plot vivid and moving along at a nice clip.
I equally enjoyed some of the moments when the plot seems to stall, however, when Holmes’s leads and lines of questioning don’t seem to yield anything. It adds some tension and suspense to the story and, of course, makes Holmes seem a bit more human. Not everything can come quickly and easily even to a man of his genius.
However, I strongly dislike that the story ultimately has two parts: the first where Holmes and Watson go about solving their case and the second where a man relates a long story explaining basically “how the case came to be,” or events that happened years before the story that subsequently led to the pearls, the disappearance of the father, etc. If this information could have been woven into the story instead of coming across as an entirely new story tacked onto the end of the first one, it might have been more engaging.
Finally, there is the issue of race. Many books from this period, of course, have racist undertones (or overtones), and it’s something one must encounter if one wishes to read classics. However, The Sign of the Four still made me uncomfortable with Holmes’s tendency to draw conclusions about race based on small details (ex. x action or y hand shape or whatever means the culprit must be z race) and on major parts of the story hinging on the fact that people of a certain race are violent or savages or untrustworthy or whatever. Besides being obviously offensive, such stereotypes lessen the complexity of the story and the entire mystery.
If you’re looking to read all or most of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures, of course you’ll want to look into The Sign of the Four. If you’re just starting out or only going to read a couple stories, you might enjoy other ones better.