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NA429612 - DOYLE, A.C.: Sign of Four (The) (Unabridged)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of Four


‘It is always a joy to me to meet an American...’ said Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor, and these feelings must have been most assuredly in the breast of Conan Doyle in August 1889, as he turned up at the Langham Hotel in central London, for a dinner with Mr. Joseph Marshall Stoddart from Philadelphia. Editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Stoddart was seeking to commission new work from aspiring young English writers, and offered Doyle £100 for a short novel to be serialized in the magazine. These terms were considerably more advantageous than those Doyle had agreed to for A Study in Scarlet, where he had signed away all his rights for a mere £25. The success of the first Holmes novel in America prompted Doyle to make the detective the subject for this new commission, for as he said, ‘I notice that everyone who has read the book wants to know more of that young man’, and more is what we discover in The Sign of Four, as the new novel was titled.

Doyle was at pains to show that his hero was not without certain flaws, flaunting convention and was generally a law unto himself; characteristics that were associated with another aspiring writer that Doyle met at the dinner at the Langham, Mr. Oscar Wilde. It is hard to imagine two more dissimilar characters than Wilde and Doyle, yet the latter recalled that Wilde’s conversation ‘left an indelible impression upon my mind.’ As he set about expanding the character of Holmes, maybe Oscar’s conversation, languidness and louche Bohemianism suggested to Doyle some interesting dimensions to add to the personality of his burgeoning detective creation.


The first impression that Holmes had given Watson, and thereby the reader, in A Study in Scarlet was of a single-minded man devoted to the cause of scientific detection. Holmes said that ‘he would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object. Therefore all the knowledge which he possessed was such as would be useful to him.’ Watson even went as far as making a memorandum of the pros and cons of his new friend’s interests, which included: ‘Knowledge of Literature – Nil... Knowledge of Philosophy – Nil... Knowledge of Sensational Literature – Immense.’


However, in The Sign of Four, Doyle seems eager to impress the reader with Holmes’ wide-ranging knowledge of both literature and philosophy, thereby implying that first impressions should not be relied upon. Holmes refers twice in passing to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the German poet and playwright; and also to two philosophers, more obscure to a modern reader than they would have been in the 19th century: Winwood Reade (1838-75) and Jean Paul Richter (1763-1825). Indeed, Holmes carries a philosophical air about him throughout The Sign of Four. Earlier he had impressed Watson by talking ‘on miracle plays, on medieval pottery, on Stradivarius violins, on the Buddhism of Ceylon, and on the warships of the future – handling each as though he had made a special study of it.’ Doyle did not want to leave his reader in any doubt about the eclectic and eccentric nature of his hero.

Watson’s character too is broadened in this novel. Here he falls hopelessly for the ‘sweet and amiable’ Mary Morstan, and after much noble struggling over the differences in their financial positions, proposes and is accepted by her. Holmes characteristically receives the news with ‘a dismal groan’. The completely opposite natures of Holmes and Watson, which leads to much friendly chaff and debate in the stories, and is one of the joys of reading them, are established here for the first time.


The American public was delighted with Conan Doyle’s new story about the exploits of Sherlock Holmes, when it duly appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in February 1890.


The Sign of Four brings Mary Morstan, a beautiful young governess, to the home of consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Mary’s father, an officer in the British Forces who had served as a prison guard in India, disappeared the day he returned to England six years earlier – while en route to meet his daughter. One year to the day after Captain Morstan’s disappearance, Miss Morstan received a small box containing a lustrous pearl. No return address, no note, just the jewel. On each successive anniversary over the next several years another pearl arrived from her unknown benefactor. Determined to uncover the story behind the elder Morstan’s disappearance, and the meaning behind the mysterious jewels, the trio set out on an exotic adventure laced with stolen treasure, secret oaths and murder, culminating in a breath-taking chase down the Thames.


The Sign of Four, written within a month of its commission, is a cracking yarn crowded with incident; the pace and excitement maintained in the river chase for instance is worthy of a modern action film. Once again, as in A Study in Scarlet, Doyle draws upon his substantial knowledge of history to provide a convincing backdrop for his story, in this case the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The Sign of Four is classic Sherlock Holmes at its best!


Notes by David Timson

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