The Sign of the Four (iBooks, Kindle) was more along the lines of what I expected out of a Sherlock Holmes book. The story is fast paced and exciting. The plot is intricate and reveals more about Holmes himself. This is the place to start reading the Sherlock Holmes books if you haven’t read them already.
The book begins with Holmes sitting in the living room of 221B Baker Street injecting himself with Cocaine. He cannot stand the emptiness of day to day life without an intriguing case to occupy his mind. For some reason, most people I know think Sherlock Holmes is a “goody two shoes nice guy”. However, the books and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock both portray a very different Holmes. I personally find this “crazy” Holmes to be a far more interesting character.
The story then goes on to introduce Thaddeus Sholto who talks about the Agra treasure, his father Major Sholto, his twin brother Bartholomew Sholto, their avarice and how Bartholomew does not wish to give Miss Morstan her due. They then go to Bartholomew’s residence where they find him dead. As the story progresses, Watson finds himself falling in love with Miss Morstan, yet keeps thinking to himself that she will soon be an heiress way above his station. Sir Arthur does a good job of describing this internal conflict. As always, the description of the crime scene and Holmes’ behavior is exquisite. We’re also introduced to a new member of Scotland Yard: Athelney Jones. In typical Scotland Yard detective fashion, he thinks himself to be quite clever, while all along appearing pretty foolish.
Then begins Holmes’ quest for proof. We see yet another side of Holmes here. He gets frustrated at the lack of progress, and is unable to sleep. It is also revealed to be a master of disguise who can fool even Watson and Jones at his own house. However, despite failing initially, as usual, Holmes perseveres and finds what he is looking for and sets up the attempt to apprehend the criminals.
Unlike A Study in Scarlet, this story involves a somewhat thrilling chase to apprehend the criminals. Jonathan Small is apprehended, and Tonga is shot dead by Holmes and Watson. Though the chase is successful, Small dumps the treasure in the bottom of the Thames piece by piece so that it may never be retrieved. If he cannot have it, no one can. The chase also reveals that Holmes is not infallible. He assumes that Tonga has no more poisoned darts since he found the ones that were dropped by Tonga on the Pondicherry Lodge’s rooftop. However, he fails to account for the one dart that was still in the blow pipe.
Upon being caught, Small is taken to 221B Baker Street so that he may narrate the entire story to Holmes. This is possibly the least interesting part of the book. Sir Arthur portrays Small’s adventures in India in an overly dramatic and exotic fashion. Perhaps at the time of writing this was a good thing, but to me it just seemed over the top. Fortunately, the digression is nowhere as bad as the Mormon story in A Study in Scarlet.
The story also sees Watson proposing to Miss Morstan (since she isn’t an heiress thanks to Small’s actions), who accepts. Holmes points out that this is the beginning of the end for Watson, and I’m inclined to agree.
Compared to the BBC show
As I recollect, there is only one scene in A Study in Pink that is adapted from this book. It is the scene in which Holmes deduces that Watson has a drunk elder brother who’s had financial ups and downs in his life based on a watch that Watson shows him. In A Study in Pink, it’s essentially the same scene, except with Watson’s mobile phone. That scene was well adapted in the BBC show, but in the grand scheme of things is rather insignificant. I think it was a good idea for Steven Moffat and gang to let this one go given that most of the background to this story has to do with a treasure that belonged to pre-independent India.
I didn’t find a quote that I really liked from this book, but here’s what I thought was the best one. This is Holmes talking to Watson after he makes an educated guess about Watson’s brother based on the watch Watson shows him.
No, no: I never guess. It is a shocking habit, – destructive to the logical faculty.
There were a lot of words in this novel that I had hitherto not come across. There were also several French and German phrases and sentences that I had to translate. There were also several words that have been classified as “dated” that I had to look up. I’ve skipped most of the foreign language phrases/words and dated words that I think have no use in today’s context. Below are the ones I hope to retain.
Didactic [adjective]: Intended to teach, particularly in having moral instruction as an ulterior motive.
Coup-de-maître [noun]: A master stroke.
Hansom [noun]: A two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage accommodating two inside, with the driver seated behind.
Sagacious [adjective]: Having or showing keen mental discernment and good judgment; shrewd.
Valetudinarian [adjective]: A person who is unduly anxious about their health.
Pithy [adjective]: Concise and forcefully expressive.
Countenance [adjective]: Support.
I really enjoyed reading this novel. I will be persisting with the Sherlock Holmes Series. Next on the list chronologically is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (iBooks, Kindle), a collection of 12 short stories. Given that these are short stories, I’m not sure if I’m going to write about them one by one, or about the book as a whole.