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19th June
written by Steph


The Sign of Four is the second novella penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring the illustrious and magnetic Sherlock Holmes.  Miss Mary Morstan seeks the council of Sherlock Holmes when she receives a mysterious note informing her that a grievous wrong has been conducted against her, and moreover, the letter writer can shed some light on the fate of her father who has been missing for over a decade.  The duo agree to accompany her to meet the mysterious author writer, but soon find themselves investigating a murder all the while trying to track down some missing treasure. In this novella, Conan Doyle reveals the darker side of Holmes’s character her, specifically his dabbling with his infamous “seven per cent solution”.   Other than that delightful little bit of character development (I know drugs are bad, but it’s such an integral part of the Holmes character it was cool to see it introduced), however, for me it did not have quite the same charms as A Study in Scarlet.  I found the mystery (yet another “locked door” mystery) less compelling and more obviously depending on background information that no reader has any chance of knowing until it is revealed.  Also, I didn’t feel the backstory was as artfully communicated as was done in A Study in Scarlet.  Holmes’s deductive skills are swift and keen, but I felt quite helpless while reading The Sign of Four, and it was all perhaps a little zany for my tastes.  Of course A Study in Scarlet was a bit out in left-field at times, but I suppose there were elements apart from the core mystery (such as the humor and wit in the writing) that I was able to enjoy independently.  Here I felt much of the spark and vim was missing to the storytelling, which is disappointing since three years elapsed between the publication of Scarlet and this.  Perhaps because of this I was more aware of certain unsavory mentalities that weren't so obvious (in my opinion) in the first book - at times Holmes/Watson can be quite racist and sexist.  A product of its time, I know, but still quite jarring to me.   It wasn’t a flop, just a bit of a letdown following such a vibrant debut.  Sophomore slump, I suppose. But I’m still carrying on in my attempt to read through the series, so next in line is the collection of stories The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  I know I read some of these when I was younger, but I’ll be damned if I can remember how any of them turn out (or what any of them were about!)! Rating: 3.5 out of 5


  1. 06/19/2009

    Thanks for the review. I inherited the Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes from my father but have never gotten around to reading any…maybe now I will. 🙂

  2. 06/19/2009

    Indubitable – a great word. I think The Sign of Four was my first encounter with Sherlock Holmes.

  3. i am such a loooser. i have never read any SH. pathetic, right? i know. i should just go hide under a rock.

    perhaps you’ll be my inspiration, my motivator, my sherlock-ivator, getting me to read sir arthur conan doyle once and for all.

    i’ll let you know how it goes.

  4. 06/21/2009

    @ Kathleen: This one wasn’t as good for me as the first in the series, but if you start with A Study in Scarlet (which I reviewed earlier), I think you’ll want to keep reading!

    @ charley: I didn’t think this was as strong a showing as A Study in Scarlet, but I think if it had been my first encounter with Holmes (I know I’ve read this one before, as I remembered certain elements), I’d still want to read more.

    & nat: The stories are short enough, it’s easy enough to read one and see if they’re for you. I find them a lot of fun, and a good way to break up more serious reading. I hope you do let me know how it goes!

  5. 06/24/2009

    Every time I read one of your Sherlock Holmes reviews, it reminds me that I have quite a collection of them that are unread on my shelves. Sadly, I continue to neglect them when I am looking for something new and interesting to read. I will have to stop that and finally get to them because it sounds like these books have a lot to offer.

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