Monday, October 15, 2012

The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

More a chase than a puzzle
The Sign of the Four, originally published in 1890, is the second Sherlock Holmes novel written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Following his successful resolution of the case of A Study in Scarlet, London’s most ingenious detective is consulted by Mary Morstan, a young woman whose father had vanished years before. Since his disappearance, an unknown benefactor has been sending her a valuable pearl each year. Having received a note from the mysterious personage asking to meet her that evening, she invites Holmes and Watson to accompany her to the rendezvous. It soon becomes apparent that the disappearance of Ms. Morstan’s father is somehow related to his military service in the Andaman Islands, a penal colony located between India and Burma.

When compared to many of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, the actual crime that takes place in the book is not particularly mysterious. Many secrets are revealed early, and the guilty parties are determined midway through the book. All that remains is to track them down. The final chapter, in which the apprehended villain reveals a most engaging back story, does much to redeem the book as a whole. Although Sherlock Holmes is considered the quintessential literary detective, one must keep in mind that at the time this book was written the mystery genre was yet in its infancy, and Conan Doyle was still experimenting in style and form. This book represents an embryonic stage towards what we recognize today as the typical structure of a mystery novel, in which clues are doled out over the course of the narrative, in preparation for the big reveal at the end. As in A Study in Scarlet, the unconventional structure of The Sign of the Four is actually quite refreshing when compared to some of the later, more formulaic Holmes stories.

Though the mechanics of mystery may be a bit awkward in this early effort, Conan Doyle’s excellent writing still shines through. This book goes a long way in developing the Holmes mythos, the relationship between the two principal characters, and the personality quirks of each. In the opening scene Holmes’s cocaine habit is revealed, and over the course of the book Watson finds romance. The true value of the Holmes mysteries lies not in the unusual crimes depicted or the deductive reasoning employed in solving them, but rather in the inimitable characters of Holmes and Watson themselves. Though most of Holmes’s adventures were written in the form of short stories, it is in the longer form of the novel that Conan Doyle really excels, as it gives him the opportunity to explore these exceptional characters further. The Sign of the Four is a classic work of detective fiction and a must-read for any Holmes fan.

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