So, on to story number two in my (hopefully) year long challenge to read all of the Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories and I can already see refinements in the formula from what I saw in “A Study In Scarlet” within the second story published, “The Sign Of Four”.
As with “Scarlet”, the story is written from Watson’s point of view and from the start of the case, there is a degree of romance to this adventure. Partly, this is down to the character’s habit of embellishing their investigations with a dash of adventure, something Holmes berates him upon his fictional publication of “A Study In Scarlet”, and partly down to the fact that this story opens up his character as a man who admires women and who has a degree of chivalry within his behaviour. This comes to the fore thanks to an important character in Watson’s ongoing story in the form of Mary Morstan – the client in the main investigation of this story which starts with her receiving pearls on a regular basis following the disappearance of her father and leads to the inexplicable murder of a man in a locked room.
In addition to the above character development, the reader is treated the unearthing of one of Watson’s secrets thanks to a test of observation and deduction which fans of “Sherlock” will recognise through a similar test in “A Study In Pink”.
The story also adds some of Holmes’s better known quirks and eccentricities from the outset, namely his self-prescribed usage of cocaine and morphine along with his talent for disguise. In addition to these traits, you also get hints to Holmes’s past – namely his talent as a boxer. (Fans of the Robert Downey Jr. incarnation of Holmes will know of this).
New and refined versions of supporting characters join this story with Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade being replaced with the blustering Inspector Athelney Jones, whilst 221B Baker Street’s housekeeper receives the famous name of Mrs Hudson and Holmes’s army of child observers, informants and detectives being christened as the “Irregulars”.
Conan Doyle’s narrative style also shows signs of change between the structure of “Scarlet” and that of “Sign”. Rather than the two part structure which describes the investigation followed by the backstory, “Sign” is more linear in approach with the story having a clear beginning, middle and end with the backstory being recounted by one of the perpetrators of the crimes within this story.
I have to admit that I am a little of an advantage with this story as I have seen the Granada Television adaptation transmitted in 1987 which starred Jeremy Brett as Holmes, Edward Hardwicke as Watson and John Thaw. When matched up against the book, this film is extremely faithful to the original story and well worth a watch.
People may be more familiar with this story nowadays through the “Sherlock” episode “The Sign Of Three”. Although there is no wedding of John and Mary, hamfisted best man speech by Sherlock or drunken escapades of their stag night, the core themes of the “Sherlock” version, namely revenge and a man’s interpretation of justice, stacks up well between “The Sign of Three” and the original book, albeit that the motives behind the perpretator’s acts are very different.
As with “Scarlet”, I feel that I have to advise again that given this piece was written in 1880 there are remarks of a racial nature within this story which may not sit well in a 21st century context.
If you’re a “Sherlock” fan, I would make the same recommendation as in my review of “A Study In Scarlet” of re-watching “The Sign Of Three” before reading “The Sign Of Four”, not only to gain familiarity with the story, but in spotting the various “Easter Eggs” which tie in with the plot of the book (specifically through the stories that Sherlock recounts as part of his best man speech).
Two down, fifty-eight to go and the next story is Sherlock’s one and only encounter with “The Woman”.