Friday, June 8, 2012

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes is given a tricky little problem. Mary Morstan is getting pearls in her mail every year for six years. she does not know who sends it or why they send it. Miss Morstan has now received a letter which urges her to meet with the sender that night. The anonymous sender permits her to bring two friends as long as they are not police. now take a guess who those two friends might be? Holmes and Watson travel with the Mary Morstan to meet the sender.

The sender is Mr Sholto whose father Major Sholto had mysteriously come to acquire a treasure and that Mary Morstan's father had an equal share to that treasure. So, Mary whose father had passed away should be bequeathed with half of the treasure. The only problem is that the Major Sholto had hidden the treasure in his Norwood home and his sudden demise left Mr Sholto and his twin brother perturbed as they did not know the location of the treasure.

After searching for 6 years they have finally found it. Now Mr Sholto wants to take Mary Morstan with her to his father's Norwood home where they will divide the treasure. So, the four of them Mary Morstan, Mr Sholto, Homles and Watson start off to get the treasure but instead they get a murder.


A Classic of the genre or a horrible racist mistake by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

I will go with the latter. The book starts nicely, you have a young and beautiful women who has a very peculiar problem and she comes to the world's best consulting detective. The author then takes us through great adventures in the book starting from a murder, to the 1857 revolution against the British government, we also encounter a ghastly man with a wooden leg and an Andaman Aboriginal.

The story is exciting and has not even one dull moment. The character are well drawn almost Christie like. Mr Sholto is especially a very well drawn and colorful character. Holmes seems a tad bit more human then the Study of Scarlet and Dr Watson falls in love and eventually marries Mary Morstan(which was completely missed in the Jeremy Brett starer Sherlock Holmes).

The Sherlock Holmes mysteries which I have read are never "Whodunit", as in there are never a plethora of suspects. The murderer is always known to the reader but then there are other mysteries like how the murder was committed and why it was committed. Plus you always have other little mysteries and always a fantastic premise.

In both Sign of the Four and "A Study in Scarlet" the common theme is of a man looking for revenge and dedicating his life for it.

Now, we address the elephant in the room. The Sign of Four was written in 1880 and then India was under English rule. The White man's burden allowed him to be pompous and racist. Arthur Conan Doyle who was an Englishman spoke of the Indian Rebellion as a mistake and through a character in the book called Indian rebels as black devils and black fiends. The Andaman Aboriginals are treated as inhumane serial killers and historic inaccuracies are very common. So Akbar and Abdullah Khan which are clearly Muslim names turn out be the names of Sikhs in the book, if that isn't comical enough then one of the Sikh calls out "Had you been a lying Hindoo, though you had sworn by all gods in their false temples, your blood would have been upon the knife and your body in the water".

The book was spoiled for me by all the racist trash. otherwise I felt the it was more of an adventure tale rather than a mystery.

I'm giving this one 2 out of 5 stars.


  1. A minor point: Conan Doyle was an Irish Scot, not an Englishman. Otherwise an excellent analysis; I wish that Granada had included Watson's marriage, as both Guy Ritchie's films and Sherlock do. The portrait of Tonga is an utterly appalling travesty, and Granada, to their shame, reinforced this stereotype; I have not read The three Gables since I was at school, but there is a passage in it which is appalling and recalls Conrad's notorious "The Nigger of the Narcissus".

    1. thank you. The man was a genius though he created an eternal character, interest in whom does not seem to wither.


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