Review: The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Final Verdict: 2.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 35


3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable

In this second book of the immortal Sherlock Holmes series, Sherlock and Dr. Watson are once again brought in to solve a mysterious case which has been eluding local authorities.  Just as the brilliant Sherlock Holmes is beginning to unravel (utter boredom coupled with a dangerous cocaine habit), a young woman turns up at 221B Baker Street with questions about her missing father and some mysterious gifts that have been arriving at her home on a regular basis – single, perfectly cut pearls.  Sherlock and Dr. Watson are soon off to investigate – sifting their way through murdered suspects, red herrings, and budding romances, all with the help of the local street urchin gang. 


2 – Characters slightly developed.

One element lacking in this particular installment of the series is characterization.  In this book’s predecessor, A Study in Scarlet, characterization and character development was one of the stronger points for the book.  Sherlock, Watson, and even the minor characters were paid satisfactory attention and their natures revealed to the reader honestly and with style.  In The Sign of Four, however, most of the minor characters do not get much attention at all, nor are they given time to grow.  Perhaps the only secondary character who does is the giver of the pearls, who ultimately plays a crucial but almost peripheral role in the plot.  Sherlock and Watson are certainly identifiable, and they are each given ample attention in the book (which, being rather short, is perhaps all that could be asked) – still, had I not read A Study in Scarlet previously, I likely would not have felt very connected to either of these important characters, which is a disappointment overall.


3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Where Doyle never seems to go wrong is in style and prose.  He is a fantastic wordsmith and storyteller – he knows how to progress a plot, he knows how to write tension into scenes, and he has a fantastic sense of wit and humor.  Both of the first two books in the Sherlock Holmes collection have been fast, entertaining reads, and while this story was not as complicated as the first, it was still a page-turner: interesting, exciting, and fun to read. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

3 – Additional elements are present and conducive to the story.

Perhaps the greatest “shock” element in this book came right at the start, with descriptions of Sherlock Holmes reveling in his cocaine addiction.  Dr. Watson was clearly and appropriately appalled by Holmes’s partaking in the habit, but Holmes almost glorified the drug, explaining that it helped stimulate his mind and allowed him to feel mentally challenged and engaged, even when (and likely because) there was no open case to focus on at that moment in time.  There are also subtle references to certain types of bigotry and racism, which play an important role in the overall plot.  Of course, the primary motive in the crime turns out to be wealth – so greed, deception, and betrayal are important elements as well.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level:  15+, Adult

Interest:  Mystery, Detective Story, 19TH Century British Culture/History/Literature.


Notable Quotes:

“No, no: I never guess. It is a shocking habit,–destructive to the logical faculty.”

“But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment.”

“I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for?”

“He held up the lantern, and his hand shook until the circles of light flickered and wavered all round us. Miss Morstan seized my wrist, and we all stood with thumping hearts, straining our ears. From the great black house there sounded through the silent night the saddest and most pitiful of sounds–the shrill, broken whimpering of a frightened woman.”

“I never make exceptions. An exception disproves the rule.”

“I would not tell them too much,” said Holmes. “Women are never to be entirely trusted,–not the best of them.”

“The chief proof of man’s real greatness lies in his perception of his own smallness.”

8 Comments on “Review: The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

    • I hadn’t either, until this year. I decided to read through the entire collection (not all of it this year) – so purchased The Complete Sherlock Holmes back in January. So far, I’m really enjoying it quite a bit.


  1. I just started to leave a comment to admit to the world that I’ve never read a Sherlock Holmes story, and see that I’m not the only one…I feel so much better! I’ve wanted to, but I think the vastness of Sherlock Holmes, the large collection, and the big fan base is really overwhelming to me, if that makes any sense at all.


  2. When I read the collection last year, I decided this was my LEAST favorite of the whole collection. I almost set aside the rest of the stories after this one! But I’m glad I continued on, and while this one really didn’t develop the characters as much as some of the other did, I still needed it to piece everything else together.

    I’m glad you’re reading through the collection!


    • Ah, okay – glad I’m not the only one. After how incredibly good the first book was, I was definitely a bit worried. It wasn’t bad by any means, but it definitely did not have the exemplary qualities of the first. I’m sure the short stories are also very interesting and entertaining – I look forward to finishing the collection. I can’t believe you read the whole collection in one year!


  3. I was also a virgin Holmesian until this year when I decided to download The Complete Adventures on my ipod and have to be working my way through one or two each time I go for a run. Will pop back to see what you think of the rest of the stories if you decide to post about them…


    • I will definitely read through the rest, and post them as I go. The short stories will be reviewed in their respective collections (so, for example, I will review The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as one “book” because it is a collection of a bunch of the stories). I’ll do the final two novels seperately as well. Glad you’re reading them as well – I’m really enjoying them so far!


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