The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Final Verdict: 2.75 out of 4.0
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.
“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.”