#HolmesPeerReading: THE SIGN OF THE FOUR


Airiz and I have been unfortunately slacking off in our Holmes Peer Reading, but she probably has a better excuse than I have, what with the demands of her work and abundant social life. Me I'm always online and writing for Twitter RP, and that's where most of my creativity is focused on. I was really hoping to turn it around this year, however, which was why I've been writing fanfiction again and even started this peer reading for Sherlockian canon, and I'll do myself an injustice if I don't become consistent with these other commitments.

On my end at least, I've accomplished the first two novels of the canon. My previous twitlonger post about A STUDY IN SCARLET indicated that I've always thought that THE SIGN OF (the) FOUR is a better story, and I definitely stand by that although I should clarify that this is an objective comparison with regards as to how Doyle approached the groundwork of SIGN that feels more intact than the one for SCARLET.

The debut story in question has a few enjoyable aspects for me which had more to do with getting to know Holmes and Watson individually and how they would later on work well together as detective and biographer and eventual loyal friends. The mystery and murder case were only secondary when it came to the appeal of SCARLET, although they did provide memorable instances that we now associate with the Holmes canon. The revenge plot was quintessential in a lot of whoddunnit stories and the detective genre itself, and Doyle was definitely one of the pioneers who would become better at rehashing this trope in a few Holmes short stories after SCARLET.

My main yet slight nitpick of SCARLET, however, was the flashback device Doyle has employed, which also covered the better half of the closing chapters in the novella. One can admire his willingness to experiment on the narrative, of course, although some of that too was indulgent, and I much rather preferred how he wrapped things up here in SIGN that used that kind of flashback device but kept it within the dialogue/confession of the culprit. This was opposed to dedicating an entire three-four chapters of it where the POV completely shifts to a character we will never meet again over the course of the Holmes canon later on.

I won't needlessly discuss each scene sequence and turning point for THE SIGN OF (the) FOUR here in this post since I want to be as succinct about it as possible and just raise the parts that struck me as crucial to discuss. That way, anyone who might read this won't get spoiled of the details concerning the plot in case they are encouraged to pick up the Holmes canon to enjoy for themselves.

(1) THE PLOT (not an in-depth look)

A client by the name of Mary Morstan consulted Sherlock Holmes for an advice regarding a bizarre predicament she's facing. An anonymous sender has offered her expensive pearls as a compensation for an injustice they did not specify but still felt she was owed. Morstan also spoke about her father who disappeared many years ago, and Holmes pointed out the the possible connection between that and this generous patron. Later on she brought them to a man who claimed to be an associate of her father back when they served in the infantry.

Things escalated soon enough as a murder took place and the wrong man was arrested. Holmes and Watson had a brief yet entertaining chase across the sea between boats, and the real culprits were revealed to have motives that both humanized them, much like it was in SCARLET.

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was a historical point that was contextualized in this story as well. Themes of avarice and revenge were once again used but of a different shade and scale than SCARLET. Hidden treasure and the secrecy surrounding it as well as the betrayal among supposed allies was explored. And then we even got a dash of romance in between pages for Dr. Watson and Mary Morstan whose feelings for one another were apparently mutual.


There is great reprieve for me to read about the personal narrative of the good doctor regarding his feelings for Mary. One would have thought it would be jarring to read two lovebirds shyly courting one another while all around them chaos prevailed, but this is a Victorian-era novel, so nothing blatantly over-the-top really occurred and the plot never got lost along.

Watson mostly talked about how admirable in spirit Mary was; that her attractiveness was not only because of her 'delicacy of face and manners' but also the iron and calm underneath that. He's essentially a school boy tackling how much he wishes he could hold hands with a girl. Holmes was made aware of Watson's infatuation with Mary from the beginning, but since it had no bearing on the interesting case he was saddled with, he half-heartedly made snarky comments that highlighted his distrust of the opposite sex yet (classic Sherlock) but still told Watson that he's free to pursue the lass if that's what he wanted.

[SPOILER ALERT: He eventually marries Mary some time before the next case happens for The Adventures]

I liked these intervals in the story because they've entertained me. Watson had been a total sap for SIGN when it came to Mary, but he's also a very endearing one who has expressed more of himself as a real person which contrasted the workaholic automaton that Holmes will always be on the other hand. It's worth mentioning that the good doctor was there for Holmes all the way through in the case, acting as a reliable ally and companion who genuinely supported Holmes with every ludicrous idea the Great Detective would have, as Watson often played the role of a sparring partner when it came to Holmes' mental acumen as he goes about solving the case.


That is not to say that Holmes' characterization was treated in a wholly clinical manner for this story. In fact, it was in THE SIGN OF (the) FOUR that Doyle revealed that his seemingly perfect Great Detective has a drug habit. Oh yeah, Holmes looooves his cocaine (and the occasional morphine).

By modern standards, a drug habit is not only a worrying practice but one that is detrimental to the user and their loved ones. The show ELEMENTARY's focal point of character interpretation for Sherlock Holmes relied heavily on discussing the dangers of him being a heroin addict and how that affects his relationships with his family and the people he works with on a daily basis including his partner (and previous sober companion) Joan Watson. But since the Holmes canon operated on the Victorian era of sexual repression and nilly-willy drug indulgences, his habit can be taken as just another passing quirk that wouldn't really define him as a person except that it really does. It can be considered as the one fatal flaw of his character. Watson knew it too, and he was rightfully enraged to see his friend using harmful substances that can cause serious repercussions on his brilliant mind in the long run. Holmes, of course, justified it by being a smug dick, citing he needed constant stimulation or else he gets 'bored:


❝mч mínd rєвєls αt stαgnαtíσn. gívє mє prσвlєms, gívє mє wσrk, gívє mє thє mσst αвstrusє crчptσgrαm, σr thє mσst íntrícαtє αnαlчsís, αnd í αm ín mч σwn prσpєr αtmσsphєrє. вut í αвhσr thє dull rσutínє σf єхístєncє. í crαvє fσr mєntαl єхαltαtíσn.❞


This is also one of the reasons ELEMENTARY sets itself apart from all the Holmes adaptations as so refreshing and progressive because the writers tackled how damaging a drug addiction could be, and a brilliant man like Sherlock Holmes should never have been exempt to the ill effects it has not only on neurological and emotional levels but also interpersonal. Here in SIGN, Doyle provides a two-fold interpretation of such a behavior where Holmes glorified it as some sort of saving and temporary solution to his 'boredom' whilst a medical professional like Watson argued that it is debilitating and shameful that the most intelligent and sophisticated analyst he has ever met would fall victim to such a vile habit. I could go on and on about his drug habit but I won't. It was still crucial to bring it up though, considering it was the story's cold open and its grim conclusion.

The next on the pipeline would be the twelve collected works comprised in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. The canon was divided into anthologies like this, so it's more or less like the procedural shows we watch on TV. I'll go so far as to say that modern detective shows borrowed this format from Doyle's canon. I really hope I could get started on A Scandal in Bohemia before this month ends, and that Airiz can catch up to me soon and share her thoughts ✬


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