Reading

Completed: The Sign of Four

Well, it’s been a while, but I’ve finally completed another book. More specifically, I finally completed the second of two novellas included in the first volume of my dad’s Sherlock Holmes set. I read A Study in Scarlet back in January, and I don’t think it was really a good time for me and mysteries, as I was just sort of “meh” about it. (Of course, the long, drawn-out section in Utah doesn’t help its case.) The Sign of Four on the other hand was much more to my liking. Although I do seem to be on a bit of a mystery kick at the moment, I think in this instance the real selling point is that The Sign of Four is an adventure story. And I love adventure stories.

Yes, there is a mystery, although, as far as these go, it is pretty straightforward. Quite frankly, I was able to guess many of the points shortly before Holmes shared them with Watson. The mystery is not what makes The Sign of Four entertaining; it is the chase that follows. Holmes–and Watson–know the who, but they don’t know where the suspects are precisely. Nor do they know the why. The discovery of these points fill the latter half of the adventure.

And adventure it is. A murder. A chase–literally. A romance for Dr. Watson. Exotic locales. Locked Rooms. Dark countryside. Lost treasure. In an improvement from A Study in Scarlet, the “why” isn’t told by a third person omniscient narrator, but included more organically in the story, through the narration of some of those involved. All in all, I found this a much more entertaining story than its predecessor.

But. It seems unavoidable in Victorian-era novels, at least by British authors, that some sort of racial or class prejudice sneaks in, in this instance an apparent stereotyping of a native of the Andaman Islands. On the one hand, I intellectually acknowledge that these attitudes were characteristic of the time, that many honestly believed that their culture, if not their race, were superior to those of “uncivilized” peoples. Not to mention, an unpredictable “savage” is more entertaining than a run-of-the-mill criminal. (Also, interestingly, when I looked up the Andaman Islands on Wikipedia, the article indicated that some of the native peoples had not had friendly contact with outside groups until the 1990s: I can certainly see where a violence-first defensive strategy might seem “savage” to a 19th century outsider.) On the other hand, there’s the 21st century part of me that puts up warning signs whenever I come across such examples of past prejudices. At the very least, any contemporary adaptation of the book into movie form (and I think it would be very adaptable–in fact it has been several times already) would probably need to modify one of the characters to avoid unwanted controversy.

That aside, I’ve very much looking forward to reading the rest of the Holmes stories and novels. I’m especially looking forward to “A Scandal in Bohemia,” as I’ve read about Irene Adler, but never the story she is featured in! I’m also thinking I would like to go back even further to the oldest detective stories (Poe and Collins, as best I can determine). Fortunately, any of the above will fit right in with the R.I.P. Challenge, and either Poe or Collins certainly feels seasonal.

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11 thoughts on “Completed: The Sign of Four

  1. I haven’t tried these yet, but they’re on my list, and I own them. I have NEVER liked mysteries, so I’m wary, but I want to give AC Doyle an honest try. 🙂

    1. I LOVE mysteries! I’m actually on a bit of a mystery kick at the moment… If you’re wary of mysteries but want to try Doyle, you might wish to try one of the short story collections first. (Such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which is next on my list.) If on the other hand, you like adventure stories, this one might not be a bad place to start, although I know a lot of bloggers rank The Hound of the Baskervilles as their favorite. At any rate, even the novellas don’t take long to read, and they don’t have the gore and extreme violence of some contemporary mysteries. After all, the earliest of these were late Victorian!

  2. I read a lot of Conan Doyle’s stuff when I was a kid, Amanda, but I don’t think I’ve read anything by him since high school and maybe college (um, a long time ago that). Think I might enjoy the stories for their own sake if I gave them a reread, but I’d worry about how much racism I’d forgotten about in them as well. Anyway, hope you continue to enjoy your current mystery kick!

    1. Richard, I’m not actually sure how much racism there is in Doyle. As I recall, there wasn’t racism in A Study in Scarlet., the issue there being a prejudiced portrayal of Mormonism, which I believe Doyle latter apologized for. Whether or not there are minority characters in the other works, thus bringing in the possibility of further racist attitudes, I have yet to find out. I’m also curious about his portrayal of women–there seems a suggestion of typical Victorian thought of women as weak and helpless in The Sign of Four, but I’ve heard that Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Bohemia” is a very strong character.

      1. Sorry, Amanda–I was thinking about H. Rider Haggard’s She, which is racist though maybe not as much as I’d heard, when I was typing up my response to your post and conflated the two prejudice critiques in my mind. Not careful reading/thinking on my part!

        1. No problem! There is a certain questionable element in The Sign of Four regarding the treatment of an Indian Ocean island native, so I can see where concern might come in. I’ve not read any Haggard, although I have heard that his work tends to represent the racist attitudes characteristic of his time.

  3. It’s never the mystery that makes me enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories. Mostly I love his character and the interchange between him and Watson, and a bit of adventure like you said. This one was definitely better than Study in Scarlet!

    1. I’d agree, the mystery in this one isn’t what made it enjoyable. And definitely better than A Study in Scarlet! I look forward to reading more of these to better watch the interactions between Holmes and Watson.

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