Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 29 Jun 2020

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes has become such a piece of shared cultural currency that we no longer turn much of a hair at the liberties taken by modern adaptations of Conan Doyle’s detective. Changes of gender, time travel, super-powers – we’ve had them all and, yet, something essential of the character seems to remain.

What is frequently lost in translation are the original novels and stories which are often so different to these television, film or radio incarnations that reading them can be something of a surprise. They are, though, for my money at least, the richest of the Holmes experiences. The art of Conan Doyle as a writer shouldn’t be under-estimated – he has the ability not just to give Holmes and Watson a fascinating three-dimensional reality but to write genuinely good adventure stories.

I prefer the novel-length books and the earlier the better. My definite favourite is The Sign of Four (sometimes known as The Sign of the Four) which was the second Holmes novel from 1890 and came three years after A Study in Scarlet, his debut in the 1887. It is this book however that really sees Conan Doyle get into his stride with the characters and we get introduced to Sherlock’s penchant for cocaine, the first appearance of the Baker Street Irregulars and Watson meets his wife to be.

The plot is unbelievably complicated, involves the theft of treasure and Britain’s imperial involvement with India – all of  which throws open the doorway to suggestions of the exotic, mysterious orientalism that was so much part of the common currency of derring-do adventure stories in late Victoriana. It’s not hard to see the influence of Dickens in the portraits he draws of many of the minor characters and the success of novels like Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone will have added to the enthusiasm of readers for this newly emerging literature that we now think of as the detective novel.

Even if it wasn’t going to be a spoiler, trying to summarise the plot would be a bit of a nightmare – the detail, the twists and turns and the occasional red-herring would require me to have summary skills I don’t quite think I’m up to in a few hundred words. Suffice it to say that the plot is built around the experience of British soldiers fighting in  the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a stolen treasure, and a secret pact among four desperate men. Inevitably there also has to be a maiden in distress and a bumbling representative of the official police force for Holmes to mildly humiliate as he demonstrates his deductive reasoning processes.

But if you really want to get a feel for just how powerful and unconventional Conan Doyle’s creation can be – shocking even – read the opening pages of this story where Holmes tells Watson just why his use of cocaine  in a 7% solution is so vital to his mental well-being when he has no complex case to keep his gigantic brain occupied. How about this for an opening paragraph:

“Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.”

What an opening! And pretty much from this point onwards Conan Doyle keeps you in his grip, the danger of the whole enterprise simmering always just below the surface.

Of course copies of this are easy to find in cheap reprints, hard and paperback, that won’t break the bank. Next time you’re tempted to watch another crazy television adaptation of Sherlock Holmes on t.v. or at the cinema just think again – maybe the book has more to offer…


Terry Potter

June 2020