Sunday, November 19, 2006

44. The Sign of Four

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Shortly after finishing A Study in Scarlet I dove right into The Sign of Four. I would have continued reading my entire Sherlock Holmes collection if it weren’t for the fact that I’d like to make these nine last as long as I can. And the fact that I have to go to work everyday. Both Holmes and Dr. Watson are both such intriguing characters that it’s hard to not want to read all their stories at once.

The Sign of Four is the second of the Holmes/Watson adventures and it brings us some interesting facts. Did you know that Sherlock Holmes was addicted to crack? Okay, not crack, but he did use the cocaine quite liberally. “I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one,” he tells Watson after Watson declines his offer to share. “I find it, however, so transcendentally stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment.” Did people regularly use such drugs back in Victorian England? Was I the only one shocked to read Conan Doyle’s nonchalant description of drug use? I guess it’s not so surprising that Holmes would use drugs of some sort, but I really didn’t expect to be all out on the table and everything.

This story also brings us Miss Mary Morstan, who comes to visit the detective because she’s been receiving a series of pearls, sent on the same day each year, and a letter that requests her to meet the unknown sender. Holmes and Watson insist on going with her and it’s kind of amusing to read Watson’s reactions to her distress. He wants to comfort her and protect her and it’s easy to tell he has something of a crush on her. By the end of the story she’s slated to become his wife, but in getting there we meet a set of Indian brothers whose father held a secret, a murder that leaves one of the brothers dead in his locked-from-the-inside room, a treasure hidden high in an attic, and a peg-legged man with a dwarf for an accomplice.

Sounds like the plot of a cheesy mystery, but characteristics that are cliché in our world are morsels of intrigue in Holmes’s world. Once the police are called in the first brother becomes the natural suspect, but after a little bit of observation Holmes comes to his brilliant deduction: “His name, I have every reason to believe, is Jonathan Small. He is a poorly educated man, small, active, with his right leg off, and wearing a wooden stump which is worn away upon the inner side. His left boot has a coarse, square-toed sole, with an iron band round the heel. He is a middle-aged man, much sun-burned, and has been a convict…” And so on. These are the details Holmes is able to garner after sparse investigation and it’s so much fun learning of how he came to have knowledge of these facts.

I never knew that Watson got married so it’ll be interesting to see how he and Holmes interact in the coming stories. I know that Holmes has a series of women himself, though I’ve yet to meet one, and I always assumed that all the stories took place from the headquarters of 221B Baker Street – Watson’s observations of Holmes in the comfort of their shared home was always amusing and I’m curious to see how that works once they’re apart. Of course, I’m assuming Watson moves out to share a home with Miss Morstan, but possessing as little knowledge of the great detective that I do, maybe that’s not what happens after all. I do know one thing: Conan Doyle kills Holmes in the next one and I can’t wait to find out how that happens.

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