Title: The Sign of Four
Status: First time reading!
Spoilers in this post? Yes
Ah, The Sign of Four. One of the most popular of the mysteries, and not having read it grew in my mind like a giant "WTF, you call yourself a Holmes fan??" until I was convinced I was missing a zillion pop culture references because I HADN'T READ IT. Turns out, I was right and wrong: I had missed references. But thanks to pop culture, I knew all the Holmesy info in the story already, as evidenced by the...
"How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?" (For the record, he says it two times in this story alone.)
"My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere." (aka, should I ever become truly bored, THAT is when you should press the red button.)
"In an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents..." (Watson, you dog.)
"It is cocaine, a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?" (Holmes, you dog.)
"No, no: I never guess." (Three points if you know who says that.)
While The Sign of Four has not displaced The Hound of the Baskervilles as my favorite of the Holmesian novels, it does, as its main character says, have its points of interest. For instance, in a beautiful case of evolving language, it is here in Ch. 6 that Sherlock Holmes gives a demonstration and John Watson first ejaculates.
Verbally. Shame on you, get your minds out of the gutter.
It is also here that Sherlock Holmes utters the following words: "Ah, of course. I had not thought of that."
Seriously, take a picture. It won't happen again until we get to Norbury. And finally...
IF YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT WATSON'S LIFE STORY, SPOILERS AHEAD.
This is the one where Watson gets married!!! Yay, what a momentous occasion! Finally Watson has found the one person that he-- what? Three marriages? And that's not including Sherlock, right?
John "Three Continents" Watson (and thank you, fanfic writers, for that beauty of a tag) had not one, not two, but three legally recognized spouses. One might wonder why Holmes didn't ever investigate the Case of Watson's Disappearing Wives. Perhaps it was too close to home. Perhaps he'd already solved it and rated it 'dull.' Perhaps that was an unpublished draft, crammed into an accordion folder next to The Case of the Doctor's Traveling War Wound.
First in the shoulder, now in the leg. I love this canon.
On a more sober note, The Sign of Four takes place when Great Britain still owned just about everything, and London had become a hub for people and practices from all over the world. Additionally, we're working within the Victorian Era, when exploration was cooler than sliced bread and there was a thirst for any kind of newness: in science, in literature, in industry, everywhere. Darwinian theory was huge. People didn't have to travel to see the exotic: it came to them in expos.
There are, therefore, some less than PC characters and references in this novel. The most notable is of course the inclusion of a pygmy man from a cannibalistic tribe off of Myanmar, who is described in appearance as almost inhuman. However, there are also several prominent colorblind relationships and loyalties portrayed, which was a pleasant surprise.
It is interesting to note that the criminals seem to be the ones of the enlightened mindset here. Nobility and loyalty are not strictly relegated to the white male characters trying to catch the murderers.
Quotes that should be memorable:
"You can... never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what any average number will be up to." (Holmes to Watson, spot-on description of mob mentality.)
"Like all humankind, they flitted from the gloom into the light and so back into the gloom once more." (Watson's PTSD isn't ever named as such, but it comes through pretty clearly in observations like this. He has seen a lot of evil and a lot of death, and still he strives to be a good person. His character is really very well and subtly developed in these stories, thanks to Doyle's lovely writing.)
"So we stood hand in hand like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us." (Beautiful and poignant.)
"You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid." (Holmes, obviously, to Watson, obviously, on the merits of descriptive writing, obviously. I cackled out loud.)
"Holmes declares that he overheard me caution [Mr. Sholto] against the great danger of taking more than two drops of castor-oil, while I recommended strychnine in large doses as a sedative." (Again with the laughing out loud. Why Watsons should never be distracted by pretty Marys and, again, why Holmes should seriously have investigated those vanishing wives.)
Next up: On to the stories!