Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four

The Sign of FourThe Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Halfway through The Sign of Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle steals the literary critic’s thunder by aptly “theorizing,” as we used to say in grad school, the novel’s own genre through two minor characters:

“It is a romance!” cried Mrs. Forrester. “An injured lady, half a million in treasure, a black cannibal, and a wooden-legged ruffian. They take the place of the conventional dragon or wicked earl.”

“And two knight-errants to the rescue,” added Miss Morstan, with a bright glance at me.

The late Victorian period saw a general revival of romance in Britain, for a variety of reasons: the ideological and commercial collapse of the three-volume realist novel; the increasingly martial cultural tone of an expanding empire; the reaction against the previous dominance of female authors and female modes (domestic realism, sentimentalism) in fiction; and the rise of a newly literate, non-classically educated audience seeking more adventurous fare. (I derive my information from such useful literary histories as Elaine Showalter’s Sexual Anarchy and Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island.)

Doyle’s myth-making imagination scored an undeniable triumph with the invention of the maven of deduction, Sherlock Holmes, and his more practical partner, Watson. But aside from this, he lacked the virtues of his fellow romancers. He could not write the perfect prose of Stevenson or Kipling, nor philosophize over his own phantasmagoria as Wilde could, nor embody in vividly imagined tales whole new concepts of time and nature like Wells; even Stoker’s Dracula, while a bit schlocky, is prodigiously imagined and intricately composed. I find Doyle’s narrative gifts and his style weaker—at least in the first two Holmes novels—and cannot bring myself to care much about the story or characters.

The Sign of Four, a complicated mystery involving the schemes of various parties to acquire treasure that a British army officer mysteriously won in India, is mainly interesting today for what I might call “cultural studies” reasons. That is, it fascinates readers for what it suggests about late-19th-century British attitudes toward drugs, race, empire, law enforcement, homosocial relations between men, statistics, etc. I imagine the scene where Holmes deduces a killer’s identity from his footprint, complete with a lengthy pseudo-scientific racialist disquisition on the characteristics of various non-Western people’s feet (“The Hindoo proper has long and thin feet”—who knew?) has launched a dissertation or two.

But even I am not immune: as a student of aestheticism, I was interested in Doyle’s portrayal of Thaddeus Sholto, son of the major who brought the jewels back from India. In Sholto, Doyle provides an amusing caricature of the aesthete, an ineffectual and hypochondriacal lovers of the beautiful; and Doyle, in his bluff way, communicates directly what Pater and Wilde never quite get around to telling us, namely, that the aesthete is able to enjoy his refined pleasures only because he sits at the pinnacle of an imperial hierarchy (I think I learned somewhere or other that Edward Said, whom I have had cause to mention here before, re-read the Holmes stories on his deathbed).

But Holmes’s disinterested gaze knits the seeming chaos of crime into patterns that are pleasurable for the reader to behold: he is only another kind of aesthete (he is called in this novel a “connoisseur of crime”), which is no doubt why we find him, on this novel’s famous first page, in the languid Huysmans-esque pursuit of intoxication:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece 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 shirt-cuff. 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 arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

And there is also some fine atmospheric writing about London here; not as good as Dickens, but moody and dream-like:

It was a September evening, and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-colored clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light,—sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more.

The novel ends with a long narrative from the main villain explaining the background to the crime. His narrative is an imperial romance within the detective romance, a tale of desperation, greed, and betrayal amid the upheavals of the Sepoy rebellion. The villain’s strong will and loyalty—he is the only non-racist character in the novel, being bound in solidarity with his Sikh collaborators in crime and his Andaman islander confederate—make him a good foil for Holmes, a man of equally strong drive but also of total abstraction and misanthropy. Here is Holmes watching a shipyard empty at quitting-time:

“Dirty-looking rascals, but I suppose every one has some little immortal spark concealed about him. You would not think it, to look at them. There is no a priori probability about it. A strange enigma is man!”

“Some one calls him a soul concealed in an animal,” I suggested.

“Winwood Reade is good upon the subject,” said Holmes. “He remarks that, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician.”

Holmes’s utterly detached aestheticism is necessarily his readers’, since we too are reading rather than acting (on the other hand, the active villain says, “reading is not in my line”); we contemplate the abstract that is literature rather than the individuality of life. But the passion of those who have to fight or work for their lives, even at the price of their souls, is the material from which Holmes shapes his narrative designs—communicated to us by Watson, who is the author of all Holmes’s adventures. Like those heralds of modernity, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Holmes and Watson have already read of their earlier exploits by the time this book opens. We readers and writers are detectives all in the ghostly city, looking with mastery but also longing (“imperial nostalgia,” it has been called) on those—poor Englishman and colonized Indian alike—whom we leave no choice but to live.



  1. […] All the same, I cannot for the life of me tell you the plot of The Big Sleep. I read the novel with the Wikipedia synopsis at my side and was still barely hanging on. In short, the elderly General Sternwood, whose family is wealthy from oil, has hired the P. I. Philip Marlowe to investigate some matters related to his wild young daughters, Vivian and Carmen. The thematic upshot of Marlowe’s long and confusing consequent misadventures is the following: squalidness and corruption are the underside of wealth and glamor, money is always marked by the dirt of its origins in earth and labor, the modern breakdown of social norms has set young women morally adrift and left decadents and degenerates in charge of the city. Against these ugly realities, such rumpled men of honor as Marlowe might—like the knights and generals of yore—remediate this corrupt world by acting with as much selflessness and rectitude as possible. This summary of the novel’s moral thesis is accurate as far as it goes; Chandler makes sure we are thinking of courtly knights on the book’s first page through his description of some faux-medieval decor in the General’s house, and the association of the modern detective with the knight-errant of romance goes back to Sherlock Holmes. […]

Comments are closed.