Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review: The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

Title: The Sign of the Four
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
First published: 1890

Rating: 6 out of 10

I read the Sherlock Holmes series as a child, so I was very startled to re-open this book after ten years to the scene of the beloved detective injecting cocaine into his arm. Obviously, this went right over my head when I was younger.

The Sign of the Four, which is the second Sherlock Holmes mystery, has Holmes and Watson investigating a case that involves a beautiful young woman, Miss Morstan. For years, she has been receiving pearls in the mail from a mysterious source. She is given the chance to uncover the benefactor's identity, but within the offer is a puzzling threat to someone who wronged her. Baffled at who this unknown individual could possibly mean, she calls upon Sherlock Holmes for help. But just as they begin to investigate, a man is murdered, and someone whom Holmes is sure is innocent gets the blame. And so the mystery unfolds as the two detectives try to recover Miss Morstan's fortune, find her mysterious pearl-sender, and clear the name of a falsely accused man.

Perhaps it was because since reading Doyle as a child I have been introduced to Agatha Christie and other mysteries. Or perhaps it was just because I was expecting something entirely different. But for whatever the reason, I didn't love this book like I thought I would. It was average - and I will keep it, but I don't feel any motivation to take out any more Sherlock books now.

While reading, Sherlock Holmes himself struck me as annoying, and I had to struggle to keep looking for anything likable about him. Watson on the other hand (who I used to think was very annoying as a child), was charming and seemed far more realistic of a person than Holmes.
Sherlock is very precise and detail-obsessed, and having built a revered name for himself, he also comes across as quite an arrogant, self important person. He is always convinced that he is right, and seems constantly impressed with himself. The scene where he puts on a disguise that fools even Watson, then reveals himself triumphantly, reminded me of a child. He seemed delighted to have pulled off the disguise so well, and told everyone so. I half expected him to say "Ta da!" But of course, if you examine this thinking, you'll just realize that Holmes admittedly deserves to be a bit inflated. He is a brilliant detective, and I suppose that his disguise was, grudgingly, pretty good if it even fooled his longtime companion. But this just annoyed me even further: Holmes is irritating at times, but he deserves every bit of the praise he gets (and he knows it).

The author seemed just as enamored with his character as the rest of the city is. Holmes never makes a mistake, or if he does, it is quickly retracted and spun into being beneficial. Holmes always has impressive plans and second-plans and friends and connections and resources at his fingertips. With this set-up, I can't see how Holmes could possibly have failed to become a successful detective.

Watson does not exactly play such an important part in solving the mystery, but as a reader, I was happy to overlook this. I was relieved to recall that it is Watson who narrates the stories, not Holmes.
Watson is more grounded than Holmes, more practical. Holmes often imagines impossible, exciting solutions to mysteries, while Watson is more likely to think of what is most logical. Of course, since these are, after all, impossible, exciting mystery stories, Holmes' guesses are most often right, but in the real world, it would probably have been Watson solving all the cases.
Watson also seems far more, well, human than Holmes. I was very happy for him in finding a love interest with Miss Morstan. He deserves it.

Besides the revolution of finding that I actually dislike Sherlock Holmes (that still doesn't sound right), I also found this book to be (surprise, again) a bit dull at times. It simply never held my attention.

I am very glad that I re-read this book, even if it was a bit jarring. Some books you read as a child seem completely and totally different when you re-read them as an adult.