This review is written with a GPL 4.0 license and the rights contained therein shall supersede all TOS by any and all websites in regards to copying and sharing without proper authorization and permissions. Crossposted at WordPress, Blogspot, & Librarything by Bookstooge’s Exalted Permission
Title: The Sign of Four
Series: Sherlock Holmes #2
Author: Arthur Doyle
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Set in 1888, The Sign of the Four has a complex plot involving service in India, the Indian Mutiny of 1857, a stolen treasure, and a secret pact among four convicts (“the Four” of the title) and two corrupt prison guards. It presents Holmes’s drug habit and humanizes him in a way that had not been done in the preceding novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887). It also introduces Dr. Watson’s future wife, Mary Morstan.
According to Mary, in December 1878, her father had telegraphed her upon his safe return from India and requested her to meet him at the Langham Hotel in London. When Mary arrived at the hotel, she was told her father had gone out the previous night and not returned. Despite all efforts, no trace was ever found of him. Mary contacted her father’s only friend who was in the same regiment and had since retired to England, one Major John Sholto, but he denied knowing her father had returned. The second puzzle is that she has received six pearls in the mail from an anonymous benefactor, one per year since 1882, after answering an anonymous newspaper query inquiring for her. With the last pearl she received a letter remarking that she has been wronged and asking for a meeting. Holmes takes the case and soon discovers that Major Sholto had died in 1882 and that within a short span of time Mary began to receive the pearls, implying a connection. The only clue Mary can give Holmes is a map of a fortress found in her father’s desk with the names of Jonathan Small, Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan and Dost Akbar.
Holmes, Watson, and Mary meet Thaddeus Sholto, the son of the late Major Sholto and the anonymous sender of the pearls. Thaddeus confirms the Major had seen Mary’s father the night he died; they had arranged a meeting to divide a priceless treasure Sholto had brought home from India. While quarrelling over the treasure, Captain Morstan—long in weak health—suffered a heart attack. Not wanting to bring attention to the object of the quarrel—and also worried that circumstances would suggest that he had killed Morstan in an argument, particularly since Morstan’s head struck the corner of the chest as he fell—Sholto disposed of the body and hid the treasure. However, Sholto himself suffered from poor health and an enlarged spleen (possibly due to malaria, as a quinine bottle stands by his bed). His health deteriorated when he received a letter from India in early 1882. Dying, he called his two sons and confessed to Morstan’s death; he was about to divulge the location of the treasure when he suddenly cried, “Keep him out!” before falling back and dying. The puzzled sons glimpsed a face in the window, but the only trace was a single footstep in the dirt. On their father’s body is a note reading “The Sign of the Four”. Both brothers quarrelled over whether a legacy should be left to Mary, and Thaddeus left his brother Bartholomew, taking a chaplet and sending its pearls to her. The reason he sent the letter is that Bartholomew has found the treasure and possibly Thaddeus and Mary might confront him for a division of it. All of the party travel to the Sholto family home, Pondicherry Lodge in Upper Norwood, to confront brother Bartholomew.
Bartholomew is found dead in his home from a poisoned dart and the treasure is missing. While the police wrongly take Thaddeus in as a suspect, Holmes deduces that there are two persons involved in the murder: a one-legged man, Jonathan Small, and a small accomplice. He traces them to a boat landing where Small has hired a steam launch named the Aurora. With the help of dog Toby that he sends Watson to collect from Mr. Sherman, the Baker Street Irregulars and his own disguise, Holmes traces the steam launch. In a police steam launch Holmes and Watson chase the Aurora and capture it, but in the process end up killing the small companion after he attempts to kill Holmes with a poisoned dart shot from a blow-pipe. Small tries to escape but is captured. However, the iron treasure box is empty; Small claims to have dumped the treasure over the side during the chase.
Small confesses that years before he was a soldier of the Third Buffs in India and lost his right leg to a crocodile while bathing in the Ganges. After some time, when he was an overseer on a tea plantation, the 1857 rebellion occurred and he was forced to flee for his life to the Agra fortress. While standing guard one night he was overpowered by two Sikh troopers, who gave him a choice of being killed or being an accomplice to waylaying a disguised servant of a rajah who had sent said servant with a valuable fortune in pearls and jewels to the British for safekeeping. The robbery and murder took place and the crime was discovered, although the jewels were not. Small got penal servitude on the Andaman Islands.
After twenty years, Small overheard that Major Sholto had lost much money gambling and couldn’t even sell his commission, necessitating his resignation. Small saw his chance and made a deal with Sholto and Captain Morstan: Sholto would recover the treasure and in return send a boat to pick up Small and the Sikhs. Sholto double-crossed both Morstan and Small and stole the treasure for himself after inheriting a fortune from his uncle. Small vowed vengeance and four years later escaped the Andaman Islands with an islander named Tonga after they both killed a prison guard. It was the news of his escape that shocked Sholto into his fatal illness. Small arrived too late to hear of the treasure’s location, but left the note which referred to the name of the pact between himself and his three Sikh accomplices. When Bartholomew found the treasure, Small planned to only steal it, but claims a miscommunication led Tonga to kill Bartholomew as well. Small claims the treasure brought nothing but bad luck to anyone who came in touch with it—the servant who was murdered; Sholto living with fear and guilt; and now he himself is trapped in slavery for life—half his life building a breakwater in the Andaman Islands and the rest of his life digging drains in Dartmoor Prison.
Mary is left without the bulk of the Agra treasure, although she will apparently receive the rest of the chaplet. Watson falls in love with Mary and it is revealed at the end that he proposed to her and she has accepted.
I enjoyed this read much more than I did back in ’08. There were a couple of factors involved in that and I’ll touch on them momentarily. But first, Holmes’ drug use. I don’t have a woke view of it, ie, Oh, we’re so enlightened and we must despise and denigrate the Past because it doesn’t live up to Our Modern Ideals, but I do take it as a serious warning about just what we put into our bodies. If you didn’t know, my wife and I are Seventh Day Adventists and one of the tenets is the Health Message. Alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs are not to be taken. In the earlier days, it went farther than that. ANY stimulant was considered dangerous and their long term (usually unknown at the time) effects far outweighed the immediate gain one got. I bring this up specifically because of caffeine. If you didn’t know, besides being an SDA, I am also an energy drink addict and I am beginning to see the effects of massive doses and long term use. All of that is to say that just because something doesn’t have an immediate negative effect on you doesn’t make it good. Makes me want to adhere to the health message that much more!
Ok, on the bits directly about this book 😀
First, since I had just watched Season One of Sherlock, I was trying to find connections. The first and most obvious is Watson’s future wife. She’s in the second episode, the Blind Banker and she’s in the second story. Also, 1 man steals something that doesn’t belong to him and suffers the consequences. That one is a bit of a stretch but it is still there.
Another reason I enjoyed this was because the “flashback” is simply told as a tale and as such there is no confusion and it is very easy to tell just what is going on, AND when it is going on. This was a longer book than the previous but it didn’t feel that way. The speedboat chase near the end and the completely unrepentant attitude of Small about the treasure (he tosses it little by little into the Thames while they are being chased so that NO ONE can have it) just made me laugh. That quirk of human nature that assumes such proprietary ownership over something (in this case a bunch of jewels that Small helped murder and steal for) even when it is completely wrong just makes me laugh.
The tv show, at least in season one, has Sherlock sneering at the police and publicly demeaning them and basically alienating them, usually on purpose, any chance he gets. It’s the usual disdain of the media companies showing through for the lawful authorities. In the books however, Sherlock, while saying he is much smarter than them, doesn’t disparage them and is fine with giving them the credit. He wants them to succeed, even if it ends up falling on his shoulders. There is the proper respect for authority exhibited in the books and I really do like that.
I read through pretty quickly and enjoyed it.
And while our buddywatch of Sherlock has ended, I see no reason not to link to SavageDave’s review from 2019: The Sign of Four