Title: The Sign of Four (Goodreads)
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Series: Sherlock Holmes #2
Published: Penguin, 1890
Genres: Classic, Crime
My Copy: Paperback
Buy: Amazon, Book Depository, Kindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)
Mary Marston’s father disappeared and suddenly she has started receiving several large pearls. Now a mystery letter tells her she is a wronged woman, so she seeks out Sherlock Holmes to ask for help. This case leads Holmes down a path that involves the East India Company, India, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a stolen treasure, and a secret pact among four convicts and two corrupt prison guards.
Scottish born Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was the third of ten siblings to Charles Altamont Doyle, an Irish artist who suffered from alcoholism, and Mary Foley, who was also Irish. In his youth he led a street gang called the Baker Street Irregulars. He then went on to be a medical student at Edinburgh University where he was mentored and influenced by Joseph Bell. Bell was a forensic surgeon and considered a pioneer in the field; he also was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.
The Sign of Four was written in 1890 but it was set in 1888 which is the same year as the Jack the Ripper murders. In fact by modern standards the distance between 221B Baker Street (the home of Sherlock Holmes) and the Whitechapel district is less than ten kilometres apart. The living conditions of the East End of London even before the Whitechapel Murders could be described as, in the words of Holmes in A Study of Scarlet “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”. Naturally after the Ripper killings the public were in a panic; in comes the literary hero, here to fight crime, dispense justice and protect the streets of London, here is Sherlock Holmes.
It is important to note that historical context didn’t start or stop with the Ripper murders. In order to understand The Sign of Four better, the events of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 must also be taken into account. The four convicts in the title are connected to this to uprising. There is no single reason for the rebellion unless you consider colonialism as the cause. It was a mix of economic, political, social and much more that caused, in the terms of the British, ‘the mutiny’. Without going into too much detail about the rebellion, imperialism or even the use of the word ‘savages’, it is important to understand the basis and mindset of the time to analyse the text fully.
While The Sign of Four is a book that reflects the ideals of the late nineteenth century, some ideas, like justice are still relevant. The Indian Rebellion may no longer be considered mutiny or a crime; the way justice was dispensed in the end still remains a satisfactory resolution for the readers. It is still fair to say that the idea of being a hero to women and sexual justice is very real in the modern world. Conan Doyle highlighted the prejudice between both sexes but this stereotype remains very relevant in current times. The principle of moral rightness; equity is still an issue today.
There was a lot I got out of this novel, especially when it comes to justice, sexual equality and historical context. I was surprised with the start of this novel; the cocaine use from Sherlock was a little shocking. I knew there were references in this novel but I didn’t expect what I read. The whole idea of dulling his mind when he is not solving a mystery is an interesting one. Not really justifiable but the excuse got me thinking about his passion and how people manage when they are not doing what they enjoy.
I’m not sure if it was because I was studying this novel but this was the first Sherlock Holmes novel I’ve read where everything clicks and the symbolism and motifs hit me. I feel like I need to reread the other Holmes novels and see what I’ve missed. This book will have a special place in my heart now; the book that opened my eyes to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliance. Am I weird for loving books that teach me? Most people read for enjoyment, but I feel more satisfied when I’ve discovered something about a book and the world.