THE SIGN OF THE FOUR marks the second Sherlock Holmes story I have read so far, following Sherlock’s debut fiction appearance in A STUDY IN SCARLET, and while I’m not terribly familiar with the publishing history of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories, it seems evident in reading both stories that Doyle came to the decision that he needed to flesh out the characters before sitting down to write THE SIGN OF THE FOUR.
In A STUDY OF SCARLET, we learn a little of Watson’s back story, but little else — Doyle seems to supply Watson’s back story more to create a sense of setting than any real desire to provide us with insight into his character. Sherlock’s eccentricities are obviously part of of SCARLET’s charm, but outside of his meticulous nature in chasing down the truth and his obsession with studying crime, we don’t get to know much about him. This time around, Doyle seems to want to delve deeper into both characters, providing Watson with a love interest and introducing Sherlock’s cocaine use and misogynistic tendencies. In a strange way, Doyle sets up Sherlock as a sort of dark hero — I don’t consider him to be a full-blown antihero, but by today’s standards (maybe not those of Doyle’s time), Sherlock has some significant character flaws that are first displayed in this story. The first is Sherlock’s cocaine use, which opens and closes the story. It displeases Watson, but at the same time it doesn’t really seem to be hurting anyone, so it never quite pushes Sherlock into antihero territory.
Perhaps more interesting was Sherlock’s reaction to Watson’s love interest. At one point, he tells Watson not to tell her too much because “women can’t at all be trusted.” Much like the cocaine, this offends Watson’s sensibilities, but he’s clearly intimidated by Sherlock and is loathe to confront him about any of his behavior. It will be interesting to see how Sherlock’s disdain for womenfolk — and by extension, Watson’s wife, will play out in future stories.
This story has a bit more action than the first one, but sets up in much the same format as SCARLET — Sherlock and Watson investigate the crime and eventually catch the bad guy, and after that, the bad guy tells them exactly how he came to commit the crime and all the clues Sherlock has puzzled out but which still don’t make sense to the reader are explained.
Interestingly, in neither of the stories I’ve read so far does Doyle ever explain the fate of the criminal past their arrest. Both motives have been revenge for past wrongs, though the criminal in SCARLET was far more sympathetic than this one, but exactly what happens to either one is never really explained. They’re taken off to prison and as far as we’re concerned, their story ends there. Neither Sherlock nor Watson seem to express any interest in the criminal’s post-arrest fate: the bad guy’s caught and they’re happy. Sherlock, of course, would only be interested in the chase and be apathetic about the ultimate results, but I am somewhat surprised that Watson, the narrator, never includes any such information at the end. Oh well.
This one ended up taking me longer to read than SCARLET, partly because I’ve been reading other things and partly because of real-world intrusions, but I still enjoyed it. I think I liked A STUDY IN SCARLET better just because I liked the back story behind the crime better, but it was still an enjoyable read.