The Sign of the Four (1890), pt. 1 – Watson and Holmes

the sign of the four
the sign of the four

Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of The Sign of the Four, published in 1890. I used the epub version found on

On to the second Holmes story, and the second Holmes novel. This one was written three years after A Study in Scarlet, and there’s a noticeable difference in Doyle’s style – the most noteworthy being a firmer adherence to the conceit of being Watson’s memoirs. This time, I’ll break things down into individual concepts that pop up in roughly the same order that they do in the book.


And right off the bat, page one, we get to see the drug habit that was only alluded to in Scarlet: Holmes uses a “seven-per-cent solution” of cocaine to keep his mind from stagnating when he is not engaged on a case (and he returns to it after the case is over). This on-again, off-again drug use is one of the many misconceptions about the Great Detective, although since Nicholas Meyer’s fantastic pastiche The Seven-Percent Solution, it’s come up more and more.1 But this opening scene has a couple of other things that are noteworthy.

First off, it’s very different from a lot of Victorian literature. You can start to see the changes not only in Doyle’s style, but also from other serialized storytellers of the time, like Dickens. The opening is positively modern in style, dropping you right into a dramatic situation between Holmes and Watson. The rest of the novel is well-paced as well – even when there are lengthy expositions (of which there are several in this novel), Doyle works in little quirks and ticks of character to keep the reader engaged. This style of writing is one of the many reasons why the stories still hold up today.

Another noteworthy point is Watson saying “… my conscience swelled nightly withing me…” Watson is Holmes’ conscience in many ways, constantly questioning and challenging not only his deductions, but his motives, and the dialog in the early chapters of the novel attests to that. Notice how Watson encourages Holmes to deduce things, just to keep him from turning back to the needle. And yet, when Watson announces his intention to marry, it is to the needle that Holmes returns. From one book to the next, the relationship between the men has changed and grown – far from the unchanging, staid relationship we see in various adaptations (or, to be fair, in the middle part of Doyle’s canon).


Watson’s wound is now in his leg. In fact, Doyle has decided so completely that the would is in Watson’s leg that the point is brought up at least three times during the course of the novel, even though it was clearly his left shoulder in Scarlet. If I recall correctly, the balance of the canon keeps it in his leg, but a number of times it’s more vaguely referred to as “my wound” or “the wound in my limb.” Also, Watson still claims he is recovering from his illness in Afghanistan, even though it’s explicitly after the events in Scarlet (and, we learn in later stories, several years after their meeting). Another attempt by Doyle to break down the divide between fiction and reality is to have Holmes refer to the previous novel and comment upon it, even if it does introduce problems in chronology later.

As Watson defends his publication of Scarlet, Holmes chides him for his “romanticism,” even though it was Holmes who decided to so poetically name the case! It’s possible that this could be another continuity error, but I prefer to think that Holmes has just conveniently rewritten the incident in his mind – something that he has done a couple of times already, and it’s only the second novel!

We also learn, through Holmes’ deduction of Watson’s pocket watch, the reason why Watson has “no kith and kin in England” – both his father and his elder brother are dead. Both men have the initial H. for a first name, and my memory tells me that they are Henry Sr. and Jr., but I don’t remember where I got that information from, and this story doesn’t supply it.

Finally, Watson is quite the ladies’ man. Not only does he remark on his “experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents,” but Mary is clearly flirting with Watson quite early on in their relationship. Watson is very taken by her as well, and either his emotions or his illness cause him to make several mistakes throughout the story as a result. Regardless, he is not the fat, overblown buffoon of Nigel Bruce.


A couple more points on Holmes in this early stage.

Holmes at one point says “It is simplicity itself,” which reminds me of another rant I have about misconceptions of the canon. Holmes does refer to things as “elementary,” and he does say such things to Watson, but he never uses the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson.” If I’m wrong as I reread, I’ll cop to it, but I’m pretty damned sure you won’t find that phrase anywhere in the canon.

Secondly, we see more in this story of Holmes’ snobbery. He laments that crime in London and existence as a whole is “commonplace,” and how he can’t abide the commonplace. He might also be manic-depressive and these comments might just be Holmes acting out.

Finally, Holmes shows more of his sense of humor here. After chiding Watson for his lack of observation, Watson remarks on Mary Morstan’s appearance. Holmes reply is “Is she? I did not observe.”

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  1. As well as Hugh Laurie’s portrayal on House, M.D. While not technically a Holmes pastiche, there’s so much inspiration obviously drawn between Gregory House and Sherlock Holmes that it’s bled back over into Sherlockania.