The Sign of the Four (1890), pt. 2 – The Rest of the Case

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

Let’s dive into the rest of the case.

Case Timing

We learn that this case is set in 1888, based on Mary’s story.1 However, Watson and Holmes have been rooming together for “years,” so Scarlet is likely set before its 1887 publication date.

Doyle’s Writing

You see more of the modern touches in Doyle’s writing. The meeting with Sholto is a lot of fun, and is different from the usual trip down to the murder scene. Doyle also have a penchant for eccentric characters – all of the Sholtos ooze with quirky fun, and even the dead ones are felt through the course of the story. There’s also a boat chase near the end, and Holmes demonstrates his famous mastery of disguise. Doyle is, at heart, an adventure writer, and there’s plenty of it in this novel.

Doyle also uses the contrivance of “nested stories,” where one character tells a story that another character narrates. Obviously, Watson is one character, and he transcribes the narration of other characters. But at one point, Sholto himself narrates another character’s story. This is a really, really hard thing to pull off, and yet Doyle does so to great effect in this book (and indeed, in many of his stories).

On the other hand, we run into some of the prejudices of the age. Strange Oriental treasures are just the top of the list of awkward stereotypes. Manipulative Indians and blood-thirsty black savages abound in this story. To be fair, Doyle is no Sax Rohmer or H.P. Lovecraft – it is possible to read this story and see these characters are merely bad examples of their various cultures. But it certainly skirts the comfort zone of modern sensibilities.

And finally, Doyle has his moments of being overwrought:

He pointed to what looked like a long dark thorn stuck in the skin just above the ear.

“It looks like a thorn,” said I.

“It is a thorn…”

Other Points

To touch back on an earlier rant, the conversation with McMurdo reinforces Holmes’ aptitude with boxing and fists. Further, McMurdo mentions that his bout with Holmes was “four years back,” which means it was in 1884. It’s possible that, since Watson and Holmes have roomed together for years at this point, and Holmes was entertaining clients before he moved to 221B Baker Street, that he was boxing after he started his career as a consulting detective.

This story has another famous axiom of Holmes’: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however impossible, must be the truth?”

Again, we see Watson make quick observations (mainly in chapter six). Like I said: not an idiot.

In this story, we meet a third New Scotland Yard detective: Mr. Athalney Jones. Like his predecessors, he is quick to disparage Holmes until he needs help. However, he’s more inclined to talk down to Holmes again at the end of the case. In fact, Jones is kind of a dick.

This story features Toby, the amazing tracking mongrel. As a kid, I had a soft spot for Toby because of his expanded role in The Great Mouse Detective. Granted, in the movie Toby is Holmes’ pet, but whatever. Toby is awesome, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

Yes, Victorian literature is full of foreign phrases that don’t get translated. You get used to it, or you use Google Translate.

Mrs. Hudson gets named in this story, but the maid seems to have disappeared. But the Baker Street Irregulars get their name as well, so it works out.

Holmes demonstrates his opinion of women quite clearly. “Women are never to be entirely trusted – not the best of them.” This will come into play in the very next story.

Watson ends up engaged. This opens up another infamous Watson continuity snarl – his married life. You’ll see plenty of examples of what I mean later.

Overall, this is a fun story. I like it much better than A Study in Scarlet, but it’s not my favorite novel (that’s probably The Hound of the Baskervilles).

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  1. And this causes loads of problems later, which I’ll bring up as we go further into the canon.