Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1892. I used the epub version found on Feedbooks.com.
Although the image of Watson and Holmes rooming together as bachelors is prominent in our minds, this is only the second story thus far (out of ten) in the period between the two moving into 221B and Watson’s marriage. We also learn that this case is set in April 1883, so there’s at least a five year gap between A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four. Even more interesting, Holmes makes a reference to a case before Watson boarded with him – a rare peek into Holmes’ pre-Watson career.
As an earlier case, we see some of Watson and Holmes still learning the boundaries in their friendship. At one point, Holmes mentions a reluctance to include Watson due to the danger, and Watson very casually blows it off. Holmes doesn’t think twice about endangering Watson in later (chronologically) cases, but that’s likely because the two of them have had conversations like this many times by that point.
We get to see some of Holmes’ dry wit in the confrontation between him and Roylott (which is a long quote, but a great passage):
“I know you, you scoundrel! I have heard of you before. You are Holmes, the meddler.”
My friend smiled.
“Holmes, the busybody!”
His smile broadened.
“Holmes, the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office!”
Holmes chuckled heartily. “Your conversation is most entertaining,” said he. “When you go out close the door, for there is a decided draught.”
A few bits of lore-watching appear in this story. We get another indication of Holmes’ strength, aside from the revelation of his boxing career early; here, we watch Holmes unbend an iron poker with his bare hands. Holmes also makes a reference to Watson’s pistol as “Eley’s No. 2,” although I’ve always understood it to be a Webley. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that in future stories. We also have another long vigil in darkness.
In the end, this is an interesting case because the criminal is pretty obvious from the start – it’s only the the method of the murder that’s in question. The revelation of the snake has caused a lot of controversy (since such a snake just doesn’t exist in nature, period), and there’s a lot of speculation as to whether Holmes enacts his own justice again or is just the victim of an unfortunate accident. Still, it’s one of Conan Doyle’s favorite stories, and it’s a great look into a period of time that is, at this point in the canon, still largely untouched.