Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Book Review - Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of the Four

The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
Published by: Book-of-the-Month Club
Publication Date: 1890
Format: Hardcover, 125 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Miss Mary Morstan comes to Sherlock Holmes asking him to help her solve two mysteries in her life, that may or may not be related. The first is the disappearance of her father, Captain Arthur Morstan, ten years previously, the second is that four years after her father's death she answered a newspaper ad as to her whereabouts and started receiving a pearl a year, only this year was different, there was a note with the pearl saying that she had been wronged and asking for a meeting. The only item Mary has that might be of relevance is a map that was hidden in her father's desk with four men's names on it. Holmes immediately takes the case and finds that the pearls started arriving shortly after the death of Captain Arthur Morstan's friend and comrade in arms, Major Sholto. In fact the anonymous benefactor of Mary Morstan is one of Major Sholto's sons, Thaddeus. He tells Mary about a great treasure their fathers had brought back from India. A treasure that has been hidden all these many years until Thaddeus's brother Bartholomew found it the day he sent Mary the note. They arrive to find Bartholomew dead via a dart in the neck with a menacing note next to his body, just like the one found years earlier on Major Sholto, "The Sign of Four." Holmes quickly realizes the crime was committed by a man with one wooden leg and a rather small accomplice. They should be unique enough that finding them shouldn't be a problem, just a matter of waiting. Yet all the while Thaddeus is held in custody for his brother's murder and Watson is finding it hard to concentrate when he is bewitched by the lovely Miss Morstan. Yet with Holmes on the case, the truth will out.

The Sign of Four, or more accurately, The Sign of the Four because you learn something new everyday, is perhaps the Sherlock Holmes story I know the best out of all the stories. I remember when the adaptation with Jeremy Brett first aired in the late eighties. It was the first feature length special for the series and therefore a big to-do. Every one of the eventual five feature length adaptations would be a special occasion in my house growing up, in particular The Last Vampyre because of Roy Marsden, but you never forget the first one. I even remember that we bought it on tape. Whenever we needed a mystery to watch, into the VCR The Sign of Four would go. It didn't hurt that Watson was now played by Edward Hardwicke, I was never the fan of David Burke that my mom was. The problem going into the book is I knew this story backwards and forwards. I knew all the little twists and shocking revelations. I tried my hardest to look at this story with new eyes, but I just couldn't. All I could see was Tonga's evil face on the stern of the ship as it disappeared into the dark and foggy Thames. Not being caught up in the mystery, lots of little things started to annoy me to no end and while the story is interesting, I'd heard it all before and therefore it had the feeling of a story you've heard so many times it's worn out it's welcome.

What really bothered me was how florid the writing of Watson is. Right now I'm totally coming down on the side of Sherlock who doesn't quite approve of the way that Watson writes, making it all romantic with a heavy heaping of nostalgia. Some of the romanticism is permitted in this instance as this is when Watson meets his future wife, Mary Morstan, but overall I'm siding with Holmes. This writing style just makes a mystery you're reading for the crime solving techniques of Holmes overwritten, to the point where Watson is almost obfuscating the deductive powers of his partner. But that is nothing to his sycophantic ways. Ugh. You can see where the whole "couple" theory emerged with Watson and Holmes, Watson totally wants to get a room with Holmes. If they were in high school he'd totally ask to carry his books, and maybe go steady. Yes, I know bromances have changed over the past hundred and twenty-five years, but there's admiration and there's adulation, and Watson is very much of the later. Holmes, you're so wonderful, only you could think of that, I would never have seen that in a million billion years, you are the smartest person that will ever exist, ever. Ugh. What's worse is the police getting in on this action. While Watson may be exaggerating the police's love, they do admire him to such an inconceivable degree that they're willing to break procedure for him. Holmes, you want the suspect brought to your house prior to going to prison so you can interrogate him? Sure, why not, anything for you Holmes. Ugh.

I wonder if there's some magical aura about Holmes that just makes everyone his to command. How else does he get the criminals to willingly tell all? It's such a cliched trope. Now Mr. Bond, while it looks like there's no way out for you I will detail all my plans so that when you escape the inescapable you will be able to thwart me. Sigh. This is the second Holmes story and also the second time the criminal comes clean. About everything. In A Study in Scarlet you can kind of get Jefferson Hope confessing all because he's about to die. Also, you could state that Jonathan Small confessed because he wasn't actually a killer, he was an unwitting accomplice to that crime, but still... it's too convenient. The only real purpose I can see to have these villains unburden themselves is that by having them tell everything they are corroborating Holmes's deductions. Because, without corroborating evidence, Holmes's hypothesises seem wildly absurd and almost complete shots in the dark that somehow find their target. It just is all too pat. Like the more cliched of Agatha Christie denouements when Poirot rounds everyone up in the library and states everything he knows and unmasks the villain. Sure, I could give it slack because it's fiction, but I won't. Fiction is better than reality and therefore has it's own set of rules and convenient tropes should be beneath Arthur Conan Doyle.

There is one thing I would like to ponder in a more generalized way, and that's lost treasure from India and the peril that befalls the criminals. In mysteries it comes across to readers that India is a continent awash with missing jewels and loot, all with guardians or some sort of curse. I don't know if I could actually remember every book and movie that has this trope but The Moonstone, The Ruby in the Smoke, and even The Pink Panther, all have this in common. And in each and every instance, something befalls those who removed the jewels from their rightful place. Seriously, how does one continent have so many jewels? Is this the real reason that Britain wanted to maintain control over India, because they thought it was awash with loot ripe for the picking? Yes, there's a romanticism associated with India and there's a mysticism with the culture that imbues magic to their jewels, even Indiana Jones fell prey to this; but after awhile, it's like, how many more stories will I have to read like this? How many times will it play out in the same way? Because the truth of the matter is The Moonstone and Wilkie Collins set the tone and the stage for this trope, and I don't think anyone will ever reach that level of perfection again. The Moonstone predates The Sign of the Four by over twenty years, and the later can not help but be compared to the former and found lacking. Sherlock Holmes may be a master of deduction, but in a story where every one is a pale imitator of the original, he had no chance to succeed.

Though for everything that got under my skin there was one thing this book did SO RIGHT and that's blow darts. Seriously, I think this is one of the coolest murder weapons out there, and ironically my love and reverence for them started with Sherlock Holmes, only Sherlock Holmes the younger. In the Young Sherlock Holmes the evil villain's sister uses a blow dart as her weapon of choice, and also shows what I fear most about them, them being used against you, when Sherlock blows in the out and kills the killer. So, they aren't a perfect weapon, seeing as they can be used against you, but at the same time, there's something so amusing about someone blowing through a tube and someone falling down dead or incapacitated that makes me giddy. If you doubt the humor value of blow darts instead focusing on the horror, I implore you to watch the Red Dwarf season seven episode "Beyond a Joke." In the episode there is a virtual reality game of Pride and Prejudice. The character of Kryten is annoyed that the rest of his shipmates have decided to play the game versus eat the lovely dinner he has prepared for them. Therefore he enters the game and eliminates each and every Bennet sister in a unique manner. Kitty is the victim of a blow dart. This one scene is perhaps my favorite and easily the funniest in one of my favorite series ever. So let's bring back blow darts shall we?


Worth reading surely just for the opening scenes, and those final lines:

"The division seems rather unfair," I remarked. "You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?"

"For me," said Sherlock Holmes, "there still remains the cocaine-bottle." And he stretched his long white hand up for it.

That is true, Holmes's habits and his cocaine...

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