Given Stephen Fry’s passion for the works of Oscar Wilde, it’s of no wonder to me that he should offer his commentary on The Sign of Four with the fateful meeting that led to its publication. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle met at the Langham Hotel in London with Joseph M. Stoddart, the managing editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. It was an American work, and Stoddart was looking to produce a British version. In attendance was Oscar Wilde, who would in short order submit for publication his classic The Picture of Dorian Gray. From the mannerisms that Sherlock Holmes manifested in this story, it’s not difficult to imagine how much of Wilde’s manner found its way into the Great Detective. It was February, 1890, when the story first saw publication, little more than a year after the Ripper murders. Despite the timing being right, the story was not instantly successful, like A Study in Scarlet before it. The short stories, published in Strand Magazine, would make Sherlock Holmes a force of literature, further driving the sales of the original two novels.
The Sign of Four is more mature and complex than A Study in Scarlet. Just goes to show that sequels aren’t always inferior. Set in 1888, the story opens with Watson reintroducing us to Holmes and chastising him for his drug habit, the now-infamous cocaine in a seven per-cent solution. With no case for his mind to chew upon, Holmes retreats into self-destruction, which brings him down to a considerably more human level than the previous novel.
Also introduced into the canon is Mary Morstan, the client who sets our heroes into action, and who sets Watson’s heart ablaze. By the end of the story, she and Watson will be engaged to be married. We learn by way of commentary that Holmes is not only unimpressed, he sees women as a lesser distraction, a most important character point that will catch up to him in the first of the short stories. Morstan has called upon Holmes to find her missing father, a senior captain of an Indian regiment who disappeared in 1878 under mysterious circumstances. Each year, Morstan receives a pearl in the mail from an anonymous sender. When she is told to come and meet the sender, that’s when she turns to Holmes and Watson as guardians. Her only clue apart from the pearls and accompanying letters is a map of a fortress bearing a set of names: Jonathan Small, Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan, and Dost Akbar.
The sender is Thaddeus Sholto, son of the late Major Sholto who confirms his father and Mary’s had seen one another the night Captain Morstan died. A meeting had been arranged to divide a treasure Sholto had brought back from India. The two quarreled, and Captain Morstan suffered a heart attack. Afraid of implication, Sholto hid the body and the wealth. His own health suffered in turn, and he called for his sons in 1882 to reveal the treasure’s location upon his death bed. Before he could say, he was killed. The younger Sholto relates to Holmes of the face in the window and the note reading “The Sign of Four.” The reason Sholto sent the letter to meet is that his brother had found the treasure.
To no reader’s surprise, the brother is found dead, killed by a poison dart, the treasure missing. The police wrongly accuse Sholto, and Holmes deduces two people in the murder. The first is Jonathan Small, a one-legged man. The other is a “small” accomplice. This leads him to a landing where Small has hired a clipper called the Aurora. Holmes introduces us to another valuable member of the canon in the form of Toby, the best tracking hound he knows. Between Toby, the Baker Street Irregulars, and Holmes’ own disguise, the Aurora is tracked and pursued. The small companion attempts to kill Holmes with a poison dart and is himself killed instead. Jonathan Small is captured, claiming to have dumped the treasure overboard during the chase.
The book finishes out with Small’s confession that takes place largely during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. He reveals how he became involved with the Sikhs named on the map, and how the bond was struck between them to divide the treasure. Circumstances led to his imprisonment, where he met Sholto and Morstan, and later the small islander Tonga who would help him escape. While not nearly as detailed or harrowing as the confession in A Study in Scarlet, Small’s story is one that would resonate throughout the whole of the British Empire as tragedy of its colonialism found its way back home.
At the time, sentiment within the Empire was that the further out you travel from Britain, the more dangerous and exotic it becomes. Commentaries on colonialism were far from the mind of ACD. Rather, this tale simply capitalizes on those fears of the public and the sensationalism the readers would expect from such stories. Sometimes a tale of a given time and place becomes something of a fly in amber, perfectly preserving an idea that might otherwise be difficult to explain quite so effectively. There’s a realism here, and even a sympathy. While there are stereotypes in play, none of them seem particularly malicious, especially when compared to some found in later American pulp stories. These seem more honest, an example of honor being used to justify a situation that would have less than honorable ramifications.
As with A Study in Scarlet, this is not one of my personal favorites in the canon, but the characters and situations hold my attention and push the tale from 3 stars to 4. It’s just that enjoyable to read the interactions between Holmes and Watson, and it’s even fun to watch Watson suffer a bit in the turmoil of romance. The foundations of what these books set into motion are invaluable to any who would fully appreciate the whole of the canon. Next up, we begin exploring the short stories that would make Holmes the first name in mystery stories.