Read by Derek Jacobi
Series: Sherlock Holmes #2
Publisher: BBC Audio
Time: 4 hours 50 minutes (unabridged)
Format: Audible Download – Novel
The great detective’s melancholy mood is lifted by the arrival of attractive Mary Morstan at 221B Baker Street. Mary’s father vanished ten years ago. Four years later she began to receive, annually, a large, lustrous pearl. Now she has had an intriguing invitation to meet her unknown benefactor and urges Holmes and Watson to accompany her. The duo are confronted with a case that includes a wronged woman, a wooden-legged ruffian, hidden treasure, and a love affair.
Audible Product Description
A much more satisfying read/listen than A Study in Scarlet and one that seems to have learnt from the truly dire mistake of that story. Whilst there is a flashback here to the antagonist’s past and the motivations for his actions, it’s a lot shorter told as a confession – with all the bias and slant to be expected in first person narration – and fits in almost seamlessly with the style of the rest of the story. Also in its favour is the fact that the backstory is a lot more interesting in its own right. But there’s a whole mystery to solve before we get to that part so I’ll backtrack towards the beginning.
The Sign of the Four opens with the introduction – and actually one of the few mentions – of Sherlock Holmes cocaine habit and exploration into his psychology. It’s one of the things I love about Holmes that I don’t get with my otherwise beloved Poirot – he’s not just a thinking-machine but a complex person. He’s a man of extremes and, if he was non-fictional and alive today would probably be diagnosed with a serious form of mood disorder; if there’s an interesting crime he’ll be in the middle of a rush of activity but as soon as it’s solved he can flip, in an instant to lethargy and (then legal) drug abuse. At the start of the story he’s been in this lethargic, melancholy state for several months. Holmes is too clinically detached a character for him to be very likable or relatable on a personal level – even as someone who suffers from depression myself – but it does make him a more interesting and human character to read about than the earlier version in A Study in Scarlet.
Following a pattern that becomes relatively common in the short stories Watson does his best to get Holmes out of this funk by prompting several small examples of Holmes’ deductive genius – that Watson had gone to a specific place earlier in the day, the family history of Watson’s pocket watch etc. etc. These mainly serve to either show or remind the reader of Holmes’ skill and competence before we get to the real mystery, and it works – though I have to say I do get a bit tired of the ‘this type of mud is only found in one place!’ solutions as they do seem a bit of a cheat and I don’t always agree with Holmes that his explanation is the only one, even if it is the most likely. However, it is only with the arrival of Mary Morstan and her strange story of her father, who disappeared several years ago, and the anonymous pearls she started receiving several years later, that Holmes snaps out of his lethargy and starts getting interested.
Here again, you can see Doyle developing a framework used in later stories – the odd but seemingly but non-criminal story, that leads to something much darker and nastier than it first appears once untangled. Not that a mysteriously disappearing dad isn’t pretty dang dark, but that it isn’t a straight up simple crime such as being called to a murder scene – detective work needs to be done to even discover the crime in the first place. It’s a more complex, and arguably more interesting, device than the relatively straight forward plot to A Study in Scarlet and has the benefit of a more emotional core in trying to find the truth for a living character than A Study in Scarlet’s quest to identify the murderer of a character only introduced as a corpse. Of course Holmes gets the basics in about five minutes flat but it takes a while longer for the full story to be revealed, by which time the character’s have themselves a real crime to deal with and we get to the meat of the story.
And the meat of the story…well it sounds almost Robert Louis Stevenson/’boys own adventure’ in places; wooden legs, stolen treasure, hidden murders, and exotic weapons. It’s got action and adventure tropes in spades – there’s even a chase sequence! But the mystery itself well… Holmes sums it up best himself when he says that normal everyday crimes that offer no distinctive clues are harder to solve than the big ones with lots of unusual elements are. And here there are so many clues; footprints, exotic weapons, poisoned darts, the motif of a man with a wooden leg. Holmes is hardly drawing his conclusions from small inconsequential elements – the story (ignoring specific backstory elements only the villain would know) is practically written over the crime scene for anyone with eyes and ears to draw conclusions from. But, of course, the police and Watson are both baffled,
The backstory, when we get to it, though, is fascinating – perhaps more so to me because it focusses on a period of colonial history that I’ve studied; the India Mutiny of 1857. Even if you know nothing about it though it’s a more wonderful and exciting backdrop than Mormon Utah, and there’s a lot more going on than a few blokes all fancying the same girl. There are some, unpleasant, elements of exoticism and Victorian racial theory however – one apparently universally bloodthirsty and violent tribe is described as ‘naturally hideous’ by an anthropology textbook and ‘monstrous’ in appearance by the narrator. You’ve just got to grit your teeth and remember the time period if you find yourself being too annoyed. But there’s also an, admittedly not entirely sympathetic, depiction of Sikhs as being worth a white man’s loyalty that redeems it slightly (many Sikhs fought alongside the British in putting down the mutiny and they were favoured by the Victorian colonial regime set up afterwards). It’s a dark and brutal chapter of colonial/Indian history though that works as a perfect backdrop to the crime and sets a much better and more atmospheric tone for the whole book than is ever achieved in A Study in Scarlet.
This book, as a whole, is simply more grown up in every way than its predecessor; the narrative issues have been ironed out, more humanity has been given to the characters, the tone is much more consistent, and there’s an emotional heart to the story. Now I don’t actually rate this emotional heart particularly highly or remotely necessary for this type of book – it consists of Watson rather fancying the female client and if there’s one thing Doyle isn’t good at, it’s romance – but it succeeds far better than the romantic insta-love thread in A Study in Scarlet. This is a lot to do with the fact that we’re privy to Watson’s thoughts and understand his bias but mainly because Mary is a fundamentally more interesting, complex, and less annoying character than Lucy ever was. It may not be my favourite thread of the storyline but it doesn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of the rest of the book.
It’s not a ‘perfect’ Holmes story – but the elements of the character and storytelling technique are still being introduced and developed. However you can see here, far more than in the first Sherlock Holmes book, why the Holmes stories took off the way they did.
Random almost unrelated recommendation! The Ruby in the Smoke by Phillip Pullman – a victorian-set mystery novel that also features the India Mutiny as a key element of the backstory. Aimed at children/teenagers but an enjoyable read that features both a pretty awesome female protagonist and a female villain who isn’t a femme fatale.
Still Dereck Jacobi, so not much more to say than I already mentioned in my last review. Am getting used to his Holmes and Watson now and I found, due to the setting, the accents of the side and backstory characters far less grating than I did in A Study in Scarlet. I particularly liked his Jonathan Small, he comes across as a very personable, straight forward and believable character – he’s not nice or pleasant but Jacobi doesn’t fall into the easy trap of making him sound villanous. Mary’s voice also failed to annoy which, after Lucy in A Study in Scarlet was a welcome confirmation that he can do women very well and doesn’t resort to horrible breathy or squeaky voice techniques.