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Saturday, January 30, 2010

audio review: The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

cover art from Headline Book Publishing
Sherlock Holmes Novels #2:
The Sign of the Four
by Arthur Conan Doyle

It is in this, the second Holmes novel, that the great detective comes fully to life - not only as a melancholic and an inscrutable master of deduction, but also as an incurable drug addict.
"Which is it today?" Watson asks Holmes matter-of-factly on the opening page of the novel, "morphine or cocaine?"
"It is cocaine," Holmes famously replies. "A seven-per-cent solution. Would you like to try it?"
Mary Morstan comes to Holmes in the hope that he will be able to solve a mystery. Ten years earlier her father, Captain Arthur Morstan, had returned to London on leave from his regiment in India where it is said that he and one Thadeus Sholto, "came into possession of a considerable treasure." By the time his daughter arrived at his hotel, he had vanished without a trace.

adult fiction ; historical ; mystery { genre
PG-13 for drug use and mild violence { rating
1890 (audio book released 2001) { first released
Alec Reid Recordings, read by John Telfer (4h15min) { review edition
free legal download { acquisition
Download Free Audio Book { purchase links

Why I Read This
Obviously, having just finished A Study in Scarlet and fallen in love with John Telfer's narration, I immediately started listening to this second book in the Sherlock Holmes chronicles. A secondary reason for my enthusiasm is probably because this book tackles two topics I never quite gleamed from my first contact with the series those years ago: Holmes' drug addiction, and Watson's (second?) wife, Mary. Mary especially was a character I wanted to know more about because the 2009 film completely glossed her over as the token love interest.

First Lines
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Overall Rating

I'm glad that Mr. Doyle has understood that audiences did not much enjoy the 5 chapters of criminal exposition (from the first book) as much when Holmes is not there to deduce the hell out of stuff. This second novel of the Sherlock Holmes series delves further into the personal lives of both Holmes and Watson, yet maintains the quality of plot and pacing that the first book had offered.

review posted to, goodreads, LibraryThing, Shelfari


The murder plot is, as always, tightly-woven and delightful to watch unravel. Not everything goes according to plan, for both the detectives and the criminals, and it's just really enjoyable to let the story wash you away in all its tumble of clues and hints. However, I am a little dubious about the motives behind portraying the "Islanders" as black, savage, and short. I've heard that the Holmes series is rather blatantly racist though, so I guess there's nothing I can do about that. Plus, there was one character who you can argue "saw past the black-ness" and regarded them as peers to whom he will keep his word. This issue aside, it's the usual "there was treasure → people were killed to obtain it → possible misunderstandings or backstabbing → and now, REVENGE!" plot that pops up often in Mr. Doyle's mysteries. I'm glad that they focus more on Holmes solving the murders rather than the criminal explaining his experiences though. The exposition is still there, since it's highly improbable even Holmes can actually deduce stuff that happened to multiple people decades ago, but it's cut down to less than 2 chapters this time and easily perused.


I cannot express how much I loved the new glimpses we got into Holmes' life. The fact that he goes to participate in bar brawls and has gained respect from his peers there, his extraordinary skills of disguise, the orphans he keeps as his eyes and ears on the London streets, and of course the cocaine he uses when he feels his mind is stagnating. One of the main reasons I adore Holmes so much is because he loves his job for the thrill and the satisfaction of solving another puzzle. He's fine with remaining the unsung hero, in a way that's slightly bitter but ultimately accepting. His dedication to his work at the expense of his health and future is also a quality I find extremely admirable and slightly heartbreaking:
"But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment."
Watson on the other hand, is rather self-depreciating in this installment. His crush on Mary (the client) wars with his insecurity with his own virtues. He is a very kind man, to think more of how the lady would fare if she were to wed him - with his war wounds and trauma - rather than just "the lady's pretty, she should marry me".
Mary Morstan (yes, the Mary in the new movie) is a much more developed and likeable character in this original depiction. She is intelligent, but not just in the "I read a lot of mystery novels" way. Holmes has mentioned that he admires her for her ability to know which pieces of evidence are important to save and bring to him for the investigation (she is their client). She is very patient and humble, not minding at all whether she will gain or lose the opportunity to inherit the great treasures that men have killed and betrayed for. I'm not quite convinced in how quick she and Watson came to "love" each other, though I guess life-threatening adventures do that to people. I'm actually quite happy for them, though Holmes' slightly sad response to their engagement (not as full-out "YOU'RE NOT LEAVING ME! EVAR!" as RDJ's Holmes, mind) and his recession back to his cocaine habit has left me a bit heavy-hearted.


As I've said before, I'm quite the fan of Mr. Doyle's writing style. There's really nothing negative I can say about it, or of Mr. Telfer's narration. The female voices are not done with "squeaky" high-pitches, but rather in a soft and graceful tone, which I am very grateful for. He also captures Holmes' maniac-depression-like mood-swings perfectly, punctuated with mournful sighs or excited outbursts. I think another reason to like Mr. Telfer's narration is because his Watson voice is so soothing. Being the narrator narrating the narrator in the book (lol), that is a great asset - if the narrator's voice is done poorly, the book can hardly be considered standable.


Just as previously done, this book ends with the criminal explaining the events that lead up to the motive for murder. I really like that Mr. Doyle added in a little line in the middle of the storytelling where the guy asks for a cup of water or something. To pull the audience back into the Baker Street living room for that short moment did great to give the audience a small break to digest the facts, while at the same time acknowledging that this story is still about Holmes (and Watson).
The sombre note on which the book ends - where Holmes once again returns to his cocaine habit - I personally thought was a great touch. It's very personal, in a way the "laugh it all off" ending never is, and makes you worry about what will become of this sad genius.

Sherlock Holmes Novels
#1 A Study in Scarlet (1887)
#2 The Sign of the Four (1890)
#3 The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
#4 The Valley of Fear (1915)

Sherlock Holmes Anthologies
#1 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
#2 The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893)
#3 The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904)
#4 His Last Bow (1917)
#5 The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927)

Reading Challenges
A to Z Challenge 2010 → S for Sign (title)
Audio Book Challenge 2010
TwentyTen Challenge → Older Than You
2nd in a Series Challenge 2010 → Sherlock Holmes Novels
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Ryan G said...

I'm ashamed to admit I've never read a Sherlock Holmes book before, I think once I'm done with my Agatha Christie challenge I'll have to get started on these.