Book Review: The Sign of Four

‘My mind rebels at stagnation, give me problems, give me work…’


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There are some popular culture touchstones that I just don’t get. Dr. Who is one, James Bond is another and up until fairly recently you could have added Sherlock Holmes to that list as well. It was Robert Downey Jr’s cinematic Sherlock Holmes that first changed my mind about London’s most famous detective but Benedict Cumberbatch’s spectacular rendering of Holmes for the BBC confirmed my fandom. Sherlock is perhaps the most successful BBC show of the last decade and it is reignited an interest, not just in the character, but also in the the source material.

I have always assumed that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of Sherlock Holmes books would all be very samey and archaic. Sign of Four didn’t completely dispel that notion for me but it did lend me a previously unheld admiration for Doyle’s writing. Sherlock is as charming and witty as in the various TV and film adaptations but it is in the supporting cast of characters where the book falls down. Watson is a bit of a wet lettuce, immediately falling in love with the similarly dull Mary Morstan. Even Jonathan Small, a character with a wooden leg, is pretty forgettable, despite his endless monologue at the end of the novel. Surprisingly, Doyle only actually wrote four Sherlock Holmes novels, I wrongly assumed there were loads but the majority of stories featuring Holmes were just that, short stories in magazines and periodicals.

I guess it is unfair to be too critical of Doyle and the Holmes stories as they have persisted for an outrageous length of time but it all seems a little hackneyed now. Especially as the twin myths of smoking a pipe and spouting ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ have both been debunked. It is perhaps a controversial opinion but it appears to me that the BBC adaptation has kind of rendered the book moot. In the same way as The Wizard of Oz or Mary Poppins only live on because of the wildly successful film adaptations, maybe it is time for the Sherlock Holmes books to be consigned to the annals of history.

It is easy to see why Holmes has endured through the years, his enigmatic blueprint is present in so many other pop culture behemoths that you have to take your cap off to him, or if not your cap then your tweed deerstalker at least…

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