The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)

The second Sherlock Holmes novel opens with the great man injecting himself with cocaine, a ‘seven per cent solution’, to stave off crushing boredom. Watson received his Afghan campaign wound in the shoulder in the first novel; in this one the wound has mysteriously moved to his leg (as it is in the first BBC TV episodes). Hmmm, inconsistencies. In this one Watson meets young Mary Morstan and they fall instantly in love.

London, cesspool of Empire

One of the many pleasures of these books is Conan Doyle’s evocative descriptions of a long-lost London.

It was a September evening and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghostlike in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light — sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all humankind, they flitted from the gloom into the light and so back into the gloom once more. (Chapter 4)

Reminds me of the foggy cityscapes of Vaughan Williams’ 2nd (London) Symphony, with its use of market cries and the jingle of harnesses of waiting horses. (Scherzo from Vaughan Williams’ Second Symphony)

‘Wordsworth Road,’ said my companion. ‘Priory Road. Lark Hall Lane. Stockwell Place. Robert Street. Cold Harbour Lane. Our quest does not appear to take us to very fashionable regions.’ We had indeed reached a questionable and forbidding neighbourhood. Long lines of dull brick houses were only relieved by the coarse glare and tawdry brilliancy of public-houses at the corner. Then came rows of two-storied villas, each with a fronting of miniature garden, and then again interminable lines of new, staring brick buildings — the monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the country. (Chapter 4)

Even its most vivid depictors have rarely loved London. It inspires horrified fascination.


The text is itself built from other texts, pretending to be a narrative account created by and in the voice of Dr Watson, which also includes newspaper reports, adverts, scribbled notes and messages, offers of reward and, of course, a True Account or Backstory which explains the bizarre goings-on in the present or foreground of the plot.

Plot and story

Plot  1888 Miss Mary Morstan arrives at 221b Baker Street. Tells a preliminary backstory: her father, Captain Arthur, disappeared abruptly in 1878; since 1882 she has received a pearl ear-ring in a box once a year. Now she has received an invitation to meet a stranger at the Lyceum. Holmes discovers one Major Sholto knew Morstan out in India and died in 1882. Holmes and Watson accompany her to the rendezvous, meet a servant who takes them to a dingy house in Brixton (again with Brixton, scene of the murder in A Study in Scarlet) where lives the dilettante Thaddeus Sholto. He explains his father and Morstan were in cahoots about a treasure from India, Morstan visited Sholto, they had a violent argument and Morstan dropped dead of heart failure. Sholto buried the body and the treasure. One day he received a letter form abroad and became a bag of nerves. He was about to reveal the whereabouts of the hidden treasure to Thaddeus and his brother Bartholomew when a face appears at the window and Sholto also drops dead. Holmes and Watson and Mary and Thaddeus set off to the brother’s mansion in Norbury only to find him dead, in a sealed room!!

Two chases

Chase 1 Bloodhound Toby leads H&W from Pondicherry House to the Oval, to a Thames cruiser for hire but the baddies have got away. H&W advertise for its whereabouts but are foxed.

Chase 2 Eventually tracking it down, H&W hire the fastest police launch on the river and give high speed pursuit to the Aurora as it heads from London Bridge downriver, finally overtaking it near Plumstead Marshes.

This high-speed boat chase reminded me of Dickens, in particular:

  • the exciting three-chapter-long pursuit of Lizzy Hexam’s father, the corpse-fisher, in Our Mutual Friend, in among the boats and wherries and tugs and cruisers moored around the Pool of London
  • the climax of Great Expectations where Pip is trying to get Magwitch safely out of England aboard a hired boat, but is pursued by a police boat
  • also of the strange death of Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop, the wicked chandler who ends pursued downriver by the police, falls into the river and drowns, to be washed up on a muddy bank not dissimilar to the muddy shore of Plumstead Marshes where Jonathan Small gets his peg leg stuck, until lassooed free by Holmes & Watson

The strange story of Jonathan Small

The one legged man, Small, was in cahoots with three Indians who, during the Indian Mutiny, murdered a rajah’s servant and stole the treasure of Agra. they hid the treasure but were then arrested and convicted to penal servitude on the distant Andeman Islands. Here Sholto and Mary’s father both supervised prisoners. They discovered the secret of the treasure, dug it up and stole it for themselves but lived in fear of ‘the Four’.

Victorian womanhood

She was seated by the open window, dressed in some sort of white diaphanous material, with a little touch of scarlet at the neck and waist. The soft light of a shaded lamp fell upon her as she leaned back in the basket chair, playing over her sweet grave face, and tinting with a dull, metallic sparkle the rich coils of her luxuriant hair. One white arm and hand drooped over the side of the chair, and her whole pose and figure spoke of an absorbing melancholy. At the sound of my footfall she sprang to her feet, however, and a bright flush of surprise and of pleasure coloured her pale cheeks. (Chapter 11)

How pre-Raphaelite. Like a painting by Millais.

Victorian love

“The treasure is lost,” said Miss Morstan calmly.
As I listened to the words and realized what they meant, a great shadow seemed to pass from my soul. I did not know how this Agra treasure had weighed me down until now that it was finally removed. It was selfish, no doubt, disloyal, wrong, but I could realize nothing save that the golden barrier was gone from between us.
“Thank God!” I spoke from my very heart.
She looked at me with a quick, questioning smile.
“Why do you say that?” she asked.
“Because you are within my reach again,” I said, taking her hand. She did not withdraw it. “Because I love you, Mary, as truly as ever a man loved a woman. Because this treasure, these riches, sealed my lips. Now that they are gone I can tell you how I love you. That is why I said, ‘Thank God.’ ”
“Then I say ‘Thank God,’ too,” she whispered as I drew her to my side.
Whoever had lost a treasure, I knew that night that I had gained one. (Chapter 11)

Oscar Wilde

The Sign of Four was commissioned at a dinner hosted by Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, at the Langham Hotel in London on 30 August 1889. Stoddart wanted to produce an English version of the magazine. Also present was Oscar Wilde who, as a result, contributed The Picture of Dorian Gray to the July 1890 issue. Amazing times! And an indication that döppelgangers were in the air. Jeckyll and Hyde (1886), Dracula (1897), London was a place where unparalleled refinement and luxury coexisted with what the Victorians termed the most squalid vice, certainly with starving children, mass prostitution, opium dens and drunken violence. The Holmes novels and stories capitalise on this fin-de-siècle sense of corruption and depravity, contrasting high luxury and deepest sin at the extremes with the homely middle way of Holmes and Watson’s happy, well-educated bourgeois lifestyle. Whatever else happens they’ll come home to tea and scones served by Mrs Hudson.

The neatness of cheap art

The book ends as it began with a bored Holmes reaching for the consolation of his cocaine.

 “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. (Chapter 12)

Full text of The Sign of Four on the website

'The Sign of the Four" in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1890) (Wikimedia Commons)

‘The Sign of the Four” in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1890) (Wikimedia Commons)


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: