Review – The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

Series: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes


My memories of Sherlock Holmes is less about the books and more of the media portrayal. In my mind Jeremy Brett is the definitive Sherlock Holmes. I like his swift movements and darting ways. Reading The Sign Of Four made me think he had the quick wit, brilliance of mind and condescending often sneering mannerisms down to a tea. Naturally also the ‘clear cut, hawk-like features.’

But back to the book.  The Sign of Four relates the story of another mystery that Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson can sink their teeth into.

Yellow fog is swirling through the streets of London, and Sherlock Holmes himself is sitting in a cocaine-induced haze until the arrival of a distressed and beautiful young lady forces the great detective into action. Each year following the strange disappearance of her father, Miss Morstan has received a present of a rare and lustrous pearl. Now, on the day she is summoned to meet her anonymous benefactor, she consults Holmes and Watson. Goodreads

The Themes

The Sign of Four has the typical features of detective fiction from that period.   There is the detective who is far more intelligent that other characters, who has a different approach to the police force.  The detective pieces together clues and also notices vital clues that others have missed.  But  all the clues are available to the reader – despite red herrings, so there is a chance we could solve the crime too. In this day and ages, it appears almost too easy to guess whodunnit. Which makes the bumbling police even more comical and made me randomly think of Inspector Clouseau, though Athelney Jones was not as inept or  incompetent.

The story covered key contrasting themes which are often reoccurring in this Holmesian world: of emotion verses rationality, secrets and lies, greed and adventure.  It is full of contrast which for simplicity sake can be boiled down to good and bad.  Holmes and his world, compatriots and class are good  – positive, other from different countries, classes, races are not.

 The Sign of Four reveals the Victorian views on working class, women and the effects of the British Empire.  None of it good. The attitude of Victorian England on the colonies are a reminder of the past, that should not be forgotten or minimised.  However, if you can park that for a second, the book itself is well written, excellent in its depiction of personalities.

The main characters

In a few opening sentences we already know much about Sherlock Holmes, he suffers from depression, self-medicates with cocaine, and is enlivened only by his detective work.

In summary ‘he is an automation – a calculating machine’

I cannot live without brainwork

Sherlock Holmes

My mind rebels at stagnation

Sherlock Holmes

It is noted that Holmes’ talents would make him a formidable criminal. I presume that why Professor Moriarty is his nemesis.

So swift, silent and furtive were his movements like those of a trained bloodhound picking out a scent, that I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law instead of exerting them in its defense

Dr Watson on Sherlock Holmes

Dr Watson the narrator of the novel is calm, reserved, loyal with a romantic and sensitive nature who whilst knowing himself well, doubts his capabilities. We see the theme of contrast again in their different temperaments.

Yet the plot, creating the mystery, excitement/adventure, explaining and clarifying along the way together with the characterisation almost makes up for all the ism’s that it tramples on.


I read this book with Eldest who didn’t particularly enjoy it but didn’t actively dislike it either.  It remains in some kind of limbo of meh to neutral for them.

However, it’s a like with reservations from me primarily due to the time it was written, being a product of its time.  Nevertheless, I must acknowledge and cannot ignore its significant contribution to the detective genre. I am still a fan.

3 Stars – Liked It

Engrossed Reader

Female, in her 40's who reads when she can, often to the detriment of sleep. Enjoying most genres and formats with a preference for ebooks, mainly for convenience

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