The Sign of (The) Four

I just finished reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short novel The Sign of Four, which is also published under the title The Sign of The Four. Both uses are in the novel itself, and as much as I like the four word title, the more common phrasing used by the characters contains “the” twice.

It’s an odd story, the second novel, written before the more popular short stories, and could be looked at as a one-off. Watson’s ready to leave Sherlock by the end; Sherlock starts and ends the novel with a quick injection of cocaine; nothing about these characters seems to want to continue with each other. And it’s wasn’t a hit at the time. Only when Doyle switched to the faster-paced short stories did Sherlock take off as a cultural phenomena.

That aside, I’d still recommend it. As part of the mystery involves the British and their occupation of India (among other places), there’s some fairly causal 19th century racism thrown about. Probably as I am came to The Sign of Four after trying to read Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming, but it didn’t seem as egregious as the racism-of-the-time thrown out in the Bond novel. But if that’s a showstopper for you in your pleasure reading, give this a miss.

Reading this led me down the path of looking at adaptations, and right to Jeremy Brett and The Return of Sherlock Holmes. In my mind, Sherlock is always a combination of Brett and Basil Rathbone, the actors I grew up watching in the role on TV (Brett) and cheap VHS copies of public-domain movies (Rathbone). Brett really threw himself into the role, introducing all sorts of quirks and mannerisms to Holmes, creating a private life for the character. He even went so far as to stop referring to Holmes by name, as a fear of being “taken over” by the character crept in.

And that, an actor staring into the abyss of a role that mirrored his darkest moods and tendencies, led me back around to an article I’d read on overcoming personal demons by befriending them. A difficult task, but one I’d rather take over Holmes’ regular cocaine use to stave off boredom.

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Eli Jones
Eli Jones is a spectulative fiction writer and data analyst living in the Cascadia Bioregion.