I do not review classics. If you’ve been hanging around this blog for a while, you will know that I do not review classics. These are books that have been around for lifetimes before me and will probably be around for lifetimes after me, so my opinion is simply irrelevant. What I like to do instead is to basically recount the experience of reading the book. This becomes even more relevant when it’s one of the classic books on which one of my many fandoms is based. I am a huge, huge, HUGE Sherlock Holmes fan. I love the stories, the characters, and the modern reincarnations (except Elementary. Don’t even get me started on Elementary). So, I am very slowly collecting all of the BBC reissues of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. I’m nearly done now!
The Sign of Four is where the beautiful episode of BBC’s Sherlock, ‘The Sign of Three’ got its name. However, the original story is not quite as light-hearted. In fact, it’s not light hearted at all.
The story starts when a lovely young woman, Miss Mary Morstan (!!!) approaches 221B Baker St to discover who has been sending her annual priceless pearls every year and why they now want to meet her face to face. In true Sherlockian style, this case seems absolutely open and shut until a surprise twist (*coughmurdercough*) leaves Holmes and Watson at a loss and with a very intriguing case to solve indeed.
Now, I took away a few things from this story. The biggest one was Holmes’ drug use. This story both begins and ends with Sherlock’s drug habit. He takes cocaine, or morphine, when work has been slow and his brain begins to “stagnate”. This is something we’re familiar with from the BBC’s Sherlock, in a lesser form with his cigarette patches and his firing guns at walls. However, this story takes such a cavalier attitude to the use of cocaine that it is quite jarring. In fact, the last exchange between Watson and Holmes goes like this:
“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.
The language in Conan Doyle’s work is so modern compared to many of his 19th century colleagues that sometimes I forget these stories are set before cocaine was made illegal in the UK. This is something that is lost in modern reincarnations of the stories. Holmes wasn’t a criminal. He used cocaine in much the same way as alcohol or tobacco. It was simply another substance back then. There’s isn’t really way to bring this aspect of Holmes’ London in to the modern era.
Another aspect of the time was casual racism. Political correctness wasn’t a thing when Conan Doyle was writing these stories, so perfectly lovely characters were at ease calling people of different ethnicities by their atrociously racist ‘titles’. Both Holmes and Watson are guilty of this. However, what I did notice was that, although Holmes and Watson may use these horrific nouns to describe people of other nations, they never talk about the nationalities in a derogatory manner. These words are used like we would use “Spanish”, “Irish”, or “Indian” today. The villains, on the other hand, don’t do this. They use these terms exactly like racial slurs. I think this is an interesting distinction for an author to make during a time when racism was non-existent, because it wasn’t recognised.
NB: I could be being completely biased here. Watson and Holmes could have been just as terrible as the villains, but I just refused to notice. Feel free to point this out to me in the comments. Though, I have never claimed to be impartial during this recount. I love Sherlock Holmes too much to be objective.
Finally, I want to leave you with this excerpt that left me fangirling for hours after I read it. If you are as massive a fan of the Watson/Holmes friendship as I am, then prepare your minds:
“…Look here, Watson; you look regularly done. Lie down there on the sofa, and see if I can put you to sleep.”
He took up his violin from the corner, and as I stretched myself out he began to play some low, dreamy melodious air – his own, no doubt, for he had a remarkable gift for improvisation. I have a vague remembrance of his gaunt limbs, his earnest face and the rise and fall of his bow. Then I seemed to be floated peacefully away upon a soft sea of sound until I found myself in dream-land, with the sweet face of Mary Morstan looking down upon me.