The Sign of the Four is a fascinating book.
It's got a story that spans 30 years.
It's got a gripping treasure hunt.
It's got a breathtaking chase that rivals any Hollywood chase.
It's even got some hilarious moments. And - it's got a love story!
And mind you - I haven't even mentioned Sherlock Holmes' marvelous deductions yet. ;-)
All in all - The Sign of the Four is one of those Sherlock Holmes novels that reads almost like an entertaining Hollywood movie of yore.
No wonder then that a total of at least 16 different movies and TV shows have been based on it!
I've read this book three times and I've found it to be better than before each time I've read it. It's definitely worth a read.
Time now for my ratings for The Sign of the Four...
The Sign of the Four really takes off when Mary Morstan, a governess, comes to Sherlock Holmes with a couple of mystifying problems.
Her dad had disappeared suddenly 10 years ago. No one knows about his whereabouts. That's the first problem.
Then, since six years ago, she's been receiving one real pearl as a gift each year. I mean, she doesn't really mind that - but: who's doing it?
And now - she's received a letter that's asking her to come to a certain theatre at 7 PM.
This letter is signed 'from an unknown friend' and it says it'll give her justice!
Now anyone who has this happen to him or her will obviously blurt out: what on earth is happening here?
Mary feels the same way.
First - is there any connection between her dad, the pearls she receives and this latest letter?
Second - who's this unknown friend and why is he her friend?
Third - what - what exactly happened 10 years ago that made her dad disappear?
Sherlock Holmes and Watson accompany Mary Morstan to that theatre at 7 PM.
And there - that's how the adventure begins and The Sign of the Four, unfolds...
There's this moment, before the client enters the picture when Watson hands over a watch to Sherlock Holmes.
Watson's a bit wary of Sherlock Holmes' 'conceit.' He's like: yeah, all right. All you keep saying is 'I rock.'
He wants to test Holmes by seeing if he can make anything of a just-cleaned watch.
Now Sherlock Holmes is - of course...Sherlock Holmes.
He takes a peek and there - he deduces that:
Now, if someone told me these things about my brother and they turned out to be true, I wouldn't believe them to be 'deductions.'
Obviously, no one would.
I'd say - come on - you're kidding me. You already know about my brother, right?
That's what Watson says. He gets angry at Sherlock Holmes.
But of course, Holmes has his reasons.
Take a peek at how he deduces some of these things!
The preciseness with which Sherlock Holmes explains each deductions makes this a magical moment for me.
In the story, there comes a time when Sherlock Holmes, Watson and Mary Morstan travel in a four-wheeler carriage. Watson's feeling very tense.
He has no idea where they're going and the whole setting looks so...suspicious.
But then good old Watson also has a soft corner for Mary Morstan. On one hand, he's pretty nervous about the situation. On the other hand, he wants to talk to Mary and impress her.
Here's how Mary describes the situation later:
Now I'm not saying this is the funniest joke of the century.
But - it's so rare to encounter Watson in such ridiculous situations, that I found myself breaking into a smile.
It's a small moment, but Watson talking about firing tigers instead of muskets trying to impress Mary while actually feeling nervous - that's funny.
The Sign of the Four is the only Sherlock Holmes novel or story in which Watson sort of...er.. loses himself.
I mean, I've read all the Holmes stories. I've seen Watson risk his life for Sherlock Holmes. I've seen him trying to deduce like Holmes and fail.
But Watson falling head over heals in love and using all sorts of romantic phrases - that happens only in The Sign of the Four.
Take a peek at these incredibly romantic lines that our Watson dude conjured up in The Sign of the Four:
Seeing Watson in this dreamy state has to be a magical moment from The Sign of the Four!
There's this moment in The Sign of the Four that made me smile for a long time at Sherlock Holmes' naughtiness.
Yup, you read the correctly - his mischievousness!
Imagine the scene:
Watson and Inspector Atheney Jones (the guy in-charge of the case) are waiting for Sherlock Holmes in his apartment.
They're really tense because they have no idea about the treasure they're supposed to recover.
Suddenly, an old sailor enters 221B Baker Street saying he wants to see Sherlock Holmes.
This sailor's cough is that of an old man.
The slow turning of his face is exactly how an old man would do it.
His dress is exactly like that of an old sailor.
And this man says to Watson and Jones:
This man refuses to tell Watson or Jones anything. He'll speak only to Holmes.
Finally, Watson and Jones force this man to sit and wait for Sherlock Holmes. As they smoke their cigars, this man says:
... in the voice of Sherlock Holmes.
That old man is Sherlock Holmes!
The way he confounds Watson and Inspector Jones and enjoys it - that's magical.
Love the moment!
(By the way, that picture shows Holmes disguised as a sailor a few hours before this funny scene.)
One of the most frustrating moments for Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four is when he's looking for the culprits' steamer and he almost can't find it...
You see, we get frustrated not when we can't find something, but when we are within an inch of finding something, and we still can't find it.
Sherlock Holmes uses all his uber-cool obseravations and deductions - he finds out every freakin' thing about the culprits. The only thing he can't find is...their steamer.
He even sends his boys to take a look at each landing place possible.
But still - no one is able to find it.
Nor has the steamer escaped - Holmes has taken care of that too.
Where is it?
That's when Sherlock Holmes comes up with a brainwave. He asks himself what he would have done if he had to hide that steamer.
Answer: he would have given it for some minor repairs.
There - Sherlock Holmes figures: the culprit - Jonathan Small has given the steamer for repairs!
None of his agents of course had checked the repair shops.
When Sherlock Holmes checks all possible repair shops - he finds the steamer!
This lateral thinking on Holmes' part made the moment magical for me.
Chases in stories are always fun.
And The Sign of the Four has the only steam boat chase in all the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels.
Watson, Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Atheney Jones are on a steamer - a steam launch. They're chasing the steamer - the Aurora which has Jonathan Small (the culprit) and his cannibal assistant.
Mind you, the Aurora is a fast steamboat - among the fastest available in London!
It's as exciting as a chase can get - there's shooting, there's that moment when Holmes' boat almost catches the other boat and then loses it - because of other interrupting boats.
...And finally - there's the moment when the Aurora - Jonathan Small's boat - almost crashes onto a shore. That's when Jonathan Small gets captured.
This chase sequence from The Sign of the Four is straight out of a Hollywood movie.
Or shall we say, Conan Doyle was way ahead of his time - he could replicate a Hollywood movie sequence before the first Hollywood movie was made!
I felt like an exciting trip got over when the chase ended and I read this line:
One of the most rivetting portions of The Sign of the Four - is the end: when we really get to know what this 'sign of the four' being talked about is all about.
Apparently, long ago - Jonathan Small (the culprit) and three Indians had decided to murder a messenger carrying a king's treasure in Agra, India.
They murdered the messenger and hid the treasure in a place in Agra. As luck would have it though, they got arrested for the murder. The treasure remained in Agra - treasure that was worth half a million pounds in those days.
These guys - Small and the three Indians - were imprisoned in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Here, Jonathan Small bribed Col. Morstan - Mary Morstan's dad and another guy called Col. Sholto - both officials in prison.
Small offered them a portion of the hidden treasure - in return for freedom.
Even here, things didn't go according to plan. Col. Sholto ditched everyone and sped off with the treasure!
And now - Jonathan Small had come to England to regain that very treasure - the treasure that now lay with Col. Sholto's son.
That's how the Agra treasure's story moves people across three cities.
That's the story of the Agra treasure.
Now, when I've quickly told you course of events - it might've looked reasonably interesting.
But the way Conan Doyle tells the tale through Jonathan Small - it's fantastic.
Did you know that The Sign of Four has an interesting back-story leading up to it?
In August, 1889, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was invited to have dinner with the editor of a magazine called Lippincott's.
The famous American writer Oscar Wilde was also invited to the dinner.
The the guy who invited them both - Mr. Joseph Stoddart - asked them to write something for the Lippincott's Monthly Magazine.
Doyle decided to write his second Sherlock Holmes novel (after A Study in Scarlet - the first one.)
Oscar Wilde decided to write The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Both of these novels appeared in episodes in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine.
And both of them are today two of the most popular books ever written in the 19th century.
Here's what Conan Doyle says about that dinner meeting in his autobiography Memoirs and Adventures:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a total of 9 Sherlock Holmes books - 5 story collections and 4 novels.
The Sign of the Four is the smallest of all the books. It's got around 42, 256 words.
Interestingly, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the largest Sherlock Holmes book, has approximately 109, 674 words - that's more than 2.5 times the words in The Sign of the Four.
In 2014, The Guardian announced its list of the definitive 100 novels in English - these are supposed to include all the novels ever written.
At #1 is The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan.
At #26 is The Sign of the Four.
Just in case you've not read the book, now that's one more reason to read it!
Every Sherlock Holmes book has a quote that makes you say "Wow."
The Sign of the Four has plenty of these - and not just in English!
Here are some of the quotes I really loved in this book.
And here's an intriguing French quote from the book:
As if that's not enough, there are two fascinating German quotes as well...
The Sign of the Four mentions quite some places - from Agra to Andaman and Nicobar Islands to tons of places in London.
Take a peek at this fascinating map that shows the places inside London mentioned in The Sign of the Four:
The Sign of the Four is a treasure hunt.
Sherlock Holmes, Watson, Inspector Jones - they're all looking for the Agra Treasure.
Jonathan Small the guy who comes for the treasure says that the value of the treasure is half a million pounds.
My question is: how much money would that be today?
According to Measuring Worth, half a million at that time would mean around £ 48 million today!
Wohoo. Now that's some treasure...
In case you're wondering - this is around $75 million. That's more than 3 times the total money you will spend if you spend $200,000 every year for 100 years.
Here's a picture that gives you some more idea about the amount of money the Agra treasure would be equivalent to today...
The murderer in The Sign of the Four is an accomplice of Jonathan Small. He's apparently a member of a short, loyal cannibal tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
His name is Tonga.
My question of course is: Does this tribe really exist? Or was it invented by Conan Doyle?
Well, my research shows that some of what Doyle says is true and some of it is not true.
For instance, there are indigenous people in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands who were isolated from mainstream society for thousands of years.
They were so isolated that till the 18th century, they didn't know how to create fire or conduct agricultural activities!
Many of these people are short-statured but not as short statured as Conan Doyle makes them out to be (below 4 feet in height.)
Are they all cannibals? Nope.
In the past few centuries there have been some accounts of cannibalistic feasts. There have been accounts of ship-wrecked sailors being attacked by these tribes.
But if you go there today, you most probably won't be eaten up....
Yet, even today many of the tribes there are still isolated from mainstream society. Their population is very, very low - but still many of the tribals refuse to have any contact with the developed or even developing world.
In fact, when the last census was conducted, a portion of it was a photographic census. That's because it was supposed to be too dangerous to approach some of these tribes by initiating contact!
Yet - Doyle stretches things a bit too far when he says:
That's a bit made up. When Watson sees Tonga, he says:
Again - that's a bit prejudiced, eh? Not true.
So there you go - some part's true. Some part's hogwash.
Well, that's about The Sign of the Four.
How did you feel after you read the book? I'd love to hear your thoughts below.
And if you haven't yet read the book, well you should!
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