This post contains spoilers for The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

I’m busily reading through every story in Sherlock Holmes: Selected Stories for a course I’m taking with the University of Edinburgh. One of the stories contained in this volume is The Sign of Four which I finished last night.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book despite the ending. The thing that really surprised me, however, was the story didn’t feel like a murder mystery. In fact it felt more like a thriller. The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle was published in 1890 and is the second novel featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson.

The story is set two years earlier and has a complex plot involving stolen treasure, murder and a secret pact among four convicts. Perhaps more importantly the book introduces both Holmes‘ drug habit and Watson‘s future wife, Mary Morstan. Despite the murder mystery being the center point of the novel, The Sign of Four feels more like a thriller than a murder mystery, especially to a modern reader. My two reasons for this are:

  1. The Who Done It aspect of the novel is solved very short as it is introduced in chapter five and solved by chapter seven. On top of this, there is no red herring or fish of any other colour in this part of the book.
  2. This then results in the rest of the novel be coming a chase through the streets and waterways of London. It is in this section that all the twists appear in.

However, I feel that these comments need to be given historical context. The Sign of Four was published during the birth of the modern crime novel so many of the conventions that dominate the modern crime market were being discovered therefore these comments shouldn’t be seen as observation rather than criticism.

However, one criticism I can make of the book is the ending. Like the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, the book finishes with the villain explaining his story and why he did the things he did. The problem is his explanation goes on for far too long. The Sign of Four is only 152 pages long and the explanation takes 27 pages. That’s 18% of quite a short novel. What makes it worse, is most of the explanation could be cut down to a couple of sentences.

Now, before my English Lit friends start angrily typing in the comments section below, Conan Doyle was probably paid per word, like many writers of the time, so he had no incentive to be efficient with his word usage. However, considering how short the rest of this novel is the ending feels padded to the extreme.

Finally, I was surprised about how down beat the ending was. The treasure is lost and Holmes returns to his drugs. Overall, I would recommend The Sign of Four to anyone who enjoys a thrilling read or just wants to read from Sherlock Holmes stories.