Elementary (or not)

THE SIGN OF FOUR, by Arthur Conan Doyle, originally published in 1890; my edition, 1982

Bookshelf 3, shelf 4, book 34

I suppose it had to happen – Sherlock was inevitably going to put in an appearance, especially as I have noticed that the dice seem to select this area of bookshelves more than others (they’re not weighted – honest).

I was quite glad to get this particular Sherlock Holmes book, though, as I’d not re-read it in ages. It’s one of the ones I loved most and may even have been the one I read first – or was that Hound? Either is a rattling good tale and a great introduction to the world of 221b Baker Street.

The Sign of Four is the second Sherlock Holmes book, and like the earlier A Study in Scarlet, it’s a full novel and not a collection of short stories. And like that book, it is also divided into two halves, though not so crudely. Again, one is the crime and the pursuit, and the other is the background. But unlike Scarlet (at least, that is, for me), it’s a cracking read. And it still is.

One of the joys of coming back to this book is the delight I’ve been able to take in discovering all the best Sherlockian clichés developing and maturing with rapidity. Yes, the Baker Street Irregulars had appeared in Scarlet, but here they are again, more developed. 

Here’s Holmes’ cocaine habit – ‘a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?’ – and terrible attitude to women, reported by – as always – Dr Watson:

‘I would not tell them too much,’ said Holmes. ‘Women are never to be entirely trusted – not the best of them.’
I did not pause to argue over this atrocious sentiment. 

And here are some of his most famous – and frequently misquoted – statements:

‘How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’

Hansom cabs clatter along gas-lit streets through a deepening fog (but of course – and happily as I write this the fog outside my house is getting thicker and thicker), and through it all winds the river, scene of one of the great chases in detective fiction.

So what of the plot, what of the story of the governess, the mysterious Indian pearls, the summons at night and the strange and terrifying death of Bartholemew Sholto at Pondicherry Lodge, Upper Norwood? Well, on one level it’s sensationalist hooey, but it’s enormous fun and – and this is a big ‘and’, because it’s far from being generally true of the detective genre, even today – it hangs together and makes logical sense. And it’s exciting, and I’m not giving away any spoilers!

I’ve been thinking about why it works so well. One reason is that though it is sensationalist – the chase, the fabulous jewels, the Andaman Islander with his poison darts – it is also deeply atmospheric:

It was a September evening and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement…

Another reason why the Sherlock Holmes stories still appeal is that they are rooted in a real world; London’s streets and buildings are frequently named and some things are still recognisable to Londoners today – such as the way that you can look down on a foggy city from the ‘heights’ of South London, and see only hints of it, tall buildings poking through the murk. It all builds – the criminal and his Andaman accomplice are tracked along a route that can still be followed; Holmes, Watson and Miss Morston (the governess) are taken in a cab along roads down which you can still drive – and creates a real world, one which barely seems fictional. And this, I am convinced, is largely why the Sherlock Holmes stories have such an appeal, even now, well over a hundred years since they were written. That and the perennial reason of reader satisfaction at a problem ingeniously solved.

Incidentally, reading The Sign of Four and contrasting it with another book emphasised something which has been bothering me slightly during my dice-reading exercise: language and attitudes which are now offensive.

I have just put the other book, written in the 1940s, to one side because of this. I don’t think I’m being over-sensitive, and obviously it was once just about acceptable – in some sectors of society – to sprinkle around words which are now (and even were, sometimes, then) offensively racist in your work. Writers are creatures of their time, and their work inevitably reflects this, but it can make a book unreadable today. At first I was worried about this in The Sign of Four, with its partial setting during the Indian mutiny, and it wouldn’t be written in this way today. But it surprised me at the end. The Andaman Islander, having been referred to by Conan Doyle / Watson in terms which make him seem more of a monster than a human being, finds his defender in Jonathan Small, his companion: yes, he’s been problematic – killing someone probably counts as problematic – but ‘he was staunch and true, was poor Tonga. No man ever had a more faithful mate.’ The book I rejected, written fifty years later, would never have been so generous.

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