Thursday, October 28, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Sign of Four'

The Book: The Sign of Four (Sherlock Holmes, Book 2)

The Author: Arthur Conan Doyle

How I Found It: I made a resolution two years back to read all of the Holmes books in order, but never got beyond A Study in Scarlet. PBS' broadcasting of the excellent modern-day-set series Sherlock has set me back on the path of my resolution.

The Review: Writing a review of classic fiction is always intimidating to me. What am I supposed to say that hasn't already been said? But with my lack of reviewing lately, I figured that I'd put out there now that there will probably be a lot of Sherlock Holmes on this blog in the coming months. I'm slightly in love with the new Sherlock series and I really do want to read through the whole canon. A gradual project it may be, but I do hope to complete it.

It's pretty much a guarantee that everyone knows about Sherlock Holmes, and if you don't, I would quite like to visit the rock you have been living under and see how it is you get the Internet access necessary to view my blog. This novel is the second chronologically, and is the second of four Holmes novels written by Doyle (the rest were short story collections). I think it's a general opinion that the short story collections are better, but I found this book perfectly enjoyable and it made me look forward to reading the rest of the Holmes canon.

John Watson is still adjusting to living with his flatmate Sherlock Holmes. Holmes has many odd habits, among them the proclivity towards cocaine when he's bored (!) and his extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning. I really love the opening scene, in which he manages to tell Watson all about his deceased brother from the state of said brother's watch. (This scene was preserved in slightly altered form in the recent Downey Jr. film and the new Sherlock series, as well.) As Holmes and Watson settle in for another day, they receive a visit from Ms. Mary Morstan, a woman who has not seen her father in years and is now receiving strange packages with beautiful pearls inside. The person sending the pearls has requested a meeting with her, and Mary needs Holmes and Watson to accompany her. Perhaps her father is still alive. Perhaps there is a reason she is receiving these pearls in the mail. And perhaps the story is stranger than they could have imagined.

The story is filled with the usual fun elements of a detective story, and the elements I am sure pop up in numerous other Holmes stories--Watson, a notorious ladies' man, falls in love impossibly fast with Mary Morstan. The story behind the treasure trove and the culprit we eventually meet is convoluted and filled with exotic mayhem. Holmes uses various resources at his disposal, including his band of orphans, the Baker Street Irregulars, and an old dog named Toby. So in short, there's adventure, there's romance, and there's colorful characters (and treasure!).

I really enjoyed the story, and I was pleased to find it much easier to follow than I did when I first tried to read it two years back. I really enjoy reading the earlier Holmes stories, because it's funny to think of how great a friendship Holmes and Watson eventually have and then see it from the beginning, when Watson is constantly wondering about Holmes and how he functions. I liked to see their developing relationship here; you can already see the seeds of friendship. Watson cares about Holmes' cocaine usage; Holmes plays the violin in order to serenade him to sleep. The beginnings of such an iconic friendship are a real pleasure to read.

The mystery itself lost me a little bit, especially in the last chapter, in which a far more complicated explanation of the treasure's origin that I had been expecting popped up. Yep, we get that chapter-long confession scene where the villain spills out the entire story. (Although I can say that it wasn't nearly as bad this time as it was in A Study in Scarlet, in which that confession becomes a large chunk of the book.) The book itself was fairly short; I read it online (yay for the public domain!) and went through it quickly. The chapters move along at a fast pace and each one almost invariably ends on a cliffhanger.

So while the mystery itself ultimately wore out my brain, I really enjoyed reading the book for the strength of the character development and for the glimpse into Holmes and Watson's developing friendship. It was so much fun to read and I'm looking forward to moving forward with my little project. I'd recommend this one and the previous book, A Study in Scarlet, to anyone looking to see how Holmes began--I think it's best to read things in order, but that's just me! For anyone who doesn't know the start of the story and is curious, both books are definitely worth a shot. Also recommended for mystery lovers and people who haven't already read Holmes!

(The book itself can be found for free online here. PBS also posted the first episode of the modern-day Sherlock here.)

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