Saturday, February 12th, 2011

The Sign Of The FourThe Sign Of The Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Sherlock Holmes canon: and, with luck, it’s the worst. However, I fear that my relatively poor opinion of this book* is a result of entire cultural context I have surrounding it.

In this book, Holmes just doesn’t seem Holmes-like. Some of the expected trappings are there. He summons his Irregulars. He uses his magnifying glass at one point. He abuses cocaine. And, it seems, this book even introduces the aphorism, "When you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, HOWEVER IMPROBABLE, must be the truth." And, of course, this is a Sherlock Holmes book written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Accept no substitues.

So, given that it is as true to the character as it’s possible to be, what makes it seem off? It’s hard to say. My best guess is that the length of the novel works against the character. In 2011, I’ve become conditioned to seeing Sherlock making rapid-fire deductions and quickly arriving at the solution. In this novel, however, things tend to take longer and the bulk of the story is taken up by the chase.

This book also continues the tradition of tossing in pages and pages of historical exposition. In the previous Study in Scarlet, it was a sharp break back to a poorly researched history of the self-styled Latter Day Saints. In this one, it’s an exposition of the Indian Rebellion of 1857**. This was the one part of the story which failed to hold my attention: I would be hard pressed to give an accurate telling of the back story of Mr. Small or his treasure.

As a point to Doyle, he did present this history as spoken exposition this time around instead of abruptly starting an entirely different story***. So that’s a mild improvement.

Ultimately, I strongly suspect that I will like the short stories in the next book of the canon more than I did this one. It seems like the shorter format will allow Sherlock to be punchier and more akin to what I’ve grown up expecting him to be.

But for this one? I’m glad I read it as I finally familiarize myself with the true Sherlock canon (and not just things like the BBC’s Sherlock or Star Trek’s "Elementary, My Dear Data"), but I don’t see myself ever bothering to read it again.

* I say relative because I did give it three stars. It’s not bad by any measure.

** I would hope that this is more accurate than Doyle’s tale of Brigham Young, if only because it happened within Doyle’s own Empire. But I haven’t researched.

*** When I first got to the Mormons in A Study in Scarlet, I thought that my eBook file had somehow become corrupted and combined with a different eBook. I had to check Wikipedia to make sure I was still reading the same book.

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