Conan Doyle: The Sign of Four

January 24, 2023

The Sign of Four
Arthur Conan Doyle
(Dover, 2003) [1890]
99 p.

In this, the second Holmes novel, our detective of the strict observance lands in the middle of a head-scratching international murder-robbery in which a one-legged man and his dwarf have commandeered a chest full of gems and other delights. The quest: to find the one-legged man and his dwarf, which you would think would be pretty easy, but proves otherwise.

It’s not as good a novel as the earlier one, though it’s a challenge to say why. For one thing, the crime itself is quite convoluted, proceeding in stages, and I had trouble following exactly what was happening, and trouble remembering what had happened already. Maybe I was reading too often on the brink of unconsciousness. But then Holmes’ special powers of detection were not quite so impressive on this outing as they were before. Familiarity breeds contempt? There just didn’t seem to be that much for Holmes to do that might not have been done by a lesser mortal. Also, he’s a tad too keen on cocaine.

Holmes, I thought, lived by a maxim that ran something like this: “When you have eliminated the likely explanation, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this book he gives an odd variant: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. Surely one does not have to eliminate, in any practical sense, the impossible. Maybe it was the cocaine talking.

On the positive side of the ledger, this book introduced a winsome romance between Dr Watson and Mary Morstan, whom I gather will be soon married.

After publication, Conan Doyle abandoned novels for a decade and devoted himself instead to short stories, where Holmes, I am told, really came into his own. We shall see.

3 Responses to “Conan Doyle: The Sign of Four”

  1. Rob G Says:

    “Surely one does not have to eliminate, in any practical sense, the impossible.”

    Actually I think one does! If you’re investigating a crime and have a list of possible scenarios, a first step would be to declare certain of them impossible, therefore writing them out of the equation. I think this is what Conan Doyle is getting at by juxtaposing “impossible” and “improbable.”

  2. cburrell Says:

    Well…. that is the way to make sense of it, yes, but I still think it’s not as clear as my version of the maxim. Holmes is not eliminating the impossible qua impossible, but rather moving things from the possible to the impossible category. “When you have eliminated the [possible, by showing it to be actually] impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Cocaine, I’m telling you. Cocaine.

  3. Stephen Bishop Says:

    It’s certainly true that in ‘Sign’ there’s not much actual detecting done. Most of the facts are supplied readily by other characters, and the actual tracking down of the obvious suspect is done mostly by the ‘irregulars’. I see it as more of a ‘yarn’ than a piece of detective fiction.
    I think hairs are being split over the impossible situations and when they are deemed impossible. To take an illustration, not from the canon, if a room has only two exits for a murderer, and it is impossible that he used the door because there were two policemen on the other side at the time, then he got out of the window even though it’s fifty feet off the ground.
    As to cocaine, the novels and short stories present Holmes as using drugs to combat ennui rather than as an addict. Doyle was a doctor and knew what he was talking about, in the context of late 19th century knowledge. In any case, it was then perfectly legal – and it is only the decisions of society which have subsequently criminalised cocaine but not alcohol.


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