The Sign of Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
I often find – as I mentioned in my previous post – a post-Christmas lull in my reading. The cold dark days of January, which this year were livened up by the joys of an two-day Ofsted inspection at work and four observations, cry out for reading time and little inspiring remained. I also noted that, of the books released around January, many seemed to veer towards the fantasy genre… and I have no objection to fantasy – much of my reading and therefore reviews celebrate fantasy writing – but just didn’t fancy it.
Perhaps, as Holmes states of himself,
“My mind… rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”
So what better than to slip back into the familiar territories and iconic characters – and the velveteen narration of Stephen Fry – of Sherlock Holmes.
It was a strange experience listening to these. They were utterly familiar in places, especially A Study in Scarlet: the iconic first meeting between Holmes and Watson, the dead body without a mark on it;”rache” painted on the wall beside the body; the Baker Street irregulars. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and a dozen other variations on stage and screen had paraded these over-and-over. Anthony Horowitz had even referenced them in The Sentence is Death. Roiling fog and mist. Deductions. Bumbling detectives. Cigar ashes. The seven per cent solution. The lament that
“…I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for? Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-colored houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material? What is the use of having powers, doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them? Crime is commonplace, existence is commonplace, and no qualities save those which are commonplace have any function upon earth.”
CSI, Silent Witness and the plethora of similar programs with eccentric consultants to the police – Castle, Numbers, The Mentalist, Bones, all with snappy terse titles – owe a direct debt to, or a genetic link with, the world’s first consulting detective.
What I hadn’t expected, amongst all of these trappings of modernity, was how trapped within their context they were, fed on and feeding the contemporary Imperial attitudes that today seem stereotypes if not simply racist.
Let’s take A Study in Scarlet first. A body is discovered in an empty building, apparently having chosen to drink a fast-acting and lethal poison, with the iconic “rache” painted in blood on the wall. The trail leads to a second corpse and Holmes’ plotting draws the murderer into 221B Baker Street where, following a scuffle, he is apprehended. And the narrative suddenly jumps from Watson’s familiar first hand account in London to a third person flashback set in the Wild West of America where John Ferrier and his adoptive daughter Lucy are rescued from death in the wilderness by a party of Mormons. And at this point, the Mormon faith is unremittingly blackened by allegations of – “institutionalised” is I suppose the most apt but anacronistic phrase – kidnap, rape, forced marriage and murder.
Similarly in The Sign of Four – which was a more accomplished novel and created more of the mythos around Holmes – the criminal is discovered to have a diminutive companion, a primitive half-animalistic islander from the Andaman Islands whose savagery overcame him and led him to murder the victim, Bartholomew Sholto. There is little to differentiate the islander in Doyle’s depiction from an animal or a pet: he is beaten and contained – and ultimately is utterly expendable: the main antagonist, white and an imperial soldier of the Third Buffs in India, survives to give his narrative; Tonga, the islander native, is shot and forever silent.
Products of their time and, of course, only the first two novels in the mythology, the novels in which Doyle was still finding his voice and characters, perhaps.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Date: 1887, 1890