Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Sign of Four

Sherlock Holmes has never really been my thing. First of all, I guess I’m not a huge fan of mysteries—at least, I don’t read them compulsively. Secondly, with the entire world at the moment convulsing in one great fan-gasm for the various versions of Sherlock, I just can’t jump on this bandwagon. But I thought I would do Conan Doyle the dignity at least of reading one of his original works so I could make my own mind up, instead of making judgements based on derivatives and homage. The first book I could get a hold of was the second in the series, The Sign of Four. It’s very short and I found it quite enjoyable, but I still didn’t get bitten by the Sherlock bug.

The story itself is pacey and interesting, and there’s a very exciting steam-boat chase on the Thames. Watson himself is charming (if sexist) and this is, of course, the novel in which he meets his future wife Mary. Mary is surprisingly gusty, and if she doesn’t get a chance to do the things the men do (shooting, chasing, climbing, trailing, drugs, etc), she is an integral part of the mystery and even Holmes comments on the dignified and level-headed way she comports herself.

But Holmes is the one everyone is fascinated with, and does he hold up to scrutiny? I was particularly interested in looking at two pieces of fan wisdom that were nagging at me. Aya has been insistent that Holmes is not a rude, misanthropic man, as often portrayed in adaptation. And based on the evidence merely from this story, I have to agree with her. In this story, he is not impolite and is sometimes even considerate. Even though he rolls his eyes at Athelney Jones’ (Metropolitan Police) ludicrous and stupid methods and conclusions, he doesn’t torture or antagonize him. He is polite and patient with Thaddeus Sholto (a silly but honorable man). He seems genuinely horrified when the evidence seems to suggest that a child has been involved in a murder (nevertheless, he is not sentimental about children; the Bake Street Irregulars he treats like adults). He seems to like dogs (at least he likes the dog Toby). There may be an element of classism (see his behavior to Mrs Smith) but that is no worse than some of Watson’s behavior. He also has a robust sense of humor; I think my favorite part of the book was when Holmes and Watson burst out laughing after Toby’s scent-trail went cold and led them somewhere they didn’t expect to go.

To my surprise, this is the book that introduces the fact that Holmes was, as recently as four years before the events, a prize-fighter, going into three rounds at Alison’s rooms against a champion named McMurdo. (I thought this was something the Guy Ritchie films made up. Yet somehow it struck a chord because I never questioned that Holmes could be a prize-fighter.) Therefore, along with the fact Holmes can do some pretty nimble climbing, I don’t think I can agree with Aya that he must necessarily be a sickly man. True, inactivity seems to weaken him, and I don’t think he ate anything in the book other than tea, coffee, and liquor.

That brings us to the other bit of fan wisdom. I knew Holmes did crack because he shares a love of the dissipating pleasures of the needle with Susan Kay’s version of Erik, the Phantom of the Opera. Yet I had always heard fans say Holmes wasn’t an addict. This may be true, but what he is seems far worse. “Why should you, for a mere passing pleasure,” chides Watson, and quite rightly, “risk the loss of those great powers with which you have been endowed?” Despite having found Holmes’ character more pleasant than I had expected, I found his extreme selfishness hardly becoming in a hero. Watson worries what might happen if Holmes ever decided to take up criminal activities; Holmes laments being bored all the time he isn’t working on a case. With Holmes’ apparent proficiency in all areas (as evidenced in little clues like his violin), I would have thought boredom would never occur. Perhaps Bruce Wayne inherited an element of Holmes, at least in his first conception as a bored socialite who becomes Batman for sheer want of activity.

The author’s, Watson’s, and Holmes’ scorn for the villain of the piece, Jonathan Small, is evidence, I think, again of classist tendencies. They were disgusted at his first murder in India during the time of the Mutiny; I was impressed with the fact he honored pacts made with men who were Indians and Muslims. The Sign of Four certainly takes us, in narrative at least, to locales beyond foggy London. However, the final revelation regarding Small’s accomplice was disappointing, not least because of the precedent Poe had set with Murders in the Rue Morgue.

So, I’m not hooked, but I wouldn’t say no to another.

1 comment:

Aya Vandenbussche said...

So interesting to read a stand alone review of a Sherlock Holmes book. It is not something I have come across before.

It is an interesting story to start with. It is possibly the one story in which, as far as I remember, his drug habit is a real big issue.

BTW, Conan Doyle does acknowledge the influence of Poe over his stories and it is a known thing. I'll be interested to know what you think of other stories, and I can lend you The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which is a collection of short stories.