'The Sign of the Four', by Arthur Conan Doyle (Book Club, March '22)

The Sign of the Four, by Arthur Conan Doyle, was first published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, in both the US and the UK, and later appeared as The Sign of Four in magazine serialisations and as standalone publications.

It is the second of Arthur Conan Doyle’s four novels about Sherlock Holmes (alongside 56 short stories) — and it is the one where we find the quintessential Sherlock Holmes quotation:

“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, HOWEVER IMPROBABLE, must be the truth?”

This is a ripping yarn… a tale of treasure, betrayal and deduction. Here you will find all facets of Sherlock Holmes — sometimes on drugs, sometimes in disguise, and always on top detective form. There is even a love story for his friend and biographer, Dr. Watson.

To get started, you can download this book from Project Gutenberg or Standard Ebooks. But any unabridged edition, paper or digital, is fine.

Please come back to this conversation in March 2022, when it will open for comment. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the book.


@pigfender has prepared a Scrivener project for The Sign of the Four based on the Project Gutenberg source, and has compiled PDF, ePub and Mobi versions using his Novel-in-a-Day (NiaD) formatting. He has very kindly offered to share these with Literature & Latte’s Book Club:

Sot4 - scriv docs.zip (791.0 KB)
Sot4 mobi.zip (937.8 KB)
Sot4 epub.zip (326.7 KB)
Sot4 pdf.zip (1.1 MB)

Using Scrivener’s project statistics, he has also come up with some fun facts about the book:

  • There are 43,041 words. (I notice that this is just 86% of the length of a winning NaNoWriMo novel, so there is still plenty of time to read the book before we start discussing it in March. :grinning:)
  • There are 773 paragraphs.
  • The word ‘Holmes’ appears 127 times.

Thank you, @pigfender!

All the best,


Welcome to the first discussion in Literature & Latte’s Book Club — we hope there will be many more to come.

The opening chapter of The Sign of the Four seems to embody the essence of Sherlock Holmes in the popular consciousness. From the chapter title alone, “The Science of Deduction”, the stage is set for a display of forensic investigation, clinical detachment and logical reasoning. When, in the first sentence, Holmes takes up a bottle and hypodermic syringe, we expect some sort of scientific experiment to be in progress, but Arthur Conan Doyle plays an attention-grabbing trick in that opening paragraph, revealing in careful, shocking detail (“show, don’t tell”) that Holmes is an habitual drug user. And in that first chapter we learn what I had forgotten over the years — that Watson is by no means a background character, nor is he uncritical or reverent towards Holmes.

Doyle is a highly adept story-teller and, for the most part, the story rips along at a great pace (quite literally, when it comes to the river chase towards the end). Some suspension of disbelief is required in places, as you’d expect from a ripping yarn like this, but The Sign of the Four is not just a shallow adventure story. The descriptions of travelling through south London at night are evocative and engrossing, and so real that you almost feel you are there.

In his 2014-15 list of the “100 best novels written in English” in The Guardian, Robert McCrum put The Sign of the Four at number 26. Do you agree with that assessment?

What do you think of the novel?

All the best,


I was particularly struck by the description in Chapter 5 of the death of Bartholomew Sholto 'that ghastly, inscrutable smile upon his face" and later in Chapter 6 the 'Hippocratic smile, or ‘*risus sardonicus,’.

It reminded me of the description in Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers, of Philip Shawcross’s ‘death grimace - his sardonic mask.’

I do wonder if Burgess has an unconscious echo of Doyle here except where Doyle offers a plausible explanation for Sholto’s demise, ‘“Death from some powerful vegetable alkaloid,” I answered,—“some strychnine-like substance which would produce tetanus.”
“That was the idea which occurred to me the instant I saw the drawn muscles of the face."’ Burgess’ Shawcoss was struck down by a maleovalent Malayan sorceror infesting him with demons.

Just a thought.


I was about to write a lot of obvious thoughts: His economic use of descriptions (barely enough), his witty dialogs (there might be a third option besides “show, don’t tell”: show by talk?), the timeless nature of this and all of the other Holmes stories. But it all boils down to: How the hell did he crank out all the right words with a f…unny pen?

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One of the things I liked the most with this novel is how it doesn’t even have a beginning. And how seamlessly we’re just casually right in it, and yet still, the story hasn’t even begun.

I also liked the perspective having an “in story” narrator (Watson) brings to the narrative. It is just between 1st and 3rd person narrative. Close, yet somewhat detached… (This was handled brilliantly.)

Lastly, I would say that despite the story being pretty good (and formidably written), you can see how over the years the style has evolved ; as there is very little tension and suspense in this novel. By today’s standards, beside for the quality of the writing that is, if that book was to be published tomorrow, I’m not convinced that the critics would really be positive ones.
(Don’t get me wrong here : I loved reading it.)

Do you think the fact that Sherlock, at the very end of the book, had not figured out by himself that the extra dart was the one the indigenous kept in his blowpipe (p.219-220) is a way for the author to let us know that the case being wrapped, his protagonist had somewhat lost interest for it ?
(That should have been such an easy deduction for Sherlock to make, that I just can’t come up with a better explanation for it at my end…)

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Many thanks to pigfender

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I like that Doyle’s medical training pops up in occasional places.

As someone who has recently taken up dip-pen calligraphy (in a clumsy fashion) for the first time since I was a teenager, I have the utmost respect for anyone who can write twenty words in a row by hand, in ink, without making a mistake. :grinning: I don’t know how authors of yore had the patience to write by hand – especially those writing massively long books. Think what they might have achieved if they had had Scrivener! On the other hand, even today some authors like to write their first draft by hand. Clearly they have better handwriting and more stamina than I do.

I liked this, too. The “involved observer” approach works very well, and Doyle maintains it admirably throughout.

Or might it have been Doyle’s way of letting the reader work something out for themselves? And thereby drawing them more closely into the whole reading experience?


Have any of you listened to an audiobook version? I noticed that LibriVox have a few versions available, and that (in the UK) BBC Sounds have an audio reading.

I’ve listened to the first chapter of the book in the BBC Sounds version, and the first two or three chapters in two different “Sherlock Holmes Collections” on Audible, and it is quite striking how the narrator’s voice and rendition make a real difference to the feel of the text. A couple of them I find successful, but none of the three sounds like the Watson that I imagine in my own head.


That would be quite odd in my opinion :
1 – Why wait to be so close to the end of the novel then ?
2 – J.Small (the criminal) gave the answer in no shorter time than Sherlock could have spoken it himself.
3 – Perhaps it is just me, but I didn’t feel any bit more involved after or during the reading of that passage…

It just plain and simply struck me as being off when compared to the rest of the book. (It actually mildly shocked me out of the story for a moment – so just the opposite…)

To me Doyle’s motive has got to be something else.
(I think we can dismiss any hypothesis along the line of a simple clumsiness on his end… – or even laziness.) Who would just botch the end of his novel after rendering everything up to the -almost- end with such a high level of craftmanship ?)

I think (perhaps) Sherlock had his mind set on his cocaine bottle by then…
Or gave humility a try.

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Well kind of…

Much has been made of the potential psychological state of the “Holmes boys”. By modern terms we would consider Sherlock to be ADHD or on some spectrum of autism (I’m not a psychiatrist/psychologist, just a fan). If you consider his behavior in the light of a modern setting you would: Sherlock had lost interest and was desperate for the next distraction as is typical in these types of individuals.

Cocaine and other drugs often provide just the right distraction (but never a good or right distraction).

Which is me suggesting that Doyle’s genius is in how he left this unspoken “this man is somehow broken” right in plain sight for the observant to notice. This thread of Sherlock being a broken man runs in nearly every story. You just need to see it once to find it every time.


Holmes seems to find the investigative process and problem-solving engaging, but not to care too much about the actual consequences of the outcome: “Give me problems, give me work”; “I cannot live without brain-work”. He is quite cool, rational and logical, although somehow less detached in this book than I had expected.

Watson, on the other hand, is warmly emotional. He is concerned about Holmes on a personal level, seems surprisingly quick to fall in love, and (while fascinated by the investigative process) cares very much indeed about the outcome of the investigation since he fears it will put Mary Morstan beyond his reach. Being a respectable Victorian medical man, he doesn’t go overboard on the emotion, but it is definitely portrayed here as being prominent in his character.

Watson admires Holmes’s logical acrobatics, but doesn’t seem to wholly approve: “You really are an automaton—a calculating machine.” And Holmes seems to see his own rationality as being incompatible with feeling: “love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things”.

In this respect, it as though the two men represent the opposite sides of some sort of balance, with love/sympathy on one side and logic on the other. I’ve read the book twice recently, and I still can’t decide whether Doyle pushes us towards favouring one approach, or whether he leaves the needle hovering or oscillating midway between the two. Sometimes we are invited to view Holmes as admirable; at other times we are expected to favour Watson’s pursuit of love. It is an effect that would have been hard to achieve without Doyle’s clever use of Watson as an independent participant in events and not just a narrator. Overall, I think that we (as readers) are meant to be more like Watson than Holmes, to read the story with a degree of emotion, and to view Holmes as a fascinating curiosity.


At one point in my “youth” I debated if Holmes/Watson weren’t representative of a Jekle/Hyde presentation of a single man living a double life of sorts. For example, a medical examiner. He is dispassionate to a fault “at work” which is compensated for with excessive emotions “at home”. I don’t know if it was a conscious effort on Doyle’s part, but the contrast did create some “let me think about this” moments for my early teenage self.

Interestingly you see the same kind of comparison by contrast with Jack London’s “Sea Wolf” and “Martin Eden”. He openly discusses this problem of modern thinking in “The People of the Abyss”. Not sure all see it this way though. I tend to read things looking for what is behind the curtain of words. Hopefully I’m not too far off :slight_smile:


And speaking of Jack London’s Martin Eden, just a reminder that we are running a poll for May’s book club choice, and Martin Eden is one of the options. Thank you, Jaysen, for suggesting it for inclusion.

If anyone has any suggestions about what they would like to read next, please let us know in that thread. And don’t forget to vote in the poll!

Ah, awesome first question. No, I don’t.

I mean, objectively, yes it’s clearly one of the best novels ever written, but I personally have a really difficult time aggregating the weight of a book’s historical context or it’s cultural impact / legacy with my experience in reading the book today, in 2022. To give a comparison, I really don’t like the Beatles who I find quite poor by modern standards… but some of my absolutely favourite bands simply would not exist without them, and I’ve no doubt I’d have appreciated them if I’d heard them in the 1960s when I didn’t have the benefit of six decades of musical evolution and improvement(*) to judge them by.

So, objectively, yes – one of the greatest books ever written. Great story telling that (along with the earlier Holmes tale) defined and then set the standard for the genre, and of course a set of characters that are still culturally relevant and entertaining today (as the very strong parallels between Holmes/Watson and Dr Gregory House and James Wilson demostrate).

Outside of that, though, my personal experience is that it was an enjoyable book, but it felt a lot more ‘on rails’ than I’m used to. A lot of the action happened ‘off screen’, and although Holmes was clearly successful in deducing where to find the killer – he didn’t deduce the who or the why which left me feeling a bit short changed. The mighty detective relied on a killer perfectly happy to confess every and all details in a comparatively enormous final chapter (some 3-5x the size of the others).

But these are just small niggles. Reasons why it wouldn’t be number 26 in my personal list of my favourite books! Turning instead to the things I loved about it, I have to include just the sheer joy of the language. Take this snippet from Chapter 1:

“I appreciate their importance. Here is my monograph upon the tracing of footsteps, with some remarks upon the uses of plaster of Paris as a preserver of impresses. Here, too, is a curious little work upon the influence of a trade upon the form of the hand, with lithotypes of the hands of slaters, sailors, corkcutters, compositors, weavers, and diamond-polishers. That is a matter of great practical interest to the scientific detective,—especially in cases of unclaimed bodies, or in discovering the antecedents of criminals. But I weary you with my hobby.”

…there is an undeniable craft at work. I understand why some might prefer an audiobook version(**) as some of these sentences desserve if not demand to be read out loud. Here, too, is a curious little work upon the influence of a trade upon the form of the hand, with lithotypes of the hands of slaters, sailors, corkcutters, compositors, weavers, and diamond-polishers. Delightful!

Also worthy of note, is that the relationship of Holmes and Watson is so tangible to almost be a third character in the tale. Holmes is a different person around Watson, and there seems almost no need for Watson to be there other than to allow Holmes to be that different person… Holmes clearly performs for Watson, and as much as he might claim to need his [cough] medical enhancements when in need of a distraction from the tedium between cases, I do think that Holmes is fibbing a bit here. Without Watson to perform for, I have a suspicion that these cases would hold far less appeal to Holmes, and he’d let his detective work distract him from his chemical pursuits less and less.

I didn’t notice it at the time – I think Holmes and Watson just ‘hoped’ there were no remaining darts? Ie they had no expecation that the one dart that came in ther direction couldn’t be followed by more? That might just be my unobservant eyes, though!

(* - okay, only four of those six decades were an improvement.)
(** - although I never touch the things myself.)


I agree! The language in the book was just wonderful! A true delight to read!

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The language is indeed fantastic. One of my favourite passages is this, from Chapter 3:

“[…] the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light,—sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more.”

It’s not just the evocative and realistic description that is so engaging (although that paragraph does make me imagine myself in a miserable city street), but also the way in which a bit of philosophy is casually thrown in at the end, making you stop and think about “all human kind, [flitting] from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more”. Doyle isn’t just painting a picture here, but imagining a world, and I find him particularly good at pulling the reader into that world through his neat choice of words and phrasing.

Some of the more prosaic descriptions are also surprisingly insightful. I like this extract (from a little later in Chapter 3), describing various London neighbourhoods radiating outwards from the seedy, run-down districts south of the Thames to the new-build suburbs arising from Victorian urban sprawl:

“We had, indeed, reached a questionable and forbidding neighbourhood. Long lines of dull brick houses were only relieved by the coarse glare and tawdry brilliancy of public houses at the corner. Then came rows of two-storied villas each with a fronting of miniature garden, and then again interminable lines of new staring brick buildings,—the monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the country. At last the cab drew up at the third house in a new terrace. None of the other houses were inhabited […]”

From the point of view of plot, this conveys a sense of the physical distance travelled by Holmes and Watson in the story itself, without resorting to the dullness of “we travelled for half an hour” (or whatever). But the way in which it does so also carries a comment on the times in which Doyle was writing. And it is quite an apt comment, because those architectural bands of expansion are still visible today.


That too, imho, is very philosophic.
And along the line of what you previously quoted too ; the past and future of mankind, sort of speak – its evolutionary direction.

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I’ve just read back what I wrote just now, and it sounds as though I am universally admiring of the descriptive passages in The Sign of the Four. This is not actually the case, as some of them make me uneasy. To the modern eye, the book’s elements of racism (both implicit and explicit) makes for uncomfortable reading in places.

The Andaman Islanders are portrayed unfairly—offensively, even—as “naturally hideous” savages and cannibals, with Tonga in particular described as a “half animal” with features “deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty” — a very one-sided picture of someone whom Jonathan Small later says was “staunch and true”. Some of these portrayals are examples of where I would have preferred less of Doyle’s evocative description!

The general message seems to be that Tonga is not fully human, and (without so much as a “Steady on!” from the normally more empathetic Watson), Tonga is treated differently to other characters. Holmes says that if Tonga turns nasty, he will shoot him dead, which gave me quite a jolt when I read it — no suggestion of disarming, containing, restraining or anything else; just a plan to kill him on the spot. Jonathan Small, on the other hand, is left to Watson to deal with, suggesting a more lenient fate for the less alien character. (Admittedly a less dangerous character, but even so…)

In portraying what I suppose could be described as the “otherness” of the poisoner and his origins, Doyle far oversteps what today we would consider to be acceptable bounds. Was it perhaps over the top in the Victorian era, too, despite colonialism and racism being an accepted norm at the time? Was Doyle playing some sort of “Gothic horror” card?

I wonder whether Holmes and Tonga are another pair of opposites being weighed against each other, in a similar way to Holmes and Watson. Could Holmes (scientifically sophisticated, with all doors open to him) and Tonga (more of a force of nature, and as far removed from being acceptable in Victorian London as can be imagined) represent opposite ends of some sort of scale of technological advancement?

Bearing in mind that Tonga eventually nearly managed to kill Holmes, is the Holmes-Tonga spectrum then some sort of comment on the risks of believing that modern science can always outwit primitive nature? Is that why Holmes didn’t know about the last dart in the blow-pipe?

Or is it possible to read too much into what is essentially just an adventure story? :grinning:

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