I know perfectly well Sherlock Holmes is a drug user. Nevertheless it’s still a shock to begin THE SIGN OF FOUR and see Holmes shooting up with cocaine. (cover is a photo of Basil Rathbone, once the Definitive Movie Holmes; all rights to image remain with current holder)
It was perfectly legal back when the book came out, but Watson clearly sees this as a bad thing, warning Holmes that drug use could easily overload and unbalance that powerful mind of his. Holmes acknowledges the point, but tells Watson he needs the coke fix. He has no case to tackle, nothing to stimulate his mind and his mind must be stimulated! For this reason I think Watson’s snarking slightly when he asks Holmes if the syringe is morphine or cocaine: I can’t imagine Holmes using a drug that makes him relax (and there’s no other reference to him using morphine in the canon).
Fortunately it doesn’t take long for something to turn up, or rather someone. Mary Morstan, a young woman with little money and no family, shows up and tells Holmes and Watson how for the past six years, someone has sent her a valuable pearl in the mail. Now the same unknown person has asked to meet with her. Understandably, she’d like some backup. It reminds me of novelist Kit Whitfield’s description of Holmes as a big-brother-for-hire — in an age when a woman’s father or brother would be expected to handle matters like this, Holmes provided the same protection as a professional service. With Holmes and Watson at her side, Mary heads off to meet her mysterious benefactor. Ahead lies murder, a fabulous treasure, a bumbling Scotland Yard detective (of course), a pygmy armed with poison darts and a cryptic reference to “the sign of four.”
It’s a much stronger story than A Study in Scarlet and Doyle is definitely improving as a writer. There are a few striking moments, such as when Watson applies his eye to a keyhole and sees Bartholomew Sholto dead in his chair, illuminated only by a shaft of moonlight. Doyle also does a great job with Mary: Holmes compliments her intelligence in handling the evidence, and she’s brave and composed even in the face of death, mystery and danger. Small wonder Watson falls in love with her and at the end, pops the question. Of course from that point on, she has no presence in the series, other than obligingly telling Watson that of course he can go off on another adventure with his friend.
Holmes remains as memorable as ever, and Watson, in his quiet way makes a good foil. Early on Holmes grumbles that Watson’s A Study in Scarlet — in the Holmesverse, all the stories are written by Watson — got it completely wrong. His account of the Enoch Drebber case focuses on the drama when it should have focused on how Holmes’ analytical brain applied deduction to crack the case. Watson wisely suspects Holmes is really saying is “You didn’t write enough about meeeeee!” Holmes would continue to complain about Watson being a sensationalist writer, but he never stopped recommending this or that case as worthy of a story. He was probably more flattered by Watson’s work than he admitted.
Of course the story also shows Doyle’s amazing sloppiness with details. In Study, Watson gives a detailed account of the leg injury that got him discharged from the army; in Sign, he refers to it as a shoulder wound. Holmesians have devoted a lot of space to figuring this, and the many other inconsistencies out, but I don’t have the space to detail that here.
From Doyle’s perspective, both novels had been modestly successful. Fame and fortune wouldn’t come until he wrote the dozen stories that would later be collected as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Which I’ll get to next.