Friday, April 6, 2012

Adventure classics -- Sherlock's first return

The Sign of the Four

by Arthur Conan Doyle


Considering the uncountable number of Sherlock Holmes spin-offs in the one hundred and twenty-five years since Arthur Conan Doyle published his first story about the “unofficial consulting detective,” it seems wildly improbable that the character almost died stillborn.

But we know what Holmes would say about truth. And the truth is, the first story about him, A Study in Scarlet, was rejected three times before a fourth publisher accepted it in late October 1886. But as mystery writer Daniel Stashower reports in his biography, Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, even then, they declined to publish it immediately, “as the market,” they wrote to the author, “is flooded at present with cheap fiction.”

Perhaps in desperation, Conan Doyle sold his entire copyright in A Study in Scarlet for twenty-five pounds. But even after publication in 1887, the story sank almost without notice. Not until 1890, after promising reviews for an unrelated novel, did Conan Doyle resuscitate the detective in The Sign of the Four (under much more favorable terms).

The plot of The Sign of the Four begins with an apparently simple problem that grows to include a search for fabulous stolen treasure and a gruesome “locked room” murder. But the most remarkable -- and unexplained -- mystery is the transformation in Holmes.

From the man of A Study in Scarlet whose knowledge of literature and philosophy was -- to quote narrator Dr. Watson -- “nil,” by the time The Sign of the Four appeared, Holmes had become a reader of antique books and student of the German Romantic movement.

He still remained notable for his emotional detachment -- his latest twenty-first century incarnation is described as a “high-functioning sociopath.” But by his second appearance, he could sympathize to some degree with Dr. Watson’s distress over his
assessment of a family member’s character, based on an examination of the man’s pocket watch.

“I could not have believed that you would have descended to this,” Dr. Watson declares with considerable bitterness in the opening chapter of The Sign of the Four. “You have made inquiries into the history of my unhappy brother. . . .”

Holmes, amazingly, offers an apology. Not for his deductions, but for his insensitivity.

Conan Doyle offered no explanation for the change in Holmes, any more than for Watson’s wandering war wound, which moved over the course of the years from shoulder to leg. But the result of Holmes’ personal growth is, of course, a character with the depth to continue his remarkable adventures for decades to come -- and delight fans into two more centuries.

As Conan Doyle wrote in 1927, nearly forty years after Holmes’ first appearance, “I’ve written a good deal more about him than I ever intended to do, but my hand was been rather forced by kind friends who continually wanted to know more.”

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a month of mysteries with a look at the originator of detective fiction, Edgar Allan Poe, and “The Purloined Letter.”)


  1. Always a pleasure to meet a Sherlockian :)

    Excellent post detailing some well-known and many unobserved inconsistencies in the canon..


    1. Thanks. I used to think some inconsistencies, especially Watson's wound, were just Conan Doyle forgetting. Then I realized he put a couple of plugs for the first story into the second one.

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