Although considerable dispute exists as to the relative merits of the fifty-six short stories in the Sherlock Holmes series, there is a general agreement among most critics and fans as to the rating of the four Holmes novels. The Sign of Four is usually placed second to The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902) and solidly ahead of A Study in Scarlet (1887, serial; 1888, book) and The Valley of Fear (1914-1915). The Sign of Four is praised for its picture of Holmes in action and the ingenuity of the initial puzzle for its evocation of the atmosphere of London in the 1880’s, for its sharp delineation of character, and for its dramatic effectiveness. It is sometimes faulted, however, for a plot too closely reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), a solution that comes too early in the narrative, and for Jonathan Small’s overly long confession. Critic Julian Symons is probably right in his opinion that the main problem in both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four is that “they could have been condensed into short stories.”
Although The Sign of Four may seem too long, it still contains some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s best writing as well as all the elements that make the Holmes stories so popular and entertaining. Indeed, the more leisurely structure of the novelette, if unnecessary for the substance of the events described, does allow for a fuller treatment of such “incidentals” as character development, general background, colorful digressions, and atmosphere—“peripheral” elements that are essential to the Holmes stories and that go a long way toward explaining their durability and universality.
One evident reason for this long-standing popularity lies in the characters of the principals and their unique relationship. Perhaps Doyle’s most important contribution to the detective story was his “humanizing” of the detective. Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin is little more than a disembodied intellect. Collins’s Sergeant Cuff is more personable but considerably less skillful. Émile Gaboriau’s two early examples, Monsieur Lecoq and Père Tabaret, are ingenious detectives and amiable fellows, but they have almost no distinguishing personal traits. Holmes is both an extraordinary investigator and a sharply delineated character, and his relationship with Dr. Watson is the one of the first distinctive partnerships in novelistic crime fighting.
The most obvious characteristics of Holmes are his incredible powers of observation, deduction, and induction (despite what he says, most of Holmes’s conclusions are arrived at by induction, not deduction; that is, he draws answers from a mass of small details). This talent is demonstrated again and again in unraveling the most exotic and obscure crimes. Holmes’s procedures are always the same: first, his close examination; next, the set of conclusions; and, finally, the minute “elementary” explication. Usually, in the opening passages, Holmes “practices” on the client’s superficial characteristics and then, as the substance of the story, he applies his extraordinary talents to the major problem of the narrative. In novels, such as The Sign of Four, there is usually a sequence of problems; as Holmes unscrambles one puzzle, the solution points to a new, more sinister one, and this continues until the entire problem is finally solved and the malefactor brought to justice.
Nevertheless, there is more to the Holmes stories than ingenious problem solving. If Collins originated the practice of “humanizing” his detective by giving him eccentric traits and hobbies (Sergeant Cuff grows roses), Doyle perfected the technique. He supplies Holmes with a wide range of sidelines and interests: beekeeping, violin playing, opera, boxing, toxicology, swordplay, food, theater, tobacco ash, and many others. Holmes, however, is no Renaissance man. He prides himself on large areas of total ignorance: art, philosophy, literature, astronomy, and politics, to name a few. The...
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