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Analysis

Arthur Conan Doyle's mystery novel, The Sign of the Four (1890) is in part a satire on the British police force.

Britain's police force has been criticized during the Victorian period for failing to solve cases. In 1829, the Metropolitan police were established to get rid of crime. These officers were recruited from the lower classes in order that the lower classes not feel like they were being subject to class discrimination. Only in the 1870s was a proper detective department established. The crimes of serial killer Jack the Ripper in 1888 made headlines and struck a natural fear in Londoners. Therefore, Conan Doyle's 1980 novel directly addresses the shortcomings of London's Criminal Investigation Department (CID). For example, in the case of Jack of the Ripper, authorities suspected that the culprit was an upper-class man (though Jack the Ripper's actual identity remains unknown).

Conan Doyle presents Sherlock Holmes as a foil for the short-sighted police force. When Mary Morston arrives at Holmes' apartment with her quandary, she informs him that the police could not find her father after his disappearance. Moreover, Thaddeus Sholto demonstrates a marked aversion to the police from his first note to Mary, instructing her not to bring police. He later states, "there is nothing more unaesthetic than a policeman. I have a natural shrinking from all forms of rough materialism" (52).

Sholto's suspicion of police officers was not unusual for a contemporary man (and not only because of Sholto's circumstances; police were regarded as brutish and provincial). Because Holmes's character stands apart from this formal and disreputable institution, he earns an audience with Sholto and gains access to the case.

Holmes uses a nascent form of fingerprinting when he takes a measurement of Tonga's footprint (actual finger-printing was not developed until a few years later). Holmes is also able to determine that one of the culprits in the murder of Bartholomew Sholto had a wooden leg (from the impression of a wooden stump at the crime scene). Holmes, too, is able to discern that the killers escaped by means of the Thames, while the police (naturally, if inaccurately) mistake Thaddeus Sholto for the culprit.

In this way, The Sign of the Four, in addition to being a fantastic and thrilling piece of detective fiction, doubles as an indirect derision of the police force in Conan Doyle's contemporary London.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Baker Street

*Baker Street. London street on which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson share upstairs (“first floor” in British terminology) lodgings at the fictional address of 221B. Their landlady, Mrs. Hudson, lives on the ground floor and provides meals and services for her lodgers, including answering the door and showing visitors up to Watson and Holmes’s flat. A large, airy room, cheerfully furnished and illuminated by two broad windows looking down into the street, their sitting room is the place where most of Holmes’s cases begin and where Holmes later explains to Watson how he has arrived at his solutions.

Sholto’s house

Sholto’s house. Residence of the art collector Thaddeus Sholto, near Coldharbour Lane, in south London. Holmes, Watson, and Miss Morstan, Holmes’s client, go there in a horse-drawn cab. Although a route is given, it is not possible to trace it on a modern map. Although some London streets mentioned in the novel—such as the Strand, Wandsworth Road, and Coldharbour Lane—do still exist, others are either invented or misnamed, or have names that have been changed. Enough real London street names are provided, however, to give a sense of traveling some distance through dark London streets. Sholto’s house, the third in a newly built terrace, is in an unfashionable part of London characterized by streets of brick houses and rows of two-story villas with tiny front gardens. The house’s entryway is ill-lit and poorly furnished, a great contrast to Sholto’s own apartments, which are richly furnished. Curtains and...

(The entire section is 1,324 words.)