Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Book Review: The Sign of Four (Doyle, 1890)

“I cannot live without brainwork. What else is there to live for?...What is the use of having powers, Doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them?”
--Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of Four

Leigh: When we first started planning this project, we tossed around the idea of reviewing stories that inspired episodes of Elementary, if the writers and producers decided to go that route and since they didn’t we decided to just go in chronological order. I think this worked out better than we thought it might.
The beginning of The Sign of the Four shows the audience what an addict looks like. Not because Holmes is taking heavy drugs multiple times a day, but because he’s doing so because he’s going through withdrawals from not having a case in such a long time. When he’s finally presented with a case, he leans forward with eyes glistening on Miss Morstan as she explains the case. This implied hunger is how an addict would act when presented with drugs that he’s craving. I think this scene is possibly the best scene to describe Holmes’ personality. In fact, the whole first chapter is a fantastic example of what Holmes is capable of and why he does what he does. This is where we get the famous pocket watch scene that was adapted so well by BBC’s Sherlock but with a cell phone.  This is where we get the famous quote, “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.” And the not so famous but still important quote, [Guessing] is a shocking habit – destructive to the logical faculty.”
Of all the Holmes stories, this one might be my favorite. It shows Holmes’ true character the best, I think and it has everything that one could want in a story. It has action, adventure, foreign lands, mysterious murders and romance even if it is Victorian and very stiff and proper. It also shows Watson’s character. He isn’t the bumbling idiot that’s so often portrayed in media, but the intelligent, brave, loyal muscle that Holmes often needs to complete a case. Sure, there are plenty of stories where Holmes goes off on his adventure and then comes back and tells Watson the story up to the climax of the adventure which often is resolved in their sitting room. But it is cases like this one that show Watson’s importance to Holmes’ overall approach. The audience sees that Watson is important and not just there to fill the roll of asking questions the audience would ask. He learns how to make observations much in the style of Holmes and not only is he not afraid to shoot a gun but he’s damn good at it also.
I think this story also brings up a very important argument that I hope to touch more on when we discuss “A Scandal in Bohemia”. On page 75 (the public domain version from Project Gutenberg that is on my Kindle because that’s what version you’re using right? Good.) Holmes says that women aren’t to be trusted. "I would not tell them too much," said Holmes. "Women are never to be entirely trusted,—not the best of them." Watson doesn’t have time to respond because he has to go see a pretty lady, but his immediate response is that this statement is “atrocious.” Some people think that Holmes is Arthur Conan Doyle but the reality is that Watson is more Doyle than any other character. Former military – check. Doctor – check. Scottish – possibly depending on how deep you look into things. I think it is really important to think of Holmes as a wholly made up character that has taken life in media and Watson is more of a Mary Sue character or Doyle just wanting to go on some awesome adventures. Because of this though, we see that Holmes is sexist/stating the ideas of the time where as Watson/Doyle are really more progressive and hold women in a better light than Holmes does. Again, this is something that I’ll probably babble about a lot once we get to “Scandal” which battles this one as my favorite.
So Austin, what do you think? This was your first time reading it, what did you like/dislike? Is this a great example of serialized stories in magazines or is it a great mystery? And what was up with Tonga?

Austin: This was my first time reading this. I swear, this won't be the case when we get to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which I read a few times as a kid. Right away, this was a big upgrade from A Study in Scarlet. It's just so clear that Doyle had a better idea of what he could accomplish with this series. Sure we still have a 20 page tangent adventure, but even then it's a story being told to Watson and Sherlock that was full of thrills and exotic locales.
I love seeing Sherlock as an addict. Even though it's so easy to trust Sherlock in all of his antics, Watson does pose a bit of concern in the first page, even if it is very passive. In many ways, he's adopting Sherlock's powers of observation but doesn't do anything with the data he acquires. He still has to ask to figure out what is going on in his own house.

I know a lot of people like to read into that line about Sherlock and women. To me, Watson didn't ask the important follow up question: "Are men to be trusted?" For I believe that Sherlock would answer very similarly. Having this woman client, to me, doesn't play up the sexuality of the characters but the humanity. I found it very sweet Watson holding her hand when things became scary, but really it shows the human factor not present in Holmes. Sherlock sees his clients as pieces of data, while Watson finds someone in danger. Most mystery authors will take Watson's willingness to believe in her as foreshadowing to a reversal in Mary's loyalty. (This is what happens when you read too many noir novels.) Yet as the story plays out and Watson is now a "husband in prospective", you can see trusting and carrying in people pays off in a way the cold calculation doesn't. The last page is rather sad as Sherlock can't process the information of Watson being engaged and all he has left is his cocaine.

Ultimately I think this is a great mystery and I forgot this was serialized until this email. It works better as a whole because you get the really funny double punch of a chapter ending with " "This, Miss Morstan, is Pondicherry Lodge," said Mr. Thaddeus Sholto as he handed her out. "  Then the next chapter title is The Tragedy at Pondicherry Lodge. A low-key chapter ending becomes more sinister with the next words.

I think I used up my word count so I'm going to cheat and throw this back to you. Seriously what is up with Tonga? Also did you imagine an animated dog during the Toby sequence? I did.

Leigh: Yes, India is much more exotic than Utah. I think everyone can agree to that.
I think Sherlock Holmes as an addict might be a great example of one of the first anti-heroes. I don’t know a lot about literature before this time so I could be making a wildly inappropriate hypothesis here. We know he’s smart, we know he’s good, we know he’s doing right by us but he has this problem and it isn’t really a small problem. Three times a day for a few months? That’s a full-blown addiction. Yet the reader never once is given the opportunity or the choice to stop believing in him. We are given this fact and then the story starts. And then the as the story concludes, the audience is left with not particularly a happy ending. Holmes is depressed as soon as the case ends and immediately starts drugs. This almost seems like a passive aggressive evil ex kind of way to get you to read the next book.
“Read the next book or I’ll do more drugs and probably kill myself with an overdose or infection or something because we don’t know that sterilization is super important in the 1880s! Do you want that? Huh? HUH!? I didn’t think so.”
 I think that follow up question, “Are men to be trusted?” is one of the best missed opportunities for a discussion on sexual equality in the Victorian era. I’m glad you brought up the “humanity” in Watson that is lacking in Holmes. Another great quote from this book is “You really are an automaton, a calculating machine… There is something positively inhuman in you at times.” Watson saying this about Holmes is one of the best indications that Holmes tended to be as warm and inviting as Antarctica. The compassion we get from Watson then shows the reader another fault with Holmes and that he isn’t all he’s cracked up to be and YET, we still follow him. He gives his Holmesian reasoning behind his lack of emotion and the audience fully believes it. Instead of hating this character because he’s so coarse and seemingly mean, we go with him because he’s intelligent and knows what he’s talking about. There are a couple other scenes in the upcoming books that I’d like to talk about how Holmes just doesn’t seem to get the emotional point to it, like the final scene you mentioned.
(Slight tangent here but it has a point so bear with me.)
I have been following the Mars Curiosity Rover mission for a while now. I saw the projection of what it had to do to have a successful landing, I saw the models of it, I saw pictures of it next to humans. I still think of it as WALL-E. Every time the Curiosity Rover posts a new picture or gif of what it accomplished that day (because of course I follow it on Twitter, what am I, a poseur?) I just imagine WALL-E doing it. So did I imagine an animated dog during the Toby sequence? Of course.

It’s really a mixture of this one 

And this one.

Bonus points if you can name the movies I stole these from.
So Austin, why are we following this bastard drug addict around? And what about that room being locked? Is this a common theme in mystery novels? [ya see what I did there?] And seriously, WHAT is up with Tonga?

Austin: Your pictures haunt me. Not the Overly Attached Girlfriend, but your complete mislabeling of Toby. I'm recalling Toby from The Great Mouse Detective, who lives at 221B Baker Street!

If you're not imagining Henry Mancini's score when you look at this, you're not a true fan.

That is the right image to have during the awesome chase of scents!

I saw what you did there! Yes rooms do tend to be locked in mysteries! In fact that subgenre of mysteries is one of my favorites. Especially when reading a mystery, often times the scope seems too big to think I'm able to solve it. The world is too large to see all of the clues. Yet when you just have a single room to work out the mechanics, it's more tangible--especially because it makes it more difficult. The room becomes a puzzle to figure out how a crime could have even been committed. Holmes and Watson going through all of the different options was one of the highlights of this story for me. You saw a lot more of these stories earlier in the genre with guys like John Dickson Carr. I guess it's just harder to properly lock someone in a room nowadays.

Anywho, This was the last longer form of Sherlock Holmes we're going to read for awhile. Next week we'll venture into the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Also I'm going to warn everyone that our Elementary review will not be up as fast as the pilot. We don't have screener copies of the episodes. (Don't know why). So we'll start our discussion as soon as we see it. Yet this week makes it especially difficult since I will be at BoucherCon, the world's largest mystery convention. If you're there, stop by the Mystery Company table! You can even pick up my latest book, Organizing Crime Classics, which is a guide for all of the classic mystery series including Sherlock Holmes! What? I'm acting like too much of a whore? Fine, I'll wrap it up.

Here's Leigh Montano with the last word.

Leigh: Tonga!

1 comment:

  1. You two are far too obsessed with Tonga. I'm also willing to wager on Holmes being the first antihero. We really can't help but follow him. In a way, Doyle makes Watsons of us all. We humanize Holmes in our minds by forgiving his faults and excesses; we balance out his coldness and calculations by noting the little moments of warmth and companionship, and highlighting those little things all the more.

    Now you're going to make me go back and read the damn thing so I can figure out this Tonga business.