Thursday, February 4, 2010

There is nothing at all new to me in the latter part of your narrative - in which I complain about a Sherlock Holmes novel

Well, I found something in the Scottish Literature Challenge that really challenged me.  It was the last chapter of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four (1890), the worst chapter of a mediocre book.  I would pick up the book, read a page, and a great weariness would descend upon me, at least until I picked up a better book.  It's only sixteen (then fourteen, then twelve) small pages, I would tell myself.  Just finish it. 

The Sign of Four is the second appearance of Sherlock Holmes, who was introduced in the similarly bad A Study in Scarlet three years earlier.  Doyle still had only the barest idea of what he had created.  Both short novels are mishmashes of detective fiction (Poe, Wilkie Collins, Émile Gaboriau,* I'll bet), and adventure fiction in the vein of the H. Rider Haggard, a worse writer than Doyle, and Robert Louis Stevenson, a far better.  Both novels have enjoyable setups and bad payoffs.  Both end, more or less, with non-Holmesian backstory about the killers, terrible sections, dull and clichéd, dull because they're nothing but rearranged clichés.

The Sign of Four contains one really appalling character, "the unhallowed dwarf with his hideous face,"  his features "so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty," a "savage and distorted creature."  I have met this character before, in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," where he was an actual beast.  Doyle's novel is basically pilfered from The Moonstone and Poe, and I wish he had gone ahead and kept the orangutan.  Making the character a human, a native of the Andaman Islands, is much worse.

Nymeth, over at Things Mean a Lot, recently wrote a bit about the problems with The Sign of Four.   She points out that however sophisticated we might be, however well we understand that we're dealing with the received ideas and prejudices of a hundred years ago, Doyle's beast-man is an unavoidable part of the plot.  The reader can't - this reader couldn't - simply brush aside the ugliness.**  Although if this had been the only thing wrong with the novel, who knows, I might have been more forgiving.  This had nothing to do, for example, with how dull that last chapter was.

There's one good Holmesian joke there, actually.  After the villain goes on and on and on with his life story - "To begin, the earth cooled" - Holmes says "There is nothing at all new to me in the latter part of your narrative, except that you brought your own rope."  Hey, that's how I felt! 

Now, the first two novels do contain the not-so-minor achievement of inventing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  This is a long way from nothing, and the interaction between the characters is often pretty good.  And I am well aware that the first two novels are not representative Holmes.  Tomorrow, some better Holmes, and better Doyle.

I should note, for Challenge bookkeeping purposes, that I am reading The Sign of Four, in some sense, along with A. K. Palmer.  So that's, along with Boswell, two for the Challenge.  All right!

*  Anyone read Gaboriau?  How are those? 

** Note that here I am dragging people into the Scottish Reading Challenge whether they want to participate or not.


  1. The first Holmes stories really are rough reading.

  2. Well, I love the short stories more - I think I may actually have begun with those, whenever it was I did begin with Holmes, but that was probably 25 years ago or so. The short stories I've re-read many times - I don't think I've re-read either "Sign of Four" or "A Study in Scarlet" (or "The Valley of Fear" either for that matter). I will though, but I always look forward to re-reading the short stories, and I cannot say the same for those novels.

    I do love Sherlock, though! :)


  3. I've never liked mystery stories so I don't know why I read The Hound of the Baskervilles but I did. And of course I hated it. I blame my mother, who forced me to watch Columbo and Murder She Wrote and Perry Mason and Matlock and on and on, ugh, shudder, rather than Sir Doyle.

  4. Bluestocking - glad it's not just me. There are some Holmesians out there who are, what's a not too impolite word, undiscriminating.

    Unlike LRK - I will incorporate your advice into tomorrow's post. I understand exactly what you're saying - even for the fan, the early novels give up everything they've got the first time through.

    Autodidact - I myself am essentially indifferent to the mysteries as such. But writers have used the form for a number of different purposes. Some are more interesting than others. Being interested in the mystery itself would help with these books, a little - although the murder mysteries aren't that great, either.

  5. I suppose I'm an undiscriminating Holmesian fan, as I have a soft spot for A Study In Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Yes, they are atypical and not up to the level of the short stories, but I enjoy anytime in Holmes and Watson's company!

  6. I can't remember if i've read any Sherlock Holmes before. I probably won't start with the first two, then...

  7. I think I was in my teens when I actually last read a Sherlock Holmes story, but I have read them all a couple of times, and remember liking Study in Scarlett and Sign of Four. I thought your comment about them being a mishmash of Poe, Collins, et al, was interesting. Now that I've read more of Collins it would be interesting to read these stories again.

  8. Sarah, I want to argue with you. If you acknowledge a soft spot, and know that the level of quality differs, you're not undiscriminating! Quite the opposite.

    Note that the worst parts of those first two novels - the first one in particular - are the chunks where we are not in Holmes and Watson's company.

    Rebecca - that's exactly what I recommend.

  9. Jane - I'm only speaking for myself, but what I liked or did not like as a teenager is no longer a very helpful guide to much! My aesthetic sensibility back then was, how to say it, narrow.

    I should maybe mention that I don't mind that Doyle borrows so heavily from other writers. "A Scandal in Bohemia" is a blatant ripoff and simplification of "The Purloined Letter," but the conversations between Holmes and Watson are a great deal more fun than the equivalents in Poe.