The Sign of Four (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

  • By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • First published: Lippincott’s Magazine, February 1890, as The Sign of the Four; or The Problem of the Sholtos. UK: Spencer Blackett, 1890; US: Lippincott, 1893.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Chapter 1

It is a curious but little-known fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was sponsored by the British Drug Marketing Board, to encourage the youth of the nation to use recreational hard narcotics.

Tobacco was already in wide use, and Wilkie Collins and Oscar Wilde had done their bit for opium. Other ventures had failed: W.S. Gilbert, for instance, had tried to push his ‘magic lozenge’ on Arthur Sullivan without success.

Now the Board wanted an exciting adventure series to popularize other drugs; Sherlock Holmes would be the mascot.

“Which is it to-day?” I asked, — “morphine or cocaine?”

He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened. “It is cocaine,” he said, — “a seven-per-cent. solution. Would you care to try it?”

Just like spinach would give Popeye super strength half a century later, taking drugs (three times a day) gave the sleuth extraordinary mental abilities, heightened perception, and literary discernment.

The Holmes of A Study in Scarlet, for instance, did not take drugs, as far as Dr. Watson knew; he also did not know who Thomas Carlyle was, or that the sun went round the Earth (or possibly the other way round). Once he starts openly taking drugs, he quotes Goethe, and discusses the merits of Carlyle and Jean-Paul (Richter).

The Sign of Four is a particularly thrilling account of the detective on drugs. At the start of the story, he is bored with the “dreary, dismal, unprofitable world”, but a fix soon lifts his spirits. He goes on a really wild trip: an Indian treasure worth half a million pounds, a wooden-legged man, an Andaman Island cannibal, and poisonous thorns fired from a blowpipe. Holmes shins up drainpipes and clambers over rooves, sends sniffer dogs on false trails, and catches the villains in a boat chase down the Thames – all while high as a kite. His friend Dr. Watson gets married, leaving Holmes to his own true love:

“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine-bottle.” And he stretched his long white hand up for it.

A publicity campaign accompanied the Sherlock Holmes stories: “Don’t be a dope: take dope!” “Shoot up with Sherlock!” “Be a junkie, just like Sherlock!”

Dr. Watson was inserted as an obligatory walking Surgeon General’s Warning. “Count the cost! Your brain may, as you say, be roused and excited, but it is a pathological and morbid process, which involves increased tissue-change and may at last leave a permanent weakness.”

But Dr. Watson’s medical opinion is highly suspect: “Holmes declares that he overheard me caution him [Sholto] against the great danger of taking more than two drops of castor oil, while I recommended strychnine in large doses as a sedative.”

Besides, who are you going to listen to: that old square Watson, or cool, clever, and edgy Sherlock Holmes?

And it worked. By World War I, most British soldiers carried enough cocaine and heroin to land them on death row in several Asian countries today.

“Private Smith, ‘ere is yer allotment, cocaine, Colombian ‘igh grade, 500 grams, soldiers, for use of.”

The grateful Board gave Doyle generous supplies of mind-altering substances. He ended his days a happy man, writing books about his encounters with fairies and ectoplasmic manifestations.

2000 review

One of the best and most exciting Holmes novels. From the very beginning, the reader knows that he is safely in the hands of a master: the Master is himself — he has evolved since A Study in Scarlet, and with him Doyle’s style. There is more humour than before; the story is more complex; and Doyle is able to draw convincing characters, from the Sholto brothers in their curious homes to the wooden-legged villain and his savage companion, from the queer old naturalist Old Sherman to Mary Morstan, whom Watson marries. The story culminates in “a mad, flying man-hunt down the Thames”, swiftly followed by a flashback to India.


Western Daily Press, 29 May 1890

Illustrated London News: Is really a marvel of logical deduction, and equal to anything of Edgar Poe’s.

Liverpool Mercury (24th December 1890): In Mr. Doyle’s The Sign of Four, however, there is no disguising the fact that we are engaged in following the story of crime and its detection pure and unmitigated. The records of amateur detective work undoubtedly have a fascination of their own; and Mr. Doyle is inexhaustible in the devising of trains and coils of circumstance which shall throw into brilliant relief the preternatural sagacity of his amateur detective. He tells us, indeed, that the detective’s medical friend falls in love at sight with the heiress whose treasure has been conjured away, and we duly learn at the end that the pair were blissfully wedded. But such trifles are only introduced to save the character of the book as a “novel”. The writer’s interest, and the reader’s too, if he has any, are throughout absorbed in tracking the guilty and deciphering the mysterious “Sign of Four”.

The Graphic (7th February 1891): The Sign of Four, by A. Conan Doyle, is a romance of the Detective school, in which the chief figure will be recognised by readers of A Study in Scarlet in the person of an amateur who must be either engaged in unravelling a first-class mystery or in consoling himself for the want of one with cocaine. The mystery in the present case is very decidedly of the first-class, demanding all his genius and energy, and that he rises to the occasion is no less certain. It is not even any professional detective who could recognise, from certain small signs, that a mystery must be somehow mixed up with a native of the Andaman Islands, whose peculiarities will prove new even to the habitual novel reader, who has now come across most things. The story – which faintly suggests the machinery of the Moonstone – is entertaining in a rough and crude way, and its “creepiness” leaves little to be desired even by the most exacting.

Sunderland Daily Echo, 21 June 1891

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): The second Holmes story makes use of the Thames in an unforgettable manner, and the detection is more active than in A Study in Scarlet – as well as fraught with danger.  For one thing, Watson succumbs to the charms of Miss Morstan, and for another the two detectives are nearly disposed of by Tonga, the Andaman Islander.  It is all so well put together, and the brothers Sholto are so well drawn – like their furnishings – that one readily accepts the old conspiracy in India, and even the maligning of the Andamanians.

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