"Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case." I defy you to stop reading a novel that starts like that. The Sign of the Four, Conan Doyle's second Sherlock Holmes novel, from 1890, has an abiding strangeness that hasn't mellowed with the years. In fact, the night after I finished reading it I was the start of a frantic nightmare featuring many of the book's characters, a fearful fever-dream to rival any film noir vision ever committed to celluloid. Sure, there's a fair amount of what could be termed "hoke" in there -- mysterious pygmies, one-legged seamen, pasha's porting treasure.
But what saves all this kiddie-novel flash from itself is Holmes himself. Not Holmes's super-human reasoning skills, but rather his abiding ennui, his utter despair with what the rest of us would call "life." His only paltry salvation is the famed 7% solution of diluted cocaine that kept him from jumping off the top of Big Ben into the fog-shrouded streets below him -- that and the challenges offered by crime, how it teases and taxes his existence into a diverting meaning.
All of this is narrated by the stolidly bourgeois Dr. Watson (the stand-in for us, the stolidly bourgeois readers). The first chapter is thrilling, inspiring, funny, serious, treacherous, rivaling the very best of James Bond. Six or so perfectly hewn pages of prose and we are in eternal awe of Holmes -- the true, wounded, brilliant Holmes. He is even too wasted (not on drugs, but on life itself) to feel anything for Watson's attachment to the femme fatale. Not even Sam Spade could be so dead to the world.
Holmes, this Holmes, is like the flotsam washed up on the rocky shore of the Freudian storm to come. He's nervous energy looking for a spark. The mystery itself is fetching enough. But the writing has some really daring brilliance. In a bravado turn, Conan Doyle gives the stage to the criminal confessor at the end and lets him tell, in thousands of his own words, a tale of tropical intrigue and despair that rivals the bleakest Maugham colonial tragedies, with more than a dash of Devil's Island thrown in. It's a dark, powerful tale -- totally devoid of any honor or dignity.
At the end, only Holmes is not moved by its bleakness. After all, the case had been solved by him long before the inevitable confession. And as the world goes back to its loves and pomp and attitude, once the case has been solved, once the sign of the four has been decoded once and for all, Holmes does all that he can to keep going. He reaches for the morocco case.
'Til next time...
Mr. Krimstein is a writer, college professor, cartoonist, father, and grump who lived in New York City, but moved to Chicago. So there.