Here comes Holmes more politically incorrect than a 1970’s Vegas lounge act. More dissolute than a night out on Sunset Boulevard with Charlie Sheen. This book has it all: drug abuse, breathtaking ethnic slurs and little lady sexism. They just don’t make them like this anymore.
Victorian society was brutally different from the one in which we live today. Cocaine Opium and Hashish were over the counter cure alls. Women had rights, but only the ones their fathers and husbands gave them. As for the question of ethnicity—the British Empire ruled the world so anything those appalling sandal wearing poor people wanted was not only an effrontery but a downright liberty.
It is understandable therefore that many of the sentiments in The Sherlock Holmes books are now dated and the Sign of Four is no exception. Holmes shoots Cocaine on the very first page, which puts to rest many of the quaint ideas we have of this charachter. This is because the legend and success of Holmes has trancended the reality and it is only through re-reading the original books that we can once again understand who Sherlock Holmes is.
More important however is our understanding of the long suffering Watson— or at least we think he is long suffering, because once again the popular image of Watson as bumbling side man is quite wrong.
In the original novels by Conan Doyle, Watson is an independent voice of reason, a narrator and counter point to Holmes’s egotism and excess. He is a doctor but also a military man, a man of action who admires the strengths of Holmes but also understands his many failings. Jude Law’s portrayal of Watson in the recent Guy Ritchie movie is probably the most accurate cinematic portrayal of the character to date.
The Sign of Four is a tale of murder, treasure and vengeance. We get a manic one legged baddie and his midget blowpipe wielding assistant. Tightly corseted ladies get the vapours. Fog swirls and horse drawn carriages clatter through the streets of London. Morals and the Kings English are highly regarded. And those sandal wearing Foreigners? ‘The Hindoo always goes barefoot, where as the Mohamedean has larger big toes because of the thonged sandals they wear.’ Elementary my dear Watson.