No Place Like Holmes’s

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four (1890)

May contain spoilers

If I could bothered to stand up and move a pile of books and a chair, I could probably tell you when I bought or was bought my Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes — I suspect it would have been toward the start of the Jeremy Brett adaptations although I suspect I read The Hound of the Baskervilles from the library at around the time of the Tom Baker one. I associate reading the complete poems of William Blake with waiting for A Level Results; I suspect reading Holmes coincided with my O Levels, and I risked bringing with it the same degree of geekishness I had brought to reading Tolkien — I knew that Watson seemed to have had two wives, his wound was through his leg into his shoulder* and he even seemed to change names. The continuity of “The Final Problem”, “The Empty House” and The Hound of the Baskervilles cause problems as during the period of real people thinking him dead, the fictional characters would know Holmes was actually alive (and the dates of the novel don’t work for its year or … something).

I’m less clear when I bought a pile — I think two piles — of Oxford Sherlock Holmes volumes, which presumably were busting UK copyright. I’m not sure I have a complete set of these, but I did find the second novel that is set in September 1887.

This is possibly a problem.

Holmes had first appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887 and was the work of a young Scottish doctor with literary ambitions. It was successful, but Conan Doyle turned to other fiction before being persuaded to return to Holmes — it seems at a lunch at the Langham Hotel where fellow diner Oscar Wilde pitched The Picture of Dorian Gray — and in time was persuaded to write stories about his creation for The Strand, from 1891-93, at which point Holmes gets killed off. Hound was serialised 1901-2, with more stories 1903-4, 1908-1913, the serialisation of the fourth and final novel The Valley of Fear 1914-15, and the final stories 1917 and 1921-27.

The stories follow a recognisable pattern: a cameo of life at 221b Baker Street (and references to other cases), a client about whom a deduction is made, the outline of a case, initial investigations (usually running into the less than stellar police detectives), a breakthrough, an unmasking and a final cameo.

The novels tend to break with this pattern — very few of the stories break from Watson’s point of view and Conan Doyle perhaps instinctively knew that Holmes needed to be kept out of the limelight. Study and Valley have lengthy back stories that take up most of the second half of the novels and Hound has Watson go down to Devon alone (alone Holmes is never far from sight). My thirty-year-old memory gave Sign this lengthy exposition of the villain’s past, but it turns out to be a lengthy monologue. Otherwise — with one important difference — it follows the pattern of the short stories — or, perhaps, establishes it.

This is the story that begins with Holmes shooting up cocaine and ribbing Watson about his publication of Study, before the pretty Miss Mary Morstan shows up with tale of a missing father, a tale of a pearl sent to her every year since 1882 and an invitation to visit someone who offers to Tell Her Something To Her Advantage. Holmes and Watson escort her, and they meet Thaddeus Sholto — you don’t meet many Thaddeuseseses these days — who tells them of a story of treasure obtained in India, of Mary’s father’s death from a heart attack and of the rest of the treasure of which she is partly rightful heir. This leads them to Thaddeus’s brother, Bartholomew, who has the treasure, but he is murdered and Holmes and Watson are on the murderer’s trial, whilst Inspector Athelney Jones arrests everyone in sight.

Aside from the India-set confession, the action is set in London — and we are immediately transported back to a gas-lit world of fog and Hansom cabs…

… Well, to a point.

There are three other immortal London-set novels of the late nineteenth century — well, actually many others but this is a rhetorical flourish — Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Dorian Gray and Dracula (1897). These are works of a Scot — and Jekyll and Hyde could as easily be set in Edinburgh Old Town — and two Dubliners. For that matter, Gissing came to London as an outsider. Conan Doyle was also from Edinburgh — and imagines the semi real Baker Street from the inside, before transporting his characters in a sealed cab across the river to Upper Norwood, and later along the Thames on foot to Smith’s Wharf and by boat as far as the Tower of London.

It is a set of routes that can be traced on an A to Z.

Indeed, Conan Doyle, living in Southsea, apparently wrote with his father’s map at his side, explaining a couple of roads bearing old names or a post office not quite being in the right place. And also, perhaps, the thinness of the description. We get a mention of the Millbank Penitentiary, a couple of years before its demolition to make way for the Tate Gallery, but no sense of what it looks like.

But we’re carried away on the plot and don’t notice. Gissing was rather more active in plotting The Nether World.

Mary, an underused Mrs Hudson and a boatman’s wife are pretty well the only women in the novel — Mary is viewed largely through Watson’s big puppy eyes and shows no sign of being a secret agent or anything like that, the wife is rather patronised by Holmes, but that’s Holmes. Watson’s viewpoint also makes the novel’s attitudes to people from India (Moslems, Hindus and Sikhs are perhaps insufficiently delineated) and the savage assassin with a blow pipe rather more connected to his attitudes than sensing racism in Doyle (which may or may not be there; the Moffat-Gatiss adaptations do rather sniff of racism without this filter). I wonder if an antiimperial case could be made for the central villain being a British person who was trying to steal jewels that rightfully belong to the people of India and the sticky end he comes to.

Meanwhile — according to the notes of the Oxford edition — Thaddeus has been thought to have some of the characteristics of one Oscar Wilde, although “Sholto’s aesthetic prejudices are closer to popular prejudices of Wilde than to Wilde himself.” (127) It is half a decade before the fall of Wilde, but is it worth noting that in the vogue for queer bachelor novels — Jekyll and his male friends, Dorian and his, the Time Traveller and his and so forth — this novel concludes with Watson proposing to Mary Morstan, without the embarrassment of her inheritance outweighing his literary earning and pension? Watson is safely ined — and it is in the next story, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, that the misogynistic Holmes finds his unrequited match.

And those earnings? Morstan receives six pearls, beginning in 1882, taking the start of the story to September 1887. Unless Beeton’s Christmas Annual was published before September 1887 (and the introduction here tells us “The story had been submitted to Ward, Lock & Co. In September 1886 … He was […] to wait a full year before the story was published” (xi)), then Watson’s account had surely not yet been published.

Andrew Lane notes some of the continuity errors in the canon and also critiques the looseness of the social analysis of money and relative income of characters. He notes the thinness of the descriptions of London — an almost complete absence of the Underground — and made the intriguing point that it is from Conan Doyle that we get our imagined version of London even though he barely describes it. It is as if the fog is everything.

Although you might think for a book about literary London, the lack of London might be a problem.


  • Lane, Andrew (2013) “Arthur Conan Doyle The Sign of Four“, in Andrew Whitehead and Jerry White (eds) London Fictions (Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications).
  • Conan Doyle, Arthur (1993) The Sign of the Four, edited by Christopher Roden (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics).

* You have to imagine Watson sat on a hilltop, pulling a boot on. A bullet, fired from below, passes through his leg and lodges in his shoulder. Jolly bad show.

I don’t recall where I read this, alas.

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