Student Response to Sign of Four

The figure of Sherlock Holmes dominates all our notions of classic detective fiction.  Though not the first of the genre, Doyle’s tales of the genius sleuth have established a standard to which all subsequent detective fictions are inevitably compared.  I must confess that until now, I had not read any of the Holmes stories.  Not that I was avoiding them – rather our paths had simply not yet crossed.  Thus, I was thrilled to finally meet this enduring icon of Victorian literature.

But without ever reading the novels or short-stories, or for that matter ever viewing the numerous movies or television shows, I had a fairly well defined image in my mind of what a Sherlock Holmes story ought to be like.  In other Victorian novels like Frankenstein, or as we have already observed with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, sometimes our cultural impressions and expectations are drastically different from what we find in the text itself.  I imagined Hyde as a giant brute, not dissimilar to the Hulk (either Incredible or Hogan), but instead was confronted with a pathetic, ugly little imp.  My expectation was born from second-hand cultural references, and because I was again armed only with these second-hand sketches, I was curious to see how much difference there would be between my imaginary, conceptual Holmes and the real, textual one.

And the answer: not one bit of difference at all!  Here he was, just as I had imagined: the master detective able to solve the unsolvable, patronizing his peers, and forever worshipping the holy trinity of observation, deduction, and knowledge. Watson, as the well-meaning emotional contrast to Holmes’s detached factuality, was also just as I had imagined.  I also observed other elements of familiarity, such as the bumbling but well-intentioned policeman, the cunning and greedy criminal, the falsely accused and bewildered victim, and even a suitable love interest for our dear Watson.  The sensational plot itself delivered on all accounts: there was an exotic murder, mysterious disappearance, a chest full of treasure, a period of stagnation overcome by a breakthrough, and even a boat chase to cap it all off. And throughout it all, Sherlock’s prowess is on display via his near super-human levels of observation, deduction, and the scientific evaluation of evidence and theories.  Though perhaps falling just short of an “elementary, my dear Watson” (which I’ve just learned Holmes never actually said!), my general impressions of reading The Sign of Four are comparable to attending a classic rock concert at which the band plays nothing but the hits.

Well, there was one startling new addition to my constructions of the famous Sherlock Holmes – the blatant drug addiction.  Perhaps I’ve come through my preconceptions of the famous detective through mostly family-friendly media, but I was shocked as the very first paragraph of the novel gives a matter-of-fact description of Holmes tying off and shooting up into an arm that is “dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks” (Doyle 49).  I supposed I assumed Holmes to be too much the man of elevated logic and reason to descend to the depths of a common junkie.  However, Douglas Small’s essay, “Sherlock Holmes and Cocaine: A 7% Solution for Modern Professionalism,” succeeds in reconciling Holmes’s drug habit to his character and profession.  Smalls identifies how previously Holmes’s cocaine habit has been interpreted as a marker of his counter-cultural and status as an eccentric (Small 341), and posits his own interpretation of cocaine as “a powerful synecdoche for the focused ideality of Holmes’s professional life” (Small 342).  Small sees cocaine, and specifically Holmes’s mastery of its use, as further evidence of his “absolute ascendancy with that profession,” and proof of the “acute modernity of his professional existence” (Small 342).  Thus, Holmes uses the drug, in his precise manner, to counteract boredom when he cannot engage in his true passion – working on a case.

I like Small’s interpretation more than the notion of the drug habit as simply an accessory to denote Holmes as ‘hip’.  The use of cocaine becomes an extension of the detective’s character – an indication of his intensity, and further proof this is no ordinary man.  As he is presented, Holmes certainly seems a plausible coke-head.  From the moment the case is underway, Holmes goes something like eighty-two hours without sleep – no easy feat.  Also, I like to imagine our good detective fervently smoking several pipes at once, pausing only to make frantic notes on the appearances of the ashes or to shoot up yet again.  Those monographs are certainly daunting without a little help.  Well, an amusing thought, but the Holmes we meet in the novel is quite well composed – which I believe points to Small’s point of Holmes using the drug as both a tool and an artificial stimulant, never advancing to the point of abuse.   It is also worth noting that the drug did not have the same connotations in Doyle’s day is it does in ours.  Small refers to the “innovative, technologically triumphal associations” (Small 354) of cocaine as a wonder-drug of sorts.   Thus, Holmes remains practical in the drug’s utilization, and above all his true passion is the engagement of his spectacular professional talent.

Works Cited

 Doyle, Arthur Conan.  The Sign of Four. Ed. Shafquat Towheed. Peterborough: Broadview, 2010. Print.

Small, Douglas.  “Sherlock Holmes and Cocaine: A 7% Solution for Modern Professionalism.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 58.3 (2015): 341-360. Web.

One thought on “Student Response to Sign of Four

  1. OP,

    I, like you, had never read a Sherlock Holmes detective story until this semester, but I had seen a number of the films and television shows. Like yourself, I was also startled that Holmes has an addiction to cocaine. Perhaps I had already known that from watching the shows and blocked it out from memory, or maybe I had simply never encountered this part of his character before. Whatever the case, I too found it intriguing that he had an addiction to something that bad for him, especially considering that he is a man of superior intellect. I also find it incredible that Holmes is able to function after 82 hours without sleep. I did a quick little Google search for research on the effects of sleep deprivation and discovered that at 72 hours without sleep, a person should “expect significant deficits in concentration, motivation, perception, and other higher mental processes after many sleepless hours.” This long without sleep also makes your mind susceptible to hallucinations. Perhaps the cocaine helps to counteract these effects? .If anything, the very fact that Holmes is still able to “function” after significant sleep deprivation only solidifies him as a “superhuman character”.


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