Student Response to Sign of Four

I must admit, I have never read any of the Sherlock Holmes novels. I have of course heard of the characters and watched some of the various television adaptations based on the character. However, as I read the novel, The Sign of Four, I was pleasantly surprised, which reaffirmed my belief that ‘the book really is better than the movie’. Like any good book, I couldn’t put it down and as the adventure picked up momentum, so did the rapidity of the page flipping. Much like a train picks up speed, I flipped the pages in the hopes of solving the mystery faster, which of course does nothing, but it was worth a try.

So after this slight transgression, back to the topic, which I want to discuss. Imagine that your favourite actor/actress or author just came out with this amazing piece of work, which you absolutely fell in love with. But wait. You find out that it is based off of a similar idea and critics are now criticizing your favourite movie or book. I was reading an article the other day, which stated that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ‘plagiarized’ The Sign of Four. In Stephen Bertman article “Kindred Crimes: Poe’s ”The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and Doyle’s The Sign of Four”,  he draws together a series of parallels between Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes and Poe’s C. August Dupin. He also suggests a striking similarity between the two plots. Accordingly, the plot of both stories follows a similar structure: “an extended discussion of the mind’s analytical powers” (207), a murder by an individual of foreign origins (an orangutan in Poe’s and an aborigine named Tonga in Doyle’s), murder by a blunt object that physically penetrates the victim (a knife in Poe’s and a poisonous arrow in Doyle’s), and at last, a resolution that nicely wraps up the whole crime.

For me, Sherlock Holmes is an unconventional character, who jumps out of the pages of the novel and becomes, in a way, a part of people’s lives. His staggering intellect, while at times off putting and cold, is a nice change from the typical ‘mushy’ protagonists who desire to be loved and involved. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with the romantic characters prevalent in some literature, just that it is refreshing to encounter a character who embraces his oddities. Instead he is a character who, when given “the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis,” (Doyle 9) is at home in his “own proper atmosphere” (Doyle 9).

So, imagine my surprise when I encountered Bertman’s article and the suggestion that the Sherlock Holmes novels and the detective himself, were based off of another author’s work. In implying this, Sherlock Holmes in some way, at least at first, becomes less of a work of sheer magnitude, and is reduced to the pile of rewrites and adaptations.

Therefore, I pose a question, or rather a series of questions, that may cause more problems than solutions. As readers, should our view of Sherlock Holmes and the plot of The Sign of Four be tainted by this new knowledge? Should the masterpiece and artful creation rendered by Doyle, be affected in any way, or is it simply enough to look at the two pieces as distinct from one another? Much in the way that our course is examining the ways in which different bodies interact with one another, Doyle and Poe’s pieces seem to interact with one another, even if just in the sense that the two follow the same crime novel troupe. Even if you believe that Doyle ‘plagiarized’ The Sign of Four, it is  important to question the influence that earlier works had on Victorian writing and how the Victorians subsequently took themes and expanded upon them. By looking and comparing the works of the Victorians and those that came before, we as English students stand to gain a better understanding of Victorian society, culture, and the motivations behind their actions. And while some critics argue that “Sherlock Holmes is a much more interesting character than Poe’s Dupin” (208) (which I write, nodding my head slightly), this line of defense is not necessarily altogether sound. While Doyle may have improved Poe’s ideas and devices (Bertman 208), creating a character, which has spurred ‘fandoms’ long into the 21st century, credit should be given where credit is due.

I guess what I am trying to articulate, is that I was surprised to learn that The Sign of Four, a novel that I am surprisingly addicted to, is not as unique as I initially thought. I realize now that this should not have come as quiet of a shock, considering that the Victorian era was a time for the people to re-examine previous ideas and themes.

 Works Cited

 Bertman, Stephen. “Kindred Crimes: Poe’s ”The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and            Doyle’s The Sign of Four.The Edgar Allan Poe Review 15.2 (Autumn 2014):   205-210. JSTOR Journals. Web. 29 February 2016.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Sign of Four. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2001.          Print.

2 thoughts on “Student Response to Sign of Four

  1. Speaking of adaptations, I found The Sign of Four’s Sherlock Holmes to be strikingly similar to the most recent Robert Downey Jr. version of Holmes. They both seem to socially disjointed intellectuals with a knack for fisticuffs. On that note, some ideas are just worth reusing. It is entirely possible that Arthur Conan Doyle borrowed from Poe. If every plot had to be entirely new, we would not have our favorite genres. Arguably every revenge story is the same. I suppose a mystery story deserves more scrutiny due to the complex nature of the plot, but if it feels fresh, why fight it? Plagiarism is on another level but if Doyle didn’t write his version we might not have the detective novel as we know it. I am all for reusing a good plot if the rest of the work feels new. I didn’t plagiarize this comment.


  2. I also had a similar experience reading The Sign of Four. Detective novels tend to have that effect one me; I want to solve the mystery. I was unaware that Doyle could have based his novella off of Poe’s work, but this does not surprise me. I agree with Matt, that as long as authors do not plagiarize, reusing ideas in a “fresh” way is fair game. I also agree with your point that borrowing ideas is common in literature, remaining true today, and studying the progression of literature through different periods enriches our understanding. Sherlock Holmes remains a prominent literary figure, and most likely will in the years to come. His fascinating abilities and his unique personality captures generations.


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