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One thing that surprised me about The Sign of Four is its brevity - only 76 pages in my Complete Sherlock Holmes. But I think this shows a somewhat more disciplined approach by Doyle, and also perhaps a growing awareness that "less is more" which leads to the success of the short stories. It's still not as tight as it could be - once again the actual mystery, which is literally a locked-room murder, gets rather sidelined in the tale of dangerous foreigners coming to disrupt London to gain an ancient revenge, though this time they are thieves from the East (and in fact, of the two only one is actually foreign, it is the other who is actually the thief, and it is really the conveniently dead English fathers, Sholto and Morstan, who are the villains) rather than religious fanatics from the West.

There's a lot of family in this short book. We start with Watson and his brother, then we encounter the Morstans, the Sholtos, and Jonathan Small and his adopted family of fellow conspirators with the child-like Tonga (very small; can't talk properly; er, also kills people with a blowpipe - I admit the analogy is not perfect). The book ends with the establishment of a new family as Watson gets engaged to Mary Morstan, who he has known for, what, two days? Of course, the point is to increase the dramatic effect as the reader imagines his or her normal family life being disrupted by the mistakes of previous generations, but I found it striking.

Sherlock Holmes has no family. (Mycroft and Vernet are in the future.) For him, as he says at the end, "there still remains the cocaine-bottle." I can't think of another novel which portrays the use of cocaine in such a positive light - "so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind". In fact, I can't think of many novels about drug use at all, other than Philip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs, and Hunter S. Thompson, and even their more enthusiastic moments have a conscious sense of self-destruction about them. Again, Doyle is more subversive than I had realised. (And he has another, if briefer, go at the cosy relationship between the media and the police.)

I'm finding more in these than I had expected to. On to the classic short stories next.

Edited to add: new userpic is from a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle to my distant cousin Frederic.)


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 25th, 2011 12:35 pm (UTC)
There are good reasons why the Holmes stories have survived this long; Doyle knew how to craft good puzzles and find ways to make them interesting to the reader, and in Holmes and Watson he created strikingly enduring characters.
Feb. 25th, 2011 01:14 pm (UTC)
I can't think of another novel which portrays the use of cocaine in such a positive light

Well, that won't last! There's more than one story later on where Watson rails strongly against Holmes's use of it. And then there's the story partly set in an opium den, which is in large part about the evils of that drug.

Perhaps Doyle became more aware of the downside of drugs later on, or perhaps in his attempt to represent Holmes's views here he felt that he had been unwisely uncritical.

Also: cool userpic! :)
Feb. 25th, 2011 03:19 pm (UTC)
To be honest, I don't think it is out of step with the attitudes of the era. Blanket disapproval of non-medical drug use is really a 20th century phenomenon. Obviously there was the known problem of physical addiction with opiates, but Britain had after all fought two wars to maintain the opium trade, so even there attitudes were probably ambivalent. Also, cocaine was a new drug whose medical use was only just being explored - Freud actually experimented with it as a treatment for morphine addiction, as I recall. Since Doyle was himself a doctor, it may be that he just followed the continuing research on side effects and so on, in which case Watson is just reflecting the contemporary medical consensus as it changes?
Feb. 27th, 2011 06:29 pm (UTC)
Oh I'm not saying Doyle was out of step -- at least not with the medical establishment. As I say, he may have become gradually more aware of the negative aspects later.

But having seen how he depicts general public attitudes to opium dens and opium use, I think it's also possible that he was reflecting a real dichotomy or debate. As with everything, I'm sure there were those who were whole-heartedly in favour and those who were totally opposed. And as you say, there may well have been a social distinction between opiates and cocaine. The impression I have is that opium and perhaps other drugs was/were disapproved of by society, but that at that time there was a much stronger feeling against government interference in people's private lives than there is today.

Perhaps, given all this, Doyle felt that as a doctor, it was unwise to show Holmes as having a positive attitude without giving a counterbalancing opinion.
Feb. 28th, 2011 08:31 am (UTC)
There is a clear difference between opium and cocaine in the stories. Both Holmes and Watson disapprove of opium use; Watson also disapproves of cocaine, though Holmes uses it. Note that on almost every other occasion when the two have a difference of opinion, Holmes turns out to be right and Watson is exposed as too unimaginative and rigid a thinker. I think Doyle's message is perfectly clear.
Feb. 28th, 2011 02:07 pm (UTC)
If you're saying Doyle is coming down on Holmes's side, then it might seem clear in The Sign of Four -- but that attitude seems to be strongly contradicted in some of the later stories. I can't remember the titles, but ISTR there's one where Holmes nearly kills himself with cocaine. Later, Watson says he's actually managed to get Holmes to stop, at least temporarily.
Feb. 25th, 2011 07:00 pm (UTC)
>>(very small; can't talk properly; er, also kills people with a blowpipe - I admit the analogy is not perfect). << If I'd had a blowpipe at a young age, it might have been more perfect ;)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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