Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“My mind," he said, "rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”
For a few years when I was a kid, my dad gifted me a Sherlock Holmes book every year on my birthday. As a result, I have the entire collection (in fancy hardback form with spines printed in various tie patterns), and have been dutifully packing it up and moving it from home to home over the course of the past 20 years or so, but I never actually cracked one open.  Turns out that was probably for the best.

In this, Doyle's second account of Holmes and Watson's adventures, a woman comes to them with a mystery. After her father's death many years ago, she started receiving anonymous valuable gifts in the mail, and she suspects foul play. Holmes and Watson investigate and uncover a complicated web of deceit tracing back decades and across continents. The tale unfolds in a style I've come to associate with Sherlock Holmes from various screen adaptations adaptations; the case seems to be following a particular path and then Holmes has some flash of completely random insight, and immediately everything falls into place. Even though this was my first foray into reading a Holmes mystery, the format already felt a little trite.

Far more concerning, however, was the rampant sexism and troubling Orientalism at the core of the story. Holmes actually says the words: "Women are never to be entirely trusted--not the best of them" and the story is entirely devoid of women who are not damsels in distress or token wives included to move the plot along. The depictions of India and various other British colonies are even more problematic and stereotypical, and it reads like an incredibly racist ethnocentric account of colonial superiority. Inhabitants of the various islands are described as "savages" and are generally dehumanized and reduced to animalistic features and tendencies. No one, not even Watson (the rational and often more enlightened of the pair), seems to bat an eyelash.

I realize that this must have been par for the course at the time, but it does not age well, and the mystery was not worth the constant racist and sexist undertones (and often overtones!). I'm not feeling particularly inclined to dig into any of the rest of my collection any time soon.

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