EN 4223 Sem 5 – Sign of Four and “6 Napoleons”

I.   Doyle’s Detective

Arthur Conan Doyle (b. Edinburgh, 1859) was a doctor by training, who started writing almost to fill time in between seeing patients, but was overtaken by the success of his stories, and switched careers to writing full-time when his stories became wildly popular in the 1890s.  First published story was Study in Scarlet, 1887.  The character of Holmes supposedly modeled on one of his medical professors (Joseph Bell) and the method of scientific/rational enquiry he used.  “Deduction” (Latin “ducere,” i.e. “leading” from one to another) a kind of Victorian super-empiricism, a promise of working “logically” from “facts,” avoiding the uncertainties of “guesswork” (p. 11).  “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner” p. 7.  (Yet note that H is occasionally forced to acknowledge its logical gaps: it arrives at “the balance of probability” rather than absolute certainty (p. 11); elsewhere (H of Baskervilles p. 30) he says it is “the scientific use of the imagination”.

A well-known adventurer, traveler and sportsman, Doyle served in the Boer war (as doctor) and saw the problems of geopolitical conflict first hand (later wrote insightful analyses of the problems of colonialism in works like The Great Boer War, The Crime of the Congo, and The Tragedy of the Korosko – he often took a critical attitude to British colonial-military arrogance, insensitivity, brutality, and inefficiency).  He became involved in a number of prominent legal cases, defending people he believed to have been wrongly imprisoned.  Was also a preacher and missionary, and occasionally played detective when called to do so by adoring fans (art overtaking life).  His mother’s pride in the family, which apparently could be traced back 5 centuries, instilled in him a fascination with English history, chivalry, honour, valour etc (See John Hodgson, Sherlock Holmes: The Major Stories, p. 5).  Hence proliferation of historical romances involving heroes struggling to behave with honour in the midst of chaos (The White Company, Sir Nigel, the Brigadier Gerard stories).  Holmes in some sense might be seen as the modern English knight – struggling to behave honourably, and detect honourable behaviour, in a society much decayed in moral and structural terms.  (His novel The Firm of Girdlestone is a fictional account of the dishonesty, manipulation, transnational reach and even outright violence that is seen in Victorian capitalism, as embodied in one particular firm).

  Like all Victorian “scientists,” Doyle was interested in progress and its problems – the ills that came with Victorian scientific and societal developments, the uneasy thought that perhaps “progress” was in some ways a stagnation or even retardation (in social, spiritual and moral terms).  One of his adventure-romances, The Lost World (geopolitical in its topos of the last hidden corner of the world – a plateau in South America cut off from the rest of the world, stilled filled with prehistoric men and beasts) features a confrontation between a British scientist and a prehistoric man who are doubles of each other.  Novels like Hound of the Baskervilles have characters or episodes questioning whether the Victorians “progress,” and pondering “atavism.”  Animal comparisons and imagery (with reference to human figures) abound in the Holmes stories.

Later in life he became a convert to spiritualism – a vague and loosely-organised “belief system” that maintained that it was possible for man to make contact with various levels of the spirit realm (including ghosts – i.e. departed souls) for the purposes (usually) of gaining esoteric information. 


I.   Introduction - Holmes and Sign of Four

Published 1890, so one of the earlier Holmes stories.  Deals in more expository (rather than taken-for-granted and jaded) fashion with the peculiar nature of Holmes – his dark restlessness, his peculiar status, his detective method, his relationship with Watson, etc.

1.   Holmes as super-detective: continues hyperbolic trend already seen in depiction of Cuff.  “I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection” p. 6.  Characterised by: 

a.   extreme egotism (glories in the acclaim that others accord to him; refers nonchalantly to his “powers” as setting him apart from “prosaic and material” life, p. 12);

b.   a sense of being above (transcending?) normal human emotions and limitations (“But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things.  I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment” p. 117; on numerous occasions he treats others, especially Watson, with cavalier disregard for their feelings, e.g. in chpt 1 when he talks nonchalantly of Watson’s brother’s personal problems);

c.   structural independence: unlike Cuff, he is not subject to official rules nor (technically) to the whims of MC clients (although in one or two stories, e.g. “The Priory School,” he is seen to both receive and welcome/depend on payments).  Calls himself “the only unofficial consulting detective”, p. 6.  This also means that he is in a sense out of step with the official police: thus at the end of the novel, “Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you [Holmes]?”.  In other stories (e.g. “Blue Carbuncle,” “The Abbey Grange,”) he makes seemingly arbitrary decisions to let the villain go: “After all…I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies,” he says at end of “Blue Carbuncle”.

2.   Holmes as Nietzschean “superman” (“ubermensch”): e.g. Beyond Good and Evil (1886):

Every superior human being will instinctively aspire after a secret citadel where he is set free from the crowd, the many, the majority, where, as its exception, he may forget the rule “man” – except in the one case in which, as a man of knowledge in the great and exceptional sense, he will be impelled by an even stronger instinct to make straight for this rule (p. 39)

Also cp. Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness:

“…a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low.  I had…to invoke him – himself – his own exalted and incredible degradation.  There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it.  He had kicked himself loose of the earth…he had kicked the very earth to pieces.” (p. 107)

Superman in geopolitical sense: a response to the crowdedness of the plebeian, the masses, who fill cities and civilization.  Superman is the myth of the exceptional individual, who not only transcends the law of the general/masses, setting a new bar/code by his own “will to power” (“Will zum Macht”), but also in the process creates a new space out of the filled earth - a “citadel” or dark African corner or secret island (Wells’ Dr Moreau, Stevenson’s Jekyll or Attwater, Conrad’s Kurtz) where the dream of a higher/better order seems at least temporarily attainable.

3.   Detective as sign-function: H, in taking detection to the uttermost limit, becomes dehumanized, a pure function, and a sign for something else, rather than a literary/realist character.  (We might say that he has distinct character “traits,” but not the kind of complex rounded character we see in social realism).  This dehumanization – the designification of the human – is not accidental, a Holmesian quirk, but rather inherent in H’s success as a detective: i.e. to be successful is to be utterly professional, which is to be a function rather than a human individual.

Hence the cocaine.  I cannot live without brainwork.  What else is there to live for?  Stand at the window here.  Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world?  See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-coloured houses.  What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material?  What is the use of having powers, Doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them?  Crime is commonplace, existence is commonplace, and no qualities save those which are commonplace have any function upon earth. (p. 12).

The utter professionalism (functionalism) of the detective ultimately colours the whole of society, which is similarly seen in functionalist terms.  Functionalised detective a product of a society in which people have been reduced to signs, human relationships marked mostly by capitalist greed.

4.   Detective and villain: H carries the doubling of detective and villain to its extreme form: W constantly remarks “what a terrible criminal he would have made” p. 44.  In “Charles Augustus Milverton,” H actually turns burglar, in order to serve his client by robbing her blackmailer.  There’s not as much overt doubling between H and villain in this story as in others (especially Hound of Baskervilles, “Spotted Band,” “Empty Room”), but even here we see some uncanny parallels: the “bloodhound” H and Tonga who at first looks like a “Newfoundland dog” (p. 85) (also note Toby the pariah dog who joins H to Tonga, and that the final confrontation takes place after they pass the “Isle of Dogs”); H who pursues the villains with an intensity like he is “on the war path” (p. 78), is metaphorically brought to the level of the cannibal native (W even calls the river pursuit a “mad, flying man-hunt” which gives him a “wild thrill” p. 86); the disguised H stamps his stick angrily on the ground, just as Small had stamped his wooden stump on the ground in Sholto’s room; and of course H’s breakthrough in the case comes when he so effectively “put myself in the place of Small” p. 82.  The Small-Tonga pairing might even be said to mirror the H-W one (and possibly come out better): Small doctors Tonga (W is a doctor, but H rejects his care and advice), and Tonga repays him with unquestioning loyalty (but H is usually cavalier about W, in this story in the episodes of his brother’s watch and the disguise, as well as in many other stories).

             There is a fundamental moral slippage which also blurs the detective-villain opposition: Small doesn’t kill anyone, Tonga does (displacement of vice onto the native other), and in the first place Small is a wronged man, cheated by Sholto. (We might say the real crime is deferred in an infinite regression, much as in Moonstone: behind Small’s crime is Sholto’s treachery, behind which is the murder of Achmet by the 4, behind which is the rajah’s divided loyalties…all with the backdrop of the mutiny, itself a story of wrongs, oppressions, betrayals and violence).  The detective doesn’t so much catch a villain, as uncover a deep stratum of interlocked human evil, which problematises the moral basis of detection and policing.

II.   Holmesian Chronotope:

1.   Not just the “opening up” of MC world to “other” elements as we saw in Moonstone, but actually a kind of descent into an “underworld” – a nightmarish time-space, characterized by frenzied activity and pursuit, dehumanization/devolution (W compares H to a “bloodhound” p. 44), the familiarity of degraded/criminal persons, violence. 

             Detective quest (“deduction”) as a kind of underworld journey, in some ways comparable to “infernal” descents (in Dante, Homer, Bible, but also in the social realism of Zola and Gissing, the modernist/poco narratives of Conrad, etc).  We begin in a Victorian drawing room (221B Baker Street) but very quickly see that this is not so much the sheltered homogenous MC drawing room of social realism, as a kind of hub or portal connected to a number of strange, bizarre and threatening sites and zones: H himself as excessive (cocaine, boredom), dehumanized or meta-human (coldness), ubermensch (independence, professional dedication, superiority), bestial (bloodhound), deceptive (disguise as old seaman) etc.  H as “underworld” guide: he often retains his bearings, and offers landmarks, even when W gives up:

…but soon, what with our pace, the fog, and my own limited knowledge of London, I lost my bearings and knew nothing save that we seemed to be going a very long way.  Sherlock Holmes was never at fault, however, and he muttered the names as the cab rattled through squares and in and out by tortuous by-streets (p. 22).

This literal act of guiding us into the labyrinth of London, prepares us for H’s metaphorical act of initiating us into an underground London (criminal, racial others including the bizarre Tonga, class divide, treachery and division within MC families, etc), and thence to a “colonial underworld.”

See how the folk swarm over yonder in the gaslight…They are coming from work in the yard…Dirty-looking rascals, but I suppose everyone has some little immortal spark concealed about him.  You would not think it, to look at them. (p. 84)

2.   Detective-in-motion: H characterized by restlessness – not just a personality trait, but also a chronotopic feature, denoting the unsettled quality of modern society.  Partly because of work: the many army officers who move in and out of India, also affecting their families (e.g. Mary Morstan who is born in India, shipped back to England as a child, goes to boarding school, then goes to work as governess), war and colonialism (W who comes back from the 2nd Afghan war), but also family structure: separation of parents and children, difficulties in marrying (apart from H, other bachelors include the 2 Sholtos, most of the male servants including the Indian servants), money (which divides the Sholto brothers and causes Thaddeus to move out, and initially divides Mary and W).  The overall structure of the H-texts as a never-ending series of little quests – not a single large epic quest associated with the finding of one’s identity, but a restless constant renewal of little searches/movements that have no bearing on H’s identity.

3.   River Thames, Hellish River, and “Dark Places of the Earth”: if Shifting Sand is one of the key landscape features of Moonstone, then the river Thames is key in Sign of Four.  At a slightly fanciful level, we might say that the Thames, navigated by the Hellish guide H, becomes a kind of underworld river (Styx the river of hate; Acheron the river of woe?) via which we are conducted from life/civilization/order, to death/chaos/barbarism; for it is only with this Thames journey as conducted by H, that we will uncover the mystery, and the cause of the thefts and deaths.

Not merely fanciful, though: at an actual level, it is fittingly the Thames that undergoes a kind of geo-spatial “expansion” to stretch out to the ends of the empire.  Although Thames is the heart of the great city of London, and thus a waterway that symbolized the mercantile power of England, by the geopolitical period the depictions of the Thames were often marked by “dark” connotations: again, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a key text, where Marlow and his listeners sit in the yawl “Nellie” at the mouth of the Thames, and Marlow pronounces this one of the “dark places of the earth” (thus connecting it to another river in which he has undergone a hellish, primal experience – the Congo in Africa).

             The Thames journey in Sign of Four marked by a kind of devolution, a regression from civilization to barbarism: it begins in “gaiety” as H, W and Jones dine together before they embark; next, they remove the green lamp which alone identifies the police launch (p. 80); after the shoot past the main Thames bridges which mark the civil/commercial parts of London, Twilight falls (as they reach the Tower of London: symbol of arbitrary monarchic power, and its fragility? p. 83); then they see the “dirty-looking rascals” who work in the shipyards (the turning point, at which there is a minor digression on the “strange enigma” of man, “a soul concealed in an animal” p. 84).

             They are moving eastward (towards the racial-cultural “other”?), and soon enter the docklands region which is the real core of England’s maritime/mercantile empire – yet the images become more devolved and primal as they proceed.  After rounding the “Isle of Dogs” they encounter Small and Tonga (characteristically bestialized, as a “Newfoundland dog”, then later revealed to be a man, a “savage, distorted creature,” “half animal fury”).  When the boat runs aground they encounter “a wild and desolate place, where the moon glimmered upon a wide expanse of marsh-land, with pools of stagnant water and beds of decaying vegetation” p. 87.  It is the treacherous landscape, rather than H or the police, which apprehends Small (when his stump sinks into the mud).

             Thames thus symbolically associated with the dangerous and primitive Ganges, where Small loses his leg to a crocodile while serving in the British army.  In a sense, the Thames-chase is a continuation of a long saga which connects London with its empire, its armies, its penal system, the wild riches and temptations of India, the savagery of the margins (Andaman islanders, crocodiles, murderous Sikhs).  The point seems to be that, just as the least honourable and most reprehensible criminal is probably the English gentleman Sholto, so likewise the story of the wild margins turns out (after a suitably shocking and elaborate geopolitical spatial expansion) to be the story of the very centre of empire too (London/Thames).

III.    Sign of Four and Moonstone: India in Detective/Social Fiction.

A number of similarities with India in Moonstone: the land of fabulous riches, temptations, violence, where British rule is enforced by the army, but which also releases primal encounters/experiences: just as Herncastle’s inner darkness is catalysed by his tour of duty, so is Small’s life transformed by the brutalities he encounters in India.  Basic purpose is to pry open the seemingly secure MC world in England, by showing its real connections (its moral, social and economic parallels, complicities and networks) with the edge of empire.  Sign of Four does this, among other things, through a series of implicit/symbolic comparisons and parallels: H and Small; H-W and Small-Tonga; Tonga’s “yellow teeth” and Thaddeus Sholto’s teeth; the treachery of Sholto vs the faithful oath of the four; Thames and Ganges.

             Sign of Four’s depiction of India is probably more complex and varied than Moonstone’s, though: heterogeneity of Indians (from blubbering fat merchants to greedy rajahs to oath-keeping warrior Sikhs to “primitive” and yet also strangely faithful Andaman islanders).  Sign of Four is both more exoticising than Moonstone (especially in its exaggerated depiction of Tonga – exaggerating his primitivism and bestiality), as well as more complexly rounded in its depiction of India/Indians (especially in its “inside” depiction of Indian fidelity, in the Sikhs as well as in Tonga – no longer seen from the “outside,” as in Murthwaite’s anthropological depiction of the 3 Brahmins, but the natives are allowed to speak, albeit reported via the (sympathetic/inside) voice of Small.

IV.   Strange case of the disappearing dollar: Detective, capitalism, geopolitics.

Another disappearing treasure, but this one possibly even more evanescent than the moonstone: it’s never really seen in the novel, presumably Sholto has had his hands on it, but other than that, it remains a putative treasure locked in a metal casket (which, when it is finally seized and opened, turns out to be empty).  At least the moonstone is seen again at the end of the novel, repatriated and resacralised; the treasure in Sign of Four simply disappears, with seemingly no hope of its recovery.  Many possible ways to read this, and I don’t want to close off possible readings: but one very plausible one is to see this as a comment on the invisible power of money: it is the treasure which animates everyone (several generations, across continents, from Sholto and Morstan, to the Four, to Small and Tonga, to Jones and the police, to H and W, even Mary Morstan) even as it forbids and controls some (e.g. forbidding W and Mary’s relationship).  To have the actual treasure disappear, after it controls and catalyses the actions of so many agents, reinforces not just the (transnational, timeless/perpetuating) power of capital, but also its systemic nature/effects: capitalism is a system, whose rules and functions operate even when the actual physical presence of money does not obtain.

V.   H and “Buddha”: Detective spirituality: Another way (slightly at odds with the above reading) of reading the disappearing treasure is in terms of a kind of geopolitical/modern spirituality: the clasp on the casket is in the figure of the Buddha, and at dinner H discourses at length on the “Buddhism of Ceylon” (pp. 80, 93).  Without making too much of these brief mentions, we might see them as pointing to the real eclecticism and openness of the spiritual temper in an age of geopolitics (Doyle himself became a convert to spiritualism later in life).  Following that line, we might (if we so chose) see this geopolitical detective fiction as fostering a (admittedly vague, implicit and general) spiritual stance that is meant to be an alternative to the economic rationality of European modernity: the “zen” of detection, the transcendence of H’s life (removed from human desires and weaknesses)?  No longer the kind of generalized “goodness” or “value” that Moonstone possibly depicts/strives for; but rather a kind of super-humanism, in which H (for all his flaws) embodies the future of man, including the only kind of spiritual hope – detached from the greed and treachery around him, only because he is both more and less than the other humans.  It’s not much of a spirituality (although it may have some vague resemblance to Buddhist transcendence of earthly desires like greed and lust – or at least to a vague European understanding of it), but it may be the best we can hope for, in the modern perspective of this text (modernist cynicism?)





VII.   Reading “6 Napoleons” – self-reflexivity, monomania, H as epitome of modern professional man.

Apart from its obvious signs of transnational crime (and thus also transnational detection – an early version of Interpol), this story also has a number of textual clues which point inward, self-reflexively, creating an interesting possibility in the reading (and significance) of Holmes.

1.   Discussion of “monomania”: interestingly, H refuses to talk about it, and changes subject to the “method” of the criminal – so his own monomania (crime, deductive method, the pursuit of the criminal) steps in to prevent a discussion on monomania (which touches too close to home/Holmes?)

2.   After recovering the right bust, H “struck Napoleon a sharp blow on the top of the head” p. 200.  Doubles the criminal Beppo, but also mirrors a Napoleon complex – world-conqueror, superman.  H’s fascination/identification with Nap – “we have not yet met our Waterloo, W…” (“Abbey Grange”).  To strike down Nap. Represents an unconscious desire to supplant and replace him?  But Nap.also projected onto the other – H calls the arch-villain Moriarty the “Napoleon of crime” (“Final Problem”)

                 Nap. Complex in H manifested as going beyond constraints and limits, to be singular and without parallel.  Thus, a quasi-Oedipal battle with society which constrains him – his problematic relationship with the police, in which he constantly asserts his independence of as well as his superiority to them.  But also his constant need to belittle and befuddle W, his refusal to marry or even acknowledge sexual/romantic desire.

             Thus H’s career: instead of being read as the triumph of modernity, rationality and the scientific method, could be read as a perpetual monomania, an obsessive pride and individualism which cannot rest but must constantly record its triumphs over other men.

             Finally, the last/correct Nap. Bust is in “Reading” (p. 202) – is this a narrative clue?  The “pearl” (of literary/cultural wisdom) lies buried in the right “Reading”?  H can find the right bust/pearl, but he misses all the self-reflexive clues (which the reader hopefully does not).  H the epitome of his age is incapable of self-reflexive wisdom, but hopefully the reader can see that he is the icon of a modern age whose very triumphs (progress, success, reach/extent, wealth) are its weaknesses (moral regression, spiritual emptiness, monomania, isolation).


             Detective (Victorian and modern) is in many ways the apt narrative means as well as symbol of a geopolitical era, not only because of what he does – that he covers so much ground and uncovers so much which would otherwise be hidden to MC eyes- ; but also because of what he is – the functionary and representative of society’s rational, systemic, regulatory, capitalist system (i.e. the very processes at the heart of geopolitical modernity).