The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

With the release this month (finally!) of BBC One’s new season of Sherlock, I thought it would be appropriate to focus January’s book blog on the influence Sherlock Holmes had on the Alienist books. With numerous mentions of Holmes in interviews, plus being commissioned by the Conan Doyle estate to write The Italian Secretary in 2005, the importance of the world’s first consulting detective to Caleb Carr’s literary output is clear. But which stories were most important for the Alienist books? With such a large number of short stories and novels to choose from in the Holmes canon, it wasn’t easy to decide which story to focus this particular blog on, but in the end I decided to select The Sign of Four, the second Holmes novel, due to its very clear connections to The Alienist’s sequel, The Angel of Darkness.

What’s it about?

The Sign of FourSherlock Holmes is bored, and that means only one thing: cocaine, a seven percent solution. After offending Watson by deducing the history of his brother’s unhappy past from an inherited pocket watch, Holmes’ multi-week run of idleness is finally broken by the arrival at 221B Baker Street of the pretty yet plainly dressed Miss Mary Morstan, the adult daughter of an officer from an Indian regiment who disappeared ten years earlier.

Pleased that Miss Morstan’s appearance means he won’t have to take a second dose of cocaine that day, Holmes listens intently as he and Watson’s new client recounts her story involving the disappearance of her father, her receipt of anonymous gifts of large and lustrous pearls at yearly intervals following his disappearance, and a letter she received earlier that day informing her that she has been a “wronged woman” and containing instructions on how to meet her anonymous benefactor. The only evidence Miss Morstan can offer Holmes is the anonymous letter and a map with the “sign of four” marked in the left-hand corner that was found among her father’s papers following his disappearance.

As we follow Holmes and Watson in their efforts to solve Miss Morstan’s mystery, we are taken on a typically Holmesian adventure that includes late night carriage rides through the atmospheric foggy streets of London, a stolen treasure, murder by poison dart, a man with a wooden leg, a chase on the Thames via steam launch, and even a blossoming love story for Watson!

My thoughts

The Sign of Four was the second Sherlock Holmes novel written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, first published in 1890. Although I am a long-time Holmes fan and have read the entire canon more than once, this was my first re-read of The Sign of Four for several years and I thoroughly enjoyed my return to the world of 1880s/90s London. As with all of Doyle’s Holmes stories, The Sign of Four is a quick and easy read that lacks the florid embellishments that sometimes detract from Victorian prose. The subject matter of the story, however, is delightfully Victorian in its eccentricity. We are made aware early in the piece that a mysterious character with a wooden leg is involved in the story, and if that isn’t quirky enough, the wooden legged man also has an unusually small accomplice. As any Alienist reader will realise, it is through this accomplice that we find our first and most important connection to The Angel of Darkness.

“…How about this mysterious ally? How came he into the room?”

“Yes, the ally!” repeated Holmes, pensively. “There are features of interest about this ally. He lifts the case from the regions of the commonplace. I fancy that this ally breaks fresh ground in the annals of crime in this country — though parallel cases suggest themselves from India, and, if my memory serves me, from Senegambia.”


He held down the lamp to the floor, and as he did so I saw for the second time that night a startled, surprised look come over his face. For myself, as I followed his gaze, my skin was cold under my clothes. The floor was covered thickly with the prints of a naked foot — clear, well defined, properly formed, but scarce half the size of those of an ordinary man.

Caleb Carr’s inclusion of the Filipino pygmy, El Niño, who also uses poisoned darts as one of his methods of disabling and killing his opponents in The Angel of Darkness, has been thought curious by some readers and reviewers, but he is the novel’s clearest nod to The Sign of Four’s pygmy islander, Tonga. Fun, right? However, the tips-of-the-hat don’t end there!

The Sign of Four also finds the great detective employing the services of Toby, “a queer mongrel, with a most amazing power of scent,” to assist him on the case. When Watson visits the dog’s owner, Mr. Sherman, who keeps a menagerie of creatures in his rundown lodgings, Stevie’s visit to his eccentric friend, Hickie the Hun, from whom he hires a scenting ferret in The Angel of Darkness can’t help being called to mind.

“Step in, sir. Keep clear of the badger, for he bites. Ah, naughty, naughty! would you take a nip at the gentleman?” This to a stoat, which thrust its wicked head and red eyes between the bars of its cage. “Don’t mind that, sir; it’s only a slowworm. It hain’t got no fangs, so I gives it the run o’ the room, for it keeps the beetles down.” … He moved slowly forward with his candle among the queer animal family which he had gathered round him. In the uncertain, shadowy light I could see dimply that there were glancing, glimmering eyes peeping down at us from every cranny and corner.

If that isn’t enough, the climax of The Sign of Four takes place via a steam launch chase on the Thames. Now, perhaps this one is a stretch, but the Alienist team’s employment of Torpedo boats from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to their final confrontation with Libby Hatch in The Angel of Darkness is certainly an interesting coincidence. And finally, one also can’t help wondering if even the title “The Angel of Darkness” was in any way a nod to Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes play, “Angels of Darkness“, which went unpublished until 2000. Hmmm…

So, if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading any of the original Holmes canon, don’t limit yourself to the various TV adaptations. I highly recommend that you give the originals a try, and Alienist fans should find it extra fun to use their powers of observation and deduction to spot any other connections to the books!

What do you think? Leave a comment!

New Locations: Grand Central Depot & Madison Square Garden

In the Big City Book Club chat with Caleb Carr this time last year, one reader commented that they had not been aware that the Grand Central Depot had been the precursor to the Grand Central Terminal as New York’s primary railway station. As I thought other readers may be interested to learn a little more of the history of this lost piece of New York history, I have now added a brief history of this early depot to the New York City locations page of the site, along with a venue visited by John More and Mary Palmer in the novel that also had railroad ties, Madison Square Garden (and was the site of a sensational murder in the early 20th century). A copy of the depot’s entry from the locations page has been included below.

Grand Central Depot

Address: 42nd Street and Park Avenue, New York, NY
Featured in The Alienist (see map)

1880_Grand_CentralWithin The Alienist, Dr. Kreizler and John Moore take a brief trip to Washington D.C. via a train departing from the Grand Central Depot to search for further clues about John Beecham’s life prior to his arrival in New York City. The precursor to New York’s current Grand Central Terminal, the Grand Central Depot was the largest train station in the country at the time it was built in 1871 by Cornelius Vanderbilt, and covered an area of 37 acres stretching between 42nd and 48th Streets, and from Lexington to Madison Avenues.1,2 At the time of the depot’s opening, 42nd Street was the northernmost edge of the city and took 45 minutes by trolley to travel to from the central business district.2 With rural homesteads and grazing animals visible across the street from the depot, critics complained that the new station was “neither grand nor central”.1 Nevertheless, 42nd Street was the closest point that the depot could be constructed due to a law passed in the mid-1850s forbidding passenger trains to pass any further into the city.1,2

The station proper, an attractive French Second Empire style building designed by John B. Snook, serviced the three major rail lines in New York at the time — the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, the New York and Harlem Railroad, and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad — with each maintaining their own waiting, baggage, and ticketing facilities in three separate towers of the building. Mansard caps topped each tower and displayed the name of the train line on their upper facades.2 Located behind the L-shaped station proper was an immense train shed more than 652 feet long that became the second most popular tourist attraction in the United States. Inspired by London’s Paddington Station, this engineering marvel, with an arched glass and wrought iron ceiling 112 feet high, contained 12 tracks separated by raised platforms. At night the glass ceiling was illuminated by gas lamps, giving the structure an otherworldly glow.1,2

Interior-of-Grand-Central-DepotEven though the impressive depot had cost $6.4 million to build2, the design was not without its problems. The large number trains that used the station (up to 85 per day) could only exit in reverse, and the open tracks that ran northward from the depot were a death trap for anyone attempting to cross them. Even when footbridges were built, the steam from the trains made the area noisy, chaotic, and dangerous.1 Given the problems with its original design, the decision was made to lower many of the tracks below street level, first with a deeply cut roofed over and then with a multistory tunnel that ran from 96th Street and fanned into 41 tracks on the upper level at 57th Street, and 26 tracks on the lower level.3 The station proper also underwent renovations in 1898 to accommodate the now 1.5 million commuters using the depot daily. Three floors were added to the 42nd Street frontage, and the three towers were changed from Second Empire style mansard caps to a French Renaissance style design.2

Even with the 1898 renovation, the facilities offered by depot were considered inadequate to the demands of the ever-expanding city. Customer service was poor and crime within the station was high.4 Moreover, although the lowering of the tracks had eliminated the problems associated with the original open tracks, they had created an even deadlier problem: the smoke-filled tunnels had extremely poor visibility.1,2 In 1891, the first head-on collision of commuter trains took place, resulting in passengers being trapped and burnt alive under the wreckage.4 When the tragedy was repeated in 1902, with a passenger train from New Rochelle crashing full-speed into a stopped train from Connecticut, the city put forth a requirement that all tracks become electrified.1,2 This was the final straw for the outdated depot, and a proposal to build a new $35 million station in the depot’s place was advanced that completely separated pedestrian, train, subway, and automobile traffic.1,3

Eleven years later, New York’s current Grand Central Terminal was opened in the original depot’s place. Although Cornelius Vanderbilt did not live to see the new magnificent Beaux Arts station, the Vanderbilt family retained control over the railroad until the 1950s when preservationists prevented the family from demolishing the terminal.2


1. Reiss, Marcia, “Lost New York” 2011.
2. Miller, Tom, “Daytonian in Manhattan: The Lost 1871 Grand Central Depot — 42nd Street” 4 Feb. 2013. Link.
3. Jackson, Kenneth T., “The Encyclopedia of New York City” 1995.

What do you think? Leave a comment!