The Sign of the Four, or “Drugs and the Victorian Detective”

So, this post was supposed to go up Monday evening, but it got slightly delayed by nine episodes of The Walking Dead which apparently needed to be watched after I got home from work.  Blame my sister; she’s the one who finally wore me down and got me to watch the show.

Sunday was Sir Arthur’s 157th birthday.  If I were a better organized person, I would have had this post up then.  Instead, I celebrated by attending Planet Comicon in Kansas City this weekend, reading this week’s story during the drive back and forth with Lisa of The Prolific Trek and while standing in one line or another.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot Holmesian about the con to really make it relevant here, but I can squeeze it to fit enough for one quick mention.  How?  Well…


Jenna Coleman, Planet Comicon panel 2016.  A very Charlotte look, I think.  Can see the mischievous wheels turning.

Yes, the living embodiment of Charlotte, Jenna Coleman, was in attendance, and she was very nice and put on a great (if shortened) panel.  I also may have reconsidered my view on Book One’s villain thanks to that con, and not even because of the “What Makes a Good Villain” panel I attended.  Let’s just say, I’m reconsidering my casting and a few small details about him and his backstory.

The Sign of the Four

I thought I knew what I was going to write about when I got to the second of Doyle’s Holmes novels.  It’s probably the book I’ve spent the most time with.  I mentioned in an earlier post that it’s my favorite.  I’ve listened to the audiobook version at least a dozen times and read it more frequently than any of the others.  While I haven’t always been a big fan of Mary Morstan (excepting the BBC “Sherlock” version, who was awesome from day one), I do enjoy Watson fumbling through the romance. He’s adorable in his insecurity and we get to see all of it play out from his perspective.

I planned to write about that romance and how Watson’s marriage changed the dynamic of the Holmes and Watson partnership when I got here; I also planned on the accompanying story focusing on the introduction of Miss Morstan into Charlotte and Watson’s lives and how that affects all aspects of it.  The problem is, now that I’m here, I’m not ready.  See, I already know how this is going to go, and I’m not prepared to dive into it yet.

Mary’s an interesting character, not so much because of what Doyle put into her, but the public reception to her, moreso in the adaptions than the books.  Not a lot of people are ambivalent about her presence – she’s loved or hated without much shade of gray, and the reasons vary.  (At least with BBC’s “Sherlock” some of the irritation has to do with Mary getting in the way of John and Sherlock’s “true love.”)  But Mary isn’t the only polarizing aspect of canon we’re introduced to in Sign of the Four.  Some would call Holmes’ use of narcotics in the canon merely recreational, or would point to the acceptability of cocaine and morphine at the time the stories were written.  Others apply a fairly weighted term to our beloved detective based on his behavior.

That term is addict.

Which is it Today? Morphine or Cocaine?

The second novel in the Sherlock Holmes canon starts off with Holmes prepping a syringe and then giving himself an injection.  Watson then tells us that this has been a three-times-a-day habit for months.  Many months, in fact.  The good doctor, contrary to his contemporaries, objects to his friend’s habits – Watson’s belief in the ill effects of cocaine flew in the face of medical opinions of the era, including that of Sigmund Freud, who saw no detriment in the use of narcotics.  But Watson’s objections don’t stop Holmes from indulging; in fact, he dismisses the concerns by telling Watson “I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment.”

If that doesn’t sound enough like an addict’s rationalization, look at this iconic bit of dialogue from the same conversation:

“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 the mental exaltation.”

It takes a missing captain, mysterious packages, a damsel in distress, a murder, a missing treasure, a native savage (let’s just not touch that right now), and a high-speed boat chase through the Thames to provide Holmes enough stimulation to keep him from the contents of his morroco case.  That’s an awful lot of distraction necessary to keep someone sober.

There are other instances of Holmes’ use or familiarity with drugs.  In “The Man With The Twisted Lip,” Watson accidentally stumbles upon Holmes undercover in an opium den, a type of location he seems a little too familiar with.  In “Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson describes Holmes’ life on Baker Street without him as “buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.”  We also know that Watson helped Holmes kick the habit sometime before “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarters” because he tells us as much:

For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career. Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus, but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead but sleeping, and I have known that the sleep was a light one and the waking near when in periods of idleness…

Dithering Over Definitions

So why do people complain so loudly that “Elementary,” “Sherlock,” and even the Guy Ritchie “Sherlock Holmes” movies don’t shy away from calling an addict an addict?  I’ve heard and read people who like to wave the canon around and swear Doyle never wrote Holmes that way.  Or they’ll point to the era and the legality of the substances in question as if that made it impossible for someone to be addicted to them.  Or they’ll trot out definitions of addiction and then go to great lengths to show how Holmes doesn’t meet them.  I work in behavioral health, so let me spare you the dictionary definitions and tell you how American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction:

Addiction is a primary, chronic, neurobiologic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. Addiction is characterized by behaviors that include one or more of the following:

  • Impaired control over drug use
  • Compulsive use
  • Continued use despite harm
  • Cravings

So let’s look at this.  Addiction is marked by the presence of impaired control over a substance, compulsive use of it, continuing to use it despite ill effects, and a craving for the substance.  I’m pretty sure that using something three times a day, for MONTHS, despite your best friend the doctor telling you it’s probably not good for you, and being compelled to use it because you’re bored, probably fits, whether there’s marked impairment during use or not.  That isn’t recreational.  That’s a crutch.  That’s physical or mental dependence.  That is the working definition of addiction.

Maybe the most telling note, for me, is Holmes’ own parting line at the end of Sign: after Watson informs Holmes that he and Mary are engaged and they have discussed the conclusion of the case, Watson muses about the fact he got a wife out of the deal and Inspector Athelney Jones gets the credit.  He asks, very simply, what Holmes gets out of the equation.  Holmes answers:

“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine-bottle.”  And he stretched his long white hand up for it.

That isn’t someone reaching for a little mental stimulation.  That’s an addict reaching for a fix.

2 thoughts on “The Sign of the Four, or “Drugs and the Victorian Detective”

  1. Based on your comments this weekend, I knew this would be your topic. The whole “it was legal” argument seems really strange in the face of alcoholism. I mean… Legal doesn’t mean not addicting?

    Also… Dimples. All the dimples.


    • I’ve never understood the argument for exactly that reason. The legality of the substance has nothing to do with whether or not you can become addicted to it. It’s almost like they feel like Holmes is being morally insulted by the term and the only defense is “he’s allowed to do it because it’s legal and so he’s not doing anything wrong! Stop picking on him!”

      Liked by 1 person

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