Category: Book Review

Book Review: The Sign of Four

A version of this review appeared in 2011.

The Sign of Four begins when a young woman comes to Sherlock Holmes with a problem. Her father disappeared from his hotel in London on returning on leave from India. She began receiving a pearl a year for the past six year from an anonymous benefactor. She wants Holmes and Watson to accompany her to the mysterious rendezvous. The benefactor informs the party of a fabulous treasure that the young woman is entitled to. However, the benefactor’s brother is found dead and Scotland Yard jumps to conclusions and charges the kindly gentleman as the murderer.

Holmes has to uncover what really happened, free the innocent man, and find the real killer.

The story is wonderfully paced with plenty of excitement, from chasing down the criminals through the use of a dog to another appearance by the Baker Street irregulars, and a thrilling boat chase for the climax of the story.

More than a century after it was first written, the novel shows little sign of its age.  The Sign of Four is well-paced, exciting, and even action-packed story.  It represents Doyle at his finest in many ways.

The puzzle has a touch of the bizarre with its use of exotic weapons and strange footprints, but not too bizarre as seemed to me to be the case in some later Holmes stories such as “The Creeping Man.”

While in Study in Scarlet, we learned about Holmes, in this book we begin to see Holmes’ personality: the genius driven to avoid a hum drum existence, who seeks out trouble to find some problem to keep his attention.

The novel is also noteworthy for its focus on Holmes’ use of cocaine.  Dr. Watson (and by extension Dr. Doyle) were concerned about the use of cocaine in the late 19th Century and its negative effects. However, Doyle wasn’t heavy handed in his approach, and so Watson’s concern sounds more like a modern doctor’s concern with eating too many trans fatty foods. And Holmes is blaise about it, leading to some interactions and statement that may seem surreal or humorous to the modern reader.

If you can get past that, Sign of Four is truly a classic that every fan of detective fiction should read.

Rating 5.0 stars out of 5.0

Note: You can download this book free for your Kindle here. It also should be available for free for other e-readers.

Book Review: Murder on the Links

Murder on the Links is the second Poirot novel by Agatha Christie and entered the public domain in the United States on January 1 of this year. Poirot is summoned to France by a wealthy man needing his urgent assistance. Poirot arrives to find the man murdered and sets out to solve the case.

There are some marked improvements from the first Poirot book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. For one thing, the action gets going far more quickly. We have the dead body at the end of Chapter One.

The plot itself is clever, with a nice collection of red herrings and misdirection for Poirot, Hastings, and the reader to sort through. In addition, there’s a mysterious woman who Hastings is smitten with and may have something to do with the murder.

In this book, Poirot is still developing into the man he’d become in the later books, but he does take several steps away from the more Holmesian feel of the first book as he indicates his focus is more than the psychological than physical evidence. Captain Hastings in love is also an interesting character, even though he complicates Poirot’s efforts because of his feelings for the young woman twice (though he only did it intentionally once.)

The one thing I think didn’t work awas the idea of giving Poirot a rival investigator to play off against. Though in the book it doesn’t bother me as much as it did in the TV and radio adaptations.

Overall, this was a well-crafted mystery with a clever solution. It’s nice to see Poirot’s development as a character, and this book holds up pretty well.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

If you’re in the United States You can download Murder on the Links for free from Project Gutenberg

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Graphic Novel Review: The Prisoner: The Uncertainty Machine

The Prisioner, Volume 1:The Uncertainity Machine collects Titan’s four-issue Prisoner mini-series . Set in modern times, an MI-5 agent resigns in disgust when his partner (and romantic interest) is left behind on a mission in the Middle East and he finds himself captured and taken to the Village.

There’s some good things to say about the book and most of it has to do with the art. The art is pretty good throughout, with some really nice high points. The big two-page spread when our hero wakes up in the Village is spectacular. The writing isn’t bad. Each individual chapter throws our hero and the readers for a new loop, so there’s cleverness behind these stories.

What doesn’t work is  the big picture stuff. What writer Peter Milligan really fails to capture with the Village is the dissonance of it. In the TV show, it was a place that appeared to be the most pleasant place you can imagine, but it was contrasted by a sinister secret. In addition, the nice feel of the Village is designed to make it easy and comfortable to turn traitor. In this book, the Village never tries to make itself seem alluring. Instead, it’s full of people who do nasty things while wearing 50-year-old clothes for no good reason.

In addition, the book’s explanation of who is Number 1 is not only nihilistic, it’s also a bit daft. Overall, if you’re looking for a psychological spy thriller comic, this is not a bad one to read. However, as a comic book take on the Prisoner, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Body Under the Bridge


Paul McCusker’s Father Gilbert was the lead character in a series of radio plays for Focus on the Family’s Radio Theater. McCusker brings the character back in the novel, “Body Under the Bridge.”

“Body Under the Bridge” has a stunning opening as Father Gilbert confronts a man who’s about to jump off the roof of Gilbert’s church. The man jumps, leaving an object behind. However, Gilbert finds out no one saw the man in the church, and he was committing suicide by another method somewhere else. However, Gilbert still has the object. At the same time, a long-dead body is found at the site of a contentious construction project.

Overall, McCusker’s written a strong mystery. He’s woven an intricate narrative going back hundreds of years, with a complicated web of dark secrets that’s ensnared many of the town’s  inhabitants. The story has a lot of well-done atmospheric moments that increase the tension.

We introduced to a slew of characters, most of whom are likely suspects, and we never quite know who to trust besides Gilbert. The story has several great twists and never drags for a moment. Gilbert is well-written and is believable both as an ex-cop and as a priest.

The reader should be aware this story leans more to the supernatural stories Father Gilbert appeared in such as, “Dead Air,” and does have some disturbing sequences. However, it does mostly steer clear of the melodrama around Gilbert’s family life that  hurt later episodes of the series.

For fans of the original series, this book is a much-welcomed addition to the Father Gilbert canon. If you like detective stories with a supernatural twist, you can also enjoy the book even if you’ve never heard the radio series.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Audiobook Review: Black Mask 2: Murder is Bad Luck and Other Stories

This second audiobook of the Black Mask books features five stories from the legendary pulp detective magazine.

“Ten Carats of Lead” by Stewart Sterling

A cop on the pawnshop detail tries to solve the murder of a fellow officer in the same department while keeping things from the homicide boys. It gives the story an emotional angle. The story’s helped by Alan Sklar’s deep resonant narration. There are a couple plot twists that don’t quite work, but it’s an enjoyable ride.

“Murder is Bad Luck” by Wyatt Blassingame

An ex-Jockey turned race track cop is caught in the middle of a murder investigation. The story is set in New Orleans and has a good sense of atmosphere. The weird thing about this one is our hero’s obsession with the exact ingredients of any drink mentioned.

“Her Dagger Before Me” by Talmadge Powell

Private investigator Lloyd Carter stumbles into a murder in Tampa. The story is very well-told and moves at a solid pace with a surprising solution.

“One Shot” by Charles Booth

A man enters a house in search of a collectible he wanted to buy. Instead, he finds the seller dead. The only suspect is the man’s beautiful niece. This tale is a true short story as opposed to the others, which feel like Novella-length. The romance that develops between Booth’s hero and the female suspect is more abrupt than most musicals. However, he has to find out if she’s killer, and if not, how can they explain her uncle’s death.

“The Dancing Hats” by Richard Sale.

In this World War II story, the doctor of a Hawaiian leper colony is summoned to the military base by an officer. The officer warns they have 48 hours to save the island from a disaster that will wipe out most of the inhabitants. This great story combines espionage with a medical thriller wrapped in a typical detective story. Narrator Jeff Gurner does a great job bringing all the characters to life. The conclusion of the story was sad but well reflected the hard decisions people had to make during the war.

Before each story we get a short mini-bio of the writer, which adds value to a strong collection.

Overall, this audiobook is outstanding. We get five different stories with five different styles. Three of the stories are set outside of the main cities that dominated the Golden Age. This is a well-curated series that manages to offer samples of some talented, yet mostly forgotten writers of the era. The narrators are generally solid and two or three were superb. If you like mysteries from this era and want to discover a few new gems, this collection is for you.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

The twelve existing episodes of the Johnson’s Wax program are available for free online here.

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