‘SHERLOCK: The Sign of Three’ is a wedding wrapped mystery

John Sherlock

There’s no denying that SHERLOCK Series 3 has been more based in characters and relationships than the previous installments. However, in a series that is crafted in sets of three filmic episodes, it’s difficult to find a balance between crime solving and character interaction. Fortunately, “The Sign of Three” strikes that balance perfectly, delivering both beautiful character moments and the tantalizing mystery we’ve come to expect from this iteration of Sherlock Holmes.

The episode begins with the lead up to John Watson and Mary Morstan’s wedding, and the reception serves as the backdrop for both the mystery in the episode and the defining character moments. In the lead up to the ceremony, we get a sense that Holmes is finding it difficult to reconcile his relationship with Watson and his new bride. Everyone from Mycroft to Mrs. Hudson has been weighing in on the change in dynamic, indicating that John and Mary’s impending nuptials will make things different for Sherlock and his friend. Since Sherlock doesn’t take to change exceptionally well, he dives into his best man duties with the same clinical approach as his detective work, delivering a best man speech that is as abrasive as it is heartfelt. Holmes tells the reception guests about John and what their friendship means to the detective. During the speech, we flashback to several key moments which serve to illustrate the mystery of the episode, while illuminating why Holmes and Watson are friends. This narrative framing device leads me to talk about how “The Sign of Three” brilliantly utilized two of detective fiction’s classic conventions, the “armchair mystery” and the “locked room mystery”.


The armchair mystery is a convention of the genre that has a detective solve a case without being in the field. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is a prime example of an armchair detective, a man who eschewed field work, preferring to solve cases from the comfort and safety of his office. “The Sign of Three” is a variation of the armchair mystery in that Holmes and Watson do in fact accomplish a fair amount of leg work prior to the solution of the case. However, the case is solved during Holmes’ best man speech making it a variation on the style of story. The “locked room mystery” was originally invented by Edgar Allen Poe with the first detective story ever created, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. In “The Sign of Three”, Holmes and Watson find themselves embroiled in an unsolvable case of the attempted murder of a soldier from within a locked shower. This case reflects its inspiration in Doyle’s original novel “The Sign of the Four”, in which murders take place in seemingly impossible circumstances. Doyle would use the “locked room mystery” convention more than once, as it was also used to introduce audiences to Colonel James Moran in “The Adventure of the Empty House”.

These narrative devices worked hand in hand with warm character based moments between John and Sherlock to show us the affection that these two men have for one another. This was perhaps the most refreshing part of the episode. We often see stories about platonic relationships between women, but rarely do we get stories dealing with friendship between two men. Watson and Holmes make a good team hounding out mysteries, but they also care deeply for each other. Sherlock has never had a “best friend”, his abrasive and socially stunted personality often prohibits it. John, having trouble adjusting to civilian life, found refuge in Holmes’ adventures and his remarkable mind. This mutual admiration between these two men blossomed into a friendship and it was a pleasure to see. After the “shipping” and fanfic of “The Empty Hearse”, it was nice to see the Holmes/Watson dynamic presented with a bit more sincerity.

Among the other wonderful features of this episode, we also got another detour into Sherlock’s “Mind Palace” complete with cameos from Irene Adler and his brother Mycroft. This scene showed us who Sherlock is in a psychological sense. We know that he is less intelligent than his brother, so it would make sense that a mental version of Mycroft stands as stern judge in his mind berating him toward greatness. It would also make sense that Alder would have residence in his mind, distracting him from the case. Adler was never able to stimulate Holmes sexually, but instead challenged him intellectually which in turn gave the detective a sense of the romantic. We also see Holmes meet up with a young boy named Archie, who has a similar obstinacy toward social norms, as well as a fascination with the macabre. Seeing Holmes interact with, what could easily be a younger version of himself was comical and kind of heartwarming… in a Wednesday Addams kind of way.

Archie Sherlock

I have to say that “The Sign of Three” was one of the best written Sherlock episodes in the entirety of the show so far. It expanded the characters without sacrificing the anchor of odd mystery and persistent detection. This episode made me care deeper for Watson, Homes and Morstan than I ever thought I could. I’m happy to see hear that Moffat and Gatiss will be continuing the series and hope that we’ll be seeing more of this balance between deduction and character.

Literary Tethers:

Sherlock Sholto

Major Sholto/The Dwarf:

The original Sherlock Holmes novel, “The Sign of the Four”, was the story about a group of soldiers stationed in India who form a conspiracy based around a secret treasure. One of the soldiers, Sholto, was murdered by his fellow conspirator, Johnathan Small who was aided by a man of small stature wielding a poisonous blow pipe. “In the Sign of Three”, we see Major Sholto as one of John Watson’s oldest friends, hounded by a young man who lost his brother under Sholto’s command. The small accomplice is referenced by Lastrade when he suggests that dwarf committed the attempted murder in the shower, only for the theory to be shot down by Holmes. We also see a dwarf wielding a blow pipe chasing John and Sherlock around a rooftop in a flashback to one of their adventures called “The Poison Giant”.

Morstan Watson

No Congratuations:

During Holmes’ best man speech, he makes it a point of stating that he can not congratulate Watson on his marriage. This line is a reflection of the character’s feelings from “The Sign of Four”. When Watson tells Holmes that he and Mary are to be wed, the detective expresses regret saying, “I feared as much. I really cannot congratulate you.” He then added that while he thought Mary was charming and a “decided genius” who could even be helpful in crime fighting, he still believed “love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things.”


Vatican Cameos:

While Sherlock is buying time to figure out who might be the victim/murderer during the tail end of his best man speech, he utters the phrase “Vatican Cameos”, indicating that John should be on alert. This is a call back to the previous season’s episode, “A Scandal in Belgravia”, where the phrase was used, which itself was a reference to an undocumented adventure in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in which Holmes mentions: “I was exceedingly preoccupied by that little affair of the Vatican cameos, and in my anxiety to oblige the Pope I lost touch with several interesting English cases.”

Sherlock Dance

Dancing and Pirates:

“The Sign of Three” had two whimsical moments which caught my attention, the first was Mycroft’s reference to “Red Beard”, perhaps calling back to “A Scandal in Belgravia” where Mycroft says that his brother wanted to be a pirate when he was a child. The second reference was when Holmes mentions that he loves to dance before erupting into a fit of elaborate movement.  These moments show Holmes as a character with an adventurous mind and a flair for the dramatic much as he is portrayed in the literary canon.


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