This is the second Sherlock Holmes story which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, following A Study in Scarlet (1887). Sherlock Holmes quickly became a popular character amongst the 19th century reading public and remains an iconic figure today. When Doyle killed Sherlock off, many readers wore funereal garb out of respect to the fictional character.

The Sign of Four was written as a result of Doyle having dinner with Joseph M. Stoddart, the managing editor of the American Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine at the Langham Hotel in London on August 30, 1889. There are a few possible references to this dinner in the narrative of The Sign of Four, including the Langham Hotel’s appearance and the character of Thaddeus Sholto, who most likely was modeled after Oscar Wilde, who also attended the lunch and wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray as a result.

Jack the Ripper’s advent occurred less than a year prior to the publication of The Sign of Four. Though this may or may not have influenced Doyle’s gloomy depiction of London, it certainly would have figured in the minds of his contemporary readers.

Plot Summary

The story is set in 1888.[1] The Sign of the Four has a complex plot involving service in India, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a stolen treasure, and a secret pact among four convicts (“the Four” of the title) and two corrupt prison guards. It presents the detective’s drug habit and humanizes him in a way that had not been done in the preceding novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887). It also introduces Doctor Watson‘s future wife, Mary Morstan.

According to Mary, in December 1878, her father had telegraphed her upon his safe return from India and requested her to meet him at the Langham Hotel in London. When Mary arrived at the hotel, she was told her father had gone out the previous night and not returned. Despite all efforts, no trace has ever been found of him. Mary contacted her father’s only friend who was in the same regiment and had since retired to England, one Major John Sholto, but he denied knowing her father had returned. The second puzzle is that she has received six pearls in the mail from an anonymous benefactor, one per year since 1882 after answering an anonymous newspaper query inquiring for her. With the last pearl she received a letter remarking that she has been wronged and asking for a meeting. Holmes takes the case and soon discovers that Major Sholto had died in 1882 and that within a short span of time Mary began to receive the pearls, implying a connection. The only clue Mary can give Holmes is a map of a fortress found in her father’s desk with the names of Jonathan Small, Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan and Dost Akbar.

Holmes, Watson, and Mary meet Thaddeus Sholto, the son of the late Major Sholto and the anonymous sender of the pearls. Thaddeus confirms the Major had seen Mary’s father the night he died; they had arranged a meeting to divide a priceless treasure Sholto had brought home from India. While quarrelling over the treasure, Captain Morstan—long in weak health—suffered a heart attack. Not wanting to bring attention to the object of the quarrel—and also worried that circumstances would suggest that he had killed Morstan in an argument, particularly since Morstan’s head struck a table as he fell—Sholto disposed of the body and hid the treasure. However, he himself suffered from poor health and an enlarged spleen (possibly due to malaria, as a quinine bottle stands by his bed). His own health became worse when he received a letter from India in early 1882. Dying, he called his two sons and confessed to Morstan’s death and was about to divulge the location of the treasure when he suddenly cried, “Keep him out!” before falling back and dying. The puzzled sons glimpsed a face in the window, but the only trace was a single footstep in the dirt. On their father’s body is a note reading “The Sign of Four”. Both brothers quarrelled over whether a legacy should be left to Mary Morstan, and Thaddeus left his brother Bartholomew, taking a chaplet and sending its pearls to Mary. The reason he sent the letter is that Bartholomew has found the treasure and possibly Thaddeus and Mary might confront him for a division of it.

Bartholomew is found dead in his home from a poison dart and the treasure is missing. While the police wrongly take Thaddeus in as a suspect, Holmes deduces that there are two persons involved in the murder: a one-legged man, Jonathan Small, as well as another “small” accomplice. He traces them to a boat landing where Small has hired a steam launch named the Aurora. With the help of dog Toby that he sends Watson to collect from Mr Sherman, the Baker Street Irregulars and his own disguise, Holmes traces the steam launch. In a police steam launch Holmes and Watson chase the Aurora and capture it, but in the process end up killing the “small” companion after he attempts to kill Holmes with a poisoned dart shot from a blow-pipe. Small tries to escape but is captured. However, the iron treasure box is empty; Small claims to have dumped the treasure over the side during the chase.

Small confesses that years before he was a soldier of the Third Buffs in India and lost his right leg in a swimming accident to a crocodile. After some time, when he was an overseer on a tea plantation, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 occurred and he was forced to flee for his life to the Agra fortress. While standing guard one night he was overpowered by two Sikh troopers who gave him a choice of being killed or being an accomplice to waylaying a disguised servant of a Rajah who sent the servant with a valuable fortune in pearls and jewels to the British for safekeeping. The robbery and murder took place and the crime was discovered, although the jewels were not. Small got penal servitude on the Andaman Islands, and after twenty years he overheard that John Sholto had lost money gambling. Small saw his chance and made a deal with Sholto and Arthur Morstan: Sholto would recover the treasure and in return send a boat to pick up Small and the Sikhs. Sholto double-crossed both Morstan and Small and stole the treasure for himself. Small vowed vengeance and escaped the Andaman Islands with an islander named Tonga. It was the news of his escape that shocked Sholto into his fatal illness. Small arrived too late to hear of the treasure’s location but left the note which referred to the name of the pact between himself and his three Sikh accomplices. When Bartholomew found the treasure, Small planned to only steal it but claims a miscommunication led Tonga to kill Bartholomew as well.

Mary Morstan is left without the bulk of the Agra treasure, although she will apparently receive the rest of the chaplet. John Watson falls in love with Mary, and it is revealed at the end that he proposed to her and she has accepted. 1

Notes & Quotes

  • The depiction of London definitely fits within the realm of the ecogothic or the urban gothic. In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Peter Ackroyd relates Doyle’s foggy London to the seemingly impenetrable, unreadable mysteries which Sherlock loves to detect (viii).This veil definitely adds to the threat of London and to the impossibility of the mystery. Of particular note is the scene in which Watson and Sherlock are taken in a cab across London to Sholto’s house. While Watson almost immediately looses his sense of location, Sherlock mutters the names of streets they pass by, and manages to detect key landmarks as they speed through the city streets. The fog of London becomes associated with crime and all that occludes it, but Sherlock is above this murkiness and can use means other than his senses (he is mainly mind rather than body) to locate himself (22-3). I also note how important the role of atmosphere is in its impression upon both Watson and the reader (though not on Sherlock).
  • “…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…” (12)

    It was a September evening and not yet seven o’ clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low over the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghostlike in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light- sad faces and glad, haggard and merry… I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined to make me nervous and depressed. (21)

  • Near the start of the narrative, Watson receives criticism regarding the “pamphlets” which he had written and published titled “A Study in Scarlet” from Sherlock, who thinks that his friend has colored the true story with too much “romanticism” and therefore moved away from what should’ve been the focus of the story: the power of rationalism and logic. Watson protests that there was much romanticism already there and that he simply copied from reality. Later in the novel, after hearing details of the mystery, Mrs. Forrester exclaims with excitement that, “‘It is a romance!’…’An injured lady, half a million in treasure, a black cannibal, and a wooden-legged ruffian. They take the place of the conventional dragon or wicked earl'” (71). Like many of the other Victorian narratives on my list, the role that text and fiction play is coming into question.
  • “…But you have yourself had some experience of my methods of work in the Jefferson Hope case.””Yes, indeed,” said I cordially. “I was never so struck by anything in my life. I even embodied it in a small brochure, with the somewhat fantastic title of “A Study in Scarlet.””He shook his head sadly.”I glanced over it,” said he. “Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.” “But the romance was there,” I remonstrated. “I could not tamper with the facts.””Some facts should be suppressed, or, at least, a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them. The only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes, by which I succeeded in unravelling it.” (7)

  • I’m also interested in Sherlock Holmes’s connections to and departures from Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, Auguste Dupin. I view Dupin as being dangerously similar in mind to the criminal as a result of his repeated ability to view crime scenes from the perspective of a criminal. Sherlock also seems separated from “normal” human society. Ackroyd states that he seems above or beyond the normal human, as seen through his dependence on cocaine to keep his brain working during periods of normal existence in between cases (vii). Although Holmes is certainly something beyond the regular inhabitants of London, he doesn’t seem to experience the same level of separation that Dupin does.
  • Finally, there is some discussion of social class and capitalism that appears within the story. The most obvious here is Watson’s relief that Miss Morstan did not receive the treasure at the end of the story which therefore allows him to court her. Instead, the money is scattered along the bottom of the Thames. This money is taken from India and is therefore a result of England’s imperialist ventures. Like other examples of the imperial gothic, the outside world has invaded England negatively and order must be set right again by the end of the narrative, even if that means that Morstan cannot receive her imperial fortune. In his confession at the end of the story, Jonathan Small states that his capture is a “pretty justice! Whose loot is this, if it is not ours? Where is the justice that I should give it up to those who never earned it?” (96). He argues here not only for a move away from inherited wealth to a more capitalist version, and argues also against the system of imperialism in which soldiers and other laborers travel to foreign lands to fight, seek, and work for wealth to bring back for their rich employers.
  1. Plot summary comes from Wikipedia.

The Sign of Four (1890) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.