The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

‘The Sign of the Four’ is a novella by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring the second case of his now iconic detective character Sherlock Holmes. In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, Doyle stated that he had been commissioned to write a Sherlock Holmes narrative for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. This Philadelphia literary publication was looking to create a London version as well. The work was published in the London Lippincott’s in February 1890, with the subtitle The Problem of the Sholtos.

The Sign of Four

The Sign of Four

On top of its self-contained plot, The Sign of the Four expands what we had previously learned about Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had already described him as an extremely wise, keen-eyed detective who solves cases through deductive reasoning and logic, methods that he has perfected to such an extraordinary degree that he sometimes seems superhuman. In this novel, we also learn that Holmes has a cocaine addiction, loves playing the violin, and is slightly less of an antisocial automaton than he had seemed to be.

The novella took place in 1888. Mary Morstan met with Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Dr. Watson because she thought there was a chance that they could help to search for her father, Captain Arthur Morstan, who went missing 10 years earlier. Mary and Watson are immediately fascinated by each other, but Watson realizes that she is a client; he should not act on his feelings until the case is resolved.

Mary told what she knew about her father’s missing. In December 1878, Mary’s father returned to London from army service in colonial India and sent Mary a telegraph to meet him in a hotel. However, when she got there, it turned out that he had not been seen since the last night. All searches for him were vain. He had effectively disappeared. Merry visited his father’s regimental comrade Captain Morstan. He said that the Captain never returned to England from India.

After four years, in 1882, Mary saw a newspaper that someone was looking for her address, and she replied. Since then, someone has been sending Mary a single pearl every year. The sixth one came with a note asking her to meet and stating that she had been wronged in some way.

Mary’s final clue for Holmes is a map of a fortress she found on her father’s desk with the names Jonathan Small, Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Khan, and Dost Akbar.

Holmes quickly discovered that Major Sholto died in the same year of the advertisement and the first pearl mary received. Holmes, Watson, and Mary meet with Thaddeus Sholto. He was Major Sholto’s son who confirmed that he had been sending the pearls. The two men were supposed to divide the invaluable treasure they had brought back from India, but Captain Morstan had a heart attack and died in the heat of an argument. Worried about being incriminated, Major Sholto got rid of the body and hid the treasure.

Four years later, on his deathbed, he confessed all of this before his sons, but before he could tell them where the treasure was hidden, Major Sholto screamed, “Keep him out!” at someone lurking by the window and dying. Thaddeus tells Holmes that they could find no trace of the mysterious lurker but a single footprint. A note also mystified them that they found on their father’s body – it read “The Sign of the Four.” Since then, Thaddeus had felt like they owed Mary something, so he had sent her the pearls. He had now sent the letter asking to meet because Bartholomew had found the hidden treasure, and Thaddeus thought he and Mary might have a share of it.

The investigators discovered Bartholomew dead from a poisonous dart, which the police wrongly supposed to be the work of Thaddeus. Meanwhile, Holmes figures out the “single footprint.” A culprit is a one-legged man. Connecting the dots, he assumed this must be Jonathan Small, one of the men on Captain Morstan’s map. With the help of the local informer, Holmes discovers the dock from where Small is trying to flee on a steamboat  Aurora. Holmes and Watson chase Small and captured the Aurora, and apprehend Small, but Small’s blowgun discharges and kills his short-statured accomplice during the fight. The treasure chest is in Small’s boat, but it is empty – Small said that he dumped its contents overboard during his attempted escape.

Small then explains the whole case, connected to the Indian Rebellion of 1857 – an uprising of Indian sepoy soldiers against The British East India Company’s rule that ultimately ended with numerous bloody and brutal battles. Small was an officer in the Rebellion and fled the battle and escaped to the Agra fortress. In Agra, he was taken in the hands of two Sikh warriors who were trying to steal jewels and pearls that were owned by the Rajah Rajah, who was working in the war with the British at the time of the Rebellion. Small was willing to assist the Sikh men, and then the group killed and robbed the man who carried the treasure. However, although the murder was discovered, the theft was not.

They were sentenced to 20 years of penal servitude on the Andaman Islands. There, Small met Major Sholto – a man so deep in debt from gambling that he accepted Small’s offer. Small had a deal with Sholto and Captain Morstan: they would go to India, find the hidden treasure, and then retrieve Small and his Sikh buddies. However, Major Sholto deceived everyone, stealing the treasure for himself and leaving Morstan behind in India.

Small managed to escape from the prison four years later – and the shock of this escape killed Major Sholto. Following the treasure’s trail led Small and his escapee accomplice Tonga to Bartholomew, whom they killed mostly accidentally while trying to steal the treasure back for themselves. Small was sentenced by the court to serve the remaining years digging up drains in Dartmoor Prison. During the course of the journey, Watson falls more and more in love with Mary. The story ends with Watson proposing to her and her acceptance.

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