The Sign of the Four: Wikis


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"The Sign of the Four"
by Arthur Conan Doyle
Released 1890
Series The Sign of Four
Client(s) Miss Mary Morstan
Set in 1888
Villain(s) Jonathan Small, Tonga, Major John Sholto, Mahomet Singh, Adullah Khan, Dost Akvah and arguably Captain Arthur Morstan
The Sign of Four  
Author Arthur Conan Doyle
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Sherlock Holmes
Genre(s) Mystery novel
Publisher Lippincott's Monthly Magazine
Publication date February 1890
Preceded by A Study in Scarlet
Followed by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Sign of the Four (1890) (also called The Sign of Four) was the second novel featuring Sherlock Holmes written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle wrote four novels and 56 stories starring the fictional detective.


Publishing history

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle describes how he was commissioned to write the story over a dinner with Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, at the Langham Hotel in London on 30 August 1889. Stoddart wanted to produce an English version of Lippincott’s with a British editor and British contributors. The dinner was also attended by Oscar Wilde, who eventually contributed The Picture of Dorian Gray to the July 1890 issue. Doyle discussed what he called this "golden evening" in his 1924 autobiography Memories and Adventures.

The novel first appeared in the February 1890 edition of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine as The Sign of the Four (five-word title), appearing in both London and Philadelphia. The British edition of the magazine originally sold for a shilling, and the American for 25 cents. Surviving copies are now worth several thousand dollars.

Over the following few months in the same year, the novel was then re-published in several regional British journals. These re-serialisations gave the title as The Sign of Four (four-word title).

The novel was published in book form in October 1890 by Spencer Blackett, again using the title The Sign of Four. The title of both the British and American editions of this first book edition omitted the second "the" of the original title.

Different editions over the years have varied between the two forms of the title, with most editions favouring the four-word form. The actual text (as opposed to the title) of the novel always uses "the Sign of the Four" (the five-word form) to describe the symbol in the story.

As with the first story, A Study in Scarlet, produced two years previously, The Sign of the Four was not particularly successful to start with. It was the short stories, published from 1891 onwards in Strand Magazine, that made household names of Sherlock Holmes and his creator.

Comparison of the first and second books

Drawing of the Andaman Penal Colony Headquarters, made in 1872 - a time when Jonathan Small was incarcerated there. Sholto might have entered this building on occasion as part of his prison job.

The story is set in 1887 or 1888. The Sign of Four has a complex plot involving service in East India Company, 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 first novel, A Study in Scarlet. It also introduces Doctor Watson's future wife, Mary Morstan.

Several basic elements are similar to those in A Study in Scarlet. Both books are divided into clearly defined parts. There is "the present" in Victorian London where the detective is trying to untangle a murder mystery emanating from a far-off country (the Western United States and the Mormons in the one case, India and the 1857 Mutiny in the other). Moreover, there is a lengthy flashback, taking up a considerable part of the book, telling from the killer's point of view the events which would eventually lead him to come to London and there commit the acts which would bring him to Holmes' attention. In both books, the account is written with some sympathy for the character, giving a degree of moral — even if not judicial — justification to acts committed to avenge a severe case of injustice (a theme already popularized, at the time of writing, in Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo).

Comparison of the two books shows a development and refinement of the theme. Unlike the earlier book, where the reader first hears the name "Jefferson Hope" only when Holmes produces him as the murderer and where there is no prior clue of any kind pointing to a Mormon background, in the present one the intelligent reader is given some solid prior clues. For example, the reader knows quite soon that the background of the murders has much to do with some bond or covenant, known as "the Sign of the Four" and involving a man named "Jonathan Small" (evidently an Englishman) and three people with typical Indian names. The idea that this bond was formed in Colonial India is quite an obvious corollary, giving an intelligent reader a chance to guess at least the outline of the solution - as later conventions in detective fiction require of the writer to do .

Moreover, in the earlier book the flashback was provided by the omniscient writer — and in no way integrated with Watson's narrative — so that the reader knows exactly why Jefferson Hope committed his murders and felt justified in so doing, but Holmes, Watson and the police have only the vaguest idea. In the present case, the story is told very candidly by Jonathan Small himself.

The greater tautness and unity of the second book are, however, achieved at the price of having Jonathan Small act very much out of character. Most obviously, he gives his real name and freely admits to being an escaped convict from the penal colony at the distant Andaman Islands. This the London police would hardly have thought of by themselves, and it ensures him, at the very least, of being returned to the unpleasant prison which he escaped with so much effort. Then Small unaccountably puts his own neck in the noose by gratuitously admitting, not only to the murder in London for which he was sought but to also to murdering a prison guard while escaping in the Andamans. Then, he caps it all by providing the police with the murder weapon, none other than his false leg, which would hardly have occurred to them otherwise; when last seen the police require him to take off this dangerous leg. Thus, by gratuitous talking, he has also ensured for himself a very crippled and uncomfortable prison life until the moment of being taken to the gallows-although Small thinks he will get a life sentence-digging drains in Dartmoor for manslaugther; even though the law considers an accomplice to be just as guilty as the main criminal. Indeed there is only Small's word that Tonga committed the Sholto murder on his own account; the fact that Small allowed an armed burglar to go to the Sholto room first-shows that he apparently anticipated possible resisitance to his theft of the treasure.

Aside from the implausibility of Small so frankly telling such an incriminating tale of himself, the story he tells itself includes several acts which seem very much out of character. It displays a touching but not quite credible belief in human nature for four hardened robbers and murderers to confide the secret of a hidden treasure to their prison guard without asking for any guarantee whatsoever that he would fulfil his part in the deal (set them free and give them their share of the treasure). Their confidence in Sholto is all the more surprising considering that they themselves had no hesitation in betraying and murdering a man for the sake of the same treasure.

Moreover, Small proclaims repeatedly and loudly his loyalty to his three Indian co-conspirators, transcending the usual unequal relationship between the British Colonial overlords of India and the "natives". Indeed, this is the main redeeming feature which makes him a sympathetic character albeit a criminal. Yet when he found a way of escaping from the Andamans he did not share it with them, nor did he later make any effort whatsoever to set them free.

Doyle was to later take up the same basic theme once again in "The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez": a murder bursting upon peaceful Victorian England out of a past affair of passion and revenge in an exotic foreign country (in that case, Tsarist Russia and its revolutionary movements); Sherlock Holmes ingeniously tracking down the killer, who then tells all and is morally, if not legally, vindicated. In that later version, the flaws of the earlier versions are smoothed out: the killer (a woman in that case) has no need to avoid incriminating herself, since she had already swallowed poison and would die immediately afterwards; and to the contrary, her revelations would vindicate a prisoner for whom she greatly cares and lead to his release.

The development of this theme is important not just for the Sherlock Holmes series, but for the development of the detective story in general, for which Sherlock Holmes was a pioneering and highly influential prototype.

Dramatic adaptations

There are at least eleven adaptations based on this book:

Year Title Country Director Holmes Watson
1913 Sherlock Holmes Solves the Sign of the Four USA unknown Harry Benham x
1923 The Sign of the Four UK Maurice Elvey Eille Norwood Hubert Willis
1932 The Sign of Four UK Graham Cutts Arthur Wontner Ian Hunter
1968 The Sign of the Four UK unknown/BBC Peter Cushing Nigel Stock
1974 Das Zeichen der Vier France/West Germany Jean-Pierre Decourt Rolf Becker Roger Lumont
1983 The Sign of the Four UK Desmond Davis Ian Richardson David Healy
1983 Sherlock Holmes and the Sign of Four (animated) Australia Ian Mackenzie, Alex Nicholas Peter O'Toole (voice) Earle Cross (voice)
1983 Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona: Sokrovishcha Agry USSR Igor Maslennikov Vasilij Livanov Vitali Solomin
1987 The Sign of Four UK Peter Hammond Jeremy Brett Edward Hardwicke
2001 The Sign of the Four Canada Rodney Gibbons Matt Frewer Kenneth Welsh
2005 Neekkam (The Move) India Biju Viswanath unknown unknown

Influences on pop culture

  • The Sign of Four is the title of an album by guitarists Derek Bailey and Pat Metheny.
  • In Case Closed, Jimmy Kudo reveals that his favourite Holmes novel is The Sign of Four.
  • In January 2007, a character based on Tonga, one of the villains in the novel, was one of the villains in the serial "Stickleback" in the British comic 2000 AD.
  • A copy of The Sign of Four is located in the "Afghan" multiplayer level of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

External links

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
Table of Contents
PD-icon.svg This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1930, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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