Frank Connell, Sign of the Four

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

One of the coversheets to the original serial publication of the novel in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine


Set in 1888,  The Sign of the Four has a complex plot involving service in India, the Indian Mutiny of 1857, a stolen treasure, and a secret pact among four convicts (“the Four” of the title) and two corrupt prison guards. It presents Holmes’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 Dr. 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 was ever 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.

Illustration by Herbert Denman in Lippincott’s Magazine (february 1890)

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 the corner of the chest as he fell—Sholto disposed of the body and hid the treasure. However, Sholto himself suffered from poor health and an enlarged spleen (possibly due to malaria, as a quinine bottle stands by his bed). His health deteriorated when he received a letter from India in early 1882. Dying, he called his two sons and confessed to Morstan’s death; he 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 the Four”. Both brothers quarreled over whether a legacy should be left to Mary, and Thaddeus left his brother Bartholomew, taking a chaplet and sending its pearls to her. 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 poisoned 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, and a 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 to a crocodile while bathing in the Ganges. After some time, when he was an overseer on a tea plantation, the 1857 rebellion 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 had sent said 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.

After twenty years, Small overheard that Major Sholto had lost much money gambling and couldn’t even sell his commission, necessitating his resignation. Small saw his chance and made a deal with Sholto and Captain 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 after inheriting a fortune from his uncle. Small vowed vengeance and four years later escaped the Andaman Islands with an islander named Tonga after they both killed a prison guard. 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. Small claims the treasure brought nothing but bad luck to anyone who came in touch with it—the servant who was murdered; Sholto living with fear and guilt; and now he himself is trapped in slavery for life—half his life building a breakwater in the Andaman Islands and the rest of his life digging drains in Dartmoor Prison.

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


The 1892 cloth-bound cover of The Sign of Four after it was compiled as a single book

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described how he was commissioned to write the story over a dinner with Joseph Marshall Stoddart, managing editor of the American publication 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; or The Problem of the Sholtos (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 republished in several regional British journals. These re-serialisations gave the title as The Sign of Four. The novel was published in book form in October 1890 by Spencer Blackett, again using the title The Sign of Four.   This edition included a frontispiece illustrated by Charles H. M. Kerr.  The title of both the British and American editions of this first book edition omitted the second “the” of the original title.

A German edition of the book published in 1902 was illustrated by Richard Gutschmidt. An edition published by George Newnes Ltd in 1903 was illustrated by F. H. Townsend.

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 in the novel nearly always uses “the Sign of the Four” (the five-word form) to describe the symbol in the story, although the four-word form is used twice by Jonathan Small in his narrative at the end of 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.


Year Media Title Country Director Holmes Watson

1905 Film (silent) Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for Ransom US J. Stuart Blackton ? ?

J. Stuart Blackton Director 1905

1913 Film (silent) Sherlock Holmes Solves the Sign of the Four US Lloyd Lonergan Harry Benham Charles Gunn

1923 Film (silent) The Sign of Four UK Maurice Elvey Eille Norwood Arthur Cullin

Ellie Norwood

1932 Film The Sign of Four UK Graham Cutts Arthur Wontner Ian Hunter

1968 TV (series) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes – “The Sign of Four” UK William Sterling Peter Cushing Nigel Stock

Peter Cushing & Nigel Stock

1974 TV Das Zeichen der Vier (Le signe des quatre) France/West Germany Jean-Pierre Decourt Rolf Becker Roger Lumont

Rolf Becker & Roger Lumont

1983 TV (film) The Sign of Four UK Desmond Davis Ian Richardson David Healy

David Healy & Ian Richardson

1983 TV (series) Sherlock Holmes and the Sign of Four (animated) Australia Ian Mackenzie
Alex Nicholas Peter O’Toole (voice) Earle Cross (voice)

1983 TV (series) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson – The Treasures of Agra (Сокровища Агры, Sokrovishcha Agry) USSR Igor Maslennikov Vasily Livanov Vitaly Solomin

Vasily Livanov & Vitaly Solomin

1987 TV (film) The Return of Sherlock Holmes US Kevin Connor Michael Pennington (n/a)

Michael Pennington

1987 TV (series) The Return of Sherlock Holmes – “The Sign of Four” UK Peter Hammond Jeremy Brett Edward Hardwicke

Jeremy Brett & Edward Hardwicke

1991 Filmed play The Crucifer of Blood US Fraser Clarke Heston Charlton Heston Richard Johnson

Charlton Heston

1999 TV (series) Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century – “The Sign of Four” (animated) US/UK Paul Quinn Jason Gray-Stanford (voice) John Payne (voice)

2001 TV (film) The Sign of Four Canada Rodney Gibbons Matt Frewer Kenneth Welsh

2014 TV (series) Sherlock – “The Sign of Three” UK Colm McCarthy Benedict Cumberbatch Martin Freeman

Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman

2014 TV (series) Sherlock Holmes – “The Adventure of the Cheerful Four” (愉快な四人組の冒険, Yukai na yoningumi no bōken) Japan Kunio Yoshikawa Kōichi Yamadera (voice) Wataru Takagi (voice)


A radio adaptation of the story was broadcast on New York radio station WGY on 9 November 1922. The cast included Edward H. Smith as Sherlock Holmes, F. H. Oliver as Dr. Watson, and Viola Karwowska as Mary Morstan. It was produced as part of a series of adaptations of plays, so it is likely that the script was based on an existing stage adaptation of the story (one was written by John Arthur Fraser in 1901 and another by Charles P. Rice in 1903).

A six-part adaptation of the novel aired in the radio series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Adapted by Edith Meiser, the episodes aired from 9 November 1932 to 14 December 1932, with Richard Gordon as Sherlock Holmes and Leigh Lovell as Dr. Watson.

The book was adapted by Felix Felton for the BBC Light Programme in 1959. Richard Hurndall played Holmes and Bryan Coleman played Watson.

In 1963, the story was dramatised by Michael Hardwick for the BBC Home Service as part of the 1952–1969 radio series, with Carleton Hobbs as Holmes and Norman Shelley as Watson.

CBS Radio Mystery Theater aired a radio version of the story in 1977, starring Kevin McCarthy as Holmes and Court Benson as Watson.

The Sign of the Four was adapted for radio by Bert Coules in 1989 as part of BBC Radio 4‘s complete Sherlock Holmes 1989–1998 radio series, with Clive Merrison as Holmes, Michael Williams as Watson, and featuring Brian Blessed as Jonathan Small.

In 2016, the story was adapted as an episode of the American radio series The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with John Patrick Lowrie as Holmes and Lawrence Albert as Watson.


Paul Giovanni‘s 1978 play The Crucifer of Blood is based on the novel. The Broadway premiere featured Paxton Whitehead as Holmes and Timothy Landfield as Watson. The 1979 London production featured Keith Michell as Holmes and Denis Lill as Watson.

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