The Sign of the Four

The Sign of the Four

infobox Book |
name = The Sign of Four

image_caption =
author = Arthur Conan Doyle
country = United Kingdom
language = English
series = Sherlock Holmes
genre = Mystery novel
publisher = Lippincott's Monthly Magazine
release_date = February 1890
media type = Print (Magazine, Hardback & Paperback)
pages =
isbn = NA
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;" see "Publishing history", below) 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

Doyle describes how he was commissioned to write the story over an August 30, 1889, dinner with Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of "Lippincott's Monthly Magazine", at the Langham Hotel in London. 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

The story is set in 1887 or 1888. "The Sign of Four" has a complex plot involving service in Colonial India, a stolen treasure and a secret pact among four ex-convicts. 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 civilized Victorian London where the detective is trying to untangle a murder mystery emanating from an exotic untamed land (The American Wild West and the Mormons in the one case, India and the 1857 Mutiny in the other). And quite distinct, 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.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

There are at least eleven adaptations based on this book:

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.

ee also

External links

* [ "The Sign of the Four"] , online at [ Ye Olde Library]
* [ The Sign of the Four] - in easy to read HTML format.

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