"The Sign of the Four" is a short story starring the characters Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. It was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1889. He was commissioned to write it by Joseph M Stoddart, the managing editor of Lippincott’s Monthly. Lippincott’s was an American magazine and Stoddart wished to make an English version utilizing British writers and editors. Stoddart asked Doyle to contribute a story. At this point, Holmes had only been written about in the story A Study in Scarlet and wasn’t that popular of a character. He didn’t become truly well known until short stories featuring him began running in 1891.
Doyle was born in Scotland in 1859. He went to school to eventually become a doctor. All the while, he wrote and published short stories and academic articles. Doyle’s big break came about when he wrote A Study in Scarlet and submitted it to Ward Lock and Co. The company bought all rights to the story for only 25 pounds. Conan Doyle later disassociated himself with Ward, as he felt the company exploited him and underpaid him for his work. The later Holmes stories were published in the Strand magazine.
"The Sign of the Four" follows Holmes as he solves a two-fold mystery. One, what has happened to Mary Morstan’s father, Captain Arthur Morstan? Two, who has been sending her mysterious pearls in the mail? Holmes of course solves both, with the assistance of his associate Dr. John Watson. This story is likely best known for two things. One is arguably the most famous Holmes quote, which is “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains,however improbable, must be the truth?” The second thing is that it introduces Mary Morstan. Ms. Morstan is John Watson’s love interest and eventual wife. In this story, she brings the case to the attention of Holmes and Watson and Watson proposes to her by the end of the story.
There has long been a discussion over what the proper title of the story is. Critics oscillate between either The Sign of Four or The Sign of the Four. It was originally published in Lippincott’s as The Sign of the Four, but republished as The Sign of Four. Most of the time, editors favor the four word version. The text most frequently uses the five word version although the villain does use the four letter version twice in his ending narrative. There have been 13 film/television adaptations of this story. The first was the 1913 work Sherlock Holmes Solves the Sign of Four directed by Lloyd Lonergan. A more recent version is the episode of the British serial Sherlock entitled "The Sign of Three." It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson.