The Sign of the Four

The Sign of the Four Study Guide

The Sign of the Four is a novel starring the characters Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote it in 1889 after Joseph M Stoddart, the managing editor of Lippincott’s Monthly, commissioned the story. 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, DOyle had only written about Holmes in the story A Study in Scarlet; thus, Holmes wasn’t yet 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 Lock and Co., 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 mysteries, 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-ism, which is Holmes' claim that once the impossible has been eliminated, then the truth must be whatever remains, no matter how improbable it is. The second thing is that the story 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; 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 it was republished as The Sign of Four. Most of the time, editors favor the four-word version of the title. 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," which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson.