Plot Summary of The Sign of Four

Updated on May 18, 2018
Colin Quartermain profile image

Colin has been reading as long as he can remember, and the works of Conan Doyle were some of the early works that kept him reading.

The Story of Sherlock Holmes Continues

Sherlock Holmes is one British literature’s most enduring characters, and even today, more than 100 years since the fictional detective was created, stories are continuing to be adapted for big and small screen.

Sherlock Holmes first appeared in literary form in 1887 with the publication of “A Study in Scarlet”, three years later Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was commissioned to write a follow up story, “The Sign of Four”.

Publication of The Sign of Four

The commissioning was done by the Philadelphian publishing house of J.B. Lippincott & Co. Lippincott’s were planning to publish “A Study in Scarlet” in their Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, and wanted a follow up story.

So Conan Doyle wrote The Sign of Four, a story which also known as “The Sign of the Four”.

Again, like A Study in Scarlet before it, The Sign of Four met with some critical success, and the public seemed to enjoy the story of the consulting detective. Conan Doyle was not particularly enamoured with the terms of the commissioning, and would subsequently write the Sherlock Holmes stories for the Strand Magazine, where their popularity would increase exponentially.

A Short Review of The Sign of Four

The Sign of Four is a Sherlock Holmes tale that divides opinion.

Critics argue that it is too long, and therefore longwinded in parts; and is more of a treasure hunt than a detective novel. By modern standards there is also an underlying thread of racism, although to judge the Victorian ethos by these modern standards is very difficult.

Those that love The Sign of Four will point to the developing relationship between Holmes and Watson, and the development of their two characters, flaws and all. The story involves theft, murder, corruption and treachery, all classic elements for any detective to investigate.

The Sign of Four has been adapted for the big and small screen on many occasions, although the finest adaptation is often considered to be the 1987 version starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke. The recent adaptation featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, titled “The Sign of Three”, bears virtually no resemblance to the original tale.

The Sign of Four book cover

Cover of book The Sign of the Four - 1892 PD-life-70
Cover of book The Sign of the Four - 1892 PD-life-70 | Source

Spoiler Alert - Plot Summary for The Sign of Four

The Sign of Four begins with Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in their rooms at 221B Baker Street; Watson observing, with some disdain, Holmes cocaine habit. Holmes puts his cocaine usage down to an absence of mentally stimulating cases. Thankfully for Holmes, and for Watson, a stimulating case is just about to be presented to them.

A client, Miss Mary Morstan, presents her problem to Holmes.

Miss Morstan tells of the disappearance of her father in London ten years previously. Mary’s father had been an officer in the British Army based in India, but had taken some leave to return to England. He had arranged to meet his daughter, but had failed to turn up for that meeting. His only friend in England, the retired Major Sholto, had not heard from Captain Morstan, and could not offer an insight into his disappearance.

Mary Morstan though had not come to Holmes to investigate the disappearance, but to help with the strange events that had subsequently occurred. Six years previously, a valuable pearl had been delivered in the mail, and every year since, a further one had followed. There was no explanatory note with the pearl, but on the day that Mary Morstan had come to Holmes, an anonymous note had been delivered, a note that asked for a meeting. Mary Morstan wanted Holmes and Watson to accompany her to that meeting.

Holmes and Watson of course agree to Miss Morstan’s request, and on the journey the client expands on some details. Major Sholto and her father had been the officers in charge of an army prison camp on the Andaman Islands; with Major Sholto retiring to England a decade before. Major Sholto had died six years ago, just before the first of the pearls had been delivered.

Mary Morstan also tells of how she discovered a map amongst the effects of her father, a map which had been signed by the words “The Sign of the Four”, and the names Jonathan Small, Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Kahn and Dost Akbar.

It is soon obvious that the anonymous meeting has been arranged by Thaddeus Sholto, one of Major Sholto’s two sons. Thaddeus Sholto willing explains his actions.

Major Sholto had retired to England with a great personal wealth of unknown origin, but had also been fearful for his life, with a particular fear of men with a wooden leg.

Major Sholto had eventually explained to his sons, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, where his wealth had come from as a deathbed confession. Sholto and Morstan had been partners in the acquisition of a great treasure, but Sholto had then left the Indian subcontinent with all of the loot. Morstan had followed Sholto to England as soon as he could to demand his share.

During a meeting between Sholto and Morstan, Morstan had suffered a deadly heart attack, and Major Sholto had disposed of the body to avoid any investigation into their relationship. On his deathbed though, Sholto is remorseful, and asks that Captain Morstan’s daughter be given the half share.

Before Major Sholto can tell his sons where the treasure is, he dies, apparently from shock at the sight of a face at the window. Despite not having the treasure, Thaddeus has sent a pearl each year.

Jonathan Small Escapes

F. H. Townsend, 1868-1920 PD-art-100
F. H. Townsend, 1868-1920 PD-art-100 | Source

The questions asked of Holmes by Mary Morstan have been answered, and there is now an explanation for her father’s disappearance, and the delivery of the pearls. New questions though were now being asked, as where had the treasure come from? And whose face had caused the death of Major Sholto.

Thaddeus had written the note to Mary Morstan because the day before, after years of searching, Bartholomew Sholto has discovered the hiding place of the great treasure. So the party of four set out for Bartholomew’s home. The quartet arrives too late, as Bartholomew has been killed, and the great treasure has been taken.

Based on the physical evidence in front of him, Sherlock Holmes concludes that there were two men, one very agile, and one with a wooden leg, who had been in the house, and that Bartholomew Sholto had been killed by a poisoned dart. Despite the work of Holmes, when Inspector Jones arrives, it is Thaddeus Sholto who is arrested.

Based on everything he has been told by Mary Morstan and Thaddeus Sholto, Holmes deduces that the man with the wooden leg must by Jonathan Small. Holmes also concludes that “the Four”, must have at one point been prisoners in the Andaman Island prison camp run; and they must have been double crossed by Morstan and Sholto. It is of course Jonathan Small who is now in possession of the treasure.

The next step for Holmes is to discover where Small is now; a difficult task in the sprawling city of London, but not an impossible one. With the help of the Baker Street Irregulars, and a dog called Toby, Holmes starts the hunt.

It is soon found out that Small is on the steam launch Aurora, but finding the location of the steam launch on the Thames proves more difficult. Eventually though even that information in uncovered, and there is soon a chase on London’s main waterway. Holmes is aided in the chase by Dr Watson and Inspector Jones.

During the chase, Small’s companion, a short Andaman aboriginal, is shot as he raised a blowpipe to his lips. Eventually, the Aurora is overhauled and Small is captured, although during the chase, the treasure has been disposed of into the river.

The case is effectively closed, but there are still many details that need to be explained; and much of this explanation is left up to Small.

Small had been part of the British Army in India during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and had found himself guarding one of the gates of Agra. Here Small became embroiled in a plot with three locals to rob and kill a local merchant, for the merchant was in possession of a great treasure. The four swore an oath to each other, but whilst the crime was committed and the treasure hidden, the four perpetrators were captured. For their crimes, the four were sent to the prison camps of the Andaman Islands.

Small had then bargained with Sholto and Morstan; freedom for Small and his confederates in exchange for the treasure. Sholto though double crossed everyone, and whilst Morstan was on guard duty had taken the treasure and fled to England.

Morstan himself had planned to keep the bargain made with Small, and had travelled to England to sort things out. When Morstan himself had failed to return, Small himself had to escape from the prison camp. The escape attempt had been successful as Tonga, a local Andaman Islander, had aided Small; Small having once saved Tonga’s life.

It was obviously Tonga who had killed Bartholomew Sholto, although Small insisted that he had not planned for the son of Major Sholto to be killed.

All of the loose ends have been tied up, and Small is given over to the custody of Inspector Jones. Mary Morstan ends up becoming engaged to Dr Watson, the good doctor having fallen in love with the client, and Holmes returns to his cocaine.

The Sign of Four

  • Date of Events - 1888
  • Client - Miss Mary Morstan
  • Locations - London, India and the Andaman Islands
  • Villain - Major John Sholto then Jonathan Small

Questions & Answers

  • Who is the narrator of The Sign of Four?

    The Sign of Four is narrated by Dr Watson, as is the case with all bar four of the 60 canonical Sherlock Holmes tales.


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