Plot Summary of the Five Orange Pips

Updated on August 24, 2016
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 Five Orange Pips is a short story featuring Sherlock Holmes and was written in 1891. It is a story that seems initially to deal simply with the delivery of an innocuous letter containing five orange pips; the first innocuous letter would be followed by a death, and after two more letters, two more men would die.

Publication of the Five Orange Pips

The Five Orange Pips was the fifth short story authored by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and so was the seventh of the original canon of 60 stories. The Five Orange Pips was first published in November 1891 in the Strand Magazine, having been preceded the following month by The Boscombe Valley Mystery.

In 1892, The Five Orange Pips would also appear in the compilation work, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was an omnibus of the 12 short stories published previously by the Strand Magazine.

A Short Review of the Five Orange Pips

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would write the short stories to fit perfectly into a single edition of the Strand Magazine. The stories were normally fast paced, but also easy to follow. The Five Orange Pips though, is perhaps constrained by its length, because the reader cannot use the evidence provided to solve the case. There are a number of elements that only Holmes is privy to, and are only revealed when Holmes reveals the solution to Watson.

At the same time, the modern reader will have some advantages over the Victorian reader, as the letters KKK, which strongly feature in the storyline, are more recognisable today, than they were a hundred years ago.

The Five Orange Pips does provide further insight into the character of Sherlock Holmes. In all the previous cases the superiority of Holmes has been evident, but in this case, Holmes is shown not to be infallible, and to a certain degree fails in bring the case to a conclusion. The Five Orange Pips also shows for the first time that Holmes is not just cold and logical, but also from time to time, he will also display anger.

The concept of The Five Orange Pips has been used recently in both the American TV series Elementary, and the BBC series Sherlock; although in the case of Sherlock there is no real link to the original storyline.

The Five Orange Pips

  • Date of Events - 1887
  • Client - John Openshaw
  • Locations - Horsham, West Sussex
  • Villain - The Ku Klux Klan

The Client

Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70 | Source

Spoiler Alert - Plot Summary of Sherlock Holmes and the Five Orange Pips

At the start of The Five Orange Pips we find Dr Watson staying at 221B Baker Street; Watson’s wife being away from home at the time. Sherlock Holmes is soon visited by a client, John Openshaw, and Watson sits in on the consultation, as he had done so many times before.

John Openshaw fears that his family is cursed, and starts to tell the Openshaw family story, starting with his uncle, Elias. Elias Openshaw had gone to America many years previously, in order to make a fortune; and indeed he had made that fortune, becoming a successful plantation owner in Florida. Elias’ period of success though, had been interrupted, when the American Civil War had broken out. During the war Elias, had fought with the Confederate forces, and had risen to the rank of Colonel in the war.

Ultimately of course, the Confederate army had been defeated, and Elias had decided to return to England; Elias Openshaw being unwilling to live in the new, changed America, something which has obvious racist connotations.

In England, Elias Openshaw had set up a new home in Horsham, and had invited his nephew, John, to live with him; and John is effectively given charge of the household. Despite being in charge of the house, Elias forbids John from entering the room in the attic.

In the neighbourhood, Elias Openshaw is not a particularly well liked man, but Elias was always kindly to his nephew; and for several years life goes on as normal.

One morning though, the household is rocked when Elias receives a letter from Pondicherry, India, a letter marked with the initials KKK; out of the letter fall five orange pips. John Openshaw is inclined to view the letter as a joke, but Elias Openshaw regards it as death, and sets about making amendments to his will. The new will leaves everything to Joseph Openshaw, John’s father.

At the same time Elias Openshaw sets about burning papers that had been in a trunk marked with 3Ks; and Elias also starts to carry a gun. The stress which Elias is under also sees John’s uncle start to drink heavily. When, one night, Elias drowns in a small pool, the coroner decides that it is a matter of suicide, although it is a verdict that John doesn’t agree with.

John is joined by his father in continuing to live in the Horsham house, and it is at this stage that John gets to have a closer look at his uncle’s chest, and aside from KKK being printed on it, there is also a label that reads “Letters, memoranda, receipts, and a register”.

A couple of years after the death of Elias, Joseph Openshaw received a letter postmarked Dundee. Like the previous letter, there is KKK upon it, and five orange pips within; additionally there is also a message stating “put the papers on the sundial”. Within a week, Joseph is dead; death coming about because of an accidental fall into a chalk quarry.

The Body Found

Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70 | Source

Too Late

Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70
Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) PD-life-70 | Source

Two years have passed since the death of Joseph Openshaw, and now John has received an identical letter to that of his father. This time though, the letter has been posted from East London.

John Openshaw had gone to the police, but they were not inclined to take the matter seriously, something which angers Holmes. Holmes though is also angry with John Openshaw as well, as Holmes believes that he should have been consulted earlier.

Holmes’ advice to his client is to go home and take precautions, but also to place the only remaining letter from Elias Openshaw’s collection upon the sundial. A note should also be left, stating that all other papers have been burnt.

Once John Openshaw has departed, Holmes explains to Watson his thought process so far. Holmes has knowledge of what KKK stands for, the Ku Klux Klan, and knows that they were relatively effective up until 1869, but then their power decreased. 1869 was the year when Elias Openshaw departed from Florida. Holmes surmises that the papers originally contained a register of members of the KKK, something which the organisation was now trying to ensure did not fall into the wrong hands.

Overnight, another “accident” occurs, and John Openshaw is found drowned in the Thames. Now Holmes really is angry, and proclaims “This hurts my pride, Watson”. Holmes is now seeking revenge.

A day of action of ensues, and culminates with Holmes sending a letter to a Captain James Calhoun; Holmes’ letter also contains five orange pips. Holmes explains how he had been scouring the Lloyd’s Register of Ships, to find a vessel present in Pondicherry, Dundee and London, on the days when letters had been sent to the Openshaws. Holmes had located a single vessel, the “Lone Star”, and had discovered of the vessel was James Calhoun.

Holmes wanted to worry Calhoun, and so had arranged for the letter to be delivered after sailing for London; the “Lone Star”, being headed for Savannah, Georgia. Holmes had also sent a telegram to the Georgia police force advising them to arrest Calhoun and two of his crew members.

Legal justice though would fail to catch up with Calhoun, although natural justice took its place, as the “Lone Star” would flounder in a storm, with the loss of all hands.

Questions & Answers

  • Where was the letter from?

    Three letters are sent to the Openshaw family in the Five Orange Pips; the first two were received by Elias Openshaw, the first posted from Pondicherry in India, and the second from Dundee, Scotland. Then, two years later, John Openshaw received one from East London, England.

  • How did the register containing the names of members of KKK get in the hands of Elias Openshaw?

    Openshaw, though English born, had been a plantation owner in Florida, and a Colonel in the Confederate army during the U.S. Civil War.

    After the war, it is perhaps likely that Openshaw had joined the KKK to fight against the changes that were being implemented in the South. It was probably from inside the organisation that Elias Openshaw came into possession of the register.


Submit a Comment
  • mactavers profile image


    5 years ago

    Thanks Colin. I'm sure that it is a universal word, but like most words, it has different meanings in different areas.

  • Colin Quartermain profile imageAUTHOR

    Colin Quartermain 

    5 years ago

    Hi, a pip is a seed, stone or pit found in some fruit.

    Thanks for reading and commenting - Didn't even cross my mind that it wasn't a universal word.


  • mactavers profile image


    5 years ago

    I enjoyed reading this very well written Hub. For us Americans, can you define Pip? Most often over here, the word would be used to mean naughty or hard to do or in describing a relationship, hard to get along with. For Example: in describing a child, a pip squeak (a bit naughty). Or used to mean difficult: getting that accomplished was a real pip.


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