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The Sign of Four

The ‘Sign of Four’ was originally called ‘The Sign of the Four’ and ‘The Problem of The Sholtos’. It is the second chronologically in the four novels, as distinct from the short stories. Its origins lie in a dinner in August 1889 at the Langham Hotel with J. M. Stoddart attended by both Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde.  Stoddart was managing director of the American publication Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and wanted to produce a British version with British contributors. He commissioned a story from both Doyle and Wilde. Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray; Doyle The Sign of the Four’. Subsequent versions dropped the ‘the’. Bizarrely the story, originally published in 1890, was not particularly successful. It is set in 1888 but experts disagree whether it is in July or September as both months appear in the narrative. Holmes and Watson are approached by a Miss Mary Morstan whose employer Holmes had previously helped. Mary’s father disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1878, after returning from India where he was senior captain in the 34th Bombay Infantry. His disappearance occurred the day before he was due to see his daughter. In 1882 Mary started to receive an annual gift of a valuable lustrous pearl from an anonymous donor. Her reason for visiting Holmes is that on this day she has received an anonymous letter saying she is a wronged woman and telling her to be at the Lyceum Theatre at 7pm that evening. She may bring two friends. Holmes and Watson accompany her and so a story unfolds involving the deceitful actions of Major Sholto, Morstan’s commanding officer, a great treasure stolen during the Indian Mutiny, the Andaman islands’ convict settlement, poison tipped darts fired from blowpipes, and a dog called Toby.