Sherlock Holmes investigates a strange murder and the disappearance of the Agra treasure. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson investigate a bizarre murder with an even stranger backstory.
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The great detective Sherlock Holmes has been so bored recently that he has resorted to cocaine. But now he and his friend and colleague Dr John Watson are visited in their rooms at 221B Baker Street by the beautiful Miss Mary Morstan, with a strange story for them. Ten years ago Miss Morstan's father, in London on leave from an Indian army regiment, disappeared without a trace. Four years later, Miss Morstan received a single pearl by post, with no indication as to who it was from, she received an identical gift every year on the same day. To cap this, today she has received a letter telling her to come to the Lyceum theatre with 2 friends and she shall have justice. Holmes is immediately interested in the case, and deduces that it must have something to do with Captain Morstan's only friend in London, Major Sholto, who died just before the first pearl arrived. Watson is more interested in Miss Morstan.
On the way to the Lyceum Miss Morstan shows Holmes her father's pocket book which contains a map with ‘The sign of four' written on it next to four names, three Indian and one English; Jonathan Small. They are met at the theatre and taken to the home of Bartholomew Sholto, son of the Major who had a morbid terror of wooden legged men. On his death bed the Major confided in his 2 sons that Captain Morstan died of a heart attack at Sholto's home following a difference of opinion and Sholto covered it up. He also told his sons of the Agra treasure which was the cause of their argument and tells them to share it with Miss Morstan. But before he can tell them where the treasure is hidden he sees a face at the window, the sons rush out but find no one. When they return the room has been searched, their father is dead and a note left on his corpse saying ‘the sign of four'.
Bartholomew and his brother Thaddeus have spent years searching their home of Pondicherry lodge for the treasure and now have finally found it. Bartholomew has asked Miss Morstan here so she can have her rightful share. But when they arrive at the Lodge the treasure is gone and Thaddeus is dead, his room locked from the inside and a poisoned thorn stuck in his neck. Holmes sends for the police then works quickly, deducing that the killers must have come in from the attic, where he finds a tiny footprint like that of a child. The other ‘foot' print he finds is of a wooden leg which has trodden in pitch. Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard arrives and does not listen to Holmes, he suspects everyone in the house.
Holmes sends Watson to collect a dog which follows the trail of pitch which leads to a wharf from which the killers took a boat. Holmes has deduced that the killer is most likely Jonathan Small assisted by a very curious accomplice. Holmes gets a description of the boat they took, the Aurora, and calls in the Baker Street Irregulars to look for it. The Irregulars are street urchins Holmes uses from time to time because they can go everywhere unobserved.
Even using the Irregulars it takes Holmes a while to track the boat. When he does he invites the sceptical Athelney Jones along for the final chase. In a police launch they chase the Aurora downriver. They can see Small, with his wooden leg, shaking his fists and cursing them, and beside him a small man like a pygmy who tries to blow a poisoned thorn at them but Holmes and Watson shoot him. The ship is run down, Small tries to escape but is captured along with the treasure chest.
Dr Watson takes the treasure to Miss Morstan but the chest turns out to be empty. Miss Morstan does not seem to mind and Watson could not be happier as it means that she remains within his social reach. They are clearly in love.
Back at Baker Street, Small admits to having thrown the treasure into the river after his little friend Tonga was killed. As far as he is concerned the only men with any right to it are himself and the other three members of the sign of four, who are convicts in the Andaman Islands. Small tells of how he lost his leg to a crocodile as a young soldier but stayed out in India. During the Indian Mutiny he was holed up with most of the white population of the area in the old fort of Agra. One night when he was on guard he was ambushed by three men who gave him a choice between death and riches, all he had to do was turn a blind eye to them killing two wealthy Sikh's and stealing their treasure. But they are found out and gaoled in the Andaman islands. Here Small meets Morstan and Sholto and makes a deal with them for a fifth share of the treasure (he will not betray his colleagues). But Sholto betrayed them and when Morstan went to confront him he never returned. By chance, Small meets one of the islanders, named Tonga, whose life he saves. With Tonga's help he escapes and heads for England to get his money and his revenge.
The case is over, Athelney Jones will get the credit, Watson will get a wife, Holmes returns to his cocaine bottle.
Best part of story, including ending:
The is my favourite Sherlock Holmes story, a grotesque and gothic mystery that really captures the time in which it was written.
Best scene in story:
Holmes investigates the murder scene and coins the now famous phrase 'When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'
Opinion about the main character:
Sherlock Holmes is a fascinating character and all the more so in the early stories (this is only the second), is brilliant and yet arrogant, uninterested in women but addicted to cocaine. he is wonderfully flawed character.