Reading Sherlock Holmes in Context

Today’s feature is a guest post on social networks in the Sherlock Holmes novella The Sign of the Four, by former student Helen Kirrane.  Helen studied English at University College Dublin. Her research interests are late Victorian gothic fiction, the literature of the fin de siècle, and the aesthetic movement.


First published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, The Sign of the Four was Arthur Conan Doyle’s second tale featuring detective Sherlock Holmes and his companion Dr Watson. In this adventure, they attempt to solve a case which unfolds to reveal a complex web of criminal activity involving murder, corruption and theft with its origins stretching across the globe to India but also firmly rooted in Britain.

The beginnings of crime fiction likely lie in Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, most notably ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) as well as Willkie Collins’s novel The Moonstone (1868). However, Arthur Conan Doyle revolutionised crime fiction and is largely responsible for the genre as it is known today. Doyle added several innovations to the crime fiction genre such as the close relationship between the highly intelligent detective and his by comparison normal companion. This pair dynamic was foundational for crime fiction at the time. Holmes’s eccentricity is countered by Dr Watson who is more relatable to the average reader and can explain Holmes’s crime-solving method of deductive reasoning.

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Network diagram of The Sign of the Four, chapter 1.

Looking at the social network maps of The Sign of the Four can provide insight into the internal workings of Doyle’s crime fiction. From the character network map in chapter one, it is clear that the connection between Holmes and Watson is the strongest and most important link. The pair provides a bridge between characters such as Mary Morstan who presents the problem to be solved, the criminals involved in the crime, and the metropolitan police. Thus, Holmes and Watson constantly link the wider network which unfolds throughout the novel. According to John Sutherland, the rise in popularity of the crime fiction genre was due in part to “the growth of a mass market, ravenous for cheap fiction, stimulated in Britain by the 1870 ‘Universal Education’ act” (The British Library). The fact that The Sign of the Four was published in Lippincott’s, an affordable American publication with locations in Philadelphia and London, meant that it was widely accessible to a large readership. The Sherlock Holmes tales were thus seen as “an affordable luxury” which could be enjoyed by many (Sutherland).

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Network diagram of The Sign of the Four, chapter 11.

The character network map of chapter eleven calls into focus the colonial context of the novel and perceptions of criminality. Non-British characters such as Tonga and Achmet are interspersed amongst the British network. John McBratney suggests that at the fin de siècle “Criminality was seen as an inherent quality of certain tribes or castes” (158). However, given the centrality of Jonathan Small, who is linked strongly to criminals such as Mahomet Singh, Abdullah Kahn and Dost Akbar in the network for chapter twelve, it is clear that British characters are equally as involved in the crime as their non-British counterparts. In this way, the novel maps out the growing tensions between the imperial periphery and the metropolitan centre.

At the time of the publication of The Sign of the Four, Britain’s empire was known as “the empire on which the sun never sets” and it is the Indian Mutiny of 1857 which forms the historical and political background of the tale. Agnieszka Janowska suggests that the Sign of the Four is “a novella directly influenced by British imperial history” (127). Indeed many of the novel’s themes hinge directly on the social anxiety surrounding the politics of invasion which pervade the story. In his discussion of racial and criminal types in the novel, John McBratney further suggests that “Most Britons viewed the Revolt as an expression of Indian anger with perceived attacks upon their social and religious customs” (151).

Lord Henry Wotton’s remark “fin de siècle … fin du globe” (151) from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray encapsulates the attitude of Victorian society during this period. Nicholas Daly claims that “Such feelings ranged from concerns that Britain might be outstripped economically by Germany and America, to fears that the country was about to be invaded by hostile continental powers. The latter prospect underwrote a wave of “invasion narratives” (4). The fear of invasion from Britain’s colonies was certainly palpable in the literature of the time from The Sign of the Four to later gothic fiction such as Dracula by Bram Stoker and H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. However, there was also a distinct fear that crime may have been closer to home than many in Victorian society would have liked to imagine. The explosion of the middle-class during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the rapid expansion of the city of London, often shrouded in smog, led to the fear that with so many people and in such a big space, crime could go unnoticed and unsolved. It is worthy of note that the Whitechapel Murders attributed to “Jack the Ripper” had taken place in London’s East End 1888, the same year in which The Sign of The Four is set. The murders caused mass hysteria in London and while the Metropolitan Police Service was well established by this stage, the criminal was never caught, which may account for the somewhat bumbling and incompetent depiction of the police in many of the Sherlock Holmes tales. It is up to Holmes, an outsider and amateur, to solve the crime.


Works Cited:

Daly, Nicholas. “Britain at the Fin de Siècle.” The Fin de Siècle World. Edited by Michael Saler, Routledge, 2015. pp. 1-16, Research Repository UCD.

Janowska, Agnieszka. “Exotic Familiarity: Returned Anglo-Indians and the Representation of National Identity in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four.” Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2016, pp. 119-130, EBSCOhost.

McBratney, John. “Racial and Criminal Types: Indian Ethnography and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 33, no. 1, 2005, pp. 149-167, JSTOR.

Sutherland, John “Sherlock Holmes, the world’s most famous literary detective.” The British Library, 15 Mar. 2014.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Edited by Joseph Bristow, Oxford University Press, 2006.

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