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Conan Doyle: The Sign of Four

1. Introduction

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About this Lecture


In this module, we provide a broad introduction to Doyle's The Sign of Four (1890), focusing in particular on the commissioning of the novel, the character of Sherlock Holmes, the concept of inherited criminality as expressed by Cesare Lombroso and Francis Galton, and the narrative structure of the novel.


In this course, Dr Christopher Pittard (University of Portsmouth) explores Arthur Conan Doyle's second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four (1890). We begin by providing a broad introduction to the novel, exploring how the novel came to be commissioned by Lippincott's Magazine, Doyle's decision to reuse the character of Holmes from a previous novel, and his engagement with contemporary ideas about criminality and inheritance. In the second module, we think about Holmes' deductive method, focusing in particular on the first chapter of the novel – 'The Science of Deduction' – and considering the extent to which Holmes' method is as scientific as he thinks it is. In the third module, we explore the historical events that form the background of the novel, focusing in particular on the Indian Rebellion of 1857, before turning in the fourth module to consider the extent to which The Sign of Four might be described as an imperial Gothic novel. In the final module, we provide a close reading of the climactic scene of the novel – the boat chase down the Thames in Chapter 10 – focusing in particular on the character of the Andaman Islander, Tonga.


Dr Christopher Pittard joined the University of Portsmouth in 2009, having held previous teaching positions at Newcastle University and the University of Exeter. His main research focus is on the popular culture of the nineteenth century, especially the emergence of popular genres in the Victorian fin de siecle and detective fiction in particular. His monograph, Purity and Contamination in Late Victorian Detective Fiction, considers how such fictions (and the periodicals in which they appeared) engaged with ideas of material and social purity, ranging from Sherlock Holmes cleaning the face of criminality in “The Man with the Twisted Lip” to the moral policing carried out by the Social Purity movements and late Victorian antivivisection campaigns. His publications in this area include discussions of Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Morrison, Fergus Hume, and of the Strand Magazine more widely.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Pittard, C. (2018, August 15). Conan Doyle: The Sign of Four - Introduction [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Pittard, C. "Conan Doyle: The Sign of Four – Introduction." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 15 Aug 2018,