The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | The Five Orange Pips | Summary



On a particularly dark and stormy night in September 1887, a distraught young man from Horsham arrives at Holmes's Baker Street residence. His name is John Openshaw, and he is desperately seeking help in uncovering a sinister family mystery. The puzzle begins with his uncle, Elias Openshaw. Elias had gone to Florida before the American Civil War and amassed a small fortune as a planter. During the war he was a colonel in the Confederacy, but during Reconstruction he returned to the Horsham area because of his "aversion to the negroes." There he holed up in his house, alone, angry, and often drunk, accepting only his nephew John as a visitor. Despite his terrible disposition he doted somewhat on John, who by the age of 16 was all but running the household. John, however, was forbidden from entering a room in the attic, which Elias kept locked at all times.

In March 1883 Elias received a mysterious letter from an unknown sender. It was postmarked from Pondicherry (a city on the eastern coast of India), and contained no letter, only five dried orange pips (seeds). Scrawled on the inside flap were the letters "K.K.K." The message sent Elias into tremors of shock. John asked him what was wrong, but he wouldn't explain anything, saying only "I'll checkmate them still." He then instructed John to send for a lawyer. When the lawyer and John convened in Elias's room, John noticed his uncle had burned a number of papers in his fireplace, and that a small brass box—which now stood empty—had the letter "K" inscribed on it in the same font as the letters on the postal letter he had received earlier in the day. In front of the lawyer Elias willed his estate to John's father, Joseph. Elias grew even more solitary and drunken over the next few weeks. Occasionally, however, he would erupt from his house, drunk, and skulk around his property. One night, however, he never returned home; he was soon found lying face-down in a pond by one of his gardens. No foul play was detected, and the death was ruled a suicide. Elias's house and holdings then passed on to John's father, Joseph Openshaw. Per Holmes's questioning, John confirms the letter was received on March 10, and Elias died on May 2.

John Openshaw's father Joseph moved into Elias Openshaw's house in early 1884. He examined the house for clues that might shed some light on his brother's death, but found only the empty brass box. Inside it had a label with the initials K.K.K. and "Letters, memoranda, receipts, and a register" written beneath. They also found some of his uncle's old papers, which revealed he had resisted Republican-led efforts to rebuild the South and enfranchise newly freed slaves. On January 4, 1885, Joseph Openshaw received a similar letter to the one his brother had received in 1883—an anonymous post with five dried orange pips inside and the letters K.K.K. written inside the envelope. Instructions were included on the envelope as well: "Put the papers on the sundial" in the house's garden. The message was postmarked from Dundee, a city in Scotland. Though he was deeply alarmed at first, Joseph resolved that this was merely a practical joke and refused John's pleas to go to the police. Three days later Joseph went to visit a friend in a nearby area. Two days after that, John received a telegram from the police informing him his father had fallen into a chalk pit and fractured his skull; by the time John arrived to visit him, his father was dead. As with his uncle, foul play was ruled out and Joseph Openshaw's death was ruled an accident.

John Openshaw inherited the estate, and lived unbothered for over two and a half years. Yesterday, he tells Holmes, he had received a letter with five orange pips; the message was postmarked from London—eastern division. It included the letters K.K.K. and another demand to "put the papers on the sundial." Desperate and afraid, Openshaw contacted the police, but they brushed him off, calling the affair a practical joke. "Incredible imbecility!" Holmes steams in response.

Holmes becomes extremely concerned for Openshaw's safety, and asks if he has any other clues that might help them figure out who is behind the letters. Openshaw produces a single paper he found on the floor of his uncle's room. The paper has the same bluish color of the papers his uncle burned, he tells Holmes. Written on the paper—in Elias Openshaw's handwriting—is a list of dates and short, cryptic phrases about interactions with different men, three of whom apparently received pips. Two of them "cleared," and the other was "visited." Holmes instructs Openshaw to immediately return home and put the paper and brass box out on his sundial, along with a note explaining all of Elias Openshaw's papers have been burned. He warns Openshaw to be careful and says he will find an answer to the riddle in London. Openshaw thanks him and leaves Holmes and Watson, and they begin discussing the situation. Holmes begins thinking aloud, and Watson both praises his thought process and ribs him a bit. They turn back to the case. Holmes realizes all of the letters were postmarked from seaports, which strongly suggests the letter-writer had been on a ship. He also observes that the lapse between the time the letters arrived and the time the deaths occurred means the letters were sent by "mail-boat" and the murderers came by sailing vessel. Thus there is a gap of seven weeks between the time Elias Openshaw received his letter and his death and a span of less than a week between the time Joseph Openshaw received his letter and his death. Since the newest letter came from London, then, it means John Openshaw is in immediate and grave danger. Holmes concludes the papers Elias Openshaw burned must have been extremely valuable, and that the deaths of the Openshaws were too professional for only one man to carry out.

Watson confesses his ignorance of the significance of the initials KKK, so Holmes instructs him to read the entry on the group in an American encyclopedia he has in his office. The entry explains the KKK, or Ku Klux Klan, was formed by ex-Confederate soldiers to terrify former slaves and whites who opposed the organization. It was a ruthlessly effective organization; anyone who opposed it was given an ultimatum to renounce their resistance, flee the country, or be killed. This seems to explain the puzzling entries on the blue paper John Openshaw found in his uncle's room. The encyclopedia entry explains the organization collapsed in 1869—the year Elias Openshaw returned to England.

The next morning Watson meets Holmes at the breakfast table. They look over the paper, and are horrified to learn John Openshaw died the previous night. According to the report he fell off the Waterloo Bridge as he was hurrying through the violent storm; the death was ruled an accident. For a few moments Holmes becomes silent. He resolves, however, to solve the mystery and heads out. He returns home that night and explains his findings to Watson. He spent the entire day looking over passenger ship records from 1883 onward. He discovered that a U.S. ship, Lone Star, had been to Pondicherry in January and February of 1883, Dundee in January 1885, and had been docked in London until this morning. Holmes learned there are only two Americans on the ship, which is currently bound for Savannah, Georgia. The culprits identified, Holmes sends a telegram to Savannah authorities informing them about the criminals onboard. Watson explains they never made it home, however, because the ship went down in the Atlantic.


This story is as much of a thriller as it is a mystery. It begins as a typical whodunit. John Openshaw's visit seems to be about discovering the truth about his uncle's past. When we learn his uncle's death is suspicious, the story takes on a new layer of intrigue—doubly so when we learn his father's death is also suspicious. Eventually, however, it dawns on the characters (and the readers) John Openshaw himself is in grave danger. This gives the story a dramatic urgency that leaves the reader hanging on to every word of text. The reader hopes to see Openshaw escape from the clutches of the forces that killed his uncle and father, but isn't sure if he will. Doyle masterfully manipulates the reader into a state of emotional alarm. Holmes is not speaking just for himself when he urges John Openshaw to "above all, take care of yourself in the meanwhile, for I do not think that there can be a doubt that you are threatened by a very real and imminent danger."

Additionally, a sense of foreboding begins as soon as the story kicks off, and the descriptions of the severe weather only add to the unsettling atmosphere: "the equinoctial gales had set in with exceptional violence" in September 1883, Watson explains. It is under these circumstances that John Openshaw appears at Holmes's door, literally and figuratively traveling under black clouds. Also, Openshaw's isolation—he lives by himself, in the country—makes him seem especially vulnerable and again emphasizes Holmes's (Doyle's) belief that rural areas can be scary places. All alone in his country house, Openshaw is literally a waiting target.

John Openshaw, who is only in his early 20s, seems to be completely innocent, which compounds the reader's interest in his well-being. The death of his uncle, however, has a flat effect. He was an ex-Confederate colonel, opponent of Republican-led efforts to give freed slaves civil rights, and member of the Ku Klux Klan. In a way, then, his death at the hands of his former KKK associates could be interpreted as its own kind of justice given the brutal terror campaigns the group waged against black Americans and whites who opposed the organization. Because he was such a disreputable character, his death doesn't have much emotional impact. However, the death of Joseph Openshaw, who is innocent, and the grave danger John Upshaw finds himself in, inject the story with a heightened sense of drama, as typically occurs in tales that pit good against evil.

This story tells us a few things about Sherlock Holmes. One he has no other friends except for Dr. Watson. With Watson the generally serious and extremely composed investigator is able to (occasionally) let his guard down. As the two discuss the case after Openshaw has left, they take a rare break for small talk, during which Watson mildly pokes fun at Holmes's idiosyncrasies. The typically sober detective responds with a smirk, and pokes a bit of fun at himself. This demonstrates, yet again, the duo's intimate bond.

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