In which murder is perhaps less fruitful than imagined.
The Five Orange Pips stands out in my mind for two reasons. Firstly, the title evokes such mystery and intrigue – though perhaps just by differing from the more common The Adventure of the Something Something format that we’ll see take hold in later stories.
Secondly, the pips within the tale draw on dramatic visual storytelling, with the five pips falling from envelopes to signal the death of the recipient. Harking back to Robert Louis Stevenson’s black spot from 1883’s Treasure Island, the pips instantly create terror in those who open them.
Published almost a decade later in 1891, The Five Orange Pips is the fifth entry in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes collection. It was credited as the author’s 7th favourite Holmes story in 1927, where Conan Doyle chose his top 12 adventures for a competition for The Strand.
The story follows John Openshaw, who’s uncle Elias recently received the titular pips. Following their arrival, his behaviour became increasingly bizarre until he was found dead a few days later.
Next, John’s father Joseph Openshaw received the five pips and, despite John’s pleadings, wouldn’t contact the police. Three days later Joseph was also found killed. Now John is at a loss as to how he can avoid the same fate as his uncle and father, turning to Sherlock Holmes as a last resort.
Like most of the Holmes stories, The Five Orange Pips has been dramatized and referenced many times over the years since its first publication. The 1945 Rathbone/Bruce film The House of Fear is partly based on the adventure, and the modern Sherlock series has twice referenced the tail in The Great Game and The Abominable Bride. The title was also half-used in the Elementary episode The Five Orange Pipz. And for good measure, it was adapted for the 1999 children’s tv series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century.
The Five Orange Pips is another of the early Holme’s stories that’s stood the test of time and inspired many adaptations over the years. As with the best adventures, it’s a seemingly unfathomable mystery that’s unravelled by the genius detective to see quite simple.
One final note – a huge spoiler if you haven’t read the story yet so only read on if you have.
This is one of only two Holmes stories in which the detective’s client dies after asking for his help. There is some comfort in the resolution though as though he’s unable to save John from the murder, Holmes alerts the American authorities of the case and sends the man five pips of his own. Before the ship he’s travelling on can reach its destination, it’s destroyed with no known survivors. Perhaps not so comforting for the rest of the crew, but a fitting conclusion to a grim tale.