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Fortysomething, photographer slacker, working in IT, living in Greenwich; failed polymath; drinks and eats too much, reads too little...

The Sign of the Four (Sherlock Holmes, #2)

The Sign of the Four (Sherlock Holmes, #2) -  Arthur Conan Doyle Though classed as a novel, this is barely more than a shortish story – not much more than a couple of hours sitting in the sun one morning to tear through it. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson return to come to the aid of a young lady requesting that they accompany her to a clandestine meeting in response to a curious note that she has received. The note appears to allude to the death of her father, the mysterious pearls that have been sent to her anonymously for a number of years, and some alleged injustice she has been on the receiving end of. Before long, Holmes and Watson are chasing across London and back again on the hunt for some stolen treasure that has been smuggled back to England some years before. However, who is truely entitled to say that they 'own' the treasure, and how far will those who believe their claim is true go to recover it...

Holmes is at his most manic while investigating, and we are also introduced to some more background information on the man himself – that he had once boxed, quite successfully; and that he has developed a startling ability to go undercover and use costume to create cover stories and characters to aid in his investigations. Like Poirot, Holmes enjoys pitting himself not only against the bad-guy, but also against the police, and while never as patronising as Poirot, Holmes also enjoys drip-feeding the necessary information to Watson, as Poirot does to Hastings, to 'help' him come to the right conclusions.

The story is book-ended with two scenes, one effectively shadowing the other. Initially, Watson is berating Holmes as he sits in a cocaine haze – "Three times a day for many months". Holmes justifies it to Watson and himself because "he finds it so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind ... I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation." At the end of the novel, with the crime solved, Holmes again reaches for the cocaine solution. While reading the novel now, the casual drug dependency is shocking, that a 'heroic' character would so obviously display his vices. Yet, when the novel was published in 1890, general cocaine use was still widely peddled as a cure-all – even if serious doctors (such as Watson) would already have been frowning upon such usage. Coca-Cola didn't remove the cocaine until 1903 (and still included trace amounts even beyond then).