Continuing my project of re-reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes yarns… This is billed as a novel, but it's pretty short, and (in fact) is actually two longish stories, connected by a thin thread. But that's OK.
The first story kicks off when Sherlock is warned, via a mysterious encrypted note, that the crime syndicate led by the villainous Moriarty has designs on one "Douglas", at Birlstone Manor. (So it's set pre-Reichenbach Falls.) Near-immediately after Holmes and Watson decode the note, a Scotland Yard inspector shows up with news of a grisly crime: Mr. Douglas of Birlstone Manor has taken a couple sawed-off shotgun blasts to the cranial region, and it's quite a mess.
So Holmes and Watson head off to Birlstone Manor, and are confronted with the usual set of clues, suspects behaving oddly, and clueless cops. But (hopefully not a spoiler) Holmes cracks the case theatrically.
The second (Sherlock-free) story is a 20-years-previous prequel, set in the mid-1870s in a Pennsylvania coal-mining valley. This is the titular "Valley of Fear", as it is controlled by a particularly nasty organized crime ring through murder, extortion, and terror. It's very much plus ça change territory: not too much different than Whitey Bulger in South Boston, a century later, or Boyd Crowder in Harlan County Kentucky, a few decades after that.
The most notable thing in the second half is the overwriting. I found myself thinking: if Edward Bulwer-Lytton were reading this before publication, he'd probably say "Gee, Art. Don't you think you need to tone this down a bit?" But it's good fun for a short read, and Doyle really does convey the grime and squalor of that time and place.