Review: The Valley of Fear

The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle (1915)

Synopsis: Sherlock Holmes is intrigued and disturbed when he receives an ominous coded message: a Mr Douglas of Birlstone House is in terrible danger.  Before Holmes can act, shocking news arrives.  Douglas has been founded dead – his face blown off by a shotgun.  Scotland Yard is stumped.  Was this suicide or murder?  But Holmes is in no doubt.  For he recognises the calling card of his nemesis.  Professor James Moriarty. (From Amazon)


Story – Our story begins with  a ciphered note that bothers Holmes greatly. It’s not only the content which he finds troubling but the person that it can be connected with. Professor Moriarty. A thorn in Holmes’ side as well as the majority of London, although they may not know it. A brief banter ensues between Holmes and the doctor as they discuss this criminal genius and their attempt to decipher the message. Just as they solve it for themselves, Inspector MacDonald makes his entrance to add the final pieces to the puzzle, only to bring to light a whole other mystery.

Making the trip to Birlstone; the detective, doctor and inspector take the usual measures of inspecting the surrounding area, the grisly scene of the crime and question all those involved. Holmes, as usual, already knows (or at least suspects) far more than he is letting on while Watson and Mac remain largely in the dark. They realise it is best to leave Holmes to his strange devices, going about their own business, where upon Watson becomes suspicious of the wife of the murder victim.

However, after focusing his attention during a nighttime vigil, Holmes has the matter almost in the palm of his hand and requests the services of the Yard, no questions asked. This inevitably leads to the abrupt uncovering of the real mystery, much to the usual awe and confusion. But, the conclusion lies with the Douglas family, rather than Holmes and thus begins the second act of the story, taking us across the Pond to the American West.

Now, much as I was partial to the Mormon element of “Scarlet”, the backstory of the Valley of Fear hits many of my favourite historical elements. I’m a big fan of the American West and the building of their civilisation, as well as the concept of the Freemasons. Add to that the involvement of the ever elusive Pinkertons and there are many points of interest working in my favour.

Throughout the re-telling, we are constantly trying to work out in our own minds how these events somehow fit in with the characters of the original mystery. But clues are few and far between and we just have to follow things through, almost as a completely separate story. The Freemasons are a truly frightening bunch of people and their power and intensity really drives the latter part of the tale; you are never sure what depths they will sink to to achieve their sinister goals.

There is a particular viciousness to this story, with many a soulless character to make your skin crawl. And all the while, you are never quite sure whether you can even trust your central character! There is the classic crime novel element of double-crossing and betrayal but never to the degree that you feel lost or put out by the directions you turn in.

Once it is revealed exactly what has gone on and why the scenario at Birlstone has come into play, Holmes and company realise that their business is over and they had best head back to London. But not before warning the Douglas’ that they may not be out of danger yet; Holmes having a better idea of Moriarty’s behaviour than anyone else.

As it turns out, despite his warning being heeded by the husband and wife, tragedy still befalls them several months later and, despite the apparent “accidental” incident, Holmes can easily identify it as an act of Moriarity and he sits in a reflective silence as he begins his plans to shut down Moriarty’s organisation for good.

A final point on the story is the presence of Moriarty himself. Despite the fact that he is merely a name being passed between these people, I think this is a crucial narrative ploy in developing the character (even though, by this point, bibliographically, he is already long gone). The lack of any tangible link to the Professor, the fact that even the person he is so determined to be rid of has no knowledge of him, emphasises his truly terrifying reach and powers. He is only a very minor player in this story and yet he commands the whole plot from start to finish.

Characters – By this point, Arthur Conan Doyle had been writing Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson for a period spanning over 20 years and he was more than familiar with them. As a result, the characters themselves have developed a certain domesticity and a comfortable back-and-forth that is so easily apparent in this story. Watson classes himself as “long-suffering” due to Holmes’ snappish moods but it is obvious that he has become accustomed to it and just takes it in his stride. Holmes, as usual, just speaks his mind but there is an element of knowledge that he knows Watson understands and will ignore him or work around it.

The humour is also much more apparent. Watson makes a joke early on that catches Holmes by surprise, but pleasantly as Watson has always been pretty serious and straight-laced when we have seen him. And Holmes, well, he has a ball with this case. I think it’s mainly down to the fact that the case isn’t so difficult to solve; isn’t extraneous and so he can afford to be more light-hearted. This occurs mostly with his interaction Mac, the Scotland Yard Inspector. He knows a lot about the personalities of the Yarders and, in turn, how to interact with them…It just happens that his favourite way of interacting with them, is to rile them up. In the case of Mac, he takes a rather laid back approach and delivers his theories and advice in such a way as to seem sardonic and patronising while still remaining honest and useful. He doesn’t shy away from making subtle digs at the Inspector’s process while still maintaining an air of professionalism.

Mac, in himself, is one of the more ambitious Yarders but lacks the initiative to work upon it. He knows that Holmes is well-versed in this business and will prove useful but he also considers himself superior, which is a big mistake. He dismisses Holmes’ accusations of Moriarty’s involvement as the ramblings of a man with an infatuation; making the fatal mistake of judging the Professor merely on his appearance and social status. Not a good characteristic for a police inspector. He also spends a lot of time at the crime scene doubting Holmes’ techniques and being rather verbal about it. He tends to keep a level head but sometimes Holmes’ nonchalant approach and obvious disregard for his own skills tip him over the edge into anger. But, as with most members of the police force that the detective is thrown together with, once the conclusion is made, he is just as awed by the solution as everyone else.

Now, Moriarty is naturally an important character within the world of Sherlock Holmes even though this is only the second of two appearances that he makes, and it’s only in name. But that doesn’t make it any less significant. Using the power of hindsight, we can get equally as infuriated as Holmes when his criminal qualities are dismissed by everyone because of his respectability in public. We get a real sense of his deviousness in that he can pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, except the great detective. Even though we do find out more about him in The Final Problem where we actually meet him, I feel this really adds something to his shady persona. It illustrates the way he can hide in broad daylight and will get away with seemingly anything; his intense tenacity to get the job done as failure is not an option. I believe it is a nice buffer to the portrait we already hold of this evil genius, which could only have worked as a prequel.

Writing Style – The style is very similar to that of “A Study in Scarlet”, being written by Watson and split into two significant portions. The first seven chapters are devoted to the mystery at hand, while the remaining seven are comprised of its own story, told in flashback, of how the current mystery came to be in the first place. However, unlike “Scarlet”, which was all pretty straight forward, the story of the Valley of Fear contains a mystery of its own that is slowly unfolded throughout its chapters. So, in this instance, we are really given two crimes for the price of one with plenty of twists and turns that aren’t so complex that you get continually lost, but are constant enough to keep you guessing and reading.

It almost feels like Arthur Conan Doyle was more interested in the backstory, as oppossed to the Sherlock Holmes element because it is far more conspiratorial and intricate, with many players and threads. This wouldn’t be surprising seeing as he had been writing the Holmes stories for a long time by this point and was undoubtedly interested in changing it up a bit. The mystery that Holmes is requested to solve is not a very complicated one and so leaves the author more opportunity to focus on the characters rather than the situation, which he does brilliantly. This is one instance where Holmes is in a playful mood and it gives a nice parallel to the sinister quality of the latter parts.

As with all the stories, it finishes with the wrapping of the case in the present day but also features an epilogue, set some months after the events. Due to this being a prequel of some sorts, it provides an ample opportunity for some neat foreshadowing (if you read them chronologically, that is!) When it is revealed that Moriarty has achieved what he set out to do after all, Holmes is momentarily overtaken by a fury not borne so much from being bested but from knowing that time is short and his plans need to converge soon in order to capture the criminal mastermind. We, of course, know what this is leading to and can see the future that Holmes is apparently so focused on and this is a brief nod to the early stages of his obsession with Moriarty; the catalyst that forces him into action. 

Other Points – As I’ve mentioned before, I read these stories with the novels first and then the short stories and some confusion was borne from this upon reading this story. Although, it only proved confusing because of my knowledge of the other books and, specifically, Moriarty. The Final Problem from the “Memoirs” is, technically, the first appearance of the Professor but “Valley”, though written much later, actually occurs before the events of that short story. The confusion comes from the fact that in both stories, Watson claims not to know anything about Moriarty which would obviously be incorrect (unless he has a rather weak memory!). So, after reading this first, FP has its errors or, reading FP first, this has some errors. It’s not a major issue, it’s just good to be aware of it, like me, you have a compendium book that you assume is in chronological order when, in fact, it simply puts the four novels first!

Worth Reading Y/N? – It’s definitely one of my favourites of the Sherlock Holmes series but, as I said, that is more because of my American West inclinations than the usual Holmesian elements. However, even the first “act” is full of great moments and has more humour in it than some of the others which is welcome. It’s not your standard murder mystery, but with Holmes it rarely is!

Favourite Quote – “It was late that night when Holmes returned from his solitary excursion. We slept in a double-bedded room, which was the best that the little country inn could do for us. I was already asleep when I was partly awakened by his entrance. ‘Well, Holmes,’ I murmured, ‘have you found anything out?’ He stood beside me in silence, his candle in his hand. Then the tall, lean figure inclined towards me. ‘I say, Watson,’ he whispered, ‘would you be afraid to sleep in the same room with a lunatic, a man with softening of the brain, an idiot whose mind has lost its grip?’/’Not in the least,’ I answered in astonishment. ‘Ah, that’s lucky,’ he said, and not another word would he utter that night.”


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