Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear

The Valley of Fear was the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was serialised in the Strand Magazine beginning in September 1914 and appeared in book form in 1915. It’s structurally a little odd but more interesting is the rather dark tone of the book.

Holmes receives a communication from an informer in Professor Moriarty’s organisation, warning that a Mr John Douglas of Birlstone is in imminent danger. The letter proves to be prophetic indeed as John Douglas has already been murdered before Holmes and Watson reach Birlstone. It’s a particularly brutal crime and the accounts given by the dead man’s wife and by his friend Barker seem to Holmes to be rather unsatisfactory. Of even greater concern to Holmes is the finding of Mr Douglas’s dumb-bell. Not a pair of dum-bells, a single dumb-bell. Why on earth would a man possess a single dumb-bell?

The murder takes place in a Jacobean house surrounded by a moat, complete with drawbridge. It’s a fine setting for a murder mystery and the house’s colourful history will give Holmes some vital clues. It’s quite a decent plot but Holmes is able to solve it by the halfway point of the book. At which the book changes gears completely. The second half of the novel is an extended flashback, with third person narration, which gives us the backstory to the crime. It’s more or less two separate stories but the second story is essential in order to explain the motive for the murder, and in this particular story Conan Doyle is more interested in the why than in the who or the how.

The backstory takes place in a coal-mining district of the United States in the 1870s, a district menaced by a lawless and murderous secret society (based loosely on the real life story of the Molly Maguires). It’s a dark and violent story although there is a mystery here as well, a mystery that holds the key to the explanation of the main mystery.

What’s most interesting about this short novel is its tone. The first inklings of the darkness at the heart of this novel come at the beginning of the first half with the savagery of the first murder but the darkness really starts to take over during the second half. There’s quite a high body count, there are vicious cowardly murders, brutal beatings, corruption, intimidation and a general atmosphere of paranoia. The emphasis on fear, violence and corruption almost make the book seem to be an anticipation of the American hardboiled school. 

While the novel’s first appearance in print was in September 1914 it would be interesting to know if Conan Doyle actually completed it before the outbreak of the First World War, or possibly during the tense period after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. The pessimism and violence of the book make it tempting to speculate that Conan Doyle was influenced by a sense of impending doom - a premonition that war was going to plunge Europe into darkness, into its own Valley of Fear. The bitter class hatreds (and the exploitation of such hatreds by unscrupulous demagogues) that figure in the book   are another pessimistic feature one doesn’t quite expect in a Sherlock Holmes story).

The problem of chronology raised by this book worries some readers. Although written in 1914 it is set in the 1880s and therefore takes place before The Final Problem. Which is curious because in The Final Problem Watson appears not to have heard of Professor Moriarty, although one would think that he could scarcely have forgotten him after the events of The Valley of Fear. Conan Doyle presumably wanted to feature Moriarty again (not so much because he was essential to the plot of The Valley of Fear but more because he was essential to the mood) and simply decided not to worry about the problem. 

The Valley of Fear is an odd book. It does contain a perfectly decent Sherlock Holmes detective story but it’s overshadowed by a dark-edged tale of violence and corruption that can almost be seen as a precursor of the nihilism of some of Dashiell Hammett’s novels such as Red Harvest. If nothing else it shows that Conan Doyle was prepared to experiment with the detective story genre. Whether it’s a complete success is debatable but it’s certainly interesting. Recommended.


  1. The violence here is really very striking, given its relative absence in the rest of the canon isn't it? I was quite taken by surprise when I read this, but I had made the historical connection you have: it's an interesting point.

    The structure here frustrated me a little bit, with the second half being devoted to the back-story and all, and it's the one novel I've not returned to just because my abiding memory is losing patience as it wore on. Perhaps it's due a reassessment...

    1. Conan Doyle suffered a lot of personal tragedies during this stage of his life but they occurred after the writing of this book, so it seems to have been purely the shock of the outbreak of war that caused the turn towards bleakness and violence in this novel.