review: the valley of fear

The Valley of Fear by A. Conan Doyle (1915)

Reading The Valley of Fear, the final Sherlock Holmes novel, has been on my to do list for quite some time. Imagine my surprise when I started reading and discovered that I had at least started it in the past. I’ve got notes in the margins and underlined sentences throughout the first part of the story, but then nothing for the second part, which leads me to think that I started the book but then didn’t finish it because this is one of the Holmes novels that does that thing I don’t really like—but more on that later. Like I said, The Valley of Fear is the final Sherlock Holmes novel. In case you’re wondering, the others are (in order): A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Also, if you are a fan of the BBC’s Sherlock, the beginning of The Valley of Fear will be familiar to you, as the decoding of a cipher received by Sherlock is adapted in the series one episode titled, “The Blind Banker”.

Structurally, The Valley of Fear is a framed narrative. The story is divided into two main parts and the frame is closed with an epilogue. The use of the framed narrative is actually one of the things that turns me off about the story, and I’m guessing that it was at the start of the inner story that I put the book down. That being said, the framed narrative works for this story. At the beginning of the novel, Sherlock receives a coded message from one of the many confidential informants he’s built a relationship with over the years. The message warns of mortal danger to John Douglas, owner of an old manor house called Birlstone. However, before Holmes can act to save the endangered man, he receives a visit from Inspector MacDonald, who brings news of the brutal murder. Holmes, Watson, and MacDonald make plans to travel to Birlstone the following morning. Prior to their arrival, Watson inserts a chapter into the story that reveals the statements made by those within the house at the time of the murder. In this way, Watson provides back story and what basically amounts to an information dump, so that when the trio arrives at the manor house, Sherlock and Inspector MacDonald can begin their interrogations of the witnesses. Because Sherlock falls into the category of the “Great Detective,” it is often the case that he makes deductions, solves the mystery, and reveals the solution to readers in such a way that readers cannot themselves figure out whodunnit. The Great Detective is needed to explain the crime to us. The first part of The Valley of Fear follows this same structure, however, perhaps more than any of the other novels (and short stories), there is a heavy smattering of clues. While I wasn’t able to figure out the whole of the mystery, there were parts of it I had already deduced before the reveal of the solution. One other noteworthy aspect of the mystery itself is that it is a kind of “locked room” murder mystery, in that the manor house at Birlstone is surrounded by a moat and thus can only be accessed by a drawbridge. Douglas insists the drawbridge be raised every night, and the fact that the drawbridge was raised at the time of the murder is another puzzling fact that Holmes must take into account as he deduces the chain of events leading up to and immediately following the murder.

The opening frame ends with the presentation of the solution to the murder. The inner story then goes back twenty years into the past. Part of the function of this inner story is to further illustrate the character of John Douglas. Indeed, it is in many ways a character study. It is also there to explain the motive for murder. Part two of the story paints a vivid and engaging portrait of the man as well as the so-called Valley of Fear, explaining the source of the title. However, what I think is most notable about the second part of the story is that it meditates upon the issue of class warfare and considers the limits of what constitutes justifiable behavior in the struggle between the “little man” and the large corporation. At the same time, the inner story invites us to determine how we feel about a character who is presented as being more than a little morally grey. We have to ask ourselves how we feel about him. Do we like him? Do we abhor him and his actions? Do the ends justify the means? These questions earn greater importance as the inner story concludes, and we as readers must reconcile our impressions and judgement of Douglas in light of the conclusion to his story. The inner story is complex and pushes the reader outside of the bounds of detective fiction and into the margins of moral fiction. Read in this light, the inner story fascinates me on a level that I hadn’t quite expected but definitely appreciate.

Finally, the closing frame of the narrative calls back to the opening, where the spectre of Professor Moriarty hovers of the story as the catalytic force that sets the whole of the initial murder mystery into motion. Because The Valley of Fear was written after “The Final Problem” it is worth pondering how Conan Doyle shaped this story based upon his knowledge of how Holmes’ battle with Moriarty played out. That is, his hindsight allowed him to sprinkle in these references to Moriarty and show him to be the masterful consulting criminal who cannot fail. It could be that if Conan Doyle hadn’t written “The Final Problem” when he did, the stories and this novel that come after it would lack these elements of intrigue and insight into Moriarty as well as the struggle between Sherlock and Moriarty for supremacy.

Though the structure of the framed narrative frustrates me on one level—because I read the Sherlock stories because I want to see Sherlock and Watson in action—I have to admit The Valley of Fear commanded my attention and provoked me to think about the story on a philosophical level. Even though it took me two attempts to get to the end, I recommend reading this novel, especially if you’ve never read any of the stories or novels. You will definitely watch film and television adaptations of the Sherlock and Watson stories in a different way after you’ve read the stories that inspire them.

Have you read The Valley of Fear? What are your thoughts?

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