The Valley of Fear the seventh Sherlock Holmes book was written by Conan Doyle in 1914-1915 as the most horrific war the world had ever known was getting into full swing. As the corpses were piling up by the million, the charming gentility of Holmes the consulting detective must have seemed like something of an anacronysim to fans of the old school squire turned omnipotent know-it-all, and solver of country house mysteries.
The title of the book reminds Crimezine of the dark biblical forboding of Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, your rod and staff are with me, they comfort me. And such is the legend of Sherlock Holmes, the certain knowledge that truth, justice and common decency will triumph above all. By 1915 however it was becoming painfully obvious to a fast disappearing breed of Victorians that such ideals could no longer be relied on.
The Valley of Fear is really two novella length works, tied together with a short epilogue and whispered mention of Holmes’s arch nemesis Moriarty, although teasingly, the arch villain never actually appears in the book. In the first half Holmes and Watson set out for Birlstone Manor Sussex, to solve the perplexing murder of John Douglas.
Holmes makes short work of the mystery, in a denouement that proves most unexpected. Crimeziners who undertake the reading of this book, which next to the Hound of the Baskervilles is one of Conan Doyle’s finest works must ask themselves one question: how do you change the clothes of a man who has just had his face blown off, without leaving clues that even the most flat footed Scotland yard Detective could figure out?
Suspension of disbelief aside, we are quickly ushered to the second half of the book with the promise that events at Birlstone Manor will be explained by this monumental aside.
Cut to: Vermissa Valley in real life: Eckley Miners’ Village, Pennsylvania. and we are in for an epic wild west show. Entitled The Scrowers. Part two outlines the murderous dealings of a secret society, very similar to the modern day Free Masons. Engaging though this story is, it is not a Sherlock Holmes story, more a long winded digression to explain away murder. In a similar way to Study in Scarlet the back story is set in America, a very un Holmesian milieu.
Cynics might say this was a calculated move by Conan Doyle, to draw in American readers, or capitalise on the popularity of Western themed stories, that seemed so fresh and exciting to European readers at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Surely not Watson, a very singular heresy!
The end is a twisted one, as one would expect with Holmes. It involves the world famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, the dark hand of Moriarty and a slippery deck during passage to South Africa an ending that draws interesting parallels with the real life death of Irish Nationalist James Carey.
What parallels? I hear you cry. Enter the Valley of Fear and do the detective work, truth as ever is stranger than fiction!