The Valley of Fear (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

First published: USA, George H. Doran, 1915

My review

The last of the four Sherlock Holmes novels, and one of the two best.  It contains more detection in its first section than The Hound of the Baskervilles, with Holmes (who is off-stage for most of The Hound) actively investigating the murder at Birlstone, drawing ever-fascinating deductions from raincoats and dumb-bells.  Indeed, it is the only pure detective story among the four, with the reader given every opportunity to solve the crime.  Although the solution is justly famous, it is but a variation on “The Norwood Builder” at much greater length.  The second half of the tale concerns the doings of the Pinkerton agent Birdy Edwardes in the eponymous Valley, terrorised by the Freemasons, a gripping and powerful account which is perhaps of greater interest than the detection.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Dr. Arthur Shadwell, 3rd June 1915):


Some little time ago Mr. Sherlock Holmes’s innumerable friends received the joyful and surprising news that he and Professor Moriarty had not hurled each other to destruction among the mountains, as Dr. Watson had erroneously supposed.  It was just the sort of mistake that faithful Boswell was likely to make.  As a matter of fact, both escaped.  Such giants are not so easily disposed of, even by each other.  Holmes himself would instantly have divined the truth had he been in Watson’s place, but he knew that he could safely throw dust in poor Watson’s eyes; and so with a certain callousness which we have noticed with regret as a blot on the great man’s character he left his friend to mourn his own fictitious death until such time as it suited him to reappear.  Of course, the Professor, whose own escape has never been explained, was not so readily deceived.  These wonderful but hostile personalities divine each other’s whereabouts by some medium infinitely more subtle and far-reaching than wireless telegraphy; and were bound to come to hand-grips again sooner or later.  And sure enough they are all here once more in The Valley of Fear to the great delight of all true “Sherlockians.”

Sherlock Holmes is quite himself again, though rather more mellow, perhaps, in his moods and less scornful to the police than of yore.  Of Professor Moriarty we see too little.  He is quite in the background; so much so, indeed, that his connection with the affair remains an inscrutable enigma.  No doubt Holmes could throw light on it, but he does not.  He alone can discern the Professor’s hand by some invisible sign, which he keeps severely to himself.  That is his way and the Professor’s; we must leave them to it.  As for our dear Dr. Watson, to whom we owe these agreeable memoirs, he seems the most changed of the three.  Those adventures in France with Arsène Lupin, which he discreetly left to another chronicler, have evidently made a mark on him.  The French master-criminal’s practical jokes, of which he was the butt, seem actually to have aroused some latent self-assertiveness in his amiable nature.  He comports himself with dignity as though conscious of his own worth—as Youatt says of the poodle dog—and even turns rather sharply upon the master himself.  His practice, which he was always ready to desert for the investigation of a crime, has evidently deserted him, and no wonder.  But we are the gainers as well as Holmes, and we may hope for many more narratives from his now leisured pen.

The present volume contains two distinct stories of considerable length, linked together by a familiar device.  The first narrates a regular Sherlockian crime—a murder in a country house accompanied by strange circumstances which baffle the police but are unravelled by Holmes with unfailing sagacity.  All this is in the old vein and shows no falling off in vivacity, though the experienced reader will guess the secret before it is disclosed to the astonished police.  The second story breaks new ground.  It recounts the previous history of the principal actor and reveals the motive for the crime, which turns out, by the way, to be none.  This takes us to a strange region and introduces us to characters of whom little has been heard in this country.  They are American miners, not in a goldfield but in a coal district, which may perhaps be identified with the Lehigh Valley.  Here, in the Valley of Fear, the entire community is terrorised by a society of anarchists, “bossed” by an Irish publican.  They commit the most atrocious murders and other outrages with impunity until they are broken up through the daring stratagem of a Pinkerton detective.  This man is the hero of the episode in England, where he had retired to escape the vengeance of the surviving anarchists.  The author has evidently studied the subject closely and his mastery of detail makes the tale most realistic.  These societies exist in the United States, and the police records are full of such outrages as are here described.  But we do not remember to have come across such a vivid account of them.  We congratulate Sir A. Conan Doyle on the new field and on the old, and are grateful for both.  His pen is one of the few that can help us to forget the war for an hour or two.