The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Y’all, this is the final Sherlock Holmes novel. I have two collections left go and that’s it; I will only reread the Sherlock Holmes canon in the future. I’m struggling between tearing through the rest of it (His Last Bow and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, which I’ll actually have to rent from the library) and trying to savor it, like a good piece of dark chocolate, but I always end just eating it. At the very least, I’ll be done by the end of the year. The Valley of Fear is less known than the other three, especially The Hound of the Baskervilles or A Study in Scarlet, and, I have to admit, it’s for good reason.
The Valley of Fear is set before the fatal “The Final Problem”. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson receive a cryptic letter from one of Holmes’ informants, an agent of Moriarty, warning of an impending murder. Immediately, Inspector MacDonald drops by with the news of the murder, and the dream team are summoned to Birlstone House to solve the murder of John Douglas. At first, it seems fairly cut and dried, but Holmes senses something much more insidious at work here—perhaps even the work of that Napoleon of crime.
I’m not a mystery person. I read so much of it as a kid (by which I mean I read the same Agatha Christie novels and collections ad infinitum) that I think I’m burned out on the stuff pretty much permanently. But what will attract me to read a mystery are the characters, and Sherlock Holmes and the good doctor haven’t survived this long in the public imagination without a reason. Despite Doyle’s own professed distaste for Holmes (yep, even the guy who wrote him thought he was so annoying he should be thrown off a cliff), their friendship is timeless. But certainly not as slavish as pop culture told me as a kid. The Valley of Fear opens with Holmes and Watson insulting each other; in fact, this was the novel where I could most clearly see where the characterization in the recent Guy Ritchie movies come from, down to Holmes’ opium fiend snark. (My Watson is and will always be Jude Law; my Holmes fluctuates.) And there’s even a moment of doubt for Holmes where he needs Watson to reassure him that at least someone in the world will like him even if he isn’t the best detective in the world, which I, of course, sighed over like a twelve-year-old girl. They’re just the best.
But, like A Study in Scarlet, Doyle splits up the novel into two halves—the investigation by Holmes and company, and the backstory of the murder, which takes place in America. (Perhaps I should look into what America represents in the Holmes novels; all murder and tough dames, apparently. Oh, also Mormons.) It’s not that the backstory of the murder is bad, but it’s just very different. I’ve not read his non-Holmes novels, but the latter half of this one makes me curious to see what else he can do. While it does lack the emotional honesty of Holmes and Watson, I think that’s only due to a lack of establishment more than anything else. Still, it just doesn’t feel congruous with the rest of the novel; the second half even starts with Watson assuring the reader that, despite this detour, they’ll soon be safe and sound at 221B Baker Street. On top of that, Holmes and Watson just seem to work better in short story form rather than novel form; while the mystery of The Hound of the Baskervilles is meaty enough to support an entire (albeit short) novel, the mystery isn’t. In the short stories, the mysteries can be short, sweet, and self-contained.
In fact, part of the problem with The Valley of Fear is that it isn’t self-contained. At the beginning, Holmes suspects Moriarty of being involved and is ultimately proven correctly. This is the first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s infamous inconsistencies of the series, as Watson would not know Moriarty existed until “The Final Problem”. (These inconsistencies would eventually take the life of my favorite female character in the series.) The mystery is even solved, but Moriarty still manages to get his influence across after, and the novel even ends with Holmes staring maniacally into the distance, plotting how to finish off his nemesis for good (to be continued with “The Final Problem”, I should guess). I don’t know… it’s hard to maintain such a nemesis across a series, especially one as haphazardly written as Sherlock Holmes, and this feels off. It’s definitely my least favorite entry in the series so far, although it has some great character moments for our boys.
Bottom line: The Valley of Fear is one of the weaker links in the Holmesian chain, by virtue of being a novel with a split focus, meaning we only spend half the novel with our boys, who are, to be fair, in rare form. It’s further hurt by Doyle’s attempts to build up Moriarty as the ultimate bad guy… after he’s already done so. But it’s still Holmes. Eh!