Sherlock Holmes and the Valley of Fear

I recently read the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear. It’s an interesting book, or in some sense two books, the first of which I know to be interesting and the second I’m not really interested in reading.

(If anyone doesn’t want spoilers, now’s the time to stop reading.)

The book begins with Sherlock Holmes working out a cryptogram by reasoning to the key from the cipher. It’s a book cipher, which has many pages and two columns, so Holmes is able to guess that it’s an almanac. This is clever and enjoyable; the message decodes that something bad is going to happen to a Douglas in Birlstone. Shortly after they decrypt it, a detective from Scotland Yard arrives to consult Sherlock Holmes about the brutal murder of Mr. Douglas of Birlstone. The plot thickens, as it were. This is an excellent setup for what is to follow.

When Holmes arrives, we get the facts of the case, that Mr. Douglas lives in a house surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge, and was found in his study with his head blasted off with a sawed-off shotgun fired at close range. Any avid reader of detective fiction—possibly even at the time, given how detective fiction had taken off in short story form by 1914, when The Valley of Fear was written—will immediately suspect that the body is not the body it is supposed to be. However, Conan Doyle forestalls this possibility by the presence of a unique brand on the forearm of the corpse, which Mr. Douglas was known to have had. This helps greatly to heighten the mystery.

The mystery is deepened further by the confusing evidence that Mr. Douglas’s friend forged a footprint on the windowsill which was used to suggest that the murderer escaped by wading in the moat—which was only 3′ deep at its deepest—and ran away. Further confusing things, Dr. Watson accidentally observes Mrs. Douglas and Mr. Douglas’ friend being lighthearted and happy together.

Holmes then finds some additional evidence which convinces him of what really happened, which he does not tell us or the police about, which is not exactly fair play. He then he sets in motion a trap where he has the police tell Mr. Douglas’ friend that they is going to drain the moat. This invites the reader to guess, and I’m not sure that we really have sufficient evidence at this point to guess. That’s not entirely true; we have sufficient evidence to guess, but not to pick among the many possible explanations of the facts given to us. It turns out that the dead man was the intruder, but it could have turned out otherwise, too. The facts, up till then, would have supported Mr. Douglas’ friend having been in on the crime, for example. That said, the explanation given does cover the facts very well, and is satisfying. It does rely, to some degree, on happenstance; none of the servants heard the gunshot, except for one half deaf woman who supposed it to be a door banging. This is a little dubious, but investigation must be able to deal with happenstance because happenstance is real.

We then come to the part where Mr. Douglas is revealed and the mystery explained, and which point the narrative shifts over to explaining his history in America and why it was that there were people tracking him from America to England in order to murder him. This, I find very strange.

It is the second time in a novel that Conan Doyle did it. The first time was in A Study in Scarlet, where the middle half of the book (approximately) took place in America. I really don’t get this at all.

I suspect it makes more sense in the original format of the novels, which were serialized in magazines. It would not be so jarring, in a periodical magazine, to have to learn new characters, since one would to some degree need to reacquaint oneself with the already-known characters anyway. Possibly it also speaks to Conan Doyle having not paced himself well, being more used to short stories, and needing to fill the novel with something else.

The very end of the book, when we return in the present in England, is a very short epilogue. Douglas was acquitted as having acted purely in self defense, but then is murdered by Moriarty when it was taking Holmes’s advice to flee England because Moriarty would be after him.

That the book takes such an interest in Moriarty is very curious, given that it was written in 1914 while Holmes killed Moriarty off in 1893. Actually in 1891, but The Final Problem was published in 1893. Holmes was brought back in 1903, in The Adventure of the Empty House, where it is confirmed that Moriarty died at the Reichenbach Falls. So we have a novel which is clearly set prior to the death of Moriarty, establishing him as a criminal mastermind, almost 15 years after he was killed off. What’s even stranger about it is that Moriarty barely features in the story. He’s in the very beginning, mentioned only in connection to the cryptogram and as having something to do with the murder, but he nor his men actually tried to carry out the murder. His involvement was limited to finding out where Douglas was, so the American who was trying to murder Douglas could try. He naturally makes no appearance in the story of Douglas’ adventures in America, and only shows up in a note at the end of the book:

Two months had gone by, and the case had to some extent passed from our minds. Then one morning there came an enigmatic note slipped into our letter box. “Dear me, Mr. Holmes. Dear me!” said this singular epistle. There was neither superscription nor signature. I laughed at the quaint message; but Holmes showed unwonted seriousness.

Moriarty is indicated to have killed Douglas off the cape of South Africa, and the book ends with Homles’s determination to bring Moriarty to justice.

Which would be a great setup for Holmes bringing Moriarty to justice in a later book, but we already read about it in an earlier book. It doesn’t really help to flesh the character out, it’s not really needed for the plot of the book, and it serves to end the book on a note of failure rather than of triumph. I do not understand it. Perhaps its purpose is to help increase the grandeur of Holmes’ previous victory over Moriarty? But that is a strange thing to do. Perhaps it was the reverse—a note of caution to fans of Holmes that no man, not even Sherlock Holmes, is omnipotent?

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