When it comes to complete collections of the Sherlock Holmes canon, most collections will place The Valley of Fear after the short stories of His Last Bow, but every so often it’s the other way around. This is one of those times, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter because the novel’s place on the publication timeline is in the midst of these shorts. His Last Bow contains stories published from 1908-1917. The Valley of Fear — the last of the four novels in the canon — was serialized in the midst of this from 1914-1915. What makes these stories, and this novel in particular, of vital literary interest is the advent of World War I. So much for the age of gaslight and Jack the Ripper being the scariest thing conceivable to the minds of contemporary readers. The Great War reshaped everything; with the world, so too the arts. At this point, the war is still young. Change is strong, and the energies pushing it around are terrifying.
Readers will recall the last story we covered was “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” wherein the Great Detective was brought into a case that could potentially lead to war across Europe. As stated, that fear was a constant threat familiar to readers of the era, much as the idea of nuclear war hung over the heads of those in in the Cold War era.
Context is key to all things, and in the midst of appreciating the tales of Sherlock Holmes, it’s important to see where Conan Doyle got his inspiration. Readers already know he drew heavy inspiration from the Americans. To him, there was a constantly seedy and colorful backdrop upon which to draw at any given moment, even while he was convinced the American-British alliance would someday become invaluable. Within a year of finishing this novel, the United States entered the Great War, proving him right. But while the energies of the current climate stoked the fears of the readership, it was the history of the States that he drew upon, in this case the battle between labor unions and bosses in Pennsylvania coal country in the decade following the American Civil War, the bloodiest civil war in history, and largely considered to be the first modern war, fought with modern machines. A preview of things to come, as H. G. Wells might say. In the years following the Civil War, there were pockets of brutality that sprang up left, right, and center across the country, from the Italian mafia, to the Irish gangs, to the Mormons, to the Klan, and beyond, the sort of thing we’ve already seen Holmes step up to face. In this case, it’s the Irish mobs, a far-reaching gang known as the Molly Maguires, who started as an uprising to oppose tyrannical landlords. By the 1870s, they had taken up the cause against, what they believed, were the equally evil overlords of the coal mining industry. The owners, in turn, took up equally brutal measure to fight off what they saw as a simple lack of obedience in the ranks. Compound that with the already horrific conditions a mine presents everyday to its workers, and it becomes the perfect fodder for a tale that might take readers’ minds off the war for a while. The tale riffs off the historical matter where the private detective agency Pinkertons were called in to smash the Molly Maguires, using an undercover Irish agent to gather intelligence from the inside out. The results were massive arrests, hangings, and a considerable level of spin wherein the mine owners were painted as victims, and labor unions were seen as public menaces. The shift in consciousness allowed the private corporations to rise in the name of progress and order, larger and more powerful than many governments you could name. It was a loss for the sovereignty and power of the state, which was countered in the form of Imperialism… from which the corporations could benefit. Conan Doyle took it one step further, making the Irish mob part of the Freemasonry brotherhood, because nothing excites paranoia quite like a secret society. As narrator Stephen Fry points out, this novel has a structure very similar to A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, and a number of short stories, wherein a murder in Britain is discovered to have origins in a foreign land, with a backstory seeded in brutality. In some ways, it helps to bring things full circle. And if it just happens to bring about the return of an infamous name to the Holmes canon (whom I’ve thankfully already outlined and discussed when it he first appeared), all the better.
Receiving a coded message from Fred Porlock regarding the activities of Professor Moriarty, Holmes must contend with the notion that the agent changed his mind for fear of being discovered, forcing the detective to piece together what he can from an incomplete cipher. He and Watson are able to determine that ill will is intended against “Douglas,” who resides at Birlstone House. Inspector MacDonald arrives minutes later with the news that Mr. John Douglas of Birlstone Manor House has been murdered. When Moriarty’s name is suggested, the inspector is dismissive, but hears out the line of reasoning. From a character standpoint, the opening of this novel is one of the best in the canon as far as I’m concerned.
Douglas was murdered the evening before by a sawed-off shotgun at close range to the face, truly one of the grisliest ways to die by firearm. The murderer apparently entered over the drawbridge to the moated manor house, hid in the room, and left by the window. A card is found next to the corpse with the initials. “V. V.” and the number 341 underneath. On Douglas’ forearm was a brand, a triangle in a circle, and his wedding ring appeared to be taken, though his other ring was replaced for unknown reason.
Following the trail of clues, Holmes deduces that Mrs. Douglas and Cecil Barker, the man who presumably found the body, are lying. Holmes and company send him a message saying they intend to search the moat the next day, then lie in wait that night to see if he fishes out anything… which he does. The bundle contains clothes of the missing American, and Barker refuses to explain. Mr. Douglas appears at this point, alive and well, and he hands Watson a written account of everything, which he’s entitled “The Valley of Fear.” The contents of this account are given to us in flashback in their entirety. While it is similar in style to A Study in Scarlet, for my money this flashback account is better written and more interesting. But that’s just my opinion.
Douglas explained that an enemy of his, Ted Baldwin, was seen in the area, so he expected an attack. Baldwin attempted to shoot Douglas in his study, but Douglas grabbed the gun in the struggle, and it was Baldwin who was shot in the face. With Barker’s help, the clothes were exchanged, except for Douglas’ wedding ring, in order to trick the secret society to which both he and Baldwin belonged. Douglas is revealed to be Birdy Edwards, a former Pinkerton agent in Chicago. He had infiltrated a gang in Vermissa Valley known as the Scowrers, bringing them to justice. Some of them attempted to kill him after serving their time and being released. Douglas ran to England, where he met his second wife. When Holmes urges him to run again in the face of more threat, Douglas does so, only to learn he was lost overboard on a vessel bound for Africa. Once more, Holmes suspects Moriarty, stating that it will take more time to properly bring him down.
The acts of terror committed by the union in this story are the kinds of things that allowed the corporations to assume “innocence” and “justice” when fighting such things in like manner with private police forces. To this day, because of such tactics, labor unions have a bad reputation in the minds of many, which allows for abuse of business practices on a number of fronts. What Conan Doyle effectively achieves with this story is to highlight a problem with ethical ambiguity, made more effective when one character is targeted for having morals.
Some of the short stories feel like they need a little expansion room. This, to me, feels like two short stories that got cobbled together and granted that room to breathe. Insert some compelling characters and interactions, especially in the form of Inspector MacDonald, and it makes for a highly entertaining read. There’s just enough to it to make it fun, and not enough to bog it down (even if it does seem dangerously close a couple of times). It’s a little weird to consider this tale as a war era tale, even though it precedes the events at the Reichenbach Falls. I think that might actually be the biggest takeaway from The Valley of Fear, that it’s a prequel story offering all manner of insight into the long game between Holmes and his nemesis. Even told out of order, one adds resonance to the other, especially over time and repeated readings.