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Sherlock Holmes is probably the best known fictional character in literature. His appeal seems to transcend the generations with the latest incarnations appearing in Anthony Horowitz new novel 'The House of Silk' in 'Sherlock' on TV and in the new Guy Ritchie films. The bulk of the original Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were collections of short stories mostly published individually in the Strand magazine however four novels were written and 'The Valley of Fear' is the last of these published in instalment between September 1914 and May 1915.
Of the four novels written this is probably the least well known and remains the one that has not been adapted that often for TV or Film. This is probably more to do with the narrative structure since the story itself compares very favourably with the better known 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', 'The Sign of Four' and the very first novel 'A Study in Scarlet'.
'The Valley of Fear' is really made up of two parts; the first part taking place in rural Sussex is a classic Holmes mystery. On receiving a secret message from one of his spies within Moriaty's secret criminal society Holmes discovers that the murder of John Douglas is about to occur at the secluded Birlstone House. Holmes and Watson try to prevent this but they are too late as the body of Douglas shot in the face at close range is found during the night. The circumstances surrounding the murder are not clear-cut however and there are questions as to how the murder could have got into the house and then escaped without being caught. Soon suspicion also fall on Douglas's young wife Ivy and Douglas's friend Cecil baker who was also at the house that night. Holmes is at his at the top of his game as he forensically examines all the evidence and then comes to some startling conclusions.
But this is only half the story. As the circumstances of the murdered become clearer the narrative takes us back almost twenty years earlier in the United States to the coal and iron-ore mining region of Vermissa Valley. Here we learn the story of John McMurdo a small time criminal who in flight from the law in Chicago escapes to the valley and soon becomes involved with and quickly rises through the ranks of the Ancient Order of Freemen. The 'Freemen' are an organisation that by fear and violence is responsible for a widespread protection racket targeting all the local businesses and mining companies. The law is powerless to act and the widespread violence as led to the Vermissa Valley become known as the 'Valley of Fear'. How are the two stories linked? What is Moriaty involvement? These are some of the questions that Holmes and Watson have to answer.
The basis of the story are the true life exploits of the Molly Maguires, a secret Irish-American organization that consisted mainly of coal miners and who was accused and whose members were convicted of being involved in kidnapping and organised crime. Conan Doyle also introduces to the story the men of the famous Pinkerton national detective agency who at the time were famous for crime fighting exploits and were involved in the case of the Molly Maguires. To contemporary readers these elements of the story will have been fascinating and made the novel even more intriguing.
Many elements of the story are similar to another of the novels 'A Study in Scarlet' both including long flashbacks to America and stories of betrayal and revenge. Conan Doyle like many other writers was fascinated by the tales from America then still a country in the throws of creation, where the pioneering spirit was still prevalent and society was still adjusting to the great changes that the civil war had brought. Even at this time when Britain was the centre of the greatest economic and military empire of modern times there were hints that the future lay in the west and that the empire's dominance might be numbered.
In terms of a Sherlock Holmes story some might find it frustrating that the great detective is only actually directly involved in about half the book however the part of the story set in America is a great yarn and involves a cunningly devised central mystery that will keep readers enthralled. The part involving Holmes solving the murder is as always perfectly plotted and realised. Conan Doyle has a habit of including a few hapless policemen in his stories for Holmes to confound and amazed with his unfailing logical deductions usually overturning all their previous theories, in this case Inspector Lestrade gives way to Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard and the local policeman Inspector White Mason. Neither is a fool but neither can match Holmes when it comes to solving an impenetrable problem.
The story is a delight for Holmes fans, it includes exotic locations in America and the main stay of any self respecting traditional murder mystery the isolated manor house. In this case we have one that in rural Sussex that is surrounded by a moat, the only access allowed via a drawbridge. We also have an array of suitable suspects, the victim's wife, his long-time friend, his long-serving butler Ames and a host of other shady characters. We get a multitude of clues to chew over; bloody footprints, disappearing bicycles, impenetrable ciphers and quite a few red herrings so we too as readers can pit our wits against the great detective. Watson as ever is there to express the everyman view of events usually the readers view as well and to be gently lambasted by Holmes when his theories end up being very wide of the mark. As always the involvement of Holmes' archenemy Professor Moriaty serves to elevate proceeding to even greater heights has Holmes realised he is up against this most formidable opponent. In fact Moriaty's involvement does pose a problem for Holmes purists. The story is obviously set before the events that take place in 'The Final Problem' where Holmes and Moriaty have a final showdown at the Reichenbach Falls. However that story is the one that Moriaty is first introduced to the reader and to Watson who has never previously heard of him and yet logically he should have remembered him from the events in this story 'The Valley of Fear'. Oh well I think we can allow Doyle this slight chronological slip up.
Overall this is a wonderful story and is essential reading to any new Sherlock Holmes fans that may not have got beyond reading the better known earlier three novels. The episodic nature of the story a result of its original publication in instalments in the Strand magazine means that the pacing is excellent the end of each chapter leaving you wanting to read more. Holmes is as always the star of the show but other well drawn and interesting characters are also included especially in the second half set in America. Sherlock Holmes fans will not be disappointed.
'The Valley of Fear' by Arthur Conan Doyle is available in paperback (224 pages) from Amazon UK for £4.85 with free delivery or for £6.49 as a kindle edition at the time of writing this review.