The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle (1915)

The Valley of Fear was serialised in the Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915. Like the first two Holmes novellas it is divided into two parts: the first half is a murder mystery set in a quiet English country house; part two provides the backstory to the murder, which began 15 years earlier in the grim, industrial coalmining districts of America. Note: America again.

The ‘now’ of the main story is the early days of Holmes’s career – ‘Those were the early days at the end of the ’80’s’. This allows the brief reintroduction of Professor Moriarty and lavish descriptions of him as the Napoleon of crime etc in the first and last chapters.


‘The greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations—that’s the man!.. When you have one of the first brains of Europe up against you, and all the powers of darkness at his back, there are infinite possibilities…  (Part 1, chapter 1)

‘No, no, my good sir,’ said Holmes. ‘There is a master hand here. It is no case of sawed-off shotguns and clumsy six-shooters. You can tell an old master by the sweep of his brush. I can tell a Moriarty when I see one. This crime is from London, not from America.’ (Epilogue)

The superlative criminal against the superlative detective. Comic strip stuff, the godfather of a thousand pulp magazines and comics…

Part one: The Tragedy of Birlstone (the country house murder mystery)

Birlstone is a Jacobean country house with a moat and drawbridge on the northern border of Sussex. In chapter 1 Holmes receives a message in cipher warning that danger threatens its owner, but even as Holmes and Watson decipher the message they are overtaken by events for the police come to say the owner, John Douglas, has been murdered. Holmes and a London detective, MacDonald travel to the house, but are puzzled by discrepancies at the crime scene. Apparently, someone has broken in, blown Douglas’s head clean off with a double-barrelled shotgun, and escaped through the open window and across the moat.

The cast of characters is interviewed one by one: tall beautiful Mrs Douglas; the family friend Banks who may or may not have been having an affair with her, and thus have motive; Ames the quiet butler; the housekeeper et al. It is the cast from a country house murder mystery, each character with apparent motives and only the supersleuth can find the truth. The setting and plot made me think of Inspector Poirot and indeed, it was only a few years later, in 1920, that Agatha Christie introduced the Belgian detective, and the format crystalised into a long-running genre.

In part one the mystery at the house is fully solved to everyone’s satisfaction. But why was the murdered man pursued? That requires part two and the backstory in America. What makes these stories so nostalgic and comforting is the old fashioned narrative voice which is unafraid of buttonholing the reader and guiding us around the twists and turns of the text:

And now, my long-suffering readers, I will ask you to come away with me for a time, far from the Sussex Manor House of Birlstone, and far also from the year of grace in which we made our eventful journey which ended with the strange story of the man who had been known as John Douglas. I wish you to journey back some twenty years in time, and westward some thousands of miles in space, that I may lay before you a singular and terrible narrative—so singular and so terrible that you may find it hard to believe that even as I tell it, even so did it occur.

Do not think that I intrude one story before another is finished. As you read on you will find that this is not so. And when I have detailed those distant events and you have solved this mystery of the past, we shall meet once more in those rooms on Baker Street, where this, like so many other wonderful happenings, will find its end. (Part one, chapter 7)

The story may be grim and violent; but the telling and the teller, dear sweet Watson, are as honest and reassuring as possible.


For whatever reason, the first part of this novella contains an unprecedented description of Holmes working through various theories and scenarios. Generally, in almost all the stories, his progress through and discarding of multiple theories is only hinted at – the texts tend to focus on the final dramatic revelation of the true events. Here, tens of pages are spent discussing with Watson the pros and cons of various scenarios which fit the observed facts, talking them through in detail and rethinking them as inconvenient facts block progress. I found this very enjoyable and for this reason I prefer it to the two earlier novellas.

Part two: The Scowrers (lawless America)

Like the two first novellas, The Valley of Fear has a backstory set in a distant land – for the second time the wild and lawless USA – which explains why the central character has been tracked across America and then to England by a vengeful secret society. In A Study in Scarlet it was the good guy chasing two wicked Mormons; here it is the good guy seeking sanctuary from the Society of Freemen, a countrywide association of working men pledged to self-defence which, in the sinister Vermissa Valley, has been perverted into a league of assassins and murderers and nicknamed ‘the Scowrers’.

Hard man McMurdo arrives in Vermissa Valley from Chicago where he was inducted into the freemen. He quickly ingratiates himself with the Bodymaster of the lodge, Boss McGinty, by talking brave, and taking part in various beatings and murders. Sentimentally, he falls in love with the tall blonde Swedish daughter of his landlord and worms his way deeper into the heart of the evil gang…

Animal imagery

There had always been animal imagery in the Holmes stories – ‘tiger’ is his favourite animal with which to compare criminals throughout the stories, appearing eight times in this text, 10 times in the Return stories – but there seemed to be more animal analogies in this book, maybe reflecting the harsher, crueller atmosphere of the story.

  • ‘Porlock is important, not for himself, but for the great man with whom he is in touch. Picture to yourself the pilot fish with the shark, the jackal with the lion—anything that is insignificant in companionship with what is formidable: not only formidable, Watson, but sinister—in the highest degree sinister… You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?’ (Part 1, Chapter 1)
  • Among the older men were many whose features showed the tigerish, lawless souls within.
  • Only once did McMurdo see him, a sly, little gray-haired rat of a man, with a slinking gait and a sidelong glance which was charged with malice. (2: 5)
  • McGinty had instruments enough already; but he recognized that this was a supremely able one. He felt like a man holding a fierce bloodhound in leash. There were curs to do the smaller work; but some day he would slip this creature upon its prey. (2:5)
  • The long room was crowded, and through the haze of tobacco smoke he saw the tangled black mane of the Bodymaster, the cruel, unfriendly features of Baldwin, the vulture face of Harraway, the secretary, and a dozen more who were among the leaders of the lodge. (2:6)
  •  There was not a man in the room whose hands had not been reddened a dozen times before. They were as hardened to human murder as a butcher to sheep. (2:7)
  • At the sight Boss McGinty gave the roar of a wounded bear and plunged for the half-opened door. (2:7)

Socialism and Fenianism

A lot could be written about the true history of the Molly Maguires and their role in American industrial relations ie were they mafia-style criminals or heroes of the working man? and similarly about the role of American emigrants in founding and funding Irish republicanism via secret societies like the Fenians in the later 1800s.

Presumably, like any conservative professional man of his day and age, Conan Doyle thought both were criminal operations. Probably, as an author of popular fiction he was only interested in them insofar as they provided plausible fodder for his ripping yarns. A hundred years later, their use in this story indicates the rifts and fractures of two rich, troubled societies.Crime novels by definition focus on criminal elements but, insofar as Conan Doyle chooses secret societies as the core of his two American novellas, he is highlighting not only the simple crimes he requires, but also the complex injustices which lie behind them.

Just as in the Hound, a central character voices the reader’s thoughts, that he is reading a pulp fiction and just as in the Hound voicing it, doesn’t dispel it:

‘When I reached this place I learned that I was wrong and that it wasn’t a dime novel after all.’ (2:7)

The finishing end

Oh it is, it is a dime novel – but a dime novel lifted out of its genre by the presence of Holmes. Also by the ending.An initial reading highlights the interesting parallel Conan Doyle makes between his ascetic, intellectual detective Holmes and the heroic, tough, courageous Pinkerton agent, Birdy Edwards. Just as the violence of the Scowrers is brought to an end by the devoted Pinkerton man, so the murder mystery is solved, as hundreds of other cases have been in the short stories, by the soothing presence of Holmes. Both heal clear the air, capture the criminals, cage the animals and make society safe again, as a doctor sets a broken bone and cures a disease.

Except they don’t. The hero doesn’t escape. Holmes doesn’t save his man. Moriarty cuts him down in his prime, thus leaving a bitter and ominous aftertaste to the book. It was serialised during the initial hysteria of the Great War. On the face of it, Conan Doyle used the novella to add more depth to the spooky figure of the Napoleon of crime, who only actually appears in one previous story, the Final Problem. And Sherlockains have not been slow to point out the contradiction between Dr Watson seeming familiar with Moriarty here in the late 1880s, and yet blissfully ignorant of him in the Final Problem, set later.

But we know Conan Doyle cared little about anomalies and contradictions, having Watson wounded in the shoulder int he first novel and the leg in the second etc. Seems to me he was happy to sacrifice that kind of pedantic consistency for the much greater dramatic affect the end of this book creates. On the face of it Holmes’s staring off into the distance artistically anticipates the final death struggle at the Reichenbach Falls; but given the times, this ending seems to me to echo the dark atmosphere of His Last Bow, giving this flimsy though pacey yarn a powerfully dark and ominous undertow.

We all sat in silence for some minutes while those fateful eyes still strained to pierce the veil. (Epilogue)

The Valley of Fear on Project Gutenberg

Holmes examining the cipher which opens The Valley of Fear, 1915

Holmes examining the cipher which opens The Valley of Fear, 1915


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

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