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)

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1894)

Being the second set of a dozen short stories which appeared in The Strand magazine December 1892 – November 1893, and took Holmes to still greater fame.

Holmes and Freud (England versus Europe)

In the Adventure of the Yellow Face Holmes tells Grant Munro:

‘…my friend and I have listened to a good many strange secrets in this room, and … have had the good fortune to bring peace to many troubled souls.’

which makes me think straightaway of Freud: Sherlock and Sigmund both being freelance consultants hired to solve puzzles which more traditional doctors/policemen cannot treat. Freud’s fearless and epoch-making investigations of the psyche and its origins in sex and violence couldn’t make be a bigger contrast with Conan Doyle’s cosy crimes – a bit of horse-stealing or treasure-finding or bank-robbing or counterfeiting all sorted in time to be home at Mrs Hudson’s for tea and crumpets. They may both clearly date from the same fin-de-siècle culture with its fascination for the decadent, for the criminal and transgressive, but Holmes is jolly good chap English nursery games compared to the terrifying investigations Freud made and which embarrass our culture to this day.

Compare the English writers of the day (Stevenson, Kipling, Wells, Conan Doyle, Haggard) and their ripping tales of derring-do, or Wilde’s sparkling fairy tales, with the psychological depth of Europeans like Freud, Chekhov, Maupassant or Mallarmé, Ibsen or Strindberg. Compare Elgar to Mahler. Or Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s dark-eyed Arthurian maidens to the sophisticated psychology of Klimt or Munch.

The return of the repressed

In Freud it is repressed drives and instincts which return in dreams and neurotic symptoms. In Holmes it is peoples’ past lives which catch up with them, so often from adventures abroad: the Australian convict, the black America child, the rival soldiers during the Indian Mutiny. Abroad is seen as more primitive, primal, a place where men commit crimes and make huge fortunes, a place where more instinctive drives can flourish. Upon returning to Blighty, names must be changed and past liberties repressed, hushed, silenced. Half of these cases aren’t about crimes at all, they’re about people petrified their squeaky clean Anglo reputations will be damaged.


Again, Conan Doyle uses the old technique of making throwaway references to numerous other cases to build up the sense of Holmes’s vast achievements and far-flung fame. Watson breezily refers to: the Tarleton murders, the case of Vamberry the wine merchant, the adventure of the old Russian woman, the singular affair of the aliminium crutch, Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife (in The Musgrave Ritual, p.97) or the adventure of the Second Stain and the adventure of the Tired Captain (in The Naval Treaty, 199).

This has the effect of making Holmes seem famous even as his real-life fame increased, a kind of echo.

The stories

  • Silver Blaze – clients: none. The prizewinning racehorse goes missing and it turns out was being led into the moor to be hobbled by its own trainer John Straker who owed money to support a fancy woman. King’s Pyland, Devon.
  • “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” (Omitted from English editions because it eals with adultery! This story is in His Last Bow in American editions of the canon) Client: Susan Cushing.
  • The Adventure of the Yellow Face – client: Grant Munro. A strange yellow face at the window of the cottage across the fields and his wife mysteriously disappearing. It is to see her black child from her first, American, husband. Norbury, south London.
  • The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk – client: Hall Pycroft is puzzled to be offered a job in Birmingham days after accepting one in London. He goes and meets the badly disguised same man who interview him in London. Holmes realises they’ve decoyed Pycroft so the crooked brother can go take his place at a big merchant bank in the City. Indeed, they see in the papers that a massive robbery was foiled though the interviewer had murdered the bank’s nightwatchman. In a melodramatic twist the Birmingham brother tries to hang himself.
  • The Adventure of the Gloria ScottHolmes’s first case – client: Victor Trevor was a friend of the generally anti-social Holmes at college and invited him to his home in the Norfolk Broads where he met old Trevor a landowner and JP. It emerges OT has been living in fear and Victor tells him about a good-for-nothing chav named Hudson who came to stay and terrorised the household. Old Trevor dies of apoplexy after receiving a letter from an old colleague, Beddoes, Hudson has gone to stay with. In a letter to his son he explains he and Beddoes were convicts involved in the mutiny on the prison ship Gloria Scott which is blown up. They are picked up and taken on to Australia, make their fortunes, change their names and return to decent lives in Britain. But Hudson knows the true story and returns to haunt them.
  • The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual – client: Reginald Musgrave. An old family tradition turns out to be disguised instructions as to how to find King Charles I’s crown. Musgrave’s butler had realised as much but, having gained entry to the cellar where it was, had the heavy stone flagstone slammed shut on him by the wronged housemaid who fled. Hurlstone.
  • The Adventure of the Reigate Squires – clients: none. Recovering from a big case, Holmes and Watson go for a rest cure near Reigate where a spate of burglaries climax in the murder of the butler to the Cunninghams, found with a tear of paper in his hand. Holmes is able to show there was no burglary, and the Cunninghams murdered their own servant who had discovered it was they who’d burgled their neighbour Major Acton in an effort to settle a land dispute between them. They try to strangle Holmes but are arrested on the spot.
  • The Adventure of the Crooked Man – client: Major Murphy. ‘Excellent!’ I cried. ‘Elementary,’ said he. Colonel Barclay is heard arguing with his wife in a locked room at his villa near Aldershot, there is a piercing scream, and he is found dead. Goes back 30 years to the Indian Mutiny when he and handsome Henry Wood, in the same regiment, were both in love with Nancy. The town was besieged. Barclay arranged for handsome Henry to go for help but betrayed him into the hands of the waiting mutineers who horribly tortured him and sold him into slavery. Thirty years later the twisted wreck Wood reappears, along with the scampering mongoose he does tricks with, and his mere appearance gives Barclay a fatal heart attack.
  • The Adventure of the Resident Patient – client: Arguably Dr Percy Trevelyan (Trevelyan was sent to Sherlock Holmes by Mr. Blessington). Trevelyan is a poor doctor whom a mysterious man approaches and offers to invest in his career; he sets him up in rooms and all he wants is 3/4 of the doctor’s income in return. After years of success Trevelyan is visited by a Russian count and his son; while he consults the father the son goes snooping, then both disappear. The next day, surprisingly, they return. It turns out to be an elaborate scam by the great Worthingden bank robbers – climaxes with Blessington apparently committing suicide, as usual all the signs of a great horror and fear on  his face. Harley Street, London.
  • The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter – client: Mr. Melas. First mention and appearance of Mycroft Holmes, fat and slothful and founder member of the Diogenes Club for the terminally anti-social. Mr Melas was kidnapped by a creepy small man with pointy moustache and scary giggle, taken in a sealed coach to a house in grounds where he has to translate for a walking skeleton of a man his face bound with bandages. He is dropped back on Wandsworth Common. He goes to the police then Mycroft. Someone replies to a newspaper advert revealing the house is in Beckenham, south London, where they arrive to find the two baddies and the woman they’re holding hostage long gone, and the skinny man and Mr Melas dying in a sealed room with a charcoal fire.
  • The Adventure of the Naval Treaty – client: Percy Phelps is a promising young diplomat asked by his uncle the Foreign Secretary to copy out a naval treaty with Italy. He leaves  his room to go get coffee and is talking to the commissionaire when the bell in his room rings, he returns to the room to find the treaty gone. Panic and a mental collapse, he returns to the family home in Woking where he is nursed by his sweetheart for 10 weeks until Holmes arrives. Turns out it was the fiancee’s brother who is in debt due to gambling on the Stock Exchange. Holmes confronts him as he removes the treaty from where he’d hidden it in the sick man’s room.
  • The Final Problem – clients: none. Holmes appears in Watson’s rooms saying he has finally uncovered the mastermind behind most of London’s crimes, the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty. He will die happy if he has eliminated Moriarty. He describes a vivid encounter where the two cleverest men in England realise they are set on collision course. If he can just stay safe till the following Monday, the trap will be sprung, Moriarty and his accomplices arrested. So Holmes flees with Watson to the Continent and moves about. But at a walk near the Reichenbach Falls Watson is called back to the hotel by what turns out to be a fake medical emergency, leaving Moriarty to trap Holmes on the cul-de-sac path to the Falls. Here he allows him, conveniently, to write a last message to Watson, before the two fight and both fall into the raging waters.


Some fatefulness in Conan Doyle’s intentions, or some magic in his touch, that even when he tries to get rid of Holmes as an albatross round his neck, tired and fed up with the character, he comes up with an out-of-the-blue, jimmy-rigged plot contraption of an evil mastermind of crime to provide a fitting end to his master detective, even then he hits fictional gold and Moriarty – in reality little more than a plot device – has himself become a fictional icon.

Read the stories

Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes at Project Gutenberg

Cover of 'The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes', 1894 (Wikimedia Commons)

Cover of ‘The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes’, 1894 (Wikimedia Commons)


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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