Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Almost Holmes-less
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote dozens of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, but he only completed four novels starring the great detective. The Valley of Fear, published in 1914, is the fourth and final of these novels, and unfortunately also by far the worst. It’s evident that at this point, 27 years after Holmes’ debut, Conan Doyle was running short of ideas for this detective series.

Holmes and Watson are called to investigate the murder of a Mr. Douglas in Sussex. Douglas struck it rich in American mines and retired to an English country manor, only to have his face blown off by a shotgun. As far as mysteries go, this one is not very mysterious. Astute readers will have it figured out very early, and then must wait for Holmes and Watson to catch up. The basic premise of the murder is familiar, particularly to those who have read Conan Doyle’s non-Holmes short story collection Tales of Terror and Mystery. (The Valley of Fear was published first, so it’s the other story, “The Black Doctor,” that’s the knockoff.) Given that most of the Holmes mysteries were written over a century ago, it’s not too unusual to find one that’s less than baffling, but usually in such cases this defect is compensated for by the witty repartee of Holmes and his sidekick Dr. John Watson. No such luck here. In this case there are two other investigators at the crime scene, Inspector Alec MacDonald, and local cop White Mason. These two do most of the talking while Holmes sits quietly in a corner and keeps his thoughts to himself. Halfway through the book, he reveals the solution to the puzzle the reader has already figured out.

All that’s left is the back story. Just as he does in the novels A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, Conan Doyle uses the extra page count to depart from Holmes and Watson for a few chapters and explore the history of the murderer and/or the victim. While that strategy was quite successful in those earlier novels, here it’s neither as effective nor as interesting. As is too often the case, a secret society is at work. This time it’s a lodge/labor union/mafia that perpetrates all the organized crime in Vermissa Valley, an American coal-mining region. Like a 19th-century Goodfellas, the story does have a few suspenseful moments, but in the end it proves just as predictable as the first act. In an attempt to add some spice to this dull offering, Professor Moriarity is mentioned at the beginning and end of the book, but his involvement in the story is mostly a case of gratuitous stunt casting that doesn’t add much to the narrative.

The Valley of Fear was inspired by the real-life story of the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish immigrants, and their criminal activity in Pennsylvania coal mining country. Conan Doyle probably could have crafted a pretty decent historical novel out of this raw material, if he had only left Holmes out of it. I enjoyed the first three Holmes novels very much, and have always considered these long-form mysteries superior to the short stories, but this book is the glaring exception to that rule. Only Holmes completists should bother with this subpar effort.

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