I finished The Valley of Fear this week. This was the final, full-length Sherlock Holmes novel that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. It was published in 1914, but it is set around 1895. Doyle followed the same plot pattern that he did for his first novel, A Study in Scarlet: there are two parts and a kind of epilogue at the end.
The Valley of Fear begins with Holmes and Watson investigating the brutal and senseless murder of a country squire, Mr Douglas. The man had an Irish upbringing, but he’d lived for many years in America. Fives years before the murder, Mr Douglas moved to England, married, and settled into a quiet country house called Birlstone Manor.
The Valley of Fear is a kind of locked-door mystery, because Birlston Manor is situated within a moat with a drawbridge. When the bridge is raised, no one can enter or leave the house. Or, that is what they thought until the murder.
Mr Douglas was found shot to death in his study by his friend and houseguest Mr Barker. Barker called for help, and Mrs Douglas and the butler came running from their rooms. Barker would not allow the lady to enter and sent the butler for the police. The room was not touched by anyone else. The police sent word to Scotland Yard to send a detective, who asked Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson to join the investigation.
When Holmes arrived, he studied the room where the murder took place and questioned the people in the house. Though their stories seemed true and conclusive at the beginning, they were quickly disproved by Holmes. He was not sure at first what the answer to the mystery was, but he could tell at least that Mrs Douglas and Mr Barker were not telling the whole truth. According to Holmes, the case rested on the fact that there was only one dumb-bell in the room where the murder happened. Where was the other?
I was intrigued! I think I’ve seen this story on television, but I couldn’t remember what the final answer was. I tried to read as quickly as I could because I wanted to see how it ended. Just so you know, The Valley of Fear has a great plot twist at the end of the first part. And I’m going to do my best not to give it away.
In part two, Doyle, as Dr Watson, relays events that happened twenty years earlier – events which culminated in the murder at Birlstone Manor. The history follows a young man named Jack McMurdo who takes up residence in a coal mining town in Vermissa Valley. He joins the lodge in town and soon finds out that the members of the lodge are a hardened criminal gang who extend their hand of judgment and revenge on the people in the valley. The lodge would blackmail the local people and require coal companies to pay them large sums of money to keep them from destroying mines. Any time the law would come after them for a crime, the members of the lodge would band together to provide alibis and to intimidate judges and juries.
McMurdo proved himself to be as black-hearted as the rest of the gang, but he also fell in love with a lady named Ettie. He assured her that he would never hurt her or her family. There was no way McMurdo and Ettie could continue to live in that Valley of Fear, so he promised her that they would leave the valley before a year was over. Leaving the valley and the lodge could be dangerous, as the lodge would see it as desertion, so McMurdo told Ettie to be ready to drop everything and leave with him as soon as he gave the signal.
Soon, the lodge was disturbed by news that a Pinkerton detective was coming to the Valley to shut them down. They plotted to kill him, and McMurdo offered his rooms as the place where they could do it. Fortunately, the Pinkerton detective got away before he was harmed, but not before several of the lodge were arrested on charges that they could not fight in court. The detective travelled from Chicago to California, changed his name, married his sweetheart, but no matter where he was, he was never safe. The leaders of the lodge had sworn to have revenge on him. When his wife died, he left America for good. Changing his name to Douglas, he sailed across the ocean to England and then took up residence in Birlstone Manor.
I’m afraid my summary of The Valley of Fear doesn’t do the book justice, but I can’t say too much more or I’ll give the story away. I really don’t want to do that! Instead, I want to encourage you to find this novel and read it for yourself. I think you will enjoy it. Although it’s not as gripping as The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Valley of Fear has a great plot, a curious mystery, and as I mentioned before, several plot twists.
One final word: I wanted to share a chuckle that I got when I started the next short story in The Greatest Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I was reading “Wisteria Lodge”, and Holmes said something about Dr Watson’s style of writing. It’s really amusing because “Wisteria Lodge” was written before The Valley of Fear. I wonder if Doyle was hinting at his next novel, or if he was remembering A Study in Scarlet.