The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1917)

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valley of fear coverThe Valley of Fear (1917) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

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‘The Valley of Fear’ is the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The story was first serialized in the Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915.

The first act of this tale begins when Holmes decodes a cipher, sent by Porlock, an informant, warning him about movements in the organization of his arch enemy, Professor Moriarty. The intercepted message had been sent to “Douglas” in “Birlstone”.

Watson tells us: “The village of Birlstone is a small and very ancient cluster of half-timbered cottages on the northern border of the county of Sussex. For centuries it had remained unchanged; but within the last few years its picturesque appearance and situation have attracted a number of well-to-do residents, whose villas peep out from the woods around.”

Unfortunately, by the time Holmes decodes the warning, Scotland Yard’s MacDonald is already on the case, and asks them to help investigate a corpse with the same circle-in-triangle brand on the forearm as John Douglas, the missing owner of a moated estate, known as ‘Birlstone’. Identification is made difficult, as the head has been blown off by an American-style sawed-off shotgun. It appears that an intruder gained entry, killed Douglas, then dropped a card with the inscription ‘VV341’, before leaving by wading across the shallow moat. Oddly, the victim’s wife and best friend seem to be taking this horrible murder in stride, until Holmes threatens to drain the moat, forcing the conspirators to retrieve a missing dumb-bell used to weigh down the intruder’s clothing. Douglas is then eventually forced to come out from hiding in a priest hole, and admits that he killed the would be assassin and attempted to disappear in order to save himself from further attacks by an American criminal organization in the Vermissa Valley.

In the second act, as in ‘A Study in Scarlet’, the reader is transported back to events in America, many years earlier. A young John McMurdo, with a reputation as tough counterfeiter, is a Freemen Lodge member, fleeing murder charges in Chicago. He comes to the Vermissa coal mine area, where the boss, McGinty, rules the Scowrers of local Lodge 341, who run a vast criminal network of extortion and murder. All are branded by a circle in a triangle, and exchange favours with other nearby Lodges. Miss Ettie Shafter, the daughter of McMurdo’s landlord, prefers McMurdo to one of the senior lodge members, a nasty character known as Baldwin, but McMurdo soon proves no better. He gradually works his way into the lodge, and eventually becomes one of the most notorious members of this vicious criminal gang.

Spoiler Alert! Like ‘A Study in Scarlet’, this novel is not a whodunnit – the real mystery is how Holmes manages to solve the case, but if you want to keep the surprise ending a mystery – skip the next paragraph.

McMurdo may appear to be one of the worst, but all is not as it seems. McMurdo, is really a Pinkerton Detective, named Birdy Edwards, who had been undercover for years. When he finally sprang his trap, the entire lodge was taken down. Edwards goes on to marry Ellie, and makes a fortune in the California goldfields. All seems well, till Ellie tragically dies, taking the joy out of Edward’s new life. Then, though most of the Scowrers had been hanged, those who got off with jail terms are set free, and still seem determined on revenge. Edwards is chased out of California, and arrives in England as John Douglas, only to have them pick-up his trail again, after he has remarried and set up his residence at ‘Birlstone’.

Holmes warns Douglas to flee England, as he is in the sites of Moriarty, but his advice apparently comes too late. The new Mrs. Douglas later telegrams that her husband has been “lost overboard” on his way to South Africa.

‘The Valley of Fear’ is a well plotted work, with great dialogue and powerful characters. It is well worth the read. Still, as noted in my review of a ‘A Study in Scarlet’, I am not a fan of these returns to the American wild west. The change of scene is jarring, and breaks the flow of an otherwise excellent piece of detection.

The best I can do for ‘Valley of Fear” is a high four stars.


This ‘Valley of Fear’, like the entire Sherlock canon, is in the public domain. Several versions are available for free or for less than a dollar, in attractive eBook formats.

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