review: the valley of fear

The Valley of Fear by A. Conan Doyle (1915)

Reading The Valley of Fear, the final Sherlock Holmes novel, has been on my to do list for quite some time. Imagine my surprise when I started reading and discovered that I had at least started it in the past. I’ve got notes in the margins and underlined sentences throughout the first part of the story, but then nothing for the second part, which leads me to think that I started the book but then didn’t finish it because this is one of the Holmes novels that does that thing I don’t really like—but more on that later. Like I said, The Valley of Fear is the final Sherlock Holmes novel. In case you’re wondering, the others are (in order): A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Also, if you are a fan of the BBC’s Sherlock, the beginning of The Valley of Fear will be familiar to you, as the decoding of a cipher received by Sherlock is adapted in the series one episode titled, “The Blind Banker”.

Structurally, The Valley of Fear is a framed narrative. The story is divided into two main parts and the frame is closed with an epilogue. The use of the framed narrative is actually one of the things that turns me off about the story, and I’m guessing that it was at the start of the inner story that I put the book down. That being said, the framed narrative works for this story. At the beginning of the novel, Sherlock receives a coded message from one of the many confidential informants he’s built a relationship with over the years. The message warns of mortal danger to John Douglas, owner of an old manor house called Birlstone. However, before Holmes can act to save the endangered man, he receives a visit from Inspector MacDonald, who brings news of the brutal murder. Holmes, Watson, and MacDonald make plans to travel to Birlstone the following morning. Prior to their arrival, Watson inserts a chapter into the story that reveals the statements made by those within the house at the time of the murder. In this way, Watson provides back story and what basically amounts to an information dump, so that when the trio arrives at the manor house, Sherlock and Inspector MacDonald can begin their interrogations of the witnesses. Because Sherlock falls into the category of the “Great Detective,” it is often the case that he makes deductions, solves the mystery, and reveals the solution to readers in such a way that readers cannot themselves figure out whodunnit. The Great Detective is needed to explain the crime to us. The first part of The Valley of Fear follows this same structure, however, perhaps more than any of the other novels (and short stories), there is a heavy smattering of clues. While I wasn’t able to figure out the whole of the mystery, there were parts of it I had already deduced before the reveal of the solution. One other noteworthy aspect of the mystery itself is that it is a kind of “locked room” murder mystery, in that the manor house at Birlstone is surrounded by a moat and thus can only be accessed by a drawbridge. Douglas insists the drawbridge be raised every night, and the fact that the drawbridge was raised at the time of the murder is another puzzling fact that Holmes must take into account as he deduces the chain of events leading up to and immediately following the murder.

The opening frame ends with the presentation of the solution to the murder. The inner story then goes back twenty years into the past. Part of the function of this inner story is to further illustrate the character of John Douglas. Indeed, it is in many ways a character study. It is also there to explain the motive for murder. Part two of the story paints a vivid and engaging portrait of the man as well as the so-called Valley of Fear, explaining the source of the title. However, what I think is most notable about the second part of the story is that it meditates upon the issue of class warfare and considers the limits of what constitutes justifiable behavior in the struggle between the “little man” and the large corporation. At the same time, the inner story invites us to determine how we feel about a character who is presented as being more than a little morally grey. We have to ask ourselves how we feel about him. Do we like him? Do we abhor him and his actions? Do the ends justify the means? These questions earn greater importance as the inner story concludes, and we as readers must reconcile our impressions and judgement of Douglas in light of the conclusion to his story. The inner story is complex and pushes the reader outside of the bounds of detective fiction and into the margins of moral fiction. Read in this light, the inner story fascinates me on a level that I hadn’t quite expected but definitely appreciate.

Finally, the closing frame of the narrative calls back to the opening, where the spectre of Professor Moriarty hovers of the story as the catalytic force that sets the whole of the initial murder mystery into motion. Because The Valley of Fear was written after “The Final Problem” it is worth pondering how Conan Doyle shaped this story based upon his knowledge of how Holmes’ battle with Moriarty played out. That is, his hindsight allowed him to sprinkle in these references to Moriarty and show him to be the masterful consulting criminal who cannot fail. It could be that if Conan Doyle hadn’t written “The Final Problem” when he did, the stories and this novel that come after it would lack these elements of intrigue and insight into Moriarty as well as the struggle between Sherlock and Moriarty for supremacy.

Though the structure of the framed narrative frustrates me on one level—because I read the Sherlock stories because I want to see Sherlock and Watson in action—I have to admit The Valley of Fear commanded my attention and provoked me to think about the story on a philosophical level. Even though it took me two attempts to get to the end, I recommend reading this novel, especially if you’ve never read any of the stories or novels. You will definitely watch film and television adaptations of the Sherlock and Watson stories in a different way after you’ve read the stories that inspire them.

Have you read The Valley of Fear? What are your thoughts?

from the memoirs of sherlock holmes – part three

“The Resident Patient” (1893)

The case in this story is brought to Sherlock by Dr. Percy Trevelyan.  The doctor comes to Sherlock because his “resident patient” calls to his attention that an unknown person has entered his personal rooms in the house where Trevelyan has his medical practice.  The only people in the house at the time of entry are a Russian count, who is there to see the doctor for treatment of a nervous condition, and his son, who opted to remain in the waiting room during his father’s consultation with the doctor.  Sherlock listens to the doctor’s story and agrees to go to the house to talk with Blessington, the resident patient, but when the man refuses to tell the truth to the questions Sherlock puts to him, Holmes leaves the scene, though he tells Watson that he expects to hear from the doctor the next day.  This prediction comes true, and the case takes a turn before Sherlock solves the puzzle.

For the most part, I have enjoyed the stories in this volume; however, “The Resident Patient” is, I would say, the weakest of them all so far.  If you cannot make your way through the full volume, this story is one you can skip.

“The Greek Interpreter” (1893)

Wow.  Unlike “The Resident Patient” which is something of a disappointment, “The Greek Interpreter” is a must-read in this collection.  Where do I even begin? This appears to be the story in which Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, is introduced and makes his first appearance.  The first paragraph of this story is elegant, as Watson begins his tale by saying that one of the things that has been one of the greatest mysteries about his friend was his lack of any references to his relatives.  Watson writes: “This reticence upon his part had increased the somewhat inhuman effect which he produced upon me, until sometimes I found myself regarding him as an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was preeminent in intelligence.  His aversion to women and his disinclination to form new friendships were both typical of his unemotional character, but now more so than his complete suppression of every reference to his own people”.  It’s an insightful portrait into how Watson sees Sherlock.  The appearance of Mycroft and the way he and Sherlock interact, as observed by Watson, is also intriguing.  Sherlock tells Watson boldly that his brother is better at logic and deduction that he is himself, but Mycroft’s problem is that he is lazy.  The narrative proves this as the two catch sight of a man walking along the street and proceed to reveal everything that can be known about him just from his mere appearance and what he carries.  Frequently throughout this volume, Watson has remarked upon Sherlock’s level of energy, and in this story, it is in striking contrast to Mycroft’s sedentary ways and lack of energy.  Through Watson’s gaze we see Sherlock differently because we are also able to see Mycroft–the ways in which they are similar and how they are different.

One question, of course, is whether or not this view of Sherlock in the company of his brother works in humanizing Sherlock. I’m not sure that I know what the answer to that question would be from Watson’s point of view, but we have to remember that Watson’s gaze is also the clinical, medical gaze of a doctor.  Perhaps how he sees Sherlock–as inhuman, unemotional, and heartless–makes it easier for him to dissect his friend, metaphorically speaking, within the pages of the Memoirs.

The case involves a man who is, as the title previews,, a Greek interpreter.  He is engaged by a man that he doesn’t know to use his skills but is threatened with death should he tell anyone of what he sees and hears.  It, too, is remarkable in that it offers a mystery that is substantial and, surprising, can only go solved by way of conjecture.  This isn’t one of Holmes’ failures, but it also isn’t one of his successes.  The story calls out several things that would have been sensational to readers of the time–forced imprisonment, legal redtape that gives the criminals the opportunity to escape justice, and how foreigners were without protections or assistance in England.  I highly recommend this story, and if Moffat and Co. decide to make a fifth series of Sherlock, this story would be a great candidate for an episode.

“The Naval Treaty” (1893)

In the case of “The Naval Treaty” one of Watson’s grade school fellows reaches out to him to request that he bring Sherlock to visit him in Woking (I can’t believe it’s Woking–every time I see that I think of Wells’ The War of the Worlds).  Sherlock agrees to make the journey, and when the arrive, Watson’s old classmate, Percy Phelps, explains that for the last nine weeks he has been confined to bed as he recovered from a brain-fever–which, in this case, means that he has suffered a severe shock and his nerves are shot–due to an incident at work.  Phelps has a position in the Foreign Office, a job he received, in part due to his family ties to Lord Holdhurst.  As part of his duties, Lord Holdhurst asks Phelps to make a copy of a treaty between Great Britain and the Triple Alliance–Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Germany.  The details of the treaty are, in modern terms, highly classified and top secret, and the consequences of any of Britain’s adversaries–France or Russia–learning of the terms of the treaty are grave.  Phelps is instructed by his uncle to stay late in the office until everyone has left for the evening and then begin transcribing the document.  He is in the middle of copying the document, if you can believe, the man needs a cup of coffee in order to stay awake (apparently not a 21st century problem!) and rings the bell to the commissionaire downstairs.  He orders a cup of coffee from the commissionaire’s wife, but after a while passes and he realizes he has not received his coffee, he leaves his office and the top secret document on his desk to get some much needed caffeine (oh, the things we do for coffee and the stupid things we do when our brains are caffeine deficient!).  When he returns to his office, he finds that the top secret document is gone, stolen by someone who he has failed to see come or go through the limited access to the room in which he works. After enlisting the assistance of the police but failing to recover the document, Phelps begins to realize the ramifications of the document going missing on his watch, and the brain-fever ensues (no, I’m not going to comment on that, I’m just going to move along…).

Sherlock agrees to take the case, and after a couple of days of investigation solves the puzzle.  “The Naval Treaty” is the penultimate story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and in a sense it does heighten a reader’s sense of tension if for the only reason that she knows that the next story in the volume is “The Final Problem”. Sherlock does not give much away in this story, keeping not only his client in the dark in terms of his suspicions as well as the steps he intends to take to catch the thief, but also Watson, and in that way we are just as cut off from Sherlock as he is.  As he unravels the details of whodunit, we see how Holmes solved the puzzle and though the thief’s identity does not come as any great surprise, the way that he brings off the crime is interesting and shows Sherlock’s skills of deduction.  In all honesty, I am looking forward to finally reading “The Final Problem” for the first time, and perhaps that excitement has unfairly dulled my appreciation of “The Naval Treaty”.  I liked this story, but it is not my favorite story.  I say read it, but don’t make it your first priority when it comes to the short stories.

“The Final Problem” (1893)

I have read that this story was first published in the December 1893 issue of the Strand Magazine.  What a Christmas present for Doyle to give to his readers!

It is a strange experience, reading “The Final Problem” for the first time after having seen so many adaptations of it in popular culture.  And the thing about reading, whatever story or novel you are reading, is that you can only read it for the first time once.  I can read the story again and again, but nothing will ever be like reading it for the first time.  The first paragraph is striking and sets the tone.  Watson tells us that it is with a heavy heart that he writes these lines.  He had not intended, he says, to include it for publication, and yet feels compelled to do so because the brother of Professor Moriarty has made claims that, he says, are untrue.  It is for him to tell the true story.  In this he reminds a bit of Horatio, who has the responsibility of telling all those interested of the tale of Hamlet.  Watson is writing the events of the story two years after they have happened, and so he has time to compose himself, and there is a sense of acceptance of Sherlock’s choices.  This is, I think, in opposition to the BBC’s Sherlock, where it is still raw in the telling for Watson.

The story unfolds when Holmes–who has had a mostly long absence from Watson in the past few months–arrives at Watson’s house and explains what he has been doing, how he has uncovered Moriarty and the extent of the man’s criminal enterprise and organization.  He is every bit the criminal mastermind and genius that popular culture portrays him to be, and he has garnered Sherlock’s appreciation in this regard.  Still, Sherlock is intent up on bringing him to justice, and he is willing to give his life in the cause.  This is something that Sherlock repeats more than once–that he is willing to die if that means removing the threat of Moriarty from the world.  It is, in every sense, built up to be a clash between two opposing forces; however, neither man walks away from the battle.  Both are believed to have perished, and this prompts Watson to describe Sherlock as the greatest man he has ever known.  This last is notable because Watson so often views Sherlock as being robotic, inhuman, a machine without a heart or feelings.  But in the last line of the Memoirs Watson refers to him as a man.  Perhaps it is only in Sherlock’s death, in the proof that he is subject to that final end just like any other human, that Watson is finally capable of seeing Sherlock as human, of seeing his humanity.  Or perhaps it is Sherlock’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good.  I cannot say.

Another insight that I have now after reading the story is the fact that throughout the story, Sherlock only refers to his adversary as Professor Moriarty–indeed, in the beginning of the story, Watson refers to Moriarty’s brother as Colonel James Moriarty.  Also, the story closes with a note from Sherlock that he writes to Watson, but in many ways it may as well have been written directly to Doyle’s readers–that he is okay with his death, glad even to give his life if it means eliminating Moriarty’s influence upon the world.  It is not intended to be a sad ending though it is meant to be a final goodbye.  I can’t help but compare this to the end of the “The Reichenbach Fall” of the BBC’s Sherlock, where Sherlock calls Watson and tells him that his phone call is his “note”. There, Sherlock means his suicide note, but in the story it is something quite different entirely.  Similar but different, and a wonderful adaptation.

If you think you know the story but haven’t read it, please read it. Though it will feel familiar, it is essential reading.  “The Final Problem” does not disappoint.

from the adventures of sherlock holmes – part one

from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by A. Conan Doyle (1892)

*Note: These are just brief sketches of the short stories so that I can remember what each story is about and what I thought of it.  Beware: here may be spoilers!

“The Man with the Twisted Lip”

This story is about the search for a man named Neville St. Clair.  One of the things I really liked about this story was the way it started—Watson has just returned home to his wife after a long day at work when a woman knocks on his door.  She entreats Watson to find her husband who has been missing for two days, and she suspects that he has spent the time in an opium den.  Watson dutifully goes to find the man and send him home to his wife, and while in the opium den he encounters Sherlock Holmes, dressed in disguise.  Holmes bids Watson to wait for him outside of the opium den, and when he appears, he asks Watson to accompany him to the home of Mr. and Mrs. St. Clair, the latter being his client.  Mrs. St. Clair has told Holmes that she saw her husband in a room above the very same opium den where he and Watson ran into each other, and that she fears for her husband’s life.  During the seven-mile journey to the St. Clair home, Holmes recounts the case to Watson (and thereby, the reader) and upon arriving puts several questions to Mrs. St. Clair.  Holmes and Watson then retire to bed—well, Watson goes to bed.  Holmes stays up all night smoking his pipe and puzzling out the case.  At dawn he wakes Watson and says he has solved the puzzle.  I’ll try not to spoil the ending, but one of the things that interests me about the revelation of the story is the way it demonstrates class privilege but also the way it explores how a man can make a more fruitful living by casting off the vestiges of his middle-class status and effecting a disguise of a man of a lower class.  As in so many other Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle uses the art of disguise to demonstrate that what is on the surface is not always indicative of what lies beneath or an accurate measurement of an individual.

“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”

This story opens in an interesting way.  Watson makes a call on Holmes at Baker Street, and when he enters his gaze falls upon an old, beaten-up hat that is hanging on the back of a chair.  As is Holmes’ way, he invites Watson to examine the hat and relay what it tells him about its owner.  As is Watson’s way, he looks at the hat but can discern nothing.  Holmes proceeds to tell Watson all kinds of things about the owner of the hat, and Watson, astounded, encourages Holmes to explain how he has deduced all that he has.  I will say that I was particularly amused by the opening of the story.

The mystery comes when Peterson, the man who brought the hat as well as a goose to Holmes, returns to Baker Street to tell him that his wife discovered a blue carbuncle within the cavity of the goose as she was preparing to cook it for Christmas dinner.  A carbuncle is a precious gem, and because blue carbuncles are rare (indeed, the note in the story says that a blue carbuncle has never been discovered and that carbuncles are usually red in color) Holmes recognizes it as the very blue carbuncle that has been reported stolen by an aristocrat.  A man has already been arrested and held over for trial as the suspected thief, but with this new development Holmes begins to think that the man may indeed be innocent.  So the game is on to trace the goose back to the actual thief.

I actually enjoyed this story.  It was one of my favorites thus far in this collection.  I also found two great lines spoken by Holmes: “I am somewhat of a foul fancier, and I have seldom seen a better goose” and “My name is Sherlock Holmes.  It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” I feel like both of these are just classic Sherlock Holmes lines and I can imagine Benedict Cumberbatch uttering them.  The choice Holmes makes at the end about the fate of the actual thief is an interesting one in that it is Holmes obstructing justice for what he thinks is the greater good, and of course Watson’s agreement makes the reader think that what Holmes has done is ultimately the correct choice.

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”

Something interesting happens in the first paragraph of this story – Watson says that, at the time he is writing this story, it has been eight years that he has known Sherlock Holmes and that together they have investigated over seventy cases together.  He explains that the case he is going to relate occurred early in his association with Holmes, while they were both still bachelors living at 221B Baker Street.  The client is one Helen Stoner.  She comes to see Sherlock because she fears for her life.  Her twin sister, Julia, died under somewhat mysterious circumstances two years before, just a couple of weeks before her marriage.  Now Helen is engaged to be married, and little things that have been happening in her home have raised alarm bells in her mind.  Miss Stoner explains to Sherlock that she lives with her stepfather, Dr. Grimesby Roylott (what a name!), and through Sherlock’s deductions it is revealed that Roylott is a cruel and abusive man.  Indeed, no one in the neighborhood where they live actually like Dr. Roylott.  Holmes agrees to take her case, and then he says something funny to Watson.  As they prepare to make the journey out of London to Surrey, Holmes makes sure that Watson will be bringing along his revolver and tells him that the only other thing they will need is a toothbrush. A revolver and a toothbrush.  Seriously?

One of the other things that I found interesting about this story is that (a) it delves a bit more deeply into motive—why does someone want Miss Stoner dead, and why would they have wanted her twin dead as well?  This doesn’t usually come up so strongly in the Holmes stories; and (b) Watson repeats a couple of times that Holmes works for the love of his art rather than the acquirement of wealth.  I think that that is such a wonderful statement to break down.  Holmes was able to work for the love of his art because he was already independently wealthy, and there is nobility in doing exactly that; and yet, most of us have the business of daily living and at best we look for ways to combine doing what we love for a paycheck.  Still, that sentiment recalls back to me the idyllic, and perhaps overly simplistic ideas about work and art.  It also reminds us just how singular Sherlock was, and how all of his eccentricities and peculiarities served to set him apart from the typical man.  I’ve noticed that a lot more now that I’m reading these stories a bit closer together (I’ve been reading before going to bed each night).  Doyle is definitely putting in characteristics and qualities of Holmes that make him not only unusual, but one of a kind.

**The first five stories of this collection, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Red-headed League,” “A Case of Identity,” “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” and “The Five Orange Pips” have already been written about elsewhere, so they won’t appear here.