The Valley of Fear was first published in the Strand Magazine in September, 1914 – the first chapter of it, that is.
It was released as a book in 1915, about 22 years after The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and 14 years after The Hound of the Baskervilles.
And yet – I must honestly assert – that it's just as gripping, as intoxicating and as pleasurable a read as any other awesome Sherlock Holmes story or novel.
Just because Doyle wrote it later does not mean he messed it up.
It's sumptuous – waiting to be devoured!
What is so special about The Valley of Fear?
First - there is the stunning mystery, of course. There just doesn't seem to be any solution that can explain a certain murder...
Then, there are some fabulous deductions by our good old Holmes and mind-blowing twists.
Apart from these attractions, there's loads of info on Moriarty. Moriarty is the infamous villain who appears only twice in all Sherlock Holmes novels and stories.
In The Valley of Fear, Holmes talks a lot about Moriarty, even saying...
The cover of a 1915 edition of The Valley of Fear (by Arthur Keller)
Holmes praises Moriarty so much, in fact, that you can't help wondering how intruiging and powerful he must be.
Need more motivation to read the book (if you haven't read it, that is)...well, go ahead, take a peek at my ratings of the novel.
Sherlock Holmes has special information from his agent Porlock about a murder that is going to be committed in the city.
Just when Holmes is thinking about what to do with the information, in comes inspector MacDonald with details about the actual murder itself!
John Douglas of Birlstone Manor, Sussex, has been murdered in his house in the night. His face has been mutiliated beyond recognition. And his fingers have all his rings except for his wedding ring. A card that reads “V. V. 341 ” has been found near the dead body.
Who murdered this guy?
And why has his face been shot at with a shot-gun?
What's with the wedding ring?
And how did the murderer escape if the house is surrounded by a moat on all sides? That's what Holmes needs to find out!
And yes...There are two key witnesses – Cecil Barker and the deceased man's wife Mrs Douglas. Are they speaking the truth or are they hiding something?
The body of Mr Douglas at Birlstone Manor
Again, the mystery is not exceptional – I mean every other crime novel has a murder at its heart, right? BUT - I am not exaggerating when I say that Holmes' deductions and the twist at the end are hair raising.
The startling simplicity with which Holmes lays bare fact after fact and finds out who the culprit is – that is exceptional.
The inspectors and police officials who assist Holmes, of course, add to the fun – as they keep going off track more often than not. :-)
This moment occurs right at the beginning of the story – and – it showcases Holmes' ubercool powers of deduction.
Holmes has received a note from his secret agent Porlock – and the note has a cypher. The clue to unravel the cypher cannot arrive for some reason, so Holmes himself has to crack it.
Here's what the cypher looks like...
What is thoroughly enjoyable is how Holmes deduces step by step that the cypher actually represents the page numbers of a book – and then even zeroes in on the name of the book.
Finally Holmes reads out the message:
The moment when Holmes actually reads out the message is definitely one of my magic moments. Which one's yours?
In every Sherlock Holmes novel and story, I look forward to the moment when Holmes confides in Watson and shares his insights with him.
This moment is a big one – because till that moment, I seldom appear to make any headway in the case (much like Watson) while Holmes keeps giving his all-knowing smiles saying things like:
In The Valley of Fear, the first time Holmes confides in Watson is when he tells him that he knows that Cecil Barker – Mr Douglas' friend and Mrs Douglas – both are lying.
This is definitely one of my magical moments from the story.
Sherlock Holmes figures out that according to Barker and Mrs Douglas' version of the story, the assasin had just one minute to remove Mr Douglas' rings, put them back and take away only the wedding ring, which lay between two others!
This simple reasoning on Holmes' part made me remark, “Aha...I knew that – but I didn't think of it that way.”
That made me delve deeper into the novel and fuelled my excitement!
If there had to be one single moment in The Valley of Fear – that shocked me – and I am sure – that has shocked any reader reading the novel for the first time – it has to be this.
Inspector MacDonald is there.
Watson is there.
Cecil Barker – Mr Douglas' friend is there.
Mrs Douglas is there.
All are supposedly waiting with bated breath for Holmes' revealeation when Holmes says...
And – Mr Douglas does emerge from the wall.
He has never been dead. And Holmes has figured that out.
That's definitely one of the most amazing solutions ever – finding that the murderer whose death was being researched had never been murdered!
Of course, it has to be a magic moment.
One other reason why The Valley of Fear is special is that it is actually two awesome novels rolled into one.
The first part of course, deals with the murder of Mr Douglas which Holmes investigates. The second part deals with Mr Douglas' past - and it is just as superb. In fact, it almost beats the Holmesian part of the story in its tendency to get a grip on you.
In this second part of the story, called The Scowrers, a man, McMurdo (Mr Douglas' alias) is shown joining a gang of rowdies in Vermissa Valley, California. This McMurdo wins the trust of the gang leader, and rises exponentially through the Scowrer ranks before asking all the gang men to come to a certain house at night.
At that house – he gets them arrested – for he is a detective who was sent amongst them to catch them.
So amazing are Mr Douglas' past exploits that for a moment even (yes, even...) Holmes fades into oblivion. He competes with Holmes fairly and squarely – in the mind boggling way in which he exposes the villains of Vermissa Valley.
If you've read the book, you know you blinked your eyes a couple of times – when you read about McMurdo handing the other gang members over.
That is, without doubt, my second best moment of the story. What's yours?
PS: By the way, “The Valley of Fear” is Vermissa Valley in the book...
The Valley of Fear begins with Holmes trying to crack a code from a spy...and what does the code turn out to be? The page numbers of the Whitaker’s Almanac!
What is the Whitaker’s Almanac though?
I mean, is it still published? How popular was it in Holmes' days?
Well, firstly – yes, the Whitaker’s Almanac is still published every year.
You can think of it like an yearbook that talks about the most important events that occurred in the world in the last year. It is not exactly an encyclopedia – but it does contain tons of information about literature, governments, astronomy, religions and what not...
The Whitaker’s Almanac was first published on December 23, 1868 by Joseph Whitaker – and after that year – there was never any looking back. In fact the 1868 edition sold a respectable 60000 copies.
Here are some pictures from and of the Whitaker’s Almanac.
So popular was the Whitaker’s Almanac, that Winston Churchill apparently wrote a letter to the editor of the almanac during World War II...
...to tell him that he shouldn't be worried and that the Almanac's publication shouldn't be affected by the war!
Birlstone Manor is the place where Mr Douglas – the man who was supposedly murdered, lived in the story.
Is there such a real place?
There is. BUT – the name is fictional.
Conan Doyle's description of Birlstone Manor matches the exact description of Groombridge Place in the village of Groombridge near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England.
Doyle did base his description of Birlstone Manor on a real edifice...
The moat that surrounds Birlstone Manor plays a major role in the story. It makes everyone wonder about how the murderer could have come in – and more importantly – how he could have gone out when there was no bridge across the moat...
Here's a picture of the real moat.
This cool picture was first taken by Hans Bernhard before I edited it. :-)
The house is a privately owned place today – as it was through the centuries. The present day house was build in 1662 – more than 350 years ago! (Some restoration work has been done, but otherwise, the building is still the same.)
It is interesting to know that the place so clearly described in The Valley of Fear – actually exists.
It would be a weird feeling – to stand in front of the house today and think of those events happening right there...
I would like to do that one day. :-)
The Pinkerton detective agency plays a major role in The Valley of Fear. So amazing is the detective from Pinkerton that probably for the first time – you say “wow” when a guy other than Holmes does something cool in a Holmes novel.
The big question is: is this a real agency?
Then answer...yes, it is.
Pinkerton exists even today and it is known as Pinkerton Government Services. Today, the agency provides security guard services as well as detective services – in more than 100 countries.
Pinkerton was established by Allan Pinkerton in 1855, in Chicago. At that time, strikes by workers and hooligan created problems were a major issue. Pinkertons was formed by this “Allan” guy with the help of the chairmen of many important railroads in the USA.
Later, Pinkerton became so famous that it was even hired by Abraham Lincoln for his security. In the 1890s, Pinkerton had around 2000 active agents and 30000 more dormant agents. Wow.
Guess what the tagline of Pinkerton was and is?
“We never sleep”
If you've read about The Scowrers in The Valley of Fear – and thought them to be pure fiction, then hold your breath:
The Scowrers were real and The Valley of Fear existed in reality.
In The Valley of Fear – The Scowrers are members of the Eminent Order of Freemen in the Vermissa Valley who terrorize industralists, and murder at the drop of a hat.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based the story on an organization called The Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The secret society that operated under its umbrella in the coal districts of north eastern Pennsylvania in USA was The Molly Maguires.
Here is the region in which The Molly Maguires operated.
While different historians have written different stuff about The Molly Maguires, the crux is that it was indeed a violent organization... formed because of the oppression that the miners went through.
What about Birdy Edwards (or McMurdo or Mr Douglas...)?
The Pinkerton detective who breaks through the Scowrers and gets them all arrested? Was he real too?
While Conan Doyle's account is definitely over-dramatized, yes – there was a Pinkerton detective who penetrated the Molly Maguires and led to the arrest of almost all members of the organization.
His name was James McParland and he spied on the Molly Maguires in a fashion very similar to how Birdy Edwards (or McMurdo) spied on the Scowrers.
Conan Doyle twisted the details a bit – he fictionalized the names of the place and the secret society, and he changed what happened after the Molly Maguires members were arrested.
BUT – he based The Valley of Fear on a true story.
That's fascinating...and also bone chilling.