Completed: The Valley of Fear

Cover: The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Valley of Fear
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
(1915, Scotland)

Holmes laughed. ‘Watson insists that I am the dramatist in real life,’ said he. ‘Some touch of the artist wells up within me, and calls insistently for a well staged performance. Surely our profession, Mr. Mac, would be a drab and sordid one if we did not sometimes set the scene so as to glorify our results. The blunt accusation, the brutal tap upon the shoulder–what can one make of such a dénouement? But the quick inference, the subtle trap, the clever forecast of coming events, the triumphant vindication of bold theories–are these not the pride and the justification of our life’s work?’ (75)

I read this seventh title in my adventures through the Sherlock Holmes mysteries this past fall, both as seasonal reading–there just seems to be something about autumn that goes well with Holmes–and as an entry for the Reading England 2015 challenge (which I completely forgot to mention in my Northanger Abbey post – the bulk of that novel in Bath, Somerset County). Though I am geographically challenged as comes to England, I now know that the action of The Valley of Fear takes place in Sussex County, located in southeastern England, on the coast.

That is, I should say, the action of the first half of The Valley of Fear. For much like the earlier A Study in Scarlet, the short novel is split in two parts, with Holmes solving a crime in the first half–that of a murdered country gentleman, felled by a sawed-off shotgun in his moated and locked country estate–and the second half’s explanation of the long-past history that led to this crime. And much like A Study in Scarlet, this past history is set in the American West, specifically a small hard-scrabble mining town. I’d be tempted to make comment on Doyle’s stereotype of the American West, were it not for daily news evidence that the U.S. has clearly never moved past an affinity for violence.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find myself caring for The Valley of Fear any more than I did A Study in Scarlet. And now I can no longer excuse him as still being a young writer. This time the problem was less the split of the narrative–the narrative in both parts was equally interesting–but that in both halves I knew the answer of the mystery well in advance of the end. Perhaps Doyle laid too many clues, perhaps I’ve simply read/watched too many mysteries, but it was too easy for me to “solve.” Though, my fondness for reading The Hound of the Baskervilles proves that knowing the solution isn’t always a problem, it’s what surrounds that solution. But where Baskervilles oozes in atmosphere, the predominant memory I have of The Valley of Fear is action and violence. The plot might an action-thriller make, but I find I like it less than the more tightly woven Baskervilles. It is more a diversion than a masterpiece.


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