Review: The Valley of Fear (A Sherlock Holmes Novel) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

As most of you know, I am finishing up the last of the four novels of Sherlock Holmes (A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, and The Hound of Baskervilles being the first three) titled The Valley of Fear.

The first three novels were a little hit and miss for me. All of the first three novels that I read were a little on the long-ish and boring side, except for the various forensic science methods/techniques and the short lived love story between Mary and Dr. Watson. So I was totally hoping The Valley of Fear (VOF) was going to be more promising, sadly I was a little on the disappointed side.

I started noticing a formula/pattern to Doyle’s writing pretty early on as most of the stories begin with a little background on Holmes’ “deduction” methods and a set up from the client via Dr. Watson’s narrative. Holmes often does not disclose his theories until late in the story while the audience (like Watson) is forced to try and make heads or tails of the facts. While some find the predictable plot boring, there is some comfort in knowing what to expect.

Obviously the series came out at a time when science, psychology, and industrial advancement were at a pinnacle. Holmes must have been a wildly popular character as he is colorful and interesting… people just naturally have a morbid curiosity about murder and crime….admit it, you know you watch The First 48, Forensic Files, and Cold Case just as much as the next person!

So as I read VOF, I began wondering why the same formula over and over again….I came up with a couple of different possibilities. Like Holmes I have deduced this from the novels: the crime and criminal have not changed; only the style and the way the story is told.

Like A Study in Scarlet, VOF contains a fairly long narrative and background on the murderer. Clearly the focus of the novel is criminal psychology or the proverbial “why” of the crime. Science can easily explain the “how” of the crime but not necessarily the why. The why of a crime/murder is often incomprehensible to a normal person however, society demands an answer, a reason, a why.

Holmes as a character speaks for Victorian society and is clearly a product of that environment. Victorian society is focused on logic, science, and discouraged fantastical ideas. For example, in the Hounds of Baskervilles, the mysterious dog on the moors had to be explained away by logic, it could never be a ghost or phantom…..always a logical explanation.

Holmes himself relies on reason, logic, science, facts, and the process of deduction…however it is curious that Doyle has such a focus on the psychology of the criminal. Though maybe he does not focus on the criminal intentionally? Maybe it is a deep underlying want to understand criminology?

I think it is a fair statement that the crime is not complicated but to understand how one makes that shift from normal guy to raging psychopath….or perhaps he (or she) was always a psychopath….is a question many struggle with. Clearly the VOF and A Study in Scarlet try to give the reader some sort of explanation regarding the psychological elements of the crime.

I found myself wondering as I read….how has crime changed from then until now….less the psychological and forensic advancements? Has crime changed? If I recall correctly, Holmes suggests in one novel that crime has never changed, it is all simply a repeat of a previous crime. Thoughts on this theory anyone?

I personally think crime, to one degree or another has all been done before and the crimes that are shocking or infamous are only so because of the medium from which they are told.

Take for example Jack the Ripper….people have been killing people and dismembering their bodies for centuries but the difference is Jack the Ripper came along at a time when technology such as photography allowed his murders to be broadcast to a wider audience. Now in the 20th century, those murders are still considered particularly heinous, however people can download equally graphic material via the internet so does that discount or change the original crime? Not really….a murder is still a murder.

So back to our literary focus, VOF is pretty much “The Goodfellas”, “Donnie Brasco”, “Gangs of New York”, and/or “Casino” of the Victorian Era. It’s all about money laundering, mobs, police informants, and secret societies. It’s got all the makings of a good book. The mystery itself is solved early on in the novel while the remainder of the book is about the main characters experience in the “Valley of Fear”.

Poor little Jack McMurdo finds himself in a heap of trouble when he moves to a Chicago ghetto and begins infiltrating a well organized mob. Not only does he fall in love with one of the local girls but she is already promised to another man who is part of the mob.

Eventually she chooses him over the mob guy and of course, the mob comes after Jack. However, Jack joins the mob and becomes one of the most trusted ‘brothers’ in the society/syndicate. He launders their money and acts as an enforcer until one of the members lets it slip to him that there is a rat in the group who is going to take down their organization.

After infiltrating the crime syndicate, it is revealed that Jack is really an undercover police officer and he takes the mob down however he will forever be on the run from the mob. He moves to England after marrying the girl from the neighborhood and lives in constant fear that he will be found and killed by the mob enforcers that he took down. He decides to fake his death so that he may live in peace….he is caught by Holmes when Holmes consults on a murder investigation though Jack is eventually cleared of all charges.

The story itself is fairly interesting once you get into it however it ends very abruptly and again when reading the four novels rather than reading the novels and short stories in the order that they were published is a little confusing. For example, VOF mentions Professor Moriarty….like somehow the reader is supposed to know who that is when he was not mentioned in the preceding three novels.

One should know that Professor Moriarty is Holmes’ archrival and basically the “Godfather” who protects all criminal organizations. So this reference is a little confusing and out of place. The story is a little darker than some of the others in my opinion and defiantly makes one question the anatomy of crime. Some would say that the Sign of Four was my psychological and darker since it contained Indian natives and other dark/mysterious far east undertones and in some ways the Sign of Four was like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (surviving and being consumed by the need to stay alive and….well….ya survive in Africa). So it was dark and a little disturbing but I found VOF to be a little more so.

The VOF took a simple criminal organization (money laundering, murder, and mob enforcement) and turned it into a psychological thriller (for the time period anyway). Doyle used lots of description and dark scenery to really enhance the feeling of gloom and pending doom.

I really felt like I was being consumed by the criminal underworld and it was disorientating to think of this character as a criminal for the entire book and then all of a sudden realize he wasn’t. It also left me questioning the actual murder from which the story began. Jack murdered a man who he knew was coming to kill him and tried to pass the body off as his own, faking his own death. Before hearing the story Jack had to tell, I was totally like….ya arrest him and take him to jail, but after the story I felt bad for him and questioned if he should be arrested or not.

So what does that say about criminal psychology…..does an explanation help one rationalize or justify crime? Can justice always be blind or is there always a grey area? Is murder always murder (or any crime for that matter)….is it ever justified? And if so, why??

While the VOF was a little on the slow side and the conclusion was abrupt and rushed….it was over all a move developed book than the previous three novels I had read. It defiantly made me think that’s for sure.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: The Valley of Fear (A Sherlock Holmes Novel) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  • Kindle Edition
  • Published February 16th 2010 by Bedford Park Books (first published 1930)
  • ASIN B003A03RRU

This book counts toward: NA

  • Hosted by: NA
  • Books for Challenge Completed: NA

Recommendation: 3 out of 5

Genre: Victorian Literature, Mystery, Gothic Literature, Classic, British Literature

Memorable lines/quotes: NA

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