The Valley of Fear
Many people are familiar with Sherlock Holmes. It’s hard not to be! Whether it’s the multitude of references to him in pop culture, the go-to Halloween costume, or the almost ‘synonymous’ connection between his name and our English word ‘detective’, there’s no doubt our culture has an affinity for Sherlock.
What surprises me is how few people have actually read any of his stories. What a shame. Sir Arthur has the uncanny ability to paint a detailed picture without getting lost in the minutia. I believe he does this by providing all the necessary details to paint the picture, or more appropriately, tell the story and then he stops there. Providing an immense amount of detail is something characteristic of his era to be sure, but I think he excels at it. A faithful reader begins to expect this same quality throughout his titles, but this novel goes a step further. I genuinely believe The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to be one of the best genre-bending fiction books of all time.
Why do I think that? Glad you asked.
The first reason that comes to mind is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterful use of flashback. In an age of Dr. House, Batman, and even the BBC’s excellent modern take on Sherlock, we are very familiar with the classic mystery plot, but in this novel, Conan Doyle takes a slightly different approach by bending genres to communicate the backstory of some of the characters while simultaneously transforming the plot through a major flashback.
This story is initially set in Sherlock’s day where the reader is confronted with a confounding murder scene. Things don’t add up, and it takes the exquisite skills of a master detective, our beloved Sherlock, to undo the knots--but the knots are not quite undone. Our story then plunges into an extended hiatus in the American west to uncover the past lives of key figures: A murderous gang, a Pinkerton detective, and a man with a past worth escaping. By the end of the journey, we return to Sherlock, and his attempt to tie up the loose knots--which, no spoilers here--he does.
The Western-style writing in this flashback doesn’t come across as cheap, but takes the reader deeper into the story. It is superb! It’s particularly noteworthy that it not only avoids over-romanticizing the lead character into a flawless personification of justice, but he also succeeds in making it distinctly western, American. Imagine the difficulty of this task in his era as a Scot! In other words, it’s realistic and convincing Wild West material.
The second thing that comes to mind is the skillful use of twists throughout this novel. This is Sir Arthur’s final Sherlock novel, and by this time he has mastered the art of unexpected twists. I feel like many of his other works could be characterized by clever, short twists. This novel makes broad, looping twists that require a minute or two to soak in. I can honestly say that I didn’t see a few of them coming.
I feel that some authors’ twists are really more for shock value than actual literary value, and those sort of twists decrease my appreciation for the author and, in some cases, ruin the story. Twists that fundamentally “change the game after it has started” can be brutish at worst and mildly annoying at best, but Conan Doyle’s twists in The Valley of Fear engage the reader in a way that really improves the story rather than dragging it through the mud. This approach doesn’t just take the reader for a ride, but takes them on a fun ride!
Lastly, there is an interesting theme of repetition that I didn’t notice the first time through. I found myself appreciating it upon the second read. I think the line “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” may be a good thing to keep in mind as you read. The story ends with a question mark. Maybe not literally, but figuratively--because a greater evil lurks in the waters of Victorian London.
I’ll stop there as I’d like you to find out for yourself how it all unfolds. I’ve given you a few tools, but it’s your job to do the mining! I hope you enjoy this as much as I have. There’s a reason Sherlock is so beloved, and this book is one of four novels that have successfully gripped English-speaking audiences for over a century!
C. Aaron Camp