Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Holmes in the Valley

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing about Sherlock Holmes in a pair of novels, before switching mostly to short stories. Still, he revisited the longer format twice more over the decades, the last time being The Valley of Fear.

Sherlock Holmes receives a coded message which the sender apparently thought twice about sending. In any case, it doesn't arrive in time to prevent a grisly murder by sawed-off shotgun. Holmes investigates the crime with his usual verve and skill, exposing a tangled motive that stretches back across 20 years and an ocean -- the victim's secret past in America seems to have caught up with him.

The Valley of Fear invites comparison the the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. In both, past events in the American West are to blame for events unfolding in England's present. Both those histories involve a man involved in a sweeping criminal conspiracy. Both of the men want to run off and marry a young woman. But more than the plot similarities, it's Doyle's writing style that push the comparison even farther. In both A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, he devotes most of the book's last half to a flashback narrative involving neither Holmes nor Watson.

Generally, The Valley of Fear feels to me like the stronger book of the two. First, the relationship between Holmes and Watson is well established by this point, which allows the mystery to dominate the first half of the novel. That mystery is actually an intriguing "locked room" puzzle on a massive scale -- the murder takes place in actual castle, surrounded by a moat with a raised drawbridge. The mystery also has a satisfying and clever twist in its resolution. Doyle also seems to have a better handle here on his idea of "frontier mobsters" than he did when writing about Mormons in A Study in Scarlet. The saga of the back half of this novel is melodramatic at times, but still feels generally closer to reality than anything in that first Holmes book.

There are a couple of dry chapters. Set-ups just aren't Doyle's forte. When the action first migrates to the aforementioned castle, he awkwardly pauses the story to introduce the place and its inhabitants, in a chapter that feels more like notes from an outline than a narrative. And when the mystery essentially wraps up at the novel's halfway point, it takes a few more chapters before the lengthy flashback grows to be as compelling as the murder case was. There's also a small misfire for continuity fans. In trying to set up this novel as a prequel (before Holmes' "death") he raises the specter of the Moriarty. But here, Watson somehow has full knowledge of the evil professor he only learned of for the first time in "The Final Problem."

Still, I'd say this is probably the best of the four Sherlock Holmes novels. I'd give it a B. Now it's on to the last few collections of Holmes short stories.

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