Hardboiled Holmes: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear

In researching a new novel, I stumbled across a curious tidbit within The Scientific Sherlock Holmes by James O’Brien. It briefly mentioned The Valley of Fear, one of the four Sherlock Holmes novels, as an early precursor to the hardboiled novel. Intrigued as Holmes coming across a mystery, I immediately sought out the story. I’m a perpetual dabbler in Sherlock Holmes – I’ve read and enjoyed many, but not all of the stories.

I’m not sure if I need to include a spoiler alert for a book which has been around for 100 years, but you have been duly warned.

The_Valley_of_Fear_cover_Stand_Magazine

By Frank Wiles / Франк Уайлс [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Valley of Fear was Doyle’s fourth and last Holmes novel, published between 1914 and 1915 in The Strand Magazine. The book starts off like many Holmes mysteries, where a coded note leads Holmes and Watson to investigate the murder of Mr Douglas at Birlstone Manor, a location reminiscent of an episode of Midsomer Murders. Mr Douglas’ face has been blown off by a shotgun in a locked room, the manor surrounded by a moat. The solving of this case proceeds in typical Holmes fashion; while the bumbling and earnest police track leads and try to find the owner of a bicycle (who must of course, be the murderer), Holmes solves the crime with his staggering intellect and an umbrella.

It’s the second half which takes a much darker tone, diverting from Holmes to recount the events in America which led to the murder. This half emulates the hardboiled and noir to become popular in the years after Doyle’s death. At first glance the novel appears to be more noir than hardboiled, following one Mr McMurdo’s descent into self-destruction through his violent tendencies. The story is set in the town of Vermissa Valley, nicknamed the Valley of Fear; which Doyle aptly sets up in this passage in the same way one of Dashiell Hammett’s towns takes on the miasma of vice:

Look down the valley! See the cloud of a hundred chimneys that overshadows it! I tell you that the cloud of murder hangs thicker and lower than that over the heads of the people. It is the Valley of Fear, the Valley of Death. The terror is in the hearts of the people from the dusk to the dawn.

By Goldwyn Pictures (site, poster) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Goldwyn Pictures (site, poster) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But The Valley of Fear has all the classic themes of hardboiled; corrupt local official in the hands of a criminal organisation, powerless police force, brutal assassinations and an innocent woman in peril. There’s even two assassins who could walk straight out of a Coen Brothers’ movie, Lawler and Andrews, who take out a local mine owner with brutal efficiency. While you’re busy looking for how it fits into the first half of the story, Doyle drops in the clues that lead to the big reveal. McMurdo is actually Birdy Edwards, top man at Pinkerton’s Detective Agency, tasked to take out the Scowrers running the town.

Some of the prose has a grittier edge than the usual larkish Holmes story, such as, “If killing is murder, then God knows there is murder and to spare” or “They were as hardened to murder as a butcher to sheep.” Or when Holmes discusses arch-nemesis Moriarty:

“I happen to know who is the first link in his chain – a chain with this Napoleon-gone-wrong at one end, and a hundred broken fighting men, pickpockets, blackmailers, and card sharpers at the other, with every sort of crime in between.”

Can’t you just hear Bogey reading that out? The book is also notable for Doyle’s meta-commentary on the detective novel, as if he were trying to make a point about detectives in fiction. In his words:

I don’t take much stock of detectives in novels – chaps that do things and never let you see how they do them. That’s just inspiration: not business.

In contrast to the privately wealthy Holmes who took on cases out of intrigue, I wonder what Doyle would have thought of the gumshoe for hire PI to come later, who worked to get paid (and usually complained about how the money he was getting for the case didn’t adequately cover the risk involved). Although The Valley of Fear is not as well known as its associates, it is a fascinating read for its place in the history of crime fiction.

Is Sherlock Holmes the precursor to hardboiled? What’s your favourite Holmes story?

Feature image remixed from the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Public Domain, The British Library on Flickr

Kat Clay is an award-winning photographer and writer from Melbourne, Australia. Her novella, Double Exposure, was published in 2015 by Crime Factory. Her work has been published in The Victorian Writer, Literary Traveler, TNT, Travel Weekly, Matador Network and Weird Fiction Review. She loves inspiring people to be more creative in everyday life.

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2 comments

  • Maitreya January 21, 2016  

    I also found the prose of The Valley of Fear far grittier and hardened than the average Sherlock Holmes story. However, to a lesser extent, I think all his stories have hardboiled elements at their core:
    – the typical Holmesian emotional aloofness and extreme cynicism,
    – a deep and realistic understanding of the world’s harsh realities (and the incompetence of the police force),
    – passing only reluctant judgement about people’s personalities and commenting largely on their habits,
    – an increased focus on the technique (‘how’) of a crime rather than motive (‘why’) behind it,
    – an uncanny ability to temporarily detach oneself from a case at will (something which astonished Watson more than once).

    What is also fascinating is how Canon Doyle adapted his writing – going from Victorian upper-class (and often stiff upper lipped) conversations to American coal-filled grunts of criminals – within a few pages. And the amount of research that would’ve gone into the novel (as well as A Study in Scarlet) makes it even more remarkable.


    (PS: Whoa Lady! Did I just hear you say that you haven’t read all Sherlock Holmes stories yet? May I suggest that you leave whatever book you’re reading (and writing), and plunge into them straight away?)

  • Kat January 22, 2016  

    Awesome analysis Maitreya, I agree put of the ones I’ve read that he does have a high level of detachment just like a classic PI. So great to see how Holmes has influenced modern crime writing. And yes, I should totally read all the stories. They’re ridiculously good fun.

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