I’ve set out to read a minimum of 52 books this year, and write a brief review of each. I’ve reached a point that I didn’t think I’d reach this early – I’m justifying my selection by saying that it is technically a book.
Although I’m reading from The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Valley of Fear was originally published as a standalone novel. So, I’m going to count it as such, even if it is just over a hundred pages long.
Conan Doyle, wanting to move on from writing Holmes stories, famously killed his protagonist off in The Reichenbach Falls, only to bring him back several years later. Though written many years after The Reichenbach Falls, The Valley of Fear is set earlier, and features his first run-in with Professor Moriarty.
The chronology of this confused me a little, as, I went looking on Wikipedia to find out which order I should be reading the books and short stories in.
It’s not really important though, as, unlike the current Steven Moffat adaptation, there really isn’t much in the way of plot twists and turns beyond the murder mystery itself.
The story opens with Holmes and Watson bickering, in a restrained, Victorian manner, and the action begins soon after, with the arrival of a coded message. By a clever process of deduction, the two quickly work out which book is to be used as a cipher, and the process is impressively and enjoyably smart and logical.
This is probably the best point to raise one of two small problems I had with the book – I found the prose a little hard to get into at first. It was only a brief period of adjustment, and I think it’s more to do with the modern style of writing being looser and more accessible…but there were a few early sentences that felt a little theasarusy. You know, like when an insecure university student seems to think that replacing every word of their essays with the longest version of that word will make them sound smart.
But that’s probably just me being used to a different, more relaxed style of prose, and I think I’ve had similar problems of adaption with Dickens and Austen as well. It’s just that a different style was common then, and I think it took me a few pages to fully adjust.
MacDonald of Scotland Yard arrives early on, and informs the original dynamic duo of a murder connected to the note.
The murder is of a provincial lord, well-liked by the locals, who has recently been talking about ‘the valley of fear’. The elements involved here are not too complex – footprints, missing objects, the usual. But they’re cleverly used, and the mystery is cleverly taken apart – when the elements of the mystery are explained, they have an ‘ah, of course’ quality – things that seem obvious in retrospect, but not at the time.
The format of the book is a little strange – the book is split into two halves, the second of which almost entirely covers the story of Jack McMurdo, a young American who travelled to Vermissa many years earlier in search of a fortune, only to get mixed up with dark forces. It’s very dark and tense, a good thriller story in it’s own right, just not what I was expecting, format-wise.
After writing Reichenbach Falls, Arthur Conan Doyle (as far as I understand) wanted to concentrate on his other, non-Sherlock writing. Jack McMurdo’s half of the story strikes me as a writer wanting to prove he can do more than just what he is best known for, it feels almost like it was put in under false pretences.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the latter story, because I did…it’s just not what I was expecting.
An inventive murder mystery, logically taken apart, and a very atmospheric thriller.