Valley of Fear
Pros: English mystery
The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was first serialized in 1914-15 (a period during which WWI began). It is the fourth and last Sherlock Holmes novel, and also the second revival of Holmes and his chronicler, Dr. James Watson, after a story announcing the end of such chronicler (“The Adventure of the Second Stain”, the last one in the 1905 The Return of Sherlock Holmes). For me, The Valley of Fear shares the problem of the first two Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890) in having very long backstories set outside England and in which Holmes and Watson do not figure. At least the one in The Valley of Fear follows solving the mystery of how someone blew the head which the drawbridge had been drawn up for the night.
The detection might be titled “The Case of the Missing Barbell” in that Holmes focused on that. I find it disappointing that this is not one of the cases in which Holmes makes his own decision about justice and one in which vengeance is delayed. “The Valley of Fear” is apt for the second story, the backstory set among rapacious Pennsylvania coalmine owners, their workers, and a Pinkerton agent. I cannot reveal how the backstory relates to the case that Holmes investigates. The card left by the corpse, VV341, comes from Vermissa Valley Lodge 341, and Vermissa Valley is the “valley of fear” dominated by Boss McGinty. The conflict between the “Molly Maguires” and Pinkerton agent James McParland (1843-1919) who infiltrated them is loosely based on fact. Comparing his lifedates to the publication date, he was still alive when Doyle fictionalized some of his adventures from the 1870s.
(BTW, Pinkerton himself was unhappy that the McParland character in Doyle’s version married a local girl (indeed, rivalry for her is the underlying motor of the whole novel). In fact McParland’s brother Charles, who was also an undercover union-busting Pinkerton agent was the one who married a woman from a Pennsylvania coal-mining town.)
In addition to the lumpiness of the long backstory related after the solution of the initial mystery, I find frustrating the awkward frame in which the case (the English one of the corpse in the castle) is linked by Holmes to the nefarious Moriarty, the spider at the center of most of the crime in England in Holmes’s view, though he is unable to prove any connections of crimes to his archenemy. Holmes also fails to do so in The Valley of Fear, and the case against Moriarty herein is very perfunctory (dare I say “unconvincing”?). It also does not fit well with the chronology of the Holmes oeuvre, set before “The Final Problem” (published in 1893, set in 1891) in which Holmes first learns of the existence of Moriarty… and which was Doyle’s first attempt to be done with his famous character(s).