—The Valley of Fear
There is no shortage of comparisons to be drawn between The Valley of Fear and the preceding Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Both share elaborate murder-mystery plots (although, with its long narrative aside, the former would more rightly stand in comparison with A Study in Scarlet), both emerge after long canonical pauses, and yet, notwithstanding, are records of earlier adventures. An aura, as it were, of absence lingers over them both, and perhaps motivates Conan Doyle to calculate his return visit to Holmes when his detective is at his apex, thus providing the reader with more familiar ground. Unlike both Scarlet and Hound, the novel is, in Christopher Redmond’s words, “a much more mature work, the work of an experienced author at the height of his powers…we do not just have one of Conan Doyle’s finest detective stories—we have, in fact, two.” Indeed, this ambitious scope sets it apart from the other novels in the canon, but, in one crucial sense, The Valley of Fear retains its connection with the other novels in the canon by being based in truth.
The truth of The Valley of Fear shares its origins with that of Hound, in that it is the byproduct of both a fortunate friendship and a sea voyage. Conan Doyle had made the acquaintance of William Pinkerton, son and heir of the famous American detective agency. While traveling across the Atlantic, Pinkerton regaled Conan Doyle with talk of one of the most famous exploits of the firm, the successful infiltration by Pinkerton agent James McParland of the militant Irish vigilante group, the Molly Maguires, which was, throughout the late 1870’s, the scourge of Pennsylvania mining labor efforts. As David Ricardo Williams noted in Call in Pinkerton's: American Detectives at Work for Canada, Conan Doyle was struck by Pinkerton’s recounting of McParland’s savvy detective work, and his thoughts turned to adapting the story for his own sleuth while staying “remarkably faithful” to the actual events. Conan Doyle immediately set to work, thinly veiling some characters (e.g., McParland becomes McMurdo in the novel) while keeping others, such as the Pinkerton name, the same.
According to Williams, upon the novel’s serialization, Pinkerton recognized so much of the story to be just as he had told it to Conan Doyle aboard the ship that the matter of some facts being changed or absent annoyed him and spoiled an otherwise gentlemanly relationship between the men. It would seem however, that these absences, which amount to a rather large canonical error in the novel, may likely lie in Conan Doyle’s own absent-mindedness. For example, the “annoying” liberties he takes with the McMurdo character do actually jibe with elements of the story Pinkerton likely relayed to him, albeit to McParland’s siblings (who aided him in the Maguires case), rather than the man himself. As William Baring-Gould, in his Annotated Sherlock Holmes pointed out, where Conan Doyle does err in The Valley of Fear is in the chronology of the story. Wedging the story of the Maguires into the canon (thus setting it before the events of ‘The Final Problem’) and adding the likely involvement of Holmes’s nemesis, James Moriarty, creates the issue of Watson already having knowledge of a person whom, years later, he purports never to have heard of before. The origins of the continuity error, Baring-Gould noted, lie in the novel’s manuscript. Baring-Gould noted “Conan Doyle did not, at first, have any intention of making Dr. Watson the narrator of this adventure. The original manuscript…shows that such expressions as ‘said Dr. Watson’ and ‘said he’ are crossed out and the direct ‘said I’ substituted.” Whether Conan Doyle intended Holmes to narrate or another interlocutor (perhaps McMurdo himself) remains unknown and it is likely that Conan Doyle, swept up, no doubt, in the rush to publish that would naturally accompany a return of Holmes after nearly ten years, simply returned to his tried-and-true formula without considering what had come before.
The novels of the canon, perhaps more so than the shorter tales, seem to place Sherlock Holmes more concretely in the world and in history. As such, the historical efforts of Scarlet and gothic-folk textures that permeate Hound find their natural correlate in precisely The Valley of Fear’s stalwart worldliness. This is Holmes as harbinger of modernity, if only in that it places him not at an expected remove from the ebbs and flows of world events, but, rather, at their cusp. Taking into account Baring-Gould’s revelations as to the novel’s originally intended narration, Holmes is, both literally and figuratively, we might say, present in this novel, where he might be said to have been a figurative absent figure in Scarlet (indeed, a stranger, or better still a mystery—both in the man and his methods) and literally absent for the majority of Hound, in The Valley of Fear, he is central to nearly every scene and this is no doubt true to Conan Doyle’s purpose—to give us back our Holmes.