Welcome back, to the third in my series of reviews of the Sherlock Holmes canon, in what I consider to be ascending order of quality. We’ve covered the first two and last two books in the series, but now we’re moving on to some satisfying fare. Read on…
A mysterious death in a moated country house leads to a distant conspiracy.
After a summer spent reading the more satisfying of the Holmes and Watson short story collections, I went into The Valley of Fear hesistantly, as I’d been told by more than one Sherlockian that it was the dud of the novels. Well, I can’t say I agree.
The first half of the book is a satisfying little mystery. It’s a tight, well-constructed, locked room murder mystery, whose suspects all have reasonable motivations for their actions. By now, Conan Doyle had clearly grown tired of Holmes, continuing to fill in the gaps between his existing stories rather than further his adventures. Indeed, the recovering-addict detective is only one of many characters here, as much time is spent on the rest of the cast. However, this gives Holmes an enigmatic edge while also allowing Watson to play a major – if not exactly pivotal – role in the investigation. On top of this, the author’s ability to write the Holmes/Watson relationship is smooth as can be, and the opening scenes between the duo are delightful. To be frank, almost every trope, clue and element of The Valley of Fear has been used in a previous work, so I understand those who think that Conan Doyle should’ve stopped writing novels after The Hound of the Baskervilles. Personally, though, I thought this was a neatly designed little mystery.
And that’s just the first half…
Like his first novel, A Study in Scarlet, The Valley of Fear is neatly divided into a mystery investigation and a back-story. This back-story is very enjoyable and easily readable. However, it doesn’t feature Holmes or Watson. What it does feature – a secret society, romantic melodrama, forced attempts at writing American and gangster dialogue – is somewhat lamentable. There’s also plenty of awkward exposition. Most notably, there are some very tantalising suggestions made in the book’s first chapter which simply aren’t followed through. If you’re reading the canon in order, like I did, you’ll be eagerly awaiting revelations in the book’s second half which don’t ever come.
In short, there’s nothing new here, and it seems that Conan Doyle chose to open this book (admittedly, first a serial) with references to earlier stories just to pique the reader’s interest, with no serious intention of following up. Still, this is easily more believable than the ludicrous The Sign of the Four, much better written than the sometimes ponderous A Study in Scarlet, and very neatly constructed.
Incidentally, this novel was first published as a serial in Strand Magazine, which – a decade later – would be the training ground for Agatha Christie, as she dashed off so many short stories featuring Poirot and Hastings!
Coming off the heels of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle was faced with an issue: to continue the Sherlock Holmes series, he was basically obligated to bring Holmes back from the seemingly final ending of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle took, perhaps, the most honourable route: get the lunacy out of the way early, and then focus on a very enjoyable collection of mysteries.
The opening story, The Adventure of the Empty House, seeks to tie up the cliffhanger ending of The Final Problem. The answer is certainly borderline ridiculous, but the individual skills used by Holmes are all things that have been showcased in previous episodes, and is anyone really unhappy to see him back in fine form?
Top stories include The Empty House, The Adventure of the Dancing Men, The Adventure of the Priory School, The Adventure of the Three Students and The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez, each of which pose very challenging problems for Holmes, and which exemplify Conan Doyle’s ideals for writing Sherlock Holmes mysteries: giving all the clues at the opening, and allowing his illustrious thinker to figure out the truth. There are great stories throughout, with Watson’s narrative voice pitch-perfect by now, as is his relationship with Holmes. The various Scotland Yard characters are given more depth, and are able to work with Holmes, as opposed to just following him around and inevitably being wrong. Holmes is always, of course, the one to make the ultimate deductive leap, but it’s nice to see him work in concert with the law, getting a sense of how he is respected in his society.
In fact, I quite enjoyed all the stories in this collection, however many of them veer toward a very 19th century melodrama in their denouements, although – as Conan Doyle (and/or his society characters) often underplays the emotions – at least the melodrama is never protracted. The Adventure of Black Peter, The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist and The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter are notable examples.
If there’s a fault in this book, it’s only that the stories weren’t originally published in book form, meaning there are sometimes unintentional similarities. Many stories featuring missing people or objects seem to end with similar conclusions (you’ll be sure to notice the pattern). But that’s hardly a complaint against any individual story.
The Return of Sherlock Holmes is, ultimately, a success. The Second Stain is a retread of the earlier The Blue Carbuncle, but I for one liked it better. All the other stories are captivating, even if some of them do end with too strong a tinge of melodrama. Still, it’s not hard to see how Holmes’ investigative method – and Watson’s narrative one – would set the standard for so many to follow.
Next time: we continue weaving backwards, with another collection, featuring some of Holmes and Watson’s best stories, and Holmes’ greatest enemy.