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BOOK REVIEW: THE VALLEY OF FEAR … Sherlock Holmes: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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    The Valley of Fear is the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is loosely based on the Molly Maguires and Pinkerton agent James McParland. Molly Maguires were an Irish 19th-century secret society, active in Ireland, Liverpool and parts of the Eastern United States. Pinkerton, founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a private security guard and detective agency, established in the United States by Scotsman Allan Pinkerton in 1850. The story was first published in the Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915. The first book edition was copyrighted in 1914, and it was first published by George H. Doran Company in New York on 27 February 1915, and illustrated by Arthur I. Keller.

    The novel starts with Sherlock Holmes receiving a cipher message from one Fred Porlock, a pseudonymous agent of Professor Moriarty. After Porlock sends the message, he changes his mind, for the fear of Moriarty’s discovering that he is a traitor. He decides not to send the key to the cipher, instead he sends Holmes a note telling of this decision. From the cipher message and the note, Holmes is able to deduce that it is a cipher book, and that the book used for the encryption, is a common book, large with at least 534 pages, printed in two columns per page, and standardised. An almanac (annual calendar) fits these conditions exactly. Holmes tries the latest edition of Whitaker’s Almanac, which he had only received a few days earlier, but fails. He then tries the previous edition. And with this almanac, Holmes is able to decipher the message as a warning, that “some devilry is intended against one “Douglas”, a country gentleman residing at Birlstone House.

    Some minutes later, Inspector MacDonald arrives at Baker Street with news that one Mr. John Douglas of Birlstone Manor House, Birlstone, Sussex, has been murdered. Holmes, tells inspector MacDonald of Porlock’s warning, suggesting Professor Moriarty’s involvement. But inspector MacDonald doesn’t fully believe that the educated and well-respected Moriarty is a criminal. Holmes, Watson, and MacDonald travel to Birlstone House, an ancient moated manor house, to investigate the crime.

    Douglas had been murdered the evening before. Cecil Barker, a frequent guest at Birlstone House, had been in his room at half-past eleven when he heard the fire of a gun, according to his testimony. He had rushed down only to find Douglas lying in the centre of the room near the front door of the house, with a sawed-off shotgun lying across his chest. He had been shot at close range; receiving the full charge of the shotgun on the face, his head was blown ‘almost to smithereens’. Cecil Barker had rushed to the village police station to notify Sergeant Wilson, who was in charge of the station. Wilson followed Barker to the house after notifying the county authorities.

    Sergeant Wilson began investigating immediately. Barker drew his attention to the open window, and to a smudge of blood like the mark of a boot-sole upon the window sill. The drawbridge over the moat had been raised at 6:00 pm. Barker speculated that the murderer had entered by the drawbridge before that time, hid in the room, and left by the window directly after killing Douglas. The moat was only a few feet deep, and could be easily crossed.

    Sergeant Wilson found a card beside the corpse with the initials “V.V.” and the number 341 beneath them. Muddy boot-prints were found behind the curtains, bearing out Barker’s theory. On the murdered man’s forearm was a curious design, a triangle within a circle; it was not a tattoo, but a brand. The mark had been noticed many times before on John Douglas’s forearm. Douglas’ wedding ring appeared to have been taken out from his finger. The chief Sussex detective, White Mason too, had arrived at Birlstone House by 3:00 in the morning. By 5:45, he had sent for Scotland Yard. Inspector Alec MacDonald took the case, and notified Holmes because he thought Holmes would be interested. By noon, MacDonald, Holmes and Watson meet White Mason in Birlstone.

    Holmes, MacDonald, and White Mason go to the scene of the murder. They discuss the case, agreeing that suicide is out of the question, and that someone from outside the house committed the murder. Barker says that he believes a secret society of men pursued Douglas, and that Douglas retreated to rural England out of fear for his life. Mr. Douglas married after arriving in England five years earlier. His first wife had died of typhoid. Douglas met and worked with Cecil Barker in America, before departing for Europe. Some episode of Douglas’s life in America caused the fear for his life, and Mrs. Douglas said her husband mentioned something called “The Valley of Fear”.

    By studying Cecil Barker’s slippers, Sherlock Holmes, determines, that Barker’s shoe made the mark on the window, to give an appearance that someone exited that way. In their lodgings, Holmes tells Watson that Cecil Barker and Mrs. Douglas are certainly lying. The events as they tell them are impossible. Moreover, Holmes learns that the housekeeper heard a sound, as if of a door slamming, half an hour before the alarm. Holmes, believes, that this sound was the fatal shot. White Mason, the Sussex detective, and MacDonald track a bicycle found on the grounds of the house to an American staying at a guest house. The American appears to be the murderer, but there is no sign of the man.

    Holmes, asks MacDonald, to write to Cecil Barker, telling him that the police intend to search the moat the next day. That night Holmes, Watson, MacDonald and White Mason lie in wait outside Birlstone Manor and see Cecil Barker fish something out of the moat. The four men rush to Cecil and discover the bundle from the moat that contains the clothes of the missing American connected to the bicycle. Cecil Barker refuses to explain the situation. At that moment, Mr. Douglas appears, alive and well. He hands Watson a written account called “The Valley of Fear”, which explains why he feared for his life.

    Douglas explains that some days ago, he had spotted an enemy of his, Ted Baldwin, in the area and expected an attack. When Baldwin attempted to shoot Douglas in his study, Douglas grabbed the gun and, in the struggle, Baldwin was shot in the face. With Cecil’s help, Douglas dressed the man in his own clothes, except for Douglas’s wedding ring, to deceive the secret society which he and Baldwin had belonged to, since both arms bore the society’s mark. Cecil and Mrs. Douglas had covered for Douglas who had been hiding in a secret compartment in the room where the shooting occurred. In an interview with Watson,     Douglas explains that his real name was Birdy Edwards and he had been a Pinkerton detective in Chicago. Where, Edwards had infiltrated a murderous gang, known by locals as the Scowrers, in Vermissa Valley (a.k.a. the Valley of Fear) and brought them to justice. Afterwards, the criminals attempted to kill him, after they were released from jail.

    Hounded, Douglas had run away to England, where he met and married his second wife. Sherlock Holmes urges Douglas to leave England and warns that a new threat now hangs over him. Douglas takes this advice, but shortly after, Holmes, learns that Douglas was lost overboard on the vessel to Africa. Holmes, believes, Moriarty was responsible for ending Douglas’ life. Holmes wants to bring Moriarty down, but warns Watson and Barker that it will take some time to achieve.

By Kamlesh Tripathi

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