History, detectives and pulp novels

It’s probably fair to say that the popular image of Sherlock Holmes is that he is a Victorian ( as broad as that term is!). However, more of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories were published in the 20th Century than the 19th. With The Valley of Fear being serialised during the First World War, it is worth having a think about the historical context in which this text can be situated.

The Valley of Fear began its run in the Strand in September 1914, the month after Britain had declared war with Germany. After submitting the manuscript, Conan Doyle (according to Daniel Stashower in Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle) regretted the ‘bad luck’ of giving the Strand ‘so trivial a manuscript’ during a time of war. Greenough Smith, the editor, was, apparently, rather pleased with having something to distract the readers from the consistent war coverage that was, understandably, to be found in the press. Conan Doyle went about rectifying his perceived error with Holmes’s subsequent appearance in ‘His Last Bow’ (1917), which saw Holmes and Watson aid the British war effort by battling German spies.

So, although it was consumed by the public during the war, Conan Doyle wrote The Valley of Fear between the winter of 1913 and April 1914. This immediate pre-war context was turbulent enough: there were ongoing negotiations and tensions between Britain and Germany about the size of their respective naval fleets, various strikes by seamen, dockers, miners and railway workers, and the passing of the Parliament Act of 1911, which massively reduced the ability of the House of Lords to veto bills (see Sherlock’s Men, by Joseph A. Kestner).

But what about what literature, and specifically detective fiction, was doing at this time? With its 1914-15 publication The Valley of Fear has a curious place between late Victorian Romance and what is general termed the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, typified by Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Charles Rzepka has noted the huge explosion of detective fiction ushered in by Holmes’s popularity, and that ‘the annual number of crime and detective publications quintupled between 1914 and 1926, and doubled again by 1939 (see Detective Fiction). The Valley of Fear marks the outset of this period, setting the tone for this enthusiasm.

Of course, (and I do not think this is really much of a spoiler) in The Valley of Fear Holmes remains Victorian, seemingly lending the novel a rather nostalgic air, looking back to the previous century, rather that depicting the modernity of earlier Holmes tales. However, according to Kestner The Valley of Fear is ‘one of Conan Doyle’s most powerful expressions of Georgian [by which he means the reign of Geoge V, from 1910 to 1936] anxiety’ and that ‘it is one of the great coincidences of publishing history that this novel, replete with violence, unrest, injustice and conflict, began to appear in the Strand […] the month after war was declared’.

This is what I would like to bear in mind and discuss as we read  The Valley of Fear, that despite Conan Doyle’s apparent annoyance, and the  novel’s pre-war conception, those who read the tale for this first time would have been doing so in the context of the beginning of the War. With our reading group emulating the serialised reading practice of those who read the Strand in 1914-15, it might be an interesting to bear in mind the reading experience that people would have had, and how its context might have impacted on it reception. I will be interested to see what relevance you think The Valley of Fear has to the war-time concerns of its readers.

Cheerio for now,


PS. Check out this marvelously lurid edition of The Valley of Fear which evokes its relationship with later 20th century hard-boiled detective novels:


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