Do not read this until you have finished the final chapters of The Valley of Fear!
There will be Spoilers!
And so we come to the end of ‘Sir A. Conan Doyle’s thrilling Sherlock Holmes story’ (as the Strand bills it) and we receive answers and conclusions, of a sort. McMurdo/Birdy Edwards/Douglas was working undercover to break the Scowrers, and he succeeded…in a fashion. Attitudes to America are fairly interesting here; it is a place trying to establish its own law, and yet the fluidity and instability of American identity, signified by the the multiple names of Part II’s protagonist, perhaps hint at a more damaging instability when compared to the steady consistency of England, represented by the sturdy Birlstone. The fearsome McGinty meeting his end ‘cringing and whining’ on the scaffold is a nice touch, and one that seems to maintain the animalistic qualities of his earlier descriptions.
But the neat and happy ending is not to be, and it is a downbeat conclusion that Conan Doyle serves up for the final Holmes novel. The surviving Scowrers, with Ted Baldwin taking a presumed lead, contract out the job to Moriarty who, of course, succeeds, and Douglas meets his death in suspicious circumstance while attempting to escape to South Africa. We are left with Holmes having failed to thwart the forces of darkness.
However, Martin Priestman, in Detective Fiction and Literature, notes a deeper significance in this apparent failure, with Douglas/Edwards dying while rendered vulnerable after taking Holmes’s advice: ‘Holmes’s removal of Edwards from British soil at once absolves us from further responsibility for his fate and enacts an unconscious revenge on this interloper who has tried to usurp the moated island home of Birlstone/Britain and turn it into an uncomfortable fortress within the alien world of six-shooters and sawed-off shotguns he himself has lured to its shores’. As a result, we have a demonstration of superiority by the the British amateurs: ‘a triumphant demonstration of Britain’s ability to match American business principles and organisational expertise and go one better. The claim of superiority is confirmed by the relaxed ‘consultant’ status of the two imperial colossi [Holmes and Moriarty] as opposed to the crudely ad hoc methods of their American counterparts’ (Priestman). After all, while Holmes is an amateur, Edwards is clearly a professional. What do you make of this? It is perhaps worth mentioning that in the first chapter Holmes accused Moriarty himself of following ‘the American business principle’. However, since we know that in ‘The Final Problem’ (published before this, but set afterwards) Holmes will defeat Moriarty, perhaps we do have the triumph of the amateur gentlemen over the workmanlike professional. We discussed this idea of Victorian professionalism in the first reading group meeting. Nicholas Daly in Modernism Romance and the Fin de Siecle comments on ‘the remarkable rise of occupations that reinvented themselves as professions in the late Victorian period’, noting the conspicuous number of professional associations that were founded at the end of the nineteenth century. It seems that even at the outbreak of the First World War, The Valley of Fear is still concerned with these issues.
Pub quiz fact: Birdy Edwards’s infiltration of the Scowrers seems to be at least partly inspired by real Pinkerton agent James McParland, who went undercover among the Molly Maguires (see the last blog post), a mission that brought many of them to trial and the scaffold.
So, what do you think? Did this ending work as an effective conclusion to the serialisation? What did you think of the tale as a whole, and how has its serialisation impacted on your reading of it? Please post any thoughts you have below, and I will be back later for more discussion. Also, the final meeting of the group is on Monday so do feel free to join us at 6pm at Blackwell’s Bookshop.
Cheerio for now,
PS. Did you notice that the chapter re-caps at the start of each issue have disappeared? Clearly they thought no-one would be joining in at such a late stage. Also, how tempted are you by the adverts at the end for their new stories?
PPS. Check out this poster for the film The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935), a loose adaptation of The Valley of Fear.