Conclusions and thanks

Just thought I’d post a concluding comment now we’ve finished the serialised reading of The Valley of Fear. Thanks to everyone who came to the reading group meetings, posted on the blog, and to everyone who read along at home. We had a really interesting meeting at Blackwells last Monday, discussing topics from Victorian gangs, text messages, the usefulness and problems of illustrations, box sets of TV programmes, depictions of England, Ireland and the U.S.A. in literature, secret identities, and nineteenth-century economics (and a few topics in between). I hope you have all found reading in serialisation worthwhile. In the group we discussed the quite novel experience of having a sense of community created by the rationed reading process, the feeling that we were all moving towards a destination together. I really found myself able to concentrate on the details of the story, or at least mull over them, in a way that I do not always afford myself when reading a whole novel whenever I want. It seems to me that such  a gradual and measured way consuming entertainment or art is becoming rarer and rarer; even the way we watch television is moving away from this model with the advent of box sets and online streaming. I do hope it proved an interesting experiment for all of you who read along; let me know what you thought of it, and whether you would be interested in doing something similar at some point in the future.

Another thing I was hoping that the group would achieve is to make us think about how people consumed literature and entertainment at the start of the First World War. When the literature of the War gets discussed, as it frequently is at the moment with so many centenary remembrance projects, people tend to focus on the famous war poets. With The Valley of Fear I was oping to perhaps shed some light on what people were reading at the very start of the war, on a snapshot of popular entertainment at the time. I would be interested to hear whether this changed they way that any of you think of or imagine British wartime culture. Arthur Conan Doyle reportedly regretted handing such an ostensibly inconsequential story to the Strand, rather than one which addressed the global conflict during which it was published. But interestingly enough, in our reading groups we frequently came across readings of the tale that suggested it commented on domestic and international politics more than even its own author gave it credit for!

So, again, I hope you enjoyed the group. For those of you coming to Holmes for the first time, I hope this has enthused you to carry on reading about him. Was he as you imagined, or a different character entirely? For those old Holmesian hands I would love to hear if this serialised reading has shown you another side of the great detective. I am always glad of some Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, Victorian/Edwardian conversation, and so this site will remain up and running for a bit in case anyone wants to carry on the discussion. I shall be visiting it regularly, so if there are any burning points or questions on you mind please do feel free to post a comment.

All the best, and cheerio,


PS. Here is a snapshot of the some of the different ways those of us at the reading group were reading along with The Valley of Fear: paper, kindle and phone. Slightly different from when it was originally published!

Reading Group


Part II, Chapters 6 & 7: Endings, escapes and SPOILERS

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.

Chapters 4 & 5: Musings on Marvin

Just a few thoughts about the contextual significance of Captain Marvin ‘of the Coal and Iron constabulary’ in Chapter 4, and simply ‘of the Coal and Iron’ in Chapter 3. Rather than a straight-forward policeman, Marvin’s position is altogether more slippery. The Coal and Iron police were essentially a private police force, allowed by state legislation and given police-like powers to help the interest of mining corporations and colliery owners; their role was to protect property, but they were also apparently used for strikebreaking and intimidation. They were active in Pennsylvania from the 1860s to the 1930s, and were plagued by accusations of discrimination and civil rights violations; some government officials wanted them monitored by official authorities. Marino C Alvarez, in ‘The Valley of Fear : Three Missing Words’, in the Baker Street Journal, reports accusations of workers being forced by the Coal and Iron Police to by goods from company-owned stores, preventing striking workers from entering private stores, and assorted accusations of physical brutality and even murder. Marino also notes that their name was altered in American editions of The Valley of Fear. At the time of the publication issues of workers rights and social justice were much debated, with the C&I police at the centre; Alvarez notes that Arthur Conan Doyle had recently lectured in the U.S.A, and so may well have been appraised of these topical issues. In 1934 all Coal and Iron commissions were revoked. Does this have any impact on the way you view the events in Vermissa Valley? Perhaps McGinty’s accusations that Marvin is just ‘the paid tool of the men of capital, hired by them to club or shoot your poorer fellow-citizens’ have a ring of truth to them. Are the aggressive interests of big business are being accused of creating the violence of the Scowrers. It seems apposite, in this light, that Holmes should associate the enterprising criminality of Moriarty with ‘the American business principle’.

It is perhaps also worth mentioning at this point that the Scowrers, at least in part, take for their basis The Molly Maguires, an Irish-American society who took part in various incidents of activism against mine owners, and claiming to be acting for workers and union rights. They were also known as The Ancient Order of Hibernians. However, you might not want to look up much information about this organisation until you have finished the Valley of Fear, as you may come across some spoilerish facts and events! We will discuss them more in depth later, on the blog and in Monday evening’s final reading group meeting.

I shall leave you with this picture from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, an American publication, which portrays a scene perhaps not a million miles away from the events of The Valley of Fear.

Cheerio for now,

Part II, Chapter 3: Inductions, missions, and Law and Order

“It was all he could do to keep himself from screaming out, for an agonising pain shot through his forearm”.

In Chapter 3 of Part 2 we see McMurdo properly inducted into the Lode/the Scowrers, and promptly being ordered on his first job: to help in the intimidation of James Stanger. What do you think about the Lodge so far? Criminals, or just working men fighting against ruthless capitalists, as it seems McGinty would style them? How convincing did you find his response to Captain Marvin of ‘the Coal and Iron’: ‘What are you but the paid tool of the men of capital, hired by them to club or shoot your poorer fellows’. The heavy handed activities of private Coal and Iron police forces were a matter for discussion and contention at the turn of the century; but I will touch on this in more detail at a later date. This is just a quick post to open up the comments, but I will be back later to join in any conversation, so do post your thoughts and readings below.

Cheerio for now,


Part II, Chapter 2: Bodymasters, coiners and Lodge 341

“Scowrers! I’ve heard of them before. It’s Scowrers here and Scowrers there, and always in a whisper! What are you all afraid of? Who are the Scowrers?”

Part II continues with a bit of romance to lighten the mood before the violent introduction to Lodge 341 and its members. McMurdo, escaping his past in Chicago as a murderer and a coiner gets a job as a bookkeeper, but then ingratiates himself with the local branch of the ‘Ancient Order of Freemen’, or should it be the Scowrers (‘the bosses of the one are the bosses of the other’). We finally meet Mr Baldwin, this time with his head on his shoulders. But it is the Bodymaster, municipal councilor McGinty, that dominates the chapter. He is evocatively described, his jovial disposition merely  ‘a mask’, the narrator tells us. McGinty is ‘as hairy as a gorilla’, and pouncing at Baldwin ‘like a tiger’; there is something of Holmes’s habit of describing people as animals here, and so perhaps his impact is felt even when not directly involved in the story. Let me know what you think of the story in the comments section below, what do you make of these motley bunch of characters? Remember too that the Shafters, although Swedish here, were originally German. Is there perhaps something of contemporary politics in the doings and organisations of Vermissa Valley?

Cheerio for now,

Chapter 7 continued, and Part II Chapter 1: Solutions and Holmes’s fishing trip. SPOILERS BELOW!

“If criminals would always schedule their movements like railway trains it would certainly be more convenient for all of us.”

Do not read this until you have finished chapter Chapter 7 continued and Chapter 1 of Part II, spoilers will be mentioned.

Seriously, go away and read Chapter 7 and Chapter 1 of part II.

Here come spoilers.

Chapter 7 resumes, and the case appears to have been solved only half way through the story. Those of you who saw something of importance in the moat around the house, and in the lack of the wedding ring have been proved right. John Douglas never took off his ring, and we are introduced to the body of one Ted Baldwin, whose murder we have all been trying to solve. Douglas himself, is right as rain (bar his shaving cut), and has been hiding out scribbling away.

However, no sooner than we start to get some answers from Holmes we are sent back in time to 1875 and across the Atlantic to be introduced to one John McMurdo as he arrives at the the town of Vermissa, USA. All that evidence of American influence proved to be important, including perhaps Holmes’s own mention of Moriary’s use of the ‘American business principle’ in the first chapter (which we discussed a fair bit in last week’s meeting). Is it just me, or is there a tone of an attempt to reassure the reader at the end of chapter 7: ‘do not think that I intrude one story before another is finished. As you read on you will find that this is not so […] we shall meet once more in those rooms on Baker Street’. Who is meant to be talking to us here? Watson? Conan Doyle? Douglas, who has, after all, written something in his hidey-hole? We also get a reminder of Watson’s other line of work as a writer of stories for the popular press, as Douglas offers the good Doctor a story for ‘your public’. At any rate, we find ourselves in a somewhat different tale than the one we started; one that has more than a touch of the wild west about it. What do you make of this narrative shift?

We also, after the chapters have finished, get a conspicuous intrusion of real life into our detective fiction with ‘The Strand War Game’, a chance to enact for fun the war that was being fought as this novel was being serialised. I would be really interested to hear what you think about this advert. Does this commodification of war impact on the way in which you view the story which it follows? It is worth mentioning at this point that, although in this version of the tale the Shafters are of Swedish extraction, in initial versions they were German; a conspicuous change. The versions of this part of the story I am sending out here are from an edition of the Strand which brought together issues from January to June 1915, so the war had advanced somewhat from when this chapter was first published. In terms of how this might resonate with the plot of The Valley of Fear, Martin Priestman in Detective Fiction and Literature suggests that Birlstone, the traditional English manor house, functions as a symbol of Britain, separated from the world by its moat just as Britain is surrounded by the Channel, yet affected by malign overseas forces. What do you make of this?

That’ll do from me for now I think. Part II Chapter 2 will be send out on Tuesday, and I look forward to seeing some of you at Monday evening’s meeting. There is much to discuss.

Cheerio for now,


Not the Valley of Fear: other Holmes news

While you are almost certainly all busy reading Chapters 6 and 7, I thought I would just bring to your attention that the first trailer for the Christmas special of the BBC’s Sherlock has just been released. Curiously, they seem to have left the modern day behind and have reverted back to a nineteenth century setting. Perhaps this is not so strange, seeing as most of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories are also set in an imagined Victorian past despite being published in the twentieth century.

Anyway, here it is, should it interest you. Very dramatic indeed.


Chapters 6 & 7: dumb-bells, umbrellas, and what Watson finds in the garden

‘Let us try, Watson, you and I, if we can get behind the lie and reconstruct the truth’

[Beware spoilers below!]

So, having questioned ‘the people of the drama’, Holmes sets about testing his own theories, having become convinced that ‘a great big, thumping, obtrusive, uncompromising lie’ is at the centre of Birlstone. Yet, we are being kept as much in the dark about things as MacDonald and Mason. What do you make of Holmes’s caginess?

And what do you make of Watson’s return to the investigation proper, finding Barker and Mrs Douglas in a compromising situation in the garden? Does this incriminate them? Or, like Watson, were you momentarily swayed by ‘a ring of sincerity in the woman’s voice’. Watson does not remain swayed for long however, and Holmes seems rather unsure of women in general.

Surely it is at least a good sign that Holmes finally appears to have got his appetite back, ‘exterminating’ eggs at high tea; a much different man from the one who abstained from breakfast in Chapter 1. He seems convinced this man in a yellow coat is a red herring, yet all the facts seem to contradict eachother. Is Holmes really ‘a man with softening of the brain’, or is he as sharp as ever? If you have any views or thoughts, do post them below. And, despite Holmes’s statement that ‘this enquiry has come to a definite pause’, the next two chapters will be sent out on Sunday. So until then, I leave you with a picture of a snazzy comic-book version of the tale which I recently became aware of; it’s  a dramatic cover which seems to place the mysterious arm mark and eyebrows (see previous comments!) centre stage.

Cheerio for now,


Chapter 5: interviews, wedding rings, blown out candles and bloody slippers

“I have been in the Valley of Fear. I am not out of it yet. Are we never to get out of the Valley of Fear”

So, Chapter 5 has been sent out and the tale starts taking the shape of a classic detective story, with the standard sequence of suspects and witnesses being interviewed by the authorities. But what did you make of the interviews? It is the professional MacDonald taking the lead here rather than Holmes (the inspector depicted sitting at the head of the table with Holmes at his right hand); but while MacDonald is preoccupied with the romance of potential infidelities and affairs, Holmes is concerned with the far more domestic matters of candles, lamps and slippers. White Mason’s contributions seems limited to interjections of enthusiastic slang. But what of Watson? Although taking a back seat in this story so far (after his early collaboration with Holmes on cracking Porlock’s code) we do see some of his own detective work, with his asides to us trying to decode the various expressions and comments of Mrs Douglas.

As for Mrs Douglas, is she innocent or guilty? And what of Barker’s defensiveness? How is the narrative portraying these two?

In any case, we have finally heard someone utter the words ‘the valley of fear’. More will be revealed tomorrow, when chapters 6 & 7 will be sent out. Until then, do post any thoughts or comments about this chapter below. And the next meeting is, again, at 6pm on Monday evening.

Cheerio for now,