Chapters 3 & 4, Birlstone, shotguns, and V.V. 341.

‘A real downright snorter […] we’ll have the pressmen down like flies when they understand it’

Hi, and thanks for those of you who were at the meeting last night, it was a really interesting discussion ranging from reading practices, Holmes’s love of trashy literature, his foul smelling pipe, Moriarty’s class status, and Anglo-American relations. If anyone wants to come along next Monday please do join us.

Anyway, chapters 3 and 4 have been sent out, and we leave London to find out more about ‘The Tragedy at Birlstone’ and the murder of John Douglas. What do you make of White Mason, Mrs Douglas and Cecil Barker? What of the mysterious calling card, and the ominous mark on Douglas’s arm? I am particularly struck with the suggestive gruesomeness of the illustration of Holmes investigating the body. If you have any thoughts about the chapters so far do let us know in the comments below. Chapter 5 follows on Thursday.
Cheerio for now,


Chapters 1 & 2, Baker Street, codes, and Scotland Yard

“There are many ciphers which I would read as easily as I do the apocrypha of the agony column”.

And we’re off. Chapters 1 and 2 have been distributed, and with Holmes’s marvelously rude comment and Watson’s understandable exasperation, the journey into the Valley of Fear begins with ‘The Warning’. If you have any thoughts, theories and readings please do share them in the comments section below. I would be interested to hear what you have to say about the illustrations as well as the story itself. There are likely to be spoilers in any comments below (not least from me!) so do be careful, and make sure you have read the chapters before investigating further.

Cheerio for now,

Registration, serialisation, Holmes, Morecambe and Wise, and an angry Trollope

First of all, the first installments of The Valley of Fear will be emailed out this weekend, so if you want to read along please register via eventbrite (there is a link in the ‘Contact’ tab at the top of this page.

Secondly, a few thoughts about serialisation. The serialisation of novels increased steadily throughout the nineteenth century and was the main way many authors would be read. However, as noted by Laurel Brake in Print in Transition, 1850-1910, the 1890s saw a decline in the amount of novels which were first published in serialised form. Brake cites a reduction in cost of popular fiction as a contributory factor. Patricia Okker and Nancy West in the Encyclopedia of the Novel (vol.2), edited by Peter Logan, suggest that another reason for this was that mass-market periodicals had begun to flood the market, and increasingly competed with magazines with smaller circulation rates. As a result, one could no longer be as certain that customers would consistently read each issue every month.

Seemingly as a result of this, the Strand, when it started in 1891, had a policy that it would not publish serialised articles or stories, the idea being that this would not discourage readers from buying future issues if they missed an instalment (see Detective Fiction by Charles Rzepka). In July 1891, the Strand styled itself as featuring ‘short fiction easily read on train or omnibus’. With its large circulation, consisting of ‘middle-class families and suburban railroad commuters (Rezepka), clearly the Strand saw this tactic as key to maintaining its readership.

However, it was Arthur Conan Doyle who would find a middle ground between the old form of serialization and the new focus on short stories. In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, he recalls that ‘It had struck me that a single character running through a series, if it only engaged the attention of the reader, would bind that reader to that particular magazine’. And indeed, his tales of Sherlock Holmes were to play a big part in securing the Strand’s popular success. When Conan Doyle brought Holmes back after initially killing him off, The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was serialised in 1901-2 (clearly the popularity of Holmes was enough to make the Strand bend their serialisation policy) is estimated to have significantly increased the circulation of the magazine.

With serialisation declining even further in the twentieth century, The Valley of Fear, serialised in 1914-15, seems a bit of an oddity. Although there were popular novelists finding success in serialisation this side of 1900 (often pulp detective or romance writers), there is a real sense that serialisation was long past its Victorian heyday. Okker and West situate this continued decline in the context of the increased mass market, and competition from other media such as cinema. What this means is the serialised form of The Valley of Fear can be seen as as much of a Victorian throwback as Holmes himself, who, no matter when his stories are published, always seems to exist in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

However, while now it is the norm to read novels in one volume, we might give some thought to how serialisation affects the reading process? How is it different from just reading a whole novel? It has been noted that the market demands of serialisation put an emphasis on suspense and the delay of information during the story. But it is also worth thinking about how the reader experiences the story in a different way; after all, the serialised novel exists as part of the readers life as it continues, acting as a marker and a measure of time and the changes that occur along its serialised run. Also, the reader of the single-volume novel continues at their own pace, in a rather isolated fashion, whereas readers following a serialised story would all have been compelled to progress at the same pace, all with the same amount of knowledge of the plot, creating a sense of a reading community. Would waiting for the next instalment have encouraged re-reading? It strikes me that the only similar experience we have now might be watching t.v. programmes, but even this is losing its sense of community with scheduled television becoming more obsolete; gone are the days when something like the Morecambe and Wise Christmas special was watched by almost half the UK at the same time! Perhaps the only things that offer a similar communal experience now are live-broadcast sporting events, like the Olympics, a World Cup, or a cricket test series.

There are plenty of stories of communal responses to serialised fiction. After Holmes ‘death’ in ‘His Last Bow’ many readers put on black armbands in mourning and threatened to never read the magazine again. And there is a particularly fantastic story of how Anthony Trollope, while at a club, overheard two men complaining about one of the characters in his current serial. Annoyed by having to listen to their complaining, he marched over, introduced himself, and promised to go home and ‘kill’ the character in question at once. I wonder if those two gentlemen ever considered for a co-writing credit for that plot point.

Cheerio for now,


Paget, Wiles and the importance of illustration

Take a look at this advert that the Strand ran for The Valley of Fear, featuring a facsimile of the first page of Conan Doyle’s manuscript, complete with crossings-out and revisions:


The eagle-eyed among you will notice that, despite it being recognisably of Holmes, the illustration is not by Sidney Paget. Perhaps the most well-known of the Holmes illustrators, Paget’s illustrations were a huge part in shaping the popular image of Sherlock Holmes. As well as his work for Conan Doyle’s stories, he contributed to exhibitions at the Royal Academy, and drew for many different publications. Here are a couple of particularly well known examples of his illustrations for Sherlock Holmes stories: first Holmes and Watson discussing their case in ‘Silver Blaze’ (featuring Holmes in deerstalker and Inverness cape!), and secondly Holmes fighting his arch-enemy Moriarty at the Reichenbach falls in ‘The Final Problem; both tales are to be found in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Paget died in 1908 after suffering from a painful chest complaint.

The fantastic illustrations for The Valley of Fear are by Frank Wiles, and we will be looking at them in their original places in the story when we read each chapter. It is worth remembering that for the first readers of the story the illustrations were just as much a part of the experience as the writing. Have a think about how the illustrations impact on the way we read and interpret the tale. Anyway, it is a curious advert for the novel. I always think it makes it look as though Holmes has received the manuscript of his own story in the post. I would be curious to hear your ideas on why you think the manuscript was used to advertise the upcoming story.

Cheerio for now,


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:

Greetings, plans, and the cure for the common cold.

Hi and welcome to the Leeds Valley of Fear Reading Group blog. In honour of it being a hundred years since the serialisation of The Valley of Fear, the final Sherlock Holmes novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, Blackwell’s Bookshop and the Leeds Humanities Research Institute are hosting a serial reading group to discuss the adventures of the Great Detective. Our aim is to simulate the serialised reading experience of the original audience by reading the story in installments over two weeks. Members of the group will have a chapter a day emailed to them, and we will meet weekly to discuss the unfolding tale.

The group will meet at Blackwell’s Bookshop, 21 Blenheim Terrace, Leeds, at 6pm on the 5th, 12th and 19th of October. Places are limited, so please register for your free ticket here.

Sherlock Holmes is as popular now as he ever was. By the time of publication of The Valley of Fear, Conan Doyle’s detective had so impressed Robert Louis Stevenson that he pronounced the stories:

‘the class of literature that I like when I have the toothache. As a matter of fact, it was pleurisy I was enjoying when I took the volume up; and it will interest you […] to know that the cure was for the moment effectual.’

So, whether or not you have a toothache, do join us for fourteen chapters and three interesting evenings of lively discussion, suitable for both the seasoned Holmes aficionado and those new to his adventures.

For those unable to attend the reading group itself, do register your interest by emailing You will be sent the relevant chapters each day, and can join in the discussion here on the blog. Only one chapter a day mind, and no spoilers!

You can also Tweet along using #valleyoffear2015. I suspect Sherlock Holmes would approve of tweets; they are a bit like telegrams, only with more pictures of cats