Literature / The Valley of Fear

The Valley of Fear, published in 1915, is the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel written by Arthur Conan Doyle. (Doyle also wrote 56 short stories).

Sherlock Holmes receives a coded message indicating that a man named John Douglas is targeted for murder by Professor Moriarty's criminal organization. Holmes and Watson are too late to stop the murder, which presents a puzzle: somehow the killer managed to shoot Douglas and escape despite using a shotgun which alerted the household and despite the drawbridge to Douglas's mansion being raised up for the night. Suspicion falls on Douglas's friend who was visiting, and then Douglas's strangely unconcerned wife, before Holmes discovers the truth of the mystery, which dates back to Douglas's involvement with a secret society in a coal mining district of America.

This page is for tropes specific to the novel. For general tropes relating to Sherlock Holmes, see the Sherlock Holmes page.

Unmarked spoilers below. Valley of Fear, though the least-read book in the series, contains some of the best plot turns. It is highly recommended you read it before scrolling down.


  • Ambiguous Syntax: The final chapter title, "The Trapping of Birdy Edwards"; the apparent object is really the subject. Really, it stretches the boundaries of idiomatic English so far that it's not really so much "ambiguous" as "just this side of lying".
  • Bigger Bad: Although Baldwin and the Scowrers do most of the main action, it's Moriarty who finally gets the job done.
  • Bluffing the Murderer: It's actually impossible to drain the moat, but Holmes tricks Barker into thinking they're going to drain the moat, which leads Barker to try and retrieve some incriminating evidence.
  • The Book Cipher: Holmes decrypts a message enciphered with a book cipher by deducing which book had been used as a key text.
  • Curtain Camouflage: Douglas spots the assassin's shoes peeking out from behind the curtain.
  • Don't Sneak Up On Me Like That: McMurdo's girlfriend sneaks up on him while he's writing a letter:
    If she had expected to startle him, she certainly succeeded; but only in turn to be startled herself. With a tiger spring he turned on her, and his right hand was feeling for her throat.
  • Downer Ending: Moriarty's killers finally get to Douglas.
  • Faking the Dead: Douglas has the idea of dressing the assassin in his clothes after the assassin's face is blown off by the shotgun.
  • Funetik Aksent: MacDonald the Scottish policeman renders "consider" as "conseedar".
  • Genre Shift: The first half is a bona fide mystery story. The second half is much more like a western — or an early example of hard-boiled detective fiction.
  • Gun Struggle: Baldwin and Douglas have one of these; Douglas wins.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The novel's fictionalisation of the real-world conflict between the Pinkertons and the Molly Maguires has a rather right-wing bias.
  • Identical Stranger: Or close enough after a shotgun to the face.
  • I Own This Town: Nothing happens in Vermissa without Bodymaster McGinty's say-so.
  • The Irish Mob: Clearer in the source material by Allan Pinkerton. Here, it seems more like everyone connected with the Scowrers just so happens to have an Irish surname.
  • Hero Killer: Moriarty. He has a rep to maintain.
  • Hypocrite: The Scowrer criminal gang, and particularly their leader Bodymaster McGinty, justify their crimes as part of class warfare: They extort money from the corporations that are exploiting the workers and strike against the wealthy capitalists. Doyle, however, spends several paragraphs explaining just how well-attired McGinty is, and as the story progresses he dresses more and more extravagantly, adding layers of gold and diamonds, while still claiming that he is fighting for the worker against the wealthy capitalists.
  • Inspired by...: As Doyle mentions in the introduction, the second half of the story is based on Allan Pinkerton's account of how his agency infiltrated the Molly Maguires.
  • Minion with an F in Evil: Morris is a member of the Scowrers, but only joined because he was discovered to be a Freeman once he moved to the Vermissa Valley. He is the only member who tries to tone down the amount of killings and bloodshed the gang commits, and warns the protagonist John McMurdo to find a way out.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Holmes is arguably indirectly responsible for Douglas' death at the hands of Moriarty. If he hadn't gone down to Birlstone or if he had heeded Mrs. Douglas' cryptic plea for assistance, then Douglas might have been able to fake his death.
    • The BBC Radio 4 adaptation actually has Holmes beat himself up over the matter until Watson consoles him by pointing out that if Moriarty is really good as Holmes says he, the outcome would've been the same anyway.
  • Opposites Attract Revenge: It is likely that Baldwin's particular vendetta against McMurdo wouldn't be of the "pursue him across continents" strength if he hadn't stolen his girl.
  • Pinkerton Detective: The Pinkertons have sent Birdy Edwards to the valley to take down the Scowrers.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Brother Morris, member of the vicious, bloodthirsty Scowrer organized crime gang, always urges moderation and restraint, explaining that it is because if the Scowrers push too hard then the citizens and government will eventually get them. He actually wants to stop the crimes completely, but knows that if he said that he would become their next victim instead.
  • Renegade Splinter Faction: Of off-brand Masons, at that. Given Doyle's record at creating outrage with his evil secret societies, it's understandable that he wanted to play this one safe.
  • Reverse Mole: Perhaps the earliest use of the trope:  the protagonist is revealed to be an undercover Pinkerton agent.
  • Sawed-Off Shotgun: The intended murder weapon, turned against its user; while totally impractical for the final context in which it was used, a shotgun going off in its first intended site (the English countryside, home to many hunts) is totally sensible.
  • Secret Handshake: McMurdo confirms that he is a member of the Eminent Order of Freemen by performing one of these.
  • Series Continuity Error: Here Holmes has already told Watson about Moriarty, but in "The Final Problem", Watson claims to have never heard of him. The mistake is explained when you remember this novel was written well after "The Final Problem".
  • Spanner in the Works: Douglas' plan was to spend several more months gathering evidence and intel on the Lodge's activities before arresting the gang. Morris' tipoff about the Pinkerton's undercover operative blows these plans out of the water and Douglas has to accelerate his endgame.
  • Suspicious Spending: Holmes mentions that Professor Moriarty owned a painting worth many times over his legitimate annual income. At the time, this was the most tangible piece of evidence Holmes could find against Moriarty.
  • The Unseen: Moriarty is mentioned repeatedly throughout the novel, though he never actually appears.
  • Undercover Cop Reveal: McMurdo was actually a Pinkerton.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Holmes notes how Moriarty has an impeccable public reputation.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: Most of the second half of the novel is Douglas's backstory, explaining why assassins are after him.
  • The X of Y
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Douglas has to accelerate his endgame against the Lodge once his cover is partially blown. To his credit, he manages to turn it to his advantage and use this to round up the gang.
  • Your Head Asplode: The victim: "Lying across his chest was a curious weapon, a shotgun with the barrel sawed off a foot in front of the triggers. It was clear that this had been fired at close range and that he had received the whole charge in the face, blowing his head almost to pieces. The triggers had been wired together..."