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Literature / The Valley of Fear

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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 Situation: As critic Kyle Freeman notes in his introduction to Barnes & Nobles' second compilation of the Holmes canon, Douglas' killing of the Scowrer agent may have been less accidental and more cold-bloodedly proactive, even if it could be written off as self-defense either way. Freeman goes on to note how oddly quiet Holmes is during the denouement (instead of congratulating Douglas polishing off an Asshole Victim and securing safety for his family), and additionally wonders just how plausible it is that a Pinkerton Agent could infiltrate a murderous gang for so long without being obligated to do some heinous things himself to keep his cover.
  • 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".
  • 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. He does at one point get tripped up because the book was an almanac and it was January - Holmes first attempted to use the almanac for the new year, while the informant used the almanac for the previous year.
  • Curtain Camouflage: Douglas spots the assassin's shoes peeking out from behind the curtain.
  • Don't Create a Martyr: Morris cautions the other Freemen about this when they contemplate killing a newspaper man who had been critical of the group.
  • Don't Sneak Up on Me Like That!: McMurdo's girlfriend sneaks up on him while he's writing a letter and gets attacked:
    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.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: As vile as Boss McGinty is, even he's repulsed by Evans Pott, who's implied to be the overall leader of the Scowrers.
  • Fake Alibi: No accusation made against the scourers will stand, since they simply have more of their members swear the accused were with them all night.
  • 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".
  • Garden of Love: Subverted. While investigating the victim's death, Watson finds the widow and the dead man's best friend laughing merrily in the garden. Their attitude makes him think they killed the husband to pursue an affair in peace, as neither looks particularly distraught by the death. They both know the husband is actually alive, as they helped disguise the would-be assassin's corpse as his own.
  • 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 fight over a shotgun; Douglas wins when the gun goes off in Baldwin's face.
  • The Ghost: Moriarty is never seen in person throughout the novel but his sinister presence is keenly felt.
  • 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. Also he totally fails to use the powers of his public office (to which he is elected through initimidation) for the benefit of the working class; he levies enormous taxes and embezzles the money instead of spending it on public works.
  • Identical Stranger: After a shotgun to the face and a change of clothes, Baldwin is left identical to Douglas.
  • Initiation Ceremony: Though McMurdo is already a member of the Freemen, the Scowrers have their own ritual for new members, which climaxes with them being branded with the lodge symbol.
  • 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.
  • I Own This Town: Nothing happens in Vermissa without Bodymaster McGinty's say-so.
  • I Shall Taunt You: In the epilogue, Moriarty sends Holmes a taunting telegram - "Dear me, Mr. Holmes dear me!" just before Holmes is informed Douglas has been lost overboard.
  • 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.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: How Moriarty's operatives ultimately take care of Edwards when he and his wife flee to South Africa. Edwards 'falls overboard' in a gale off Saint Helena. Holmes even cites this trope when Barker informs him.
  • Master Forger: McMurdo presents himself as a forger, showing Boss McGinty several coins which "never saw the Philadelphia Mint" and look indistinguishable from real coins, managing to hide his equipment in a single small room even when the police come calling. In fact they were likely real, since McMurdo is actually a Pinkerton Agent infiltrating the Scowrers.
  • 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.
  • The Mole:  the protagonist is revealed to be an undercover Pinkerton agent.
  • 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.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted. John McMurdo, the alias used by Birdy Edwards when joining the Scowrers, is unrelated to McMurdo the prize fighter who once went up against Holmes in a boxing match as mentioned in The Sign of the Four.
    • Additionally, there are a myriad of Johns named: John Douglas and John "Jack" McMurdo (both of which turn out to be an alias for Birdy Edwards), Boss John "Jack" McGinty and, naturally, Dr. John Watson.
    • Additionally, though it's only mentioned once, Captain Marvin's first name is Teddy, the same as Teddy Baldwin's.
  • 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. Morris further points out that they're already squeezing out many of the smaller mining companies who are selling out to bigger New York and Philadelphia firms whose owners are out of the Scowrers' reach, and who can simply send new management to replace anyone the Scowrers harm. 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.
  • 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".
  • Signature Style: This is how Holmes deduces in the epilogue that it was Moriarty, not the Scowerers, who killed Edwards off Saint Helena. Make It Look Like an Accident is a favored style of Moriarty's.
  • Slave to PR: The reason why Moriarty has his agents kill Douglas. At first he was content to use his organization to locate Douglas, inform the surviving Scowrers of his location and let their own man do the job. But after Baldwin failed, he took matters into his own hands because as Holmes explains to Mr. Baker, Moriarty's whole reputation rests on the fact that he can't afford to fail a client.
  • 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.
  • Third-Party Peacekeeper: When McMurdo and Baldwin are close to starting a fight (over both of them dating Elsie), Boss McGinty has to step in to prevent his two best Hired Guns from killing each other.
  • Unions Suck: The coal miners' union as a front for a secret society called the Scowrers, who were in cahoots with organized crime.
  • 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.
  • Villain Team-Up: A variation. Having traced Edwards to Britain, the Scowerers wisely seek out the assistance of their British counterparts-in-crime. They collaborate with Moriarty's syndicate, which uses its resources and network to locate their quarry.
  • We Will Meet Again: In the epilogue, when Mr. Barker expresses outrage how nobody can bring Moriarty to justice, Holmes merely replies "I don't say that he can't be beat. But you must give me time - you must give me time!"
  • Wham Line: "I am Birdy Edwards!"
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Evans Pott is mentioned as being the overall leader of the Scowrers, so powerful that he even outranks and scares Boss McGinty. However, there's no mention of what happens to him once Douglas destroys McGinty's outfit, which seems to take down the Scowrers' entire racket.
  • 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: The title is "The Valley of Fear."
  • 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..."