For readers who encounter Professor Moriarty in “The Final Problem” and wonder why Sherlock Holmes makes such a fuss about him, this fourth and last of the Holmes novels offers itself as an explanatory prologue. But the explanation comes at a cost. By making the fearsome, far-reaching power of Moriarty’s criminality serve as a framing device for The Valley of Fear, Doyle throws the tale out of balance. The off-stage presence of the Napoleon of Crime (as Holmes, in describing his nemesis to Dr. Watson, once called the professor) comes across as gratuitous. As a result, the pair of linked stories that make up the main body of the tale—one about John Douglas, the genteel occupant of Birlstone Manor; and one about Birdy Edwards, a U.S. Pinkerton agent at work on an undercover assignment—fail to achieve their rightful impact.
Those stories do hold and reward one’s attention—the first by setting forth a puzzle whose fairness and intricacy are well above the norm for Doyle, and the second by depicting in bold, taut strikes the ravaging of a community by violent labor strife. As critics have noted, these two narratives prefigure two of the dominant forms in the modern detective-story tradition: the country-house whodunit, and the hardboiled thriller. The Birdy Edwards yarn, set in the wilds of Pennsylvania coal country during the 1870s (Holmes and Watson are absent from it entirely), also owes much to the Western genre. But each story deserves a full-dress treatment of its own, and the ghostly intervention of Moriarty only confuses the matter.
[ADDENDUM: The version of the novel depicted in the cover image here isn’t the version that I read. The editions of the Holmes saga that I own are weighty books (literally as well as figuratively), full of annotations and appendices—and a far cry from this trim paperback, which Hard Case Crime issued late last year. But I chose to feature this title today precisely so that I could use this illustration. Like the Holmes novel, the Hard Case cover merges two disparate modes of bookish mystification. And it does so with a saucy wink and an appealing swagger. Hard Case, I gather, released this classic old work in a garish new wrapper as a kind of joke. It’s unclear whether the joke is on stodgy Sherlockian enthusiasts or on publishers (including Hard Case!) that take outlandish liberties with the literary properties that they bring to market. Either way, the point is well taken. For the record: There is no scantily clad blonde in the pages of The Valley of Fear. However, there is a character known as “the Bodymaster,” and the book was “inspired a true story” (that of the Molly Maguires.)]