The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A thrilling adventure yarn…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The story begins when Holmes receives a message in cipher from one of his contacts within the Moriarty organisation. Unfortunately they don’t have the key to the cipher but after some lovely banter between Holmes and Watson and some brilliant deductions on the part of the great man, they solve it, to discover it warns of danger to someone called Douglas and mentions Birlstone Manor. Just at that moment, Inspector MacDonald turns up to seek Holmes’ aid in the baffling murder of John Douglas of – you’ve guessed it! – Birlstone Manor. And the game’s afoot…

Like all bar one of the long stories, this one takes the format of a deduction of the crime followed by a journey into the past to learn what led to it. In this case, John Douglas had lived in America for most of his life and the gun that killed him was of American make. Holmes does a nifty bit of investigating, involving a moat and drawbridge, an umbrella, a curious mark on the victim’s arm, and a dumbbell; and promptly gets to the truth, though not before driving poor MacDonald almost apoplectic with frustration first.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The background story takes us to the Pennsylvanian coal-mines of the 1870s, where we meet Jack McMurdo, an Irishman who has just arrived there after fleeing justice in Chicago. He quickly becomes involved in the Scowrers, a gang of unscrupulous and violent men who control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder. McMurdo’s personal bravado and intelligence soon allow him to become a valued member of the gang. But this doesn’t sit well with the father of the woman he has fallen in love with, Ettie Shafter. Gradually, it is revealed how this earlier story links to the later murder at Birlstone Manor, and it is a dark story indeed, especially since it is based largely on real events of the time. The tale finishes back in Baker Street, where we learn the final fate of some of the characters we have come to know.

This is another great story from the hands of the master. The first half is a typical Holmes investigation, with plenty of humour and warmth to offset the grimmer aspects of the plot. Holmes’ deductive powers are in full working order, and the crime itself is nicely convoluted, with a good bit of misdirection along the way. The second half allows ACD to give full rein to his marvellous story-telling powers as he takes us deep into the darkness at the heart of the brutal Scowrer gang. His characterisation is superb, both of the rather mysterious McMurdo and of the cruel and barbaric leader of the gang, Boss McGinty. I love the short stories, but I always find the long stories more satisfying, with the extra room allowing ACD to do what he does best – spin a first-rate, thrilling adventure yarn.

Illustration from the New York Tribune – the Scowrers’ initiation ceremony

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection introduced and narrated by Stephen Fry

I listened to the story this time around, from this fabulous new audio collection from Audible. It includes all the short and long stories, set out in the traditional order. Fry gives a short introduction to each of the five books of short stories and individually to each of the long ones. The collection runs to over seventy hours, so needless to say I haven’t listened to it all yet, but will have great fun dipping in and out of it over the coming months and years.

In the intro to this one, Fry puts the book into its historical context, telling the story of the Molly Maguires, a secret society active among the immigrant Irish coalminers in Pennsylvania during the 1870s; and of the Pinkerton agent who infiltrated them, ultimately leading to their destruction. He points out how soon after the Civil War this was, and that the bosses of the Pennsylvania mines were effectively their own law and could hire people of their own choosing to enforce it. He also tells the other side of the story – the appalling working conditions and extreme poverty of the workers. He manages all this without giving any spoilers for the story to come. An excellent introduction – brief, but interesting, clear and informative.

Stephen Fry

His narration of the story itself is great! He had to compete with my favourite Holmes narrator, the wonderful Derek Jacobi, so he was going to have to work hard to convince me. And I found myself laughing sympathetically because ACD didn’t make his task an easy one. Almost every character has his accent described, usually something like “half-English, half-American” or “Chicago with a hint of Irish” or “German overlaid with the twang of the new country”. And then there are the characters who are not who they first seem, so that when their true identity is revealed, they change to their real accents. I must say Fry did brilliantly with all of them and, despite there being a pretty huge cast in this story, he managed to differentiate them all quite clearly. There are two characters with straight Irish accents, so to make them different, he made one sound Northern Irish and the other Southern, both done totally convincingly. Even Inspector MacDonald’s Aberdonian accent got a high pass mark from me. He brings out the humour and the warmth of Watson’s character, and makes the adventure parts suitably exciting without over-dramatising them. I always think you can tell when a narrator loves the material he’s reading, and Fry’s strong affection for the Holmes’ stories comes through clearly.

My love for the Jacobi recordings remains, but these are just as excellent, and the little introductions are a great addition, making this a fabulous collection which I highly recommend to all Holmes fans out there.

NB The audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR. Lucky me!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Book 9 of 90

29 thoughts on “The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. I know I’ve read this one, but not since my younger years and it has passed into distant memory sufficiently enough for a re-read, I think! And actually I am very tempted by this audio collection – your reviews thus far have been very encouraging. I have always been a big fan of Fry but felt in recent years he had become a bit smug for my liking. However, his enormous talent is undeniable and he no doubt tackles ACD with magnificent aplomb!

    • I was the same – I’d more or less forgotten it entirely. It seems to be one of the ones that gets a bit overlooked so I went into it with dampened expectations, but really I think it’s up there with the rest. I know what you mean about Fry, but there’s no doubt of his talent, and he’s a great communicator, so the intros are fun. I love listening to ACD being read aloud – I often wonder if he wrote the stories with that in mind, because they seem ideally suited to it somehow.

      • I’m definitely going to look at this one again!
        Fry is indeed exceptional. I shall not let my personally feelings get in the way of enjoying his great work! I actually can’t think of anyone I’d rather have read loud to me. Maybe Justin Trudeau, but that would be for entirely different reasons 🙂

  2. I am tempted to try the audio book just to hear the accents, don’t know if I could distinguish between a northern or southern Irish voice. I read this recently so wouldn’t get a surprise.

  3. Oh, this is a good ‘un, FictionFan, isn’t it? Conan Doyle really knew how to balance light and dark, and how to keep a story going. I’ve not listed to any of the stories on audio book, but I’d imagine hearing a story told is a fine way to experience it. Not surprised you richly enjoyed it.

    • It is – better than I remembered in fact, so it came as a pleasant surprise! I love Conan Doyle’s story-telling – he makes it seem so effortless and it just draws you right in. I also love listening to all the different Holmes narrators – it’s a great way to make the stories feel fresh all over again… 😀

  4. I saw this on Audible and thought about getting it. I may just pick it up. So many hours of listening and I like the idea that you can dip in and out. 🙂

    • Definitely worth it, Kay! It was a bit tricky to find your way around, but they solved that by issuing a PDF index to go along with it, so if you do go for it, don’t forget to download that too. I love listening to the Holmes stories – all the different narrations make them feel fresh again… 😀

  5. “Chicago with a hint of Irish” makes me giggle since I’m from that city. 🙂

    I read this one when I was a kid. I’d love to hear Stephen Fry narrate. Or Sir Derek. 🙂

    • Haha! I could just imagine Stephen Fry cursing ACD – I’d never realised before just how much detail he goes into on how each character should sound! I’m going to listen to Derek Jacobi doing this one too, sometime – it’s one of the few of his Holmes recordings I don’t have yet… 😀

  6. Sherlock Holmes and Stephen Fry?! Sounds perfect!
    He must have got a taste for Conan Doyle’s work when Fry was playing Mycroft in the film version.. 🙂

    • I know! I was so thrilled to get a copy of this one! And he does it so well, as you’d expect. Ah, I haven’t seen the Robert Downey films because I was told Holmes kissed a woman, and that just seemed like blasphemy!! Haha – maybe one day… 😉

  7. I like that you’ve engaged in a lesser-known story. It does sound interesting to me! I’ve read a few of the classic ACD works, but so very long ago…..

    • I love the Holmes stories but I’ve read them so often I’m always looking for something to make them feel fresh again – and all these brilliant narrators do just that! But they’re great to read too, and the long stories are the perfect length for a long evening read or for over a weekend… 😀

  8. I’d already been tempted by this collection following your previous mentions, despite my fairly disastrous record with audio books – but you’ve won as there are so many stories I’d love to revisit and it sounds worth it for the accents alone

    • Ooh, I do hope you enjoy it! I find short stories easier on audio than novels – they’re about the right length to listen to in one session. And even the Holmes long stories are short enough to listen to over a few nights. With a long novel, I’ve forgotten the beginning by the time I get to the end… 😉

  9. Great review. Thank you for sharing. I don’t have much time for reading these days, but as a newer author I love reading reviews like yours to help better develop my writing skills. It’s helpful to see what readers enjoy and what they don’t. Thanks for sharing!

  10. My favourite of the Holmes long stories, and I went on to read quite a lot about the Molly McGuires and that period of American history, which I always feel is the best tribute you can pay to an author.

    • For some reason, I’ve always thought of this as one of the lesser stories so haven’t re-read it in ages. My mistake – I now actually think it’s one of the best. The Hound is still my favourite, though… 🙂

  11. I love Stephen Fry’s narration of the Harry Potter books, so would be very interested in hearing him narrate the Holmes mysteries and I think the introductions sound good too.

    • He had to win me over because I love the Jacobi narrations so much, but he managed it – a collection I very definitely recommend. It’s great to have all the stories in one place too – perfect for dipping in and out of! 😀

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