About this Recording
NA542412 - DOYLE, A.C.: Valley of Fear (The) (Unabridged)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Valley of Fear


There can be no doubt that Conan Doyle had a long-lasting love-affair—with America. The Sherlock Holmes stories teem with Americans on both sides of the law and in The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor, Conan Doyle in his zeal even goes so far as to suggest a union between the two countries: ‘It is always a joy to me to meet an American,’ (says Sherlock Holmes)…for I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a Minister in far gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes.’

He first visited the USA in 1894 on a lecture tour. The schedule proved to be frenetic, Conan Doyle sometimes lecturing in three widely separated cities within 24 hours. It was more work than leisure, but despite his many engagements he did find time to pay homage at the grave of Edgar Alan Poe, the father of the detective novel, and tactfully remarked: ‘His detective is the best in fiction.’ Conan Doyle returned to England exhausted, but with many favourable impressions of the United States.

In May 1914 he once again embarked on an American tour, travelling across the Atlantic in the Olympic, sister ship of the illfated Titanic, whose captain he had so valiantly supported against the odds only two years previously. He was to tour Canada’s National Parks at the invitation of the Government, but spent the first week in New York, a city that had changed out of all proportion since his visit twenty years earlier. He was awestruck by the proliferation of skyscrapers and noted with approval: ‘America is a wonderful country, with a big future.’

The Americans in their turn had taken to Conan Doyle, or perhaps in reality had taken to Mr Sherlock Holmes, as one of their own. The New York Times went so far as to suggest that perhaps Holmes might be considering emigrating to New York, quoting his creator: ‘It seems that Sir Arthur finds New York a not unworthy field for the exercise of the great detective’s abilities…’ Maybe it was this article that persuaded Conan Doyle, if he hadn’t already thought of it, to set a large part of his next Holmes novel in America, though not specifically in New York.

He seems to have spent his few days in New York with a view to gleaning information that would figure prominently in his forthcoming novel. He met William J. Burns, who had founded a successful detective agency, and was known as ‘the Sherlock Holmes of America’. Doyle was eager to hear details of his early career as a member of the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency. Trips were arranged to Sing Sing prison, where he tried out the electric chair for size and experienced a brief confinement in a cramped prison cell, all experiences which no doubt contributed to the grim tone of his next novel.

He had begun work on what was to be the last Holmes novel, towards the end of 1913, and for its structure he returned to his first great success A Study in Scarlet. In this, the first Holmes novel, the detective is removed from the stage after investigating a brutal murder of a man with American connections, so the reader may learn of the tangled back-story that led to the crime. ‘Of course,’ wrote Conan Doyle to his editor at The Strand, referring to The Valley of Fear ‘in this long stretch we abandon Holmes. That is necessary.’ Necessary or not, despite its initial success, the public resented the disappearance of their hero Holmes for more than half the novel, and The Valley of Fear has suffered in its popularity as a result. Notwithstanding, a first edition of the novel was sold at Sotheby’s in July 2006 for £4,800. Conan Doyle would no doubt have been amused.

A month before the serialisation of The Valley of Fear began in The Strand in September 1914, World War I had started. The new Holmes novel had an escapist appeal to the British public; it was set in times and a country outside the European conflict, but as a result of the war, Doyle considered it impossible to present a sympathetic German in the story, so Ettie and her father who were originally German and appeared as such in the American edition of the book, became Swedish.

In The Valley of Fear Conan Doyle found a happy compromise for the two opposing strands of his literary output that had always given him so much anguish; he pleases his Holmes fans with a new case, The Tragedy of Birlstone, and pleases himself in the flashback section, The Scowrers by writing an atmospheric and gripping tale set in the recent past history of America. It is really two novels, and each can be read almost independently of the other. Despite its relative unpopularity with Sherlockians, the novel is what Inspector White-Mason, one of its characters, would call ‘a snorter!’

The Scowrers which reveals the past history of the murdered American and his associates, is written in a distinctly different style from the rest of the book. It is a personal journey for Conan Doyle through the genres of American popular literature which he had loved since boyhood. In The Valley of Fear there are echoes of Mark Twain; Bret Harte’s stories of life in the Californian gold-mining camps; the Western; and the Gangster mob story.

There was nothing Conan Doyle enjoyed more than turning history into fiction. His historical novels, which he prized more highly than his Sherlock Holmes stories, were renowned for the meticulous research their author carried out to get every period detail in them correct. In The Valley of Fear he recreated the actual terror and violence experienced in the coal-fields of Pennsylvania USA in the 1870s. Conditions of labour for the miners in the coal and iron foundries were poor and the men suffered much abuse from ruthless employers. By way of redressing this injustice the miners formed themselves into gangs that retaliated against the mine-owners with violence, sabotage and intimidation. As many in the work force were Irish immigrants these gangs became known as the ‘Molly Maguires’ recalling similar organisations that had existed in Ireland to combat unfair rent increases and evictions. One such evicted tenant was apparently called Molly Maguire who led and gave her name to violent rioters in Ireland in the 1840s. They evolved into secret societies such as the ‘Ancient Order of Hibernians’, which acted as a respectable front to their activities. Their motto was ‘Friendship, Unity and Christian Charity’, and they were influential in the formation of the IRA in the early 20th century. The structure and power of these societies was transferred to America in the mid-19th century, and Conan Doyle reflects accurately in every detail of his fictitious ‘Scowrers’, the systematic and cold-blooded approach to revenge and the elimination of their opponents.

In 1877 several top detectives of the Pinkerton Agency infiltrated the organisation and succeeded in bringing to justice many of the key leaders. One such, James McParlan, was Conan Doyle’s model for ‘Birdy Edwards’ in the story, who through his personal testimony sent ten men to the gallows.

The Pinkerton Detective Agency was world-famous by the time Conan Doyle wrote his novel. The Scottish-American Allan Pinkerton had founded his National Detective Agency in Chicago in 1850. One of its earliest successes was the foiling of an assassination attempt on President Lincoln in 1861. The Agency’s motto was ‘we never sleep’ and their logo was an open unblinking eye—hence the nickname for their agents, ‘private eyes.’ Pinkerton dreamed that one day his organisation would achieve world-wide control. Its efficiency inspired the founding of a similar body, the FBI, which eventually superseded it. Pinkerton invented the ‘mug shot’ and developed a file system on criminals that was the envy of the world’s police forces. They were relentless in their pursuit of criminals, and represented in their methods the detective of the future.

In a superb coup de théâtre Conan Doyle, in The Valley of Fear, allows his detective, Holmes, to outwit the best detective in the seemingly invincible Pinkerton Agency, who proves his own outstanding abilities in the flashback sequence of the book. By way of tribute to the American’s skills, Holmes reproduces his methods, when, disguised as the American Altamont in His Last Bow, he infiltrates the German spy ring led by Von Bork.

Pinkerton himself had a literary bent, and in 1877 had written an account of the Molly Maguires case, to which Conan Doyle was extremely indebted for a number of the facts used in his fictionalisation of the events. In later life, Pinkerton took to writing detective stories—one wonders if he had heard of Sherlock Holmes, and what he thought of him.

‘I fancy this is my swan-song in fiction,’ Conan Doyle had written to his editor on sending him the manuscript of The Valley of Fear in 1914. The implication was that his Baker Street days were finally over, but Holmes was not to release his creator yet. His Last Bow was still to come in 1917, and The Casebook in 1927.

Notes by David Timson


The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS catalogue

BOTTESINI Music for Double Bass and Piano

Joel Quarrington, Double Bass / Andrew Burashko, Piano

DELIUS American Rhapsody

Royal Scottish National Orchestra / David Lloyd-Jones


Oslo Philharmonic Wind Soloists

JANÁČEK Taras Bulba

Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava) / Ondrej Lenárd

Music programmed by Roy McMillan

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