Monday, November 28, 2011

valley of fearful writing

With the upcoming Sherlock Holmes movie quickly approaching, I have been trying to get in  my Holmes fix in.  This is easier than it sounds, as I have been rereading stories of the famous detective to my boyfriend Scott since the last Guy Ritchie film on the topic came out.  We finished all but His Last Bow and The Valley of Fear several months ago, and as a result moved onto other books.
image source: Open Letters Monthly

Partially out of excitement for the newest installment of the current blockbuster Holmes saga, and partially to avoid having to read another Salman Rushdie novel out loud to Scott so soon after having finished Shalimar the Clown (Rushdie is an amazing writer, but he's so artful with words that my tongue often cannot keep up, and I end up getting a headache) I recently found myself yearning for more Holmes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle told it.  So I raided my absent twin sister's closet and pulled out an old novella- her copy of The Valley of Fear.  I hadn't read the story for nearly ten years and couldn't remember what it was about, but eagerly brought it back to my apartment.

Scott and I finished The Valley of Fear last night.  What an utter failure.  I get the impression that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote it for two reasons:
  • To make cash
  • To write an outlandish romance/adventure novel and ensure its publication by encasing it into a Sherlock Holmes story
I don't think this rationale would be incorrect if the story was actually good.  It's no secret that Doyle despised Holmes, considering him a blinder to what he perceived to be his worthy contributions to literature, such as The White Company.

The problems with The Valley of Fear are few but significant.  Let's take the story in its two parts- the detective solves murder case story, and the murderous gang in the coalfields of somewhere in America story.

The first part is very enjoyable.  With the exception of Doyle's inattention to detail- in this story, set before "The Final Problem," Holmes gives a detailed description of a Professor Moriarty and his status as the most devious criminal ever, even though Watson supposedly had never heard of Moriarty until the events of "The Final Problem."  As many Holmesians know, ACD was not one for chronology and The Valley of Fear is no exception.

The premise is terrific- a man is hunted down by killers intent on exacting revenge for a past wrong he has done them.  Holmes thoroughly deduces each clue until he has figured out how the murdered man at Birlstone has been killed and who was responsible based not only on bloody footprints at the scene of the crime but the behaviors of the inhabitants of Birlstone.  Mystery cleanly solved- exactly what Holmes readers are looking for.  But why was such a crime committed in the first place?

Instead of a nice little synopsis, instead Doyle inserts a narrative much like that added to "A Study in Scarlet," where the resolution of the mystery is followed by a story of adventure, romance, and murderous Mormons that takes place years before the events in which Holmes is involved.  Insert "deadly secret society a la a romanticized version of the Molly Maguires" for "murderous Mormons" and you have the makings of a somewhat similar narrative.

The hero of this second part, John McMurdo, a counterfeiter and man-on-the-run from the Chicago police for murder, joins the Scowrers, a secret society that terrorizes the citizens of Vermissa Valley through extortion, threats, and murder.  Soon McMurdo is one of the most popular of the members- he can binge drink with no bad effects, has a fierce temper, violent tendencies, and a notable criminal past.  He even manages to get the prettiest girl in town to fall in love with him.  But the Pinkertons are on their trail and trying to close in.  What will happen to our amoral hero?

The main problem with this part is that neither McMurdo nor his girlfriend seem to be believable characters.  Even though the girl, Ettie, hates the Scowrers, she cannot help but love McMurdo and remain his, albeit reluctantly.  McMurdo, meanwhile, is not only a Mary Sue character of sorts to his gang friends- he is just too damn good at coming up with ideas, too filled with bravado, and too obviously eager to show off his violent side and announce that he is a criminal for one to think that this guy is what he says he is.  Sorry Doyle, Scott and I saw the ending coming from miles off.

And the speeches of love between Ettie and McMurdo were so disgustingly ridiculous that we could not believe that the same genius who had created Sherlock Holmes and dozens of other well-written characters and stories would spew out such crap.  We almost stopped reading the novella entirely as a result- I ended up speeding up the words and dramatically exaggerating the pitch of my voice to get us through it with some dignity.

Overall, this detour from the original mystery story is just totally unnecessary and pretty bad writing to boot.  Bad monkey, ACD.

If you are a true Holmes fan, I doubt that any discouragement would get you to stay away from this story.  And as far as bad stories go, this story was better than most.  But if you are a casual reader of the Holmes stories, I would suggest that you give other, better stories such as The Hound of the Baskervilles and "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" a shot before judging ACD as a writer.  If you do want to read The Valley of Fear, then my suggestion would be to read Part 1, read a synopsis of Part 2 online, and then read the Epilogue (which is still unnecessary, but at least reminds the reader of why you picked this book up to begin with by reintroducing Holmes to the story for three pages.)

Now, a book cover for The Valley of Fear that perfectly describes my feelings for the novella itself- inexplicably ridiculous:

image source: Hard Case Crime
Potential Reader: (looking at cover) He wrote erotica as well as Sherlock Holmes?

The little caption at the front doesn't help.  

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