BOOK REVIEW: The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Valley of Fear (Sherlock Holmes, #7)The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This (book seven of nine of the Sherlock Holmes canon) follows a pattern set by the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. Both books are arranged into two parts, the first of each is a typical Sherlock Holmes story in which the detective investigates a puzzling crime in England; the second skips back in time (and across the Atlantic) to tell a compelling tale that provides motive and context for the first story.

In “Valley of Fear,” the first story involves the gruesome death of a country gentleman in his own home by sawed-off shotgun blast to the face. While suicide is quickly eliminated, the clues present mixed signals. While it’s not, strictly speaking, a locked-door mystery, its occurrence inside a moat-enveloped manor house leaves open the possibility of an inside-job, but there is confounding evidence that suggests someone fled the scene.

The second story takes place in a mining town in the United States, in a place insinuated in the first part to be “the valley of fear.” This valley, properly named Vermissa Valley, earned this epithet because it was run by a thuggish group of violent men who used a secret society as a cover for the corrupt gangland-like practices they carried out as “the Scowrers.” This story focuses on a new arrival, McMurdo, who we are led to believe was a gangster in Chicago who fled to this quiet – yet gangster-ruled – place to disappear into the protective company of fellow criminals. But, of course, nothing is as it seems.

While this book may be self-derivative, I still found it engrossing. While the two novels use a similar narrative scaffolding, each is unique in its details. In both cases, the second part is especially compelling.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #6)The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This short story collection is the sixth book in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and – as the title suggests – it marks the return of the famous fictional detective after a hiatus. Doyle had tried to kill off the Holmes character so that he could work on other projects. At the end of “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes,” Doyle leads us to believe Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty, wrestled off the Reichenbach Falls, plummeting to stony deaths.

In the first story in this collection, “The Adventure of the Empty House,” we discover that Holmes didn’t die, and has been exploiting his reputed death, playing a game of cat-and-mouse against the remnants of Moriarty’s gang, notably the deadly, Col. Sebastian Moran. The other twelve stories of the collection stand alone among the larger canon, and follow the usual Holmes narrative weave. Most involve murder, but there is one (“The Adventure of the Three Students”) that involves a “crime” as mundane as test theft, and in some cases, e.g. “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” the murder is a secondary issue. Each crime is solved using the intense observation, out-of-the-box thinking, and leaps of intuition of which only Holmes is capable. Usually, the guilty party is brought to justice, but, in some cases, Holmes follows his own moral code, deciding not to assist the authorities in cases for which he believes the crime justified, or unavoidable.

Among my favorites of the collection are: “The Adventure of the… Norwood Builder,” …Dancing Men,” and …Missing Three-Quarter,” but there’s not a vast standard deviation of quality or style in these stories. They are all intriguing and have their own distinctive features while showing Holmes’s quirky brilliance. This is definitely a must-read for Holmes fans.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sherlock Holmes, #5)The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A legend tells of a monstrous hell-hound who haunts the moors of Devonshire and who long ago killed the head of the Baskerville estate, a wealthy family and linchpin within the community. When the present head of the Baskerville fortune, Charles, dies suddenly and under mysterious circumstances – i.e. outdoors at night and in the presence of huge paw prints — many neighbors conclude the legendary hound has returned to fulfil the curse of the Baskervilles. The doctor, neighbor, and friend of Charles, Dr. Mortimer, doesn’t know what to think, as a man of science he might dismiss the legend, but he’s the one who found the hound prints. Above all, Mortimer knows that if the new heir to the Baskerville estate is driven away, it would be devastating for the neighborhood. Mortimer thus seeks the advice of Sherlock Holmes.

This is one of the most well-known and beloved stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon (fyi – it’s #5.) One interesting feature is that Holmes, himself, is not present through the middle of the story. As in all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s Dr. Watson who provides perspective and narration, but throughout the second act we see Watson doing the investigating as well. Sherlock is present for the beginning of the story when Mortimer comes to call and the Baskerville heir, Henry, arrives in London, and then he’s there to spring a plot to conclude the case, but in between we learn of only Watson’s activities in Devonshire.

This is an intriguing tale from beginning to end, and it is remarkable how many strange and seemingly disparate strings the story ties up cleverly. It’s a fascinating look at superstition and how it creates converts under the right circumstances. This quick and thrilling read is worthy of your time.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of the Four (Sherlock Holmes, #2)The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel is the second of the books in the Sherlock Holmes canon. It begins with a client (Miss Morstan) coming to see Holmes to acquire his advice as to whether she should make a rendezvous to which she has been summoned by mysterious means, Morstan being a beautiful young lady who is weary of showing up to a random public location, having been told to not involve the police. We learn some intriguing facts from the conversation, such as that she began receiving a pearl from an anonymous source each year and that her father (Capt. Morstan) has passed away.

With Sherlock and Watson in tow, Miss Morstan does attend the rendezvous, and we learn that the meeting is with the son (Thaddeus Sholto) of a man with whom her father served in the military at Port Blair in the Andaman Isles (Maj. Sholto.) The mystery of the pearls is cleared up as we discover that Maj. Sholto cheated Capt. Morstan out of his share of a treasure that the Major came into possession of while stationed in India, and his two sons (particularly Thaddeus) feel the need to make amends to Capt. Morstan’s heir, but would like to do so without dragging the family name through the muck or creating legal hassles.

It seems everything is wrapped up with a nice bow, when Thaddeus takes Miss Morstan, Holmes, and Watson to see his (more reluctant to be fair to Morstan) brother Bartholomew, who is the one in actual possession of the treasure. However, when they find Bartholomew dead and the treasure gone, the true mystery begins. The balance of the book involves a chase to find the missing treasure, the men who stole it, and to unravel the mysterious circumstances behind the treasure. The final chapter tells the elaborate backstory of the treasure, going back to India and to the titular four men, the four whose names were found at the scene of Bartholomew’s murder and who previously possessed it — one of whom serves as the storyteller. Along the way, a mangy bloodhound, the Baker Street Irregulars (street urchins employed by Holmes,) and – of course – the brilliant reasoning of Sherlock Holmes are used to solve the case.

Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the most intriguing fictional characters ever with Holmes. If he were just a brilliant man with supreme skills of observation and reasoning, he’d be no more interesting, and have no greater longevity, than any of the many other characters. But in Sherlock we see that brilliance always has a cost. Holmes is also an addict, is troubled by insomnia, and is – in some ways – socially dysfunctional. (e.g. When Watson develops a relationship with Miss Morstan, Holmes confesses that he can’t grasp the value of marriage / long-term intimate relationships.)

What the author does with character, he also does with setting by bringing into the story (through backstory) locales that are exotic and intriguing – e.g. Port Blair. Even by today’s standards there are always little tidbits of the exotic drawn into the story, even though most of the Holmes’ stories — this one included — don’t venture far from London.

If you enjoy crime and detection fiction, this book is a must. It’s highly readable and offers a compelling story. In terms of the Holmes canon, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly better or worse than others, but I don’t find there is a huge variation in quality among these novels and stories. It is one of the better-known titles (except that some call it “The Sign of Four” and others “The Sign of the Four” – the latter being the original title as far as I can discern.)

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BOOK REVIEW: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of a dozen short stories is the third book in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and the first of the short story collections. The cases described range from murder and scandalous thefts to mysteries as seemingly mundane as why a certain pawnbroker, engineer, or governess got a job offer too good to be true. There is often a falsely accused suspect, or no suspect whatsoever. On more than one occasion, two characters are, in actuality, one. It’s typical Sherlock Holmes, which is to say compelling and engaging throughout. Furthermore, there are a couple of cases, such as the first, that break the usual mold, as the author apparently recognized that it would not to do not break up the cycle of: “strange case gets solved and extensively explained, repeat.”

The stories are as follows:

1.) “A Scandal in Bohemia” – The King of Bohemia, about to be wed, becomes the victim of blackmail. This is one of those cases that breaks the mold as a it’s one of the few in which the criminal gets the better of Holmes – though all works out for Holmes’ client.

2.) “The Red-Headed League” – This is one of the three stories in the collection in which an individual gets a job that pays impossibly well with requirements that, while not onerous, are strange. A pawnbroker is given a nice stipend for ridiculously trivial work by a mysterious organization that funds gingers.

3.) “A Case of Identity” – A well-to-do woman’s fiancé disappears, or so it seems.

4.) “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” – A landowner in the countryside is murdered, and his son, with whom he’d recently argued and who was the last to see him alive, is the immediate and only suspect of Scotland Yard.

5.) “The Five Orange Pips” – A man who recently received a note containing five orange seeds dies, somewhat suspiciously, and under circumstances that do not bode well for his heir.

6.) “The Man with the Twisted Lip” – A husband goes missing, and a beggar immediately comes under suspicion as his killer – though there is no compelling evidence of murder.

7.) “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” – A famed jewel goes missing and a suspect is in custody, but when the jewel is discovered in the alimentary canal of a Christmas goose, what is to be made of that?

8.) “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” – A woman fears her stepfather. The woman’s sister died a couple years before, having made an obscure comment about a “speckled band” as she died.

9.) “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” – A struggling hydraulic engineer gets a job that seems rudimentary enough, but which nearly costs him his life, and does cost him a thumb. It’s clear that his employer is not engaged in the minor crime that the man confessed to in his explanation of why the engineer must work during the dead of night.

10.) “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” – A gentleman’s bride disappears on their wedding day. There are those who think it foul play.

11.) “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet” – A banker who is holding a crown as loan collateral, suffers a theft that threatens his professional reputation, and potent circumstantial evidence points to the banker’s son.

12.) “The Adventure of Copper Beeches” – An unemployed governess is offered a job that pays three times the going rate for light work involving one child, so long as she agrees to cut her hair, and — on occasion – wear a certain dress while sitting in a particular chair.

Doyle creates fascinating characters in Sherlock Holmes and his protégé Doctor Watson, characters that continue to spin off stories to this day, and for good reason. While there is a lot of hokum in these stories, the idea of being able to draw such great information from such miniscule signs captures the imagination. And Doyle does make efforts to break up the monotony. While I pointed out that there are three stories in which characters get great jobs with bizarre requirements, each of these cases is different with respect to why the client got said well-paying job – though it is true in each case that something more nefarious than meets the eye is afoot. It’s not all murder and burglary, sometimes it’s cases that are intellectually interesting if trivial in stakes. And once and a while, Holmes doesn’t get his man, so to speak.

This is a readable and entertaining set of stories. I’d highly recommend giving it a read.


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