Background to The Valley Of Fear

The Valley of Fear is the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel. Loosely based on the Molly Maguires and Pinkerton agent James McParland, the story was first published in the Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915. The first book edition was first published in New York on 27 February 1915.

The Valley of Fear is the only one of the Holmes novels completed after Doyle’s attempt to kill Holmes off. Doyle wanted to flex his literary muscles beyond the confines of 221B Baker Street and so he pitched Holmes – along with his mortal enemy Professor Moriarty – off the Reichenbach Falls.

But when publishers and those monthly periodicals that had gladly printed Holmes’ exploits reacted negatively to Holmes’s demise, Doyle was forced to return to his most famous creation, generating another bunch of short stories (the predominant form for Holmes mysteries) and this one long-form story, The Valley of Fear. And while it was written after Holmes’ supposed death and subsequent return, it is set a distance before. In fact, read chronologically in story order as opposed to written order, this tale would mark one of the first mentions of Professor Moriarty.

A common four-stage structure to Holmes mysteries is the set-up, the investigation, the reveal and then the explanation. In the full length novels this last part, wherein Doyle gives his recently outwitted and captured antagonists the chance to explain the motives behind their crimes, is regularly the longest chapter in the book. In The Valley of Fear it’s not just one chapter, it’s a story in its own right, taking up over half the book.

The two parts – The Tragedy of Birlstone (i.e. Holmes’ investigation) and The Scowrers (the background to the crime) are split and on first reading appear barely connected at all. Doyle had long since harboured a desire to write about the Molly Maguires (an organised crime syndicate formed out in the coal states of the US) and decided to incorporate his story as part of a Holmes mystery. It is quite a departure for the series of mysteries – an entirely different plot, and one that doesn’t involve Holmes at all!


Sherlock Holmes: The Valley Of Fear will be performed at South Mill Arts on Friday 28th & Saturday 29th April, 7.30pm (Tickets: £19 | £17 Conc.)

Tickets are available here: