Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – ‘The Valley of Fear’

I like Sherlock Holmes a lot. He verges on being a guilty pleasure, because the thing I like about him most is Basil Rathbone’s screen version, in a series of films which are only occasionally competent, but which are always funny, often hilarious. Rathbone’s take on Holmes is itself totally great, with just the right mix of teasing superiority and sudden jolts into action when the game is afoot. He is surrounded by buffoons, though – Lestrade and Watson on camera, Roy William Neill behind it, and the films end up as a series of clichés revolving around generalised notions of those great institutions, London, Scotland and Scotland Yard. A bit of fog on a street = London; some bushes on a sound stage (and ‘Loch Lomond’ on the sound track) = Scotland. It’s all palpably for the benefit of US audiences after a bit of UK kitsch. Holmes’ relationship with Watson is sent up mercilessly. On the plane to Washington (in Sherlock Holmes in Washington), Holmes admonishes him like a long suffering parent: ‘Oh, do stop chewing, Watson’, when he tries to get into the spirit of the trip with some gum. At Euston (in Terror by Night), when Watson nearly misses the Flying Scotsman, there is a touching scene in which he runs down the platform alongside the moving train: ‘Watson!’ shouts Holmes from his carriage, genuinely alarmed that he may have to travel without him. ‘Coming, Holmes!’ returns the faithful Watson, and it’s all terribly romantic right up until the cut to the train interior, when Watson scrambles aboard extremely unconvincingly, clearly having just walked through a door in a film set.

The Valley of Fear is much better than any of the Roy William Neill-directed films, of course. It is lean, tautly plotted and gives the impression that it is written by a man at ease with his characters and his craft. Though it shares the awkward split-down-the-middle structure of A Study in Scarlet, it gets away with it because the second section (set in 1875 and not featuring Holmes at all) is no less gripping than the first. Neither section is particularly plausible. I keep wanting to compare it to The Importance of Being Earnest, not because there is any actual similarity, but because both are late works which seem to walk on air, having no reference to anything but their own internal logic. Perhaps because it is so relaxed, Conan Doyle finds time to offer humorous glimpses into Holmes and Watson’s life together. The opening lines are:

‘I am inclined to think –’ said I.

‘I should do so,’ Sherlock Holmes remarked, impatiently.

I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals, but I admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. (p. 9)

They might as well be married. Later on, Watson reveals that ‘We slept in a double-bedded room, which was the best that the little country inn could do for us’ (p. 72). Is this deliberately suggestive? Perhaps not, but the two obviously live hand in glove, and the incidents from the films mentioned above – though they’re not in the books – are perhaps not such a stretch after all. Conan Doyle appears far more knowing about the way his characters are perceived than I remember.

The first section of the book is an elegantly expanded short story, based around the familiar idea of retribution in Britain for long ago deeds done abroad (see also ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men’ and The Sign of Four). Murder has been done in a house with a large moat, at night, when the drawbridge was up. Holmes isn’t convinced that the only people who could have committed the crime, did so. Moriarty is the cause of the tip off with which the story begins, and the cause of the downbeat ending – he hovers over events as he does in every second Roy William Neill film, but in few other of Conan Doyle’s stories. This device works well in conjunction with the book’s second section, which deals with Vermissa Valley, a mining community in the ‘most desolate corner of the United States of America’ (p. 92). Here a secret society called the Ancient Order of Freemen rule with a regime of terror, extracting protection money from the mining companies and killing anyone who won’t pay up. The story follows John McMurdo into the Valley of Fear, and tracks his descent into exactly this form of crime. The society’s members come across as pirates on land, with their rowdy consensus and then dissent from the one cowardly member, which boss McGinty sweeps aside with grim threats. It’s all about as believable as Treasure Island, and involving in the same kind of way. It gradually emerges that the terror isn’t as localised as it first seemed: many towns in the vicinity also have Freemen lodges, and will loan out men to kill, the idea being that a killer from out of town will be harder to track down. And so Conan Doyle describes the kind of criminal network which he only ever hints at when writing about Britain, and then uses the example to build up Moriarty, who succeeds where the Freemen failed in retribution against the man who eventually brings them down.

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