The Valley of Fear – Hounds Summary

J. Randolph Cox – 18, 25 Mar 1994

Part 1 – 18 Mar 1994

  • What is the significance of the use of humor in the first chapter? Does this further the plot or establish something…or is there another reason?
  • How does Holmes’ relationship with Inspector MacDonald strengthen the reader’s belief in the role of Moriarty in this crime?
  • Why is it necessary that we not see the third chapter of the story from the point of view of Dr. Watson?
  • What classic detective story traditions are supported by the physical setting and the clues in chapters three and four? Knowing these detective traditions, as well as the canon, what inferences should we draw? Are we justified in doing so?
  • Does the friendship between Cecil Barker and Mrs. Douglas shed any light on the mystery or does it appear to be a “red herring?”
  • Explain how the Author could have created this code using Whitaker’s Almanac and create a code using a current source (not necessarily Whitaker’s) to demonstrate your answer.

Part 2 – 25 Mar 1994

  • Chapter 6 contains many conventions of Golden Age Detective Fiction. Enumerate as many as you can and indicate those incidents you consider to belong to the convention known as the “red herring.”
  • What does Holmes expect to accomplish by his taunting of Inspector MacDonald and White Mason before revealing the solution? What other case (or cases) does the denouement in Chapter 7 resemble?
  • What is gained by presenting the story of the Scowrers in third-person narrative instead of the point of view of John Douglas in conversation or interrogation?
  • How does the author establish and develop the characters of McMurdo and Boss McGinty and their roles in the drama played out in Vermissa Valley?
  • What are the incidents that help McMurdo pass the test of allegiance to the Scowrers? Do you see any significance in his claim to be from Chicago?

Chris Redmond – Fri, 6, 13 Sep 1996

  • Does “the missing dumb-bell” rank with the dog who did nothing in the nighttime for ingenuity, literary elegance, surprise, and well-deserved fame? Is there something about negative capability (the absence of the dumb-bell, the silence of the dog) that makes a clue particularly characteristic of Sherlock Holmes?
  • The great Sherlockian Bliss Austin, who owned the manuscript of The Valley of Fear, once said that Arthur Conan Doyle had written 61, not 60, great detective stories, and that “The Scowrers” could stand by itself as one of the finest detective novels ever written.
  • Was he right? And, if so, what does that say about the structural integrity of The Valley of Fear as a whole?

Sonia Fetherston – Fri, 28 Nov/5 Dec  1997

Whew! Now that I’m stuffed with Thanksgiving dinner, I’m looking for my dumbbells to start working off some of that meal. Trouble is, I can only find one of them…Turning now to the first half of The Valley of Fear, here are this week’s Q’s and Comments:

  • Marriage is a motif in this story, but Moriarty is pointedly identified in VALL as unmarried. Were he the marrying kind, what sort of woman would Moriarty look for? Is there a woman anywhere in the canon who would make a good wife for the professor?
  • Nowadays all parties associated with a sensational criminal case sign their own lucrative book deals. In VALL, White Mason merely hoped for a kind mention in one of Watson’s forthcoming accounts. Was he serious, or joking, or what? If White Mason were to write his own book about this particular case, what would the title be?
  • A tattoo isn’t a body’s only identifying characteristic. Neither is a face. How is it possible that Ames and others — who knew Douglas so well — concluded without question that the dead man was the master of Birlstone?
  • “Man, it’s witchcraft,” Inspector MacDonald exclaimed when he saw Porlock’s message. His reference was to Holmes having the words “Douglas” and “Birlstone” already before him, but the Scotland Yard man could just as easily have been commenting on Porlock’s coded numbers. MacDonald was an Aberdonian, and Aberdeen is to Great Britain what Salem, Massachusetts is to Americans — the site of infamous witchcraft trials and the place where many supposed witches were put to death. To protect themselves against witches, even as late as our own century, many Aberdonians carried numerical charms. Some of those charms were very simple, like this example, a magic square in which the lines all equal 18:

5 10 3

4  6  8

9  2  7

  • The more complex charms look an awful lot like the number groupings in Porlock’s note. And a MacDonald from Aberdeen would know that “Douglas” and “Birl” are, of course, Scottish words.

All aboard! The train for Vermissa Valley is about to leave the station. Take that seat over there, next to the fresh-complexioned man with the firm jaw. This weekend’s questions and comments as we read The Valley of Fear (Part 2 – The Scowrers):

  • What is there to like about the Freemen? Does the group have any redeeming social value?
  • McMurdo was “glib enough” when questioned by the Freemen. But how come McGinty doesn’t verify McMurdo’s background, or check him out a lot more thoroughly before giving the newcomer some jobs to do?
  • I just appointed you to be Granada’s casting director, and we’re finally going to film VALL. Who will you cast to play the roles of McGinty, McMurdo, and Baldwin?
  • That “Dear me, Mr. Holmes” note…we can pretty much guess who wrote it, but why did he write it?
  • McMurdo used the endearment “acushla” when speaking to his beloved Ettie. It’s a term that frustrates Gaelic translators, who, as footnoted so well by the Oxford editors, variously define the word as “diarrhea” or “artery.” I have another theory. Ettie was German (her nationality changed to Swedish in British editions for political reasons), and the ardent Irishman was actually trying to impress her by speaking a few words in her own language. Watson and the literary agent, not surprisingly, garbled it up. Anyhow, I propose that the prefix “acu” is in reality the German “Ach, du,” meaning “Oh, you,” just like the playground song, “Ach, du lieber Augustin.” If we accept “ach, du” then all that’s left is determining the balance of the word, “shla.” There are several possibilities. “Ach, du schlank!” roughly translates as “Oh, you svelte creature!” which is certainly an endearment many women would be thrilled to hear. “Ach, du schlau!” means something like “Oh, you sneak!” a strange appellation from one lover to another, unless Ettie was herself a Pinkerton collaborator…a highly intriguing plot twist, nicht wahr? My own choice, however, is “Ach, du Schlag!” or “Oh, you little dollop of whipped cream!” It’s a term of endearment — don’t you agree? — that’s eminently suited to such a sweet young girl.

Steve Clarkson – Fri, 12 Feb 1999

It was frustrating. Sherlock Holmes had received a coded message from a person who was highly placed in the criminal organization of Professor James Moriarty. He knew that this person, Fred Porlock, only wrote to him when something major was about to happen. But Porlock had been surprised by Moriarty in the act of sending the key to the code in a separate message, and so Holmes was left with a cryptic message and seemingly no way to decipher it.

Using his well-known deductive methods, Holmes managed to “crack” the code and learned that danger was impending for someone named “Douglas” who lived at Birlstone Manor, not too far from Tunbridge Wells. Sure enough, just as he had finished decoding the message, Inspector Alex MacDonald of Scotland Yard arrived with some disturbing news: Mr. Jack Douglas of Birlstone Manor had been horribly murdered during the preceding night.

In a few minutes, the Mâitre de Chasse will sound the call that will loose the Hounds upon a scent which has its origins a dozen years or more before the murder of Jack Douglas. The trail leads from the coal and iron mines of Pennsylvania through the gold fields of California and ultimately to a moated manor house located just southeast of London, and a man who wielded a sawed-off shotgun. It is an intricate trail, full of false scents such as an apparent intrigue between the dead man’s wife and his best friend, but the real key to the mystery lies underwater. The Mâitre hopes that his Hounds know how to swim, or at least are willing to wade.

Well, novels seem to be the order of the day. As with HOUN, I am allowing only one week for VALL. I am particularly fond of this Adventure because, among other reasons, the repartee between Holmes and Watson at the beginning of the story represents, to my mind, the best “Gotcha!” Watson ever perpetrated upon Holmes. Another reason is that, like STUD, this Adventure has roots in American history: The “Scowrers” are the literary counterparts of the “Molly Maguires” who terrorized the Pennsylvania coal fields in the 1870s; and “Birdy Edwards” had a real-life origin in the form of one James McParlan, a Pinkerton operative who infiltrated the Molly Maguires and brought many of their leaders before the bar of justice.

As with STUD, this story is divided by a long flashback narrative which explains the background leading up to Ted Baldwin’s attempt on “Jack Douglas’s” life in the moated manor of Birlstone. I do not propose to raise questions about the flashback portion since it does not contain any appearance by Holmes. But I do have a couple of questions about the opening segment:

  • Fred Porlock decided not to send Holmes the key to his cipher message after being surprised by Moriarty. Yet he sent an explanatory note to Holmes anyway. Why didn’t he simply enclose the cipher key with it, since his risk in sending the note was equal to that of sending the key?
  • Speaking of the cipher message, wouldn’t it be evident to Holmes that given the cipher’s provenance, something bad was in store for a “Douglas” in or near “Birlstone?” Did Holmes necessarily need to go to the trouble of reasoning out the key to the cipher? And how did Holmes manage to count the words in column two of page 534 of Whitaker’s Almanac with such celerity? For that matter, how long must it have taken Porlock to locate a single column of print which contained the desired words? Could this means of sending cipher messages have been prearranged between Holmes and Porlock, with Holmes’s logical tour de force being a pretense for Watson’s benefit, as a way of poking more fun at Watson for the wisecrack about “unknown to the public?” (“One more coruscation, my dear Watson!”)

I wonder who, what, or where was Portalis?

  • Cecil Barker said that Douglas was never without his revolver but had left it in his bedroom the night of the attack upon him. Wouldn’t “making the rounds” of Birlstone have been a time when he was most likely to have his gun close at hand, particularly since (as we learn later) he had recently seen his nemesis in the neighborhood?
  • As a part of his scheme to induce Barker to reveal his complicity, Holmes dictated a note to Barker indicating an intent to drain the moat. Why would Holmes address the note to Barker, who had no sway over Birlstone, and not to Ivy Douglas, who did? Might not Barker have rightly become suspicious that something was afoot when the note was addressed to him?
  • Lastly, wasn’t it unusual for Ivy Douglas, an Englishwoman bred and born, to address Barker as “Cecil?”

Discover more about The Valley of Fear and read the canon.