The book opens with Holmes and Watson trying to decipher a message from an informant concerning Professor Moriarty. The only other time Moriarty has been mentioned was in the last chapter of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, in which he died. So this story predates that one, but there is a bit of a disconnect in that Watson didn’t know who Moriarty was in Memoirs, and if the events in The Valley of Fear occurred in the timeline before that book, Watson would surely have known the name. But as far as I know that’s the only major slip up in Doyle’s narratives, so we can forgive him: he may have even been aware of the problem and decided to write this story as is anyway.
At any rate, Holmes and Watson are interrupted by the arrival of a Scotland Yard Inspector MacDonald asking Holmes to assist on a case and then being stunned to learn that the message Holmes had just deciphered concerned the very man who had been killed. The victim had been shot in the face with an American sawed-off shotgun. There are a number of odd incidents and clues that do not add up. Holmes fixates on one that the others do not think is important, and, of course, solves the mystery.
The second part of the book is the back-story of what happened leading up to these events and is written in a completely different style, much like the story within a story in A Study in Scarlet. At first nothing seems related at all, but the reader assumes that some of the characters are going by different names than what they’re known as in the first part. In this story, a young John McMurdo is fleeing from the law in Chicago and comes to a Vermissa Valley to start anew. He’s part of an organization called The Eminent Order of Freemen, which primarily engages in charitable works in Chicago. But in Vermissa Valley, it’s a tightly run gang of thieves, murderers, and extortioners called the Scowrers who have the area under their thumb so much that it is nicknamed the Valley of Fear. McMurdo has no choice but to become involved with the gang, even though his landlord kicks him out over it and refuses to let him see his daughter any more.
Events unfold with the Scowrers for several chapters until they learn that a Pinkerton detective is undercover in the area, and their focus turns to finding and dealing with him.
An epilogue ties up the loose ends of the story and brings it back to Moriarty’s involvement.
Though I eventually guessed who McMurdo was (and rereading the first few pages, I saw several clues which caused me to realize I should have guessed it much sooner), I was totally surprised by the twist in the second story. Though some of the first story gets a little boring with the deciphering and then the arguing over which clues mean what, the last couple of chapters were the most exciting of any of Doyle’s work that I have read so far.
After looking around Wikipedia a bit, I saw that the story was based on the real life Molly Maguires in PA and their encounter with Pinkerton Agency detective James McParland. I had heard the term Molly Maguires before but had no recollection of what it meant until reading about it just now.
I listened to the audiobook read by Simon Vance, who did a wonderful job not only with the various English accents and voices in the story, but also with American, Scottish, and Irish accents as well. I also read parts of the story online at Project Gutenberg.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)