‘Holmes smiled. He was always warmed by genuine admiration—the characteristic of the real artist.’ – The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and The English Country House Mystery

March 25, 2018 at 9:37 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The May 2017 issue of CADS 75 (Crime and Detective Stories) features an article by  Kate Jackson entitled.”Doyle’s The Valley of Fear and the Country House Mystery Novel.” The author had encountered an intriguing assertion made  by Zach Dundas in The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes. Dundas contends that The Valley of Fear  stood as  “prototype for the soon-to-be-classic English country-house murder mystery.” Jackson was intrigued and decided to investigate this claim.

In the event, she was not convinced; in fact, she believes that if there is a work in the Conan Doyle canon that prefigures the English country house mystery trope, it’s The Hound of the Baskervilles rather than The Valley of Fear.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s piece served as a reminder to me that I’d never read The Valley of Fear. So I set about remedying this omission. The result: I enjoyed this novella far more than I’d expected to.

I hadn’t realized that The Valley of Fear is in a sense a bifurcated novel. The first part describes a crime that by and  large replicates the classic country house murder scenario as we know it today (although it must  be recalled that The Valley of Fear is in fact a very early exemplar, having first appeared in The Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915).

Then, much to my surprise, the scene suddenly shifts to the Great American West. According to Wikipedia, this part of the novel was inspired by the activities of the notorious Molly Maguires and by the renown and resourcefulness of Pinkerton Agency detective James McParland.

I never expected to be reading a Western by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s been a while  since I read this book, but one thing I do remember: I enjoyed it tremendously, especially the second half.

Forthwith, some excerpts from The Valley of Fear:

“A touch! A distinct touch!” cried Holmes. “You are developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humour, Watson, against which I must learn to guard myself.”

(Wiktionary defines “pawky” as ‘Shrewd, sly; often also characterised by a sarcastic sense of humour,’ adding that the word originates in northern England and Scotland.)

The second speaker is Sherlock Holmes.

“You mean that he has a great income and that he must earn it in an illegal fashion?”

“Exactly. Of course I have other reasons for thinking so—dozens of exiguous threads which lead vaguely up towards the centre of the web where the poisonous, motionless creature is lurking.”

The first speaker is Sherlock Holmes:

“Have you ever read of Jonathan Wild?”

“Well, the name has a familiar sound. Someone in a novel, was he not? I don’t take much stock of detectives in novels—chaps that do things and never let you see how they do them. That’s just inspiration: not business.”

“Jonathan Wild wasn’t a detective, and he wasn’t in a novel. He was a master criminal, and he lived last century—1750 or thereabouts.”

“Then he’s no use to me. I’m a practical man.”

“Mr. Mac, the most practical thing that you ever did in your life would be to shut yourself up for three months and read twelve hours a day at the annals of crime. Everything comes in circles—even Professor Moriarty. Jonathan Wild was the hidden force of the London criminals, to whom he sold his brains and his organization on a fifteen per cent commission. The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It’s all been done before, and will be again.”

I’m no Sherlockian scholar, but it seems to me that Conan Doyle isn’t given sufficient credit for the eloquence and inventiveness of his dialog (not to mention the sheer wittiness when you least expect it). To my mind, this is one of the chief aspects of the stories that makes them so readable even more than a hundred after they were first penned. I should also add that as I was reading reading The Valley of Fear, the character of Holmes became particularly vivid to me. He increasingly came across as congenial; dare I venture, even at times, sprightly.

The English country house murder is almost a crime fiction subgenre unto itself. Novels and stories with this setting were fairly abundant during the Golden Age; that is, the era between the two World Wars. I found several “best” lists online, such as this one from the blog Crossexamining crime, and this  from The Strand Magazine. Regarding the first, having recently finally gotten around to reading An English Murder by Cyril Hare, I confess I was somewhat disappointed. Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White has been recommended in numerous places, but I tried to read it more than once and had to give up. (This, despite very much enjoying White’s The Wheel Spins, the novel on which Hitchcock’s film The Lady Vanishes was based.) However, further down on the list I was pleased to encounter several favorites: Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie, and most especially Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers and The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey. Regarding this last, let me quote from an earlier post I wrote on The Art of the Mystery:

Franchise is one of my all time favorite novels. Tey drew her inspiration for it from two actual  criminal cases. An adolescent girl levels a bizarre, horrifying accusation against Marion Sharpe and her mother. The Sharpes, who live in genteel poverty in a house called The Franchise, are stunned and bewildered by this turn of events. They have no idea what this girl is talking about and claim never to have seen her before.  The clashing versions of reality give momentum to a narrative that is riveting from start to finish. Comic relief is provided by the elder Mrs. Sharpe, whose name fits the action of her tongue perfectly!

Of the ten titles enumerated by William Shaw for The Strand Magazine, I’ve read and enjoyed all but two: Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin and Blacklands by Belinda Bauer.I’m so glad that William Shaw makes mention of Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Height, a truly great novel in any genre. Shaw states simply: “Hill was a brilliant writer.” I could not agree more. Here’s a link to Celebrating Reginald Hill, an appreciation organized by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain in 2012 . I felt very honored to be included in this company!

  One of my favorite short story anthologies is entitled English Country House Murders. Delightfully subtitled Tales of Perfidious Albion, it’s edited by Thomas Godfrey and was published by The Mysterious Press in 1989. (Rather curiously, both the paperback and a 1988 hardback edition have a different subtitle: Classic Crime Fiction of Britain’s Upper Crust.) This collection starts off with a bang: two terrific tales, ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” by Conan Doyle and “A Marriage Tragedy” by Wilkie Collins. There are also stories by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, and numerous others.

In his Introduction, Thomas Godfrey considers this question: “How to define  the English Country House Mystery?” He comes up with some lively suggestions, several of which are offered in a decidedly decidedly tongue in cheek spirit. To wit:

Authentic English Country House Mysteries should only be written by authentic English authors. (Americans and Canadians need not apply.)

Of course, there should  be a crime, with murder being preferred.

“Poison is the prescribed means for eliminating victims in English Country House Mysteries. The alternative is a good solid wallop on the head. (I find defenestration shockingly under-utilized and commend it to new practitioners of the art.)”

“The crime, whether attempted or successful, should take place in the house on the grounds. If events take the investigation elsewhere, the earliest possible return to the house is in order.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. English Country House Murders is available from Amazon and through interlibrary loan.

 

3 Comments

  1. armchairreviewer said,

    Thanks for the double mention! I too was taken aback by the shift to America in The Valley of Fear, but then in Doyle’s other writing he does indulge in a more adventure genre style. It’s always interesting to see people’s differing favourites when it comes to country house mysteries, though I am glad we share some similar likes. I couldn’t really remember which titles I had picked for my own list, so it was good to revisit that and I am hoping to when I have the time to put up a new list of suggestions, as I have read quite a few since I wrote my original post. So thanks for the nudge.

  2. Roberta Rood said,

    Thanks very much for this, Kate. Always a pleasure to share preferences and enthusiasms with fellow crime fiction lovers.

  3. The Return of: Country House Mysteries – Some of My Favourites – crossexaminingcrime said,

    […] few days ago Roberta Hood at Books to the Ceiling, kindly talked about an article I wrote for CADs last year on the country house genre and Doyle’s […]

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