4 out of 5
The Valley of Fear was another Hard Case Crime entry I’d read fairly early on in my exploration of their works, and it puzzled the bejesus out of me. A.C. Doyle… as in Arthur Conan Doyle? Indeed: it’s a Holmes and Watson story. So why isn’t this promoted on the cover? And why is half the book not even about Holmes? This had me questioning if this was a legitimate Sherlock story or not (I guess I didn’t know how to use the internet at this point), and also wondering if I’d misunderstood HCC’s intentions as an imprint – I didn’t really view Doyle as fitting in to whatever my then-definition of pulp was.
But: this is exactly what pulp is, and I think there’s a fun thematic tie of misdirection within the story itself, and what’s going on with this being a Hard Case book in the first place. As to the genre, I think we can bundle a lot under the types of works toward which HCC caters, especially things written and serialized during Doyle’s era, appearing in pieces in various publications. Toss some crime, cops, and potential tawdriness in there, and you’ve got something fit for a dimestore novel with a painted cover and some alluring copy promoting it. Doyle may not have dames strutting through his pages, but crimes and cops are here – especially in Valley’s latter half. Packaging this in a purposefully misleading package that veers away from highlighting that this is our famous literary detective – “They All Answered to… The BODYMASTER!” says the tagline, with a pajamaed lass screaming as the cover art – well, yeah, you drop your dime on it and then are maybe puzzled by how well-written and composed and un-pajamaed it is, but the publisher already has your money by that point. Yeah, that’s a pretty pulpy move, “earned” by Hard Case having given us 50+ fantastic editions by this point. (And Valley being one more such addition, just leaning into this cutesy bit of repackaging as another nod to their generalized genre.)
The Valley of Fear is almost two wholly separate stories, presenting us with clues in the first and resolving in an epilogue as to how the two stories are linked. The first is Holmes and Watson, solving a curious locked-room style murder, in which the room is a homestead surrounded by a moat, and the murder involves a shotgun-blasted corpse, bedecked in curious details like a missing wedding ring and a secret society tattoo. The second story flips to telling the up-and-comings of Freemason McMurdo, who’d escaped to Vermissa Valley after crimes in Chicago, and starts quite a reign of terror in his new place of residence. We can suspect that one character in story A – perhaps the murdered man – is this McMurdo in story B, but Doyle remains tight-lipped on the matter, quite masterfully, until the epilogue. And both parts of the book show the writer’s varying capabilities on full display: the fun repartee and clue-tracking of the Holmes mystery – elevated by Watson’s studious narration, and his partner’s jovial conversation manner – and the quite dark and tense actions and dramas of McMurdo’s story. This is an interesting choice to be repackaged as an HCC book, because it essentially splits the gumshoe and hardboiled pulp genre aspects down the middle, splitting them into the Valley’s two parts, and then – as previously mentioned – reinforces the misdirection theme of how the book is packaged and presented within the reveal of the story’s connections.
All of this sounds… good? And it is! It’s rather great actually, exciting and thrilling throughout, and giving us two separate, but linked, types of experiences. So why the docked star?
One reason only, and it’s not related to the actual text, but to the copy on the back of the book… which gives away the twist. Maybe I’m a dullard, and the twist was apparent from the start, but I’ll never really know, because it was spoiled already. Perhaps this was another common pulp feature that’s being winked at, but it seems totally questionable; it really undermines the effect of the second half of Valley, because you know exactly what’s going on and can see the sleight of hand. Strange stuff.
That said, I obviously still enjoyed the book, even having this bit spoiled, so that should also tell you something.