I brought a great stack of British books with me when I went to London, many of which I hope to share with you. I thought I’d start off with Sherlock Holmes, which kills several birds with one stone. It’s a good book for the R.I.P. Challenge, and also lets me share a little about my trip!
First, the book review. I’ve read a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories and novels in the past, and to be honest, when I look at titles I’m not always sure which ones I’ve read! But I was almost sure The Valley of Fear was a new-to-me book (and it was), so I brought that one with me to London. It turned out to be an interesting mix of a novel.
It opens, as most Holmes stories do, with Holmes and Watson invited to look into a strange case. A man is found dead in his home out in the country–complicating the situation, his home is an old fortress, complete with moat. The drawbridge was up, so how did the murderer get in, and where did he go? There are a few strange details about the crime scene and the other people in the house. The murdered man seems to have had something dark in his past, but the only clue is a vague reference to “the Valley of Fear.”
So it’s essentially standard Holmes fare, and a good mystery with a clever resolution. Holmes is in fine form, it’s always nice to visit with him and Watson, and all in all it’s a good Holmes story. The biggest point of interest for me is that Moriarty is referenced here. I had always previously thought that he was only in the single short story (and, of course, many adaptations). There’s more about him here, which explains a lot.
The funny thing about this book is that it’s in two parts. Part One I described above–Part Two is a flashback into one character’s past in the Valley of Fear. I feel like I can see here Doyle’s desire to get away from Holmes, because he’s essentially given us a non-Holmes novella in the middle of a Holmes novel. It’s interesting enough, but not as good as the section with Holmes.
It suffers also from a rather peculiar problem which is hard to discuss without spoilers. Doing my best…there’s a twist near the end which changes almost everything that came before it. The problem is, in order to give the impression which leads to the shocking twist, for most of the book we’re dealing with very unlikable characters. It might have been better as a short story, when we wouldn’t have to spend quite as much time with unpleasant people.
Even so, if you’re a Holmes fan, this is definitely worth reading for the mystery in the first half, and the insight into Moriarty. And it was a great choice for my trip, because I was in a Holmes mood. You see, one of the places I visited was 221B Baker Street.
I had heard it was a tourist trap, but it was better than reported–at least, part of it. As I think about it, the museum actually has a fair bit in common with The Valley of Fear. It opens splendid and very Holmesian, and then diminishes as you go.
221B Baker Street, of course, is the home of Holmes and Watson. It’s very vertical–you get to visit three small floors. The first level has the parlor and Holmes’ bedroom, and this level is absolutely superb. Every detail you could want is there, with Irene Adler’s photo on the mantel, Holmes’ tobacco in a slipper, and Watson’s medical bag on a chair. In Holmes’ room there’s an open book on beekeeping, which he took up after he retired from detective work–it’s those little details that really impressed me.
The next floor is sort of Watson’s room and Mrs. Hudson’s room (although I never had the impression before that the landlady lived in the same apartment…) This level is a mix of period things and Holmes memorabilia. Both are interesting, but they do sit a little oddly together.
The third floor is fairly dreadful. It’s all done up with mannequins meant to be characters from different stories, and for whatever reason they made choices towards the macabre and the grotesque. It’s all rather creepy–and I was there at ten in the morning. I shudder to think what it’s like in the dark.
But like The Valley of Fear, the museum is all worth it for the beginning. The parlor makes you feel like you’ve stepped into the stories.
Stay tuned this Saturday for more pictures from 221B Baker Street. I’m anticipating a Holmes-themed Saturday Snapshot!
The Literary Omnivore
The Flying Inn