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Having just read the best of the Holmes novels, I turn now to what is definitely the worst. There is one really good twist, as Holmes works out what really happened in the shooting incident (though I must say I'd have expected a bit more evidence of it at the scene of the crime). But we take quite a long time getting there, and several other bits of the story have been done better before; Holmes and Watson are off-stage for quite a lot of the book; and we never quite sort out the Moriarty connection either.

It's clear that Doyle drew on two real-life crime stories for the back-story to The Valley of Fear - interesting that both of them are in fact stories of Irish political violence (and Moriarty is of course a Kerry name). Ireland is not very visible in the Sherlock Holmes canon, but this is an exception. (Both Doyle's parents were Irish Catholics though he grew up in Edinburgh.) The story of McMurdo/Edwards/Douglas and the Scowrers is almost identical to that of Armagh man James McParland penetrating the Molly Maguires in the 1870s; and the mysterious murder on a ship off the coast of Africa at the end of the story is drawn from the fate of James Carey, who informed on the Invincibles responsible for the Phoenix Park Murders of 1882. It is instructive that Doyle wasn't really able to make this rather factually based story work terribly well - he is much better when he sticks to the products of his own imagination.

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