Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Valley of Fear


Baring-Gould dates The Valley of Fear in January of 1888. Most chronologists, however, place the case later in Holmes' career. There is some evidence to suggest that Baring-Gould's date is correct. Watson is living in Baker Street, and unmarried in this adventure, suggesting a date either before or after Mary Morstan. The fact that Watson mentions the late 80s in his narrative suggests a time before Mary. Even more suggestive is the presence of Moriarty, whom the reader will recall fell to his death in 1891, a date which precludes dating the adventure after Mary Morstan. There is also some suggestion that this case took place shortly after the release of A Study in Scarlet, as several characters mention Watson's writing. A Study in Scarlet first appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual in December of 1887, nearly a month before this case is said to have taken place. The Valley of Fear was first published in the Strand Magazine between 1914 and 1915.


The Valley of Fear is one of four Sherlock Holmes novels, written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Like A Study in Scarlet, the book is divided into two parts; the first half following Holmes' investigation of a murder, the second half shifting to a third person account of the events which led up to the murder. The Valley of Fear begins with a dire warning from one of Holmes' informants, a man simply known as Porlock, who is the one exploitable link in Moriarty's chain. Despite this warning being written in cipher, with no key, Holmes and Watson are quickly able to translate the message and discover that danger threatens a man by the name of John Douglas. Unfortunately for Holmes, the message comes too late, as Holmes quickly discovers that Douglas has been murdered. Holmes heads out to the scene, only to discover that the entire case hinges on a missing dumbbell. The discovery of said dumbbell leads to the discovery of Douglas, alive and well. It is only some time later, after reading Douglas' account of the events leading up to the mystery (presented to the audience in a third person narrative entitled, The Scowrers) that Holmes discovers that Douglas is still in grave danger. Unfortunately for Holmes, his insight comes too late, and Holmes, who knows a Moriarty when he sees one, can only ask for more time, knowing that one day he will have his revenge upon the man behind Douglas' eventual murder.

The Subtext:

The Valley of Fear begins with an examination of domestic life in Baker Street. Here we are given a glimpse of Holmes and Watson in the midst of their daily routine, passing the time between cases with banter and observation. There is an air of sarcasm in Holmes' tone, and indeed, frustration in Watson's, and one cannot help but wonder at the reasons behind this obvious tiff.

Their conversation, however, quickly turns to deduction. Holmes has just received an encrypted letter, which he is eager to decipher for it comes from an employee of Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty.

"You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?"

"The famous scientific criminal, as famous among crooks as -- "

"My blushes, Watson!" Holmes murmured in a deprecating voice.

"I was about to say, as he is unknown to the public."

"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."

While scholars have often debated this comment on the grounds that Watson, in The Final Problem (which took place some three years after The Valley of Fear) does not appear to know Moriarty, our interest here stems from the playfulness of the exchange. Holmes, used to Watson's constant state of awe, automatically assumes that Watson intends to compliment him. That Watson is able to demonstrate such wit, and that his correction instantly places Holmes on his guard, is quite delightful. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder if this correction was Watson's means of getting even for Holmes' earlier sarcasm.

We also get the impression that Holmes is quite proud of Watson for his touch, and yet there is an underlying sense of nervousness, Holmes uncertain how to deal with this particular Watson; an indication, perhaps, that Holmes is well aware of how close he has allowed Watson to get. That Holmes should fear this intimacy is quite suggestive, for Canon has often depicted Holmes as a fairly reserved individual, and one can only imagine the nervous tension that would arise with the introduction of an intimate relationship.

Unable to reconcile these emotions, Holmes quickly turns the topic back to Moriarty, vowing almost feverishly that he shall some day contribute to Moriarty's downfall.

"But if I am spared by lesser men, our day will surely come."

"May I be there to see!" I exclaimed devoutly.

Watson, as we observe, is more than willing to stand at Holmes' side when this occasion comes, the devotion in his statement quite telling, especially when one considers that Watson has earlier stated that he is one of the most long-suffering of mortals.

We see here, too, Holmes' assumption that Watson will be by his side, Holmes' reference to our day indicating that Watson has become an integral part of Holmes' work, and indeed, life. Holmes appears to know, too, Watson's devotion, for his statement is an assumption, not a request.

The Valley of Fear is also quite remarkable in that it showcases Watson's intelligence. One can easily imagine the pride Holmes must have felt upon allowing Watson to deduce, and having Watson deduce correctly.

"But no chain is stronger than its weakest link."

"Exactly, my dear Watson!

There is a distinct note of smugness in Holmes' tone, suggesting that he expects no less from Watson, and yet is still quite thrilled to hear Watson echo his thoughts.

Here Holmes and Watson turn their attention to decrypting the letter Holmes has received. The task is not an easy one, for the key has not been provided.

Again Holmes flattened out the paper upon his unused plate. I rose and, leaning over him, stared down at the curious inscription...

The above statement is quite interesting, for Holmes has already read the inscription, and could have very easily handed the paper to Watson. Instead, Holmes keeps the paper in front of him, forcing Watson to stand directly behind him and glance over his shoulder. One cannot help but wonder at Holmes' motives here. Although several explanations present themselves, it is entirely probable that Holmes desired Watson's closeness. This speaks to Holmes' need for Watson's physical presence. That Watson does not question this behaviour, but instead seems quite willing to drape himself over Holmes' back, is quite telling.

Indeed, the physical proximity of the two men is mirrored by an emotional closeness, with Holmes, on several occasions, complimenting Watson and indicating his extreme gladness at having Watson as a companion.

Brilliant, Watson. You are scintillating this morning.

Quite a suggestive statement, especially when one considers how closely the entire exercise in decoding the cipher resembles an interaction between tutor and student. Holmes pride is continuously noticeable, and Watson's pleasure at receiving Holmes' praise is quite obvious. There is fondness in the exchange, but perhaps more telling, there is acute affection which seems to sparkle between the two men.

Indeed, even when Watson begins to doubt his talents, Holmes is only too quick to encourage him.

Surely you do yourself an injustice.

Holmes is very careful here not to reveal his own conclusions, instead leading Watson, coaxing him until he arrives at the same conclusion, after which Holmes states:

Excellent, Watson! I am very much mistaken if you have not touched the spot.

There is such pride in Holmes' words, and one gets the impression that nothing thrills Holmes more than knowing how far Watson has come in the art of deduction. The entire exchange is even more telling when one considers Holmes' earlier apprehension. Despite an obvious fear of intimacy, Holmes seems unable to shut Watson out, an indication of just how ingrained in Holmes' life Watson has become.

Of course, Holmes and Watson's deduction does not quite bring about the solution they were looking for. Holmes seems quite depressed by this, and Watson is quick to adopt Holmes' mood, something which suggests a high level of empathy between the two men.

He had spoken in jesting vein, but the twitching of his bushy eyebrows bespoke his disappointment and irritation. I sat helpless and unhappy, staring into the fire.

Fortunately, the answer proves relatively simply, and Holmes is quickly able to once again put them on the right track.

Their investigation is interrupted by the arrival of Inspector MacDonald, a Scotland Yard detective that Holmes seems quite fond of. Indeed, Watson tells us:

Holmes was not prone to friendship, but he was tolerant of the big Scotchman, and smiled at the sight of him.

While this is largely due to Holmes' appreciation of MacDonald's skills as an Inspector, it is curious to note here that Watson tells us that Holmes is not prone to friendship. He does not state that Holmes considers MacDonald a friend, but rather, that Holmes is tolerant of the man, a suggestion which indicates that Watson was, in fact, Holmes' only friend.

MacDonald is the first to tell Holmes of Douglas' death, and seems surprised that Holmes knows something of the matter. Holmes quickly explains the cipher they received, indicating that it forewarned them of the danger Douglas was in. As the facts of the case come to light, Holmes is only too eager to follow MacDonald to Birlstone, the site of the murder.

Upon arriving in Birlstone, the men are met by a Sussex detective by the name of White Mason, who states:

There are some bits that will come home to you, Mr. Holmes, or I am mistaken. And you also, Dr. Watson; for the medicos will have a word to say before we finish. Your room is at the Westville Arms.

This statement contains two curious suggestions. The first is that Mason, a detective unknown to both Holmes and Watson, assumed that the two would arrive together. Indeed, he calls them both by name long before they are formally introduced. The second is that he has secured a room for them at the local inn. That this detective would know that Holmes would arrive with Watson is curious, but that he would assume they would be sharing a room is something else entirely.

I want to deviate now from the story at hand to touch on a curious subplot. The Valley of Fear revolves around the death of one John Douglas. John Douglas has a long time friend and companion, Mr. Cecil Barker. The two appear quite close; indeed, Watson tells us:

He was the more noticed as being the only friend of the past unknown life of Mr. Douglas who was ever seen in his new English surroundings. Barker was himself an undoubted Englishman; but by his remarks it was clear that he had first known Douglas in America and had there lived on intimate terms with him. He appeared to be a man of considerable wealth, and was reputed to be a bachelor.

And, Mr. Barker, when speaking of Mr. Douglas, states:

He was fond of me -- no man could be fonder of a friend. And he was devoted to his wife. He loved me to come here, and was forever sending for me. And yet if his wife and I talked together or there seemed any sympathy between us, a kind of wave of jealousy would pass over him, and he would be off the handle and saying the wildest things in a moment. More than once I've sworn off coming for that reason, and then he would write me such penitent, imploring letters that I just had to.

One cannot help but wonder if Mr. Douglas' jealously stemmed not from Barker's interaction with his wife, but rather from his wife's interaction with Mr. Barker. Whatever the cause of Douglas' jealousy, there appears to have been quite an intimate relationship between Douglas and Barker; enough that Barker left America and followed Douglas to England. These subtextually heavy subplots exist throughout Canon, and one cannot help but wonder if this was done intentionally in an effort to direct the reader's attention to Holmes and Watson's relationship, and the unusual closeness which existed between them.

Turning back to Holmes and Watson, it appears as though their friendship is now so well known that the public at large is easily able to identify Watson without requiring an introduction.

We thought that it was probably you, as your friendship with Mr. Sherlock Holmes is so well known.

While some scholars have suggested that this is a direct result of Watson's writing, it should be noted that The Valley of Fear took place only a few short weeks after the release of A Study in Scarlet, a novel which, by all accounts, was not popular. Indeed, Holmes as a character did not become popularized until the release of A Scandal in Bohemia, which appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1891, some three years after the events in The Valley of Fear. Curious, then, to note that Holmes and Watson's relationship is so infamous that they are now assumed to travel together. One cannot help but wonder how often the pair made for idle gossip and dinner conversation. Truly, the public at large were already well aware of the subtle truth behind their relationship.

Holmes and Watson remain in Sussex for some time, Holmes investigating largely on his own, while Watson awaits Holmes' return at their inn.

He had spent the whole afternoon at the Manor House in consultation with his two colleagues, and returned about five with a ravenous appetite for a high tea which I had ordered for him.

Note here that it is Watson who, anticipating Holmes' return, orders high tea. A decidedly thoughtful, not to mention domestic thing to do.

With Holmes' return, the two immediately begin discussing the case, Watson still shrouded by perpetual darkness, Holmes immensely thrilled at being able to watch Watson attempt to struggle his way through the confusing evidence.

He sat with his mouth full of toast and his eyes sparkling with mischief, watching my intellectual entanglement.

Aside from Watson's now commonplace obsession with Holmes' eyes, we see here Holmes' love of the dramatic. Watson has always made for the best of audiences, something which undoubtedly delighted Holmes.

Holmes, eventually taking pity on Watson, begins to explain in earnest, pausing only briefly to state:

"You may argue -- but I have too much respect for your judgment, Watson, to think that you will do so..."

Here we have undisputed proof of the respect Holmes afforded Watson. Indeed, on several occasions Holmes has noted his respect for Watson's intelligence, and this is no exception. Truly, Holmes considered Watson an equal when it came to intellectual matters.

Their discussion turns to Mrs. Douglas, a topic which causes Holmes to state:

"I am not a whole-souled admirer of womankind, as you are aware, Watson."

This is not the first time Holmes has stated, rather plainly, his distaste for women. It warrants repetition, however, for aside from alluding to Holmes' sexual preferences, this statement also suggests that Watson is somehow familiar with these preferences; a sign, perhaps, that Holmes and Watson's relationship has shifted to something entirely more intimate?

Watson takes Holmes statement in stride, and asks if Holmes suspects Mrs. Douglas of murder. Holmes seems quite shocked by this, for he is used to subtlety from Watson; indeed, the whole of their relationship demands subtlety.

"There is an appalling directness about your questions, Watson," said Holmes, shaking his pipe at me. "They come at me like bullets.

While at first glace the above statement speaks only to the case and to Watson's assumption that Mrs. Douglas and Mr. Barker were responsible for the murder of Mr. Douglas, upon a second reading, it becomes evident that Holmes' shock stems from something far more subtle. The Victorians were not known for their directness, tending to hide meaning within metaphors and imagery. So encoded was the Victorian language that even modern day Victorian scholars seem hard pressed to unravel it. It should not come as a surprise, then, to note that Holmes is referring to Watson's presumption in this statement, rather than his assignment of blame. Watson, a man of propriety, would very rarely speak so bluntly, and Holmes, unprepared for this new side of Watson, is uncertain how to reply. The comfort level between them has shifted; Watson's openness and willingness to state his thoughts so plainly are clear indications that their relationship has reached a new level, one which very likely frightened Holmes.

Indeed, so overcome by this shift is Holmes that he immediately requests an evening alone with his thoughts. Watson, as we will see, is quite incredulous.

"Well, if there were an outsider, he may be traced and taken. That would be the most effective of all proofs. But if not -- well, the resources of science are far from being exhausted. I think that an evening alone in that study would help me much."

"An evening alone!"

This retreat of Holmes lends further proof to the above point, suggesting that Holmes is not yet prepared for the ramifications of this subtle shift in his relationship with Watson. That Watson would express outrage at Holmes' desire to spend a night alone is quite telling of the emotional dependency Watson has developed, and, indeed, of the growing frustration that came with trying to maintain an intimate relationship with Holmes.

Beyond Watson's shock, there is also an element of fear and worry.

"Certainly -- but what a wretched weapon! If there is danger -- "

"Nothing serious, my dear Watson, or I should certainly ask for your assistance.

Note Holmes' reassurance that he would take Watson if he felt there was some danger. This is a clear indication of trust, and Holmes' means of reassuring Watson of his place in Holmes' life. Here Holmes has clarified that he does not intend to dissolve their union, but rather, that he simply requires a moment to gather his thoughts.

It was late that night when Holmes returned from his solitary excursion. We slept in a double-bedded room, which was the best that the little country inn could do for us. I was already asleep when I was partly awakened by his entrance.

"Well, Holmes," I murmured, have you found anything out?"

He stood beside me in silence, his candle in his hand. Then the tall, lean figure inclined towards me. "I say, Watson," he whispered, "would you be afraid to sleep in the same room with a lunatic, a man with softening of the brain, an idiot whose mind has lost its grip?"

"Not in the least," I answered in astonishment.

"Ah, that's lucky," he said, and not another word would he utter that night.

The above passage presents several points of interest. Note first that Watson states that they slept in a double-bedded room. He does not state that they slept in separate beds. In fact, he goes on to state that this was the best the little country inn could do for them. That Watson should want for a single double bed, rather than two twin beds is not only possible, but entirely probable.

Note too Watson's description of Holmes standing over him. The intimacy of this scene is really quite striking, and one cannot help but notice Holmes' whispering, an act which would have required the two men to be quite close.

Then there is Holmes' question, and Watson's reassurance; Watson cares not that Holmes might have lost his sense of reason, only that Holmes has come home. The final passage is even more suggestive, leaving a vacant space in the reader's mind to fill in exactly what Holmes passed the night doing that required the absence of words.

Indeed, the morning following this scene shows us a cheerful Holmes, content and satisfied with the current state of affairs, despite the presence of a still open case. What else, then, could have caused Holmes' good mood? Recall that sex, in any form, but particularly sex between two men, was a fairly taboo subject during the Victorian Era (these were the same people who covered their table legs to avoid thinking of sex) and so, often in literature, sex was alluded to but never openly discussed. In fact, sex was often disguised within coded language. These codes can be applied to the above sentence, where Holmes mentions, quite frankly, insanity, a condition which was often associated with homosexual sex.

Nowhere in Canon will we see an open reference to sex (recall that Doyle never once mentions physical relations between Dr. Watson and his wife Mary, and yet the reader can easily presume that they existed), but we are presented with several suggestive scenes indicative of an instance where sex may have occurred. Clearly, decoding the subtext takes on new meaning when one examines the innuendo hidden within the Victorian language.

Holmes laughed. "Watson insists that I am the dramatist in real life," said he.

Veiled references to sex not withstanding, I am certain the reader will agree that the above quote is very suggestive. Such a statement sounds suspiciously like something a wife would say of her husband, not something a friend would say of his companion.

The story eventually shifts, giving way to Douglas' story of The Scowrers, but before Watson relinquishes his pen, he assures us:

And when I have detailed those distant events and you have solved this mystery of the past, we shall meet once more in those rooms on Baker Street, where this, like so many other wonderful happenings, will find its end.

Watson paints a very romantic picture of Baker Street here, and one cannot help but picture Holmes and Watson, seated across from one another next to the fire, perhaps sharing in the smoking of pipes, as Watson reads the strange tale which follows Watson's statement, Holmes listening with a contented air.

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