Arguably the most famous fictional character in history, Sherlock Holmes is synonymous with “great detective.” His place as the most brilliant detective in all of literature is challenged only possibly by Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Sherlock Holmes is described as tall, thin, and reserved, with an aquiline nose and penetrating eyes. He is incredibly brilliant, moderately vain, and often impatient with those who are unable to keep up with his rapid deductions. This particular novel, ironically enough, probably contains less of Holmes than any of the others, with the great sleuth being contained largely to Part I. In The Valley of Fear, we do not see as much of the “bloodhound” Holmes; rather, he seems to penetrate the mystery rather quickly, and the true heart of the story instead lies in the second part. Still, he remains intellectually superior without a doubt, even when surrounded by other successful detectives.
Dr. John Watson
Perhaps just as famous as his brilliant partner, Dr. John Watson is the loyal sidekick of Sherlock Holmes, appearing in almost every Sherlock Holmes story ever written by Conan Doyle. Through almost the entire canon, we see everything through Watson’s eyes: the story is presented as if written firsthand by the good doctor himself. Such is the case in much of The Valley of Fear, though Conan Doyle departs from this perspective for much of Part II. Watson, fairly intelligent in his own right, seems to remain in a constant state of stupor over Holmes’ brilliance, and often voices the reader’s own confusions concerning the detective’s rapid deductions. Watson’s presence is fairly insignificant in this particular novel, appearing in only a few scenes in which Holmes was not present as well. Watson is often described as stout and somewhat withdrawn, as well as being very easy-going in nature.
Professor James Moriarty
Every great fictional hero has an equally great nemesis. Sherlock Holmes is no exception. One of the most infamous characters in literature, Moriarty ironically appears in only two Sherlock Holmes stories. Indeed, he does not ever actually appear in The Valley of Fear: he is only referenced, and, at the end of the book, Holmes receives a short note from him. Nonetheless, Moriarty remains one of the central characters of this novel, and he is revealed to be the mastermind behind Douglas’ demise.
John Douglas/Jack McMurdo/Birdy Edwards
This crucial and multi-dimensional character (to whom we will refer as Douglas for the sake of clarity) could really be considered three different characters contained in one man. Introduced at the beginning of the story as John Douglas, this man appears to be a faceless victim, simply the object of Holmes’ investigation. Towards the end of Part I, however, Douglas is revealed to be very much alive, and he commences to share his history, which comprises nearly the entirety of Part II. During this “story within a story," we learn that Douglas once bore the name “Jack McMurdo," and that he was part of a notorious gang in the United States, which was not unlike the Mafia. At the end of Part II, however, we learn that “McMurdo” is really a Pinkerton detective named “Birdy Edwards." Throughout all three of his “identities," Douglas is described as fearless, intelligent, and good-humored. Douglas is an example of Conan Doyle’s skill as a writer, in that the reader is able to accept with little difficulty the composition of the “three-in-one” character.
Boss (Bodymaster) McGinty
Mentioned in Part I, but not fully introduced until Part II, Boss McGinty is one of the major villains of this novel. The cruel and brutal leader of “the Scowrers," a murderous society not unlike the Mafia, McGinty is a fearsome leader, described as looking almost like a lion, with fierce eyes and a mane-like beard. McGinty is the undisputed lord of Vermissa Valley, which many call the “Valley of Fear.” The Bodymaster (the title of the head of the Scowrers) rules over the valley with an iron fist, crushing anyone who gets in his way through the agents beneath him. McGinty could be seen as an American Moriarty, though neither as intelligent nor as powerful.
Scotland Yard's main law enforcement official on the Douglas case, and a friend of Holmes's. MacDonald is smart, efficient, young, dour, and stoic.
The local law enforcement man on the Douglas case. Friendly and helpful, he nonetheless feels like he is in over his head.
John Douglas's second wife, Mrs. Douglas (Ivy) is young and beautiful. She suspects something is wrong with her husband regarding his past, but he keeps her ignorant. She and Cecil decide to fabricate the crime scene, but then they confess to Holmes and the others.
The wealthy and handsome American friend of the Douglasses who helps orchestrate the crime scene to protect Douglas. He is initially arrogant and standoffish, but ultimately he comes around to letting the detectives help.
The elderly and loyal butler at Manor House.
The elderly and deaf housekeeper at Manor House.
He is the Scowrer whom McMurdo meets on the train into coal country. Scanlan is amiable, helpful, and a loyal member of the E.O.F., but he does not like violence as much as some of the others do.
The lovely daughter of Jacob Shafter, the man with whom McMurdo boards. She and McMurdo fall in love, but their relationship is strained by Baldwin's claim on her, along with the dangerous situations McMurdo faces due to his status as a brother. When McMurdo reveals himself as Birdy Edwards, she flees the valley with him. She later dies in California.
Ettie's father and a stout foe of the E.O.F.
The young and hotheaded brother who wants to marry Ettie and resents McMurdo getting in his way. He continually butts heads with McMurdo; however, he grudgingly accepts him, until his true identity is revealed. He tracks McMurdo to England and tries to kill him; instead, McMurdo/Douglas kills Baldwin in self-defense.
An elderly brother who disapproves of the Scowrers' violent tactics and warns that they must be careful in their targets. He seeks out McMurdo as an ally and later provides the information about the Pinkerton spy to McMurdo, thereby unwittingly providing it to the spy himself.
The formidable County Delegate and E.O.F. leader, of whom even McGinty is wary.
Lawler and Andrews
The assassins sent by Evans Pott to carry out the murders at the mine.
A local mine owner targeted by the Scowrers.
The newspaper editor critical of the Scowrers; McGinty orders him to be beaten.
The new member of the Iron and Coal Police who initially seems to be an enemy of McMurdo; later, however, he is revealed to be in on McMurdo's true identity as a Pinkerton undercover agent.
The Valley of Fear Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Valley of Fear is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.