Monday, October 19, 2009

The Valley of Fear by A.C. Doyle (Hard Case Crime)

If you're a crime-fiction enthusiast, it's likely you've encountered the work of author A.C. Doyle. His books and stories are internationally renowned, especially his private investigator series, of which The Valley of Fear was the last novel. (My favorite is the one about the dog.)

Doyle takes an interesting tack with The Valley of Fear in dividing the novel into two separate stories that tie together at the end. Part one involves solving a coded message connected to the author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid — hardly the subject matter one would expect to find in a Hard Case Crime novel. But when the murder victim is a man shot in the face with an American sawed-off shotgun at point-blank range, we're firmly in hard-boiled territory.

Some seem to think it was a suicide. Not hardly, with a dirty bootprint near the window. Is a secret society behind it all? The victim's wife remembers him saying, "I have been in the Valley of Fear. I am not out of it yet." Is there a conspiracy? And who is Bodymaster McGinty? Even the police think the case contains "some very perplexing and extraordinary features."

Part two is the lengthy story behind the crime, as written by the deceased himself. It involves The Scowrers, a cadre of freemasons led by McGinty on a rash of beatings and killings. Freemasons? Gangsters, more like. The group seems invincible until a Pinkerton comes on the scene.

Though the detective is understandably absent for the backstory, this portion is sometimes the more interesting, given its view into an underworld of sorts. Doyle offers a tentative solution to the mystery at the end of part one, but it is not until after part two, in the epilogue, that all the pieces finally fit together. The Valley of Fear is definitely one of the author's most underrated works. In style, it is the most ambitious of the series (though the first novel in the series also contains a lengthy digression into the past), and I'm glad to see Hard Case Crime giving it the respect it deserves.

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