The great Detective Sherlock Holmes solves a case in England which leads to a secondary story in Vermissa Valley in the US. Sherlock Holmes must solve a mysterious murder but finds that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
The great detective Sherlock Holmes receives a coded message from a man known only as Porlock, an informant who provides Holmes with information on the criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty. The message tells Holmes that a man named Douglas at a place called Birlstone House is in danger. Just as Holmes and his friend Dr Watson decipher this, Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard arrives to ask for Holmes's help with the murder of Mr Douglas of Birlstone Manor House.
Although MacDonald is sceptical about the involvement of Moriarty, Holmes readily agrees to go with him to Birlstone, where they are met by local officer White Mason, who explains the situation. Also in the house at the time were Mrs Douglas and Cecil James Barker, a friend of the Douglas's. Douglas was shot in the head with a sawn off shotgun, almost completely destroying his head, but he is identifiable by a curious brand on his arm. A card was found near the body with ‘V.V. 341' written on it. Douglas's wedding ring is also missing but, curiously, the ring he wore above it remains; the killer must have removed both then replaced the other ring. Though a footprint on the window indicates a possible way out, Mason is still stumped as to how the murder escaped since the house's drawbridge was up. Holmes adds his own observation that one of Douglas's dumb-bells is missing.
Holmes interviews the servants and other people in the house, particularly questioning Barker about Douglas's time in America. Mrs Douglas too knows little of her husband's time in America but mentions a phrase he occasionally used concerning it; The Valley of Fear', and also the name ‘McGinty'.
Holmes discovers that the footprint on the window sill was made by Barker's slipper. From this and various other details in their stories, Holmes knows that Barker and Mrs Douglas are lying, but as yet he is not sure why. What he is sure of is the location of the missing dumb-bell and he instructs MacDonald to write a note informing Barker that they plan to drain the moat the following day.
That night, Holmes, Watson, MacDonald and Mason hide out in the garden to watch the moat and catch Cecil Barker fishing something out of it; a bundle of clothes weighed down by the missing dumb-bell. The clothes belong to an American who has been seen in Birlstone recently and whose bike was found nearby. A label in the clothes tell the detectives that they come from Vermissa Valley; V. V..
But Holmes has a greater revelation yet. When they are back inside he calls on Mr Douglas to tell his own story. The others are shocked as the supposedly murdered man enters, he has been hiding in a priest hole the last few days. The dead body is in fact Ted Baldwin, sent to kill Douglas but who ended up dead himself. Douglas and Barker made it seem that Douglas was dead in the hope of avoiding further attempts on Douglas's life. Baldwin has the same brand on his arm as they belonged to the same society but unfortunately Douglas could not remove his wedding ring to make the deception complete.
Douglas gives Dr Watson a bundle of papers which tells the next part of story; The Scowrers.
On the train to Vermissa Valley, John McMurdo meets Scanlan, a fellow member of the Eminent Order of Freemen. He confides to Scanlan that he is on the run from the law. Scanlan tells McMurdo to look up the Bodymaster of the Vermissa Lodge 341, Black Jack McGinty, who is also connected to a band of killers called the Scowrers.
McMurdo moves in with the Shafters and immediately falls for the daughter of the family, Ettie, but learns from her father that she is seeing another man, Ted Baldwin of the Scowrers. McMurdo also learns that the Scowrers and Freemen are one and the same and when he mentions that he is a Freeman Mr Shafter throws him out. When Baldwin confronts him McMurdo quickly heads for McGinty's place to establish himself as a fellow Freeman and makes a good impression. McGinty makes peace between the two men.
After an agonizing ritual in which his arm is branded, McMurdo is accepted into the Lodge. He joins in their illegal and violent activities but saves a man when Baldwin is ready to kill him. He is arrested for his part in the beating of a newspaper editor but saved by McGinty who is also a local councillor. The arrest makes him still more popular with the Scowrers but still less with Ettie's father, though she still loves him and McMurdo promises her that in 6 months everything will be alright, though he cannot tell her how.
McMurdo is told by a friend that the Pinkerton detective agency is after the Scowrers and have sent their best man, Birdy Edwards. McMurdo takes the news to McGinty and says that he knows Edwards by sight, he proposes trapping the detective at his new lodgings. But when the trap is sprung all the Scowrers find is McMurdo and the police. McMurdo is in fact Birdy Edwards and has been gathering evidence against the organisation.
Most of the Scowrers are arrested but Baldwin gets away, forcing McMurdo/Edwards and Ettie to run. Ettie dies and Edwards goes to England under the name Douglas, where he marries again. Sadly his running is not over. Sherlock Holmes knows that the Scowrers made contact with Professor Moriarty and he advises the Douglas's to run again. Unfortunately Mr Douglas is killed some weeks later. Holmes is sure it is Moriarty and vows that one day there will be a reckoning.
One of the most unusual of the Sherlock Holmes stories in its style (even before the US-set second half). Although written after the Final Problem in which Holmes finally confronts Moriarty, it is set before and anticipates that story's conclusion.
Best part of story, including ending:
It's nice to see an original Sherlock Holmes story with a new twist.
Best scene in story:
Holmes and Watson lie in wait for the man who has hidden something in the castle's moat. It's just a very evocative and tense scene.
Opinion about the main character:
I love Sherlock Holmes. He is a fantastic character and although he is almost superhuman in his intelligence he is seldom arrogant, it is matter of fact to him.