Monday, February 26, 2007


The Valley of Fear’s Visit From Porlock

Porlock is an infamous name in literature; the place from which a traveller hiked to interrupt Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s delirious poetry. It complicates another fantasy as a character in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s last Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear. “Fred Porlock” is a lieutenant of Professor Moriarty’s and an informant for Mr Holmes, setting up an entertaining puzzle to start the story and to tell the reader ‘Moriarty is involved, so this is important’. But he’s a puzzle himself: why does he want to tip Holmes off, what good will his tip do, and who is he anyway?

BBC7 is in the middle of broadcasting every single one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. These radio plays star Clive Merrison as Sherlock, and they started them off a few weeks ago with two-part adaptations of the four novels. I’ve been half-listening to several of them and, half-listening to The Valley of Fear, I was surprised to find that I didn’t recognise it. Turns out that, very unusually among these stories, I’d neither read nor seen it, so I listened a little more carefully. I’ve read it since, too. Well, I spotted one obvious twist at once and the other very late – some effective misdirection by Sir Arthur over at Birlstone House – but, thinking about it, Porlock and Moriarty made up a lingering puzzle afterwards. Stop reading in two paragraphs from now, by the way, if you don’t know the solution to The Valley of Fear and don’t want it spoiled (another mystery is why, despite the ubiquity of Moriarty in Holmes’ screen adaptations, this one’s hardly ever been made; I suspect it’s the large section in the American mining town that both causes a problem for UK filming and absents Holmes for even longer than in The Hound of the Baskervilles).

Moriarty’s Insinuations

Moriarty’s a peculiar character in the Sherlock Holmes stories; he’s only introduced in The Final Problem to kill Holmes off, and the novel I’m examining, the only other one of the original stories to feature him, was written two decades later. It’s set before The Final Problem, so there’s no suggestion from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that Moriarty returns from the dead (though there are a couple of contradictions with the earlier-written, later-set tale and its aftermath). His involvement in The Valley of Fear is merely a bookend that adds extra weight to it, and – retrospectively – makes Moriarty seem more like the ever-present figure he really wasn’t in the original tales, though the adaptations starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes also insinuated him into The Red-Headed League, rather successfully. Yet he’s the villain that seized the public imagination. If you see a Sherlock Holmes film, odds-on it’ll either be The Hound of the Baskervilles or feature Moriarty, who does keep coming back from the dead in the Basil Rathbone films; I suspect it’s because a villain who’s the equal of Holmes seems much more interesting than the ones he can destroy from his armchair (perhaps Irene Adler just isn’t villainous enough to have caught on in the same way). It’s a little like the over-use of the Master and the Daleks in Doctor Who – if you’re going to have a big event, everyone wants the arch-enemy or the scary monster.

Moriarty doesn’t carry out crimes in person, at least not in the original stories, but instead makes plans for his own huge criminal syndicate and acts as a consulting master criminal to others. Both aspects of his ‘work’ crop up in The Valley of Fear. “Fred Porlock” is a lieutenant in Moriarty’s organisation, and Moriarty has been sub-contracted to locate someone for a vicious American gang. We hear that Moriarty pays his chief of staff, Colonel Sebastian Moran of evil memory, the enormous sum of £6,000 a year (more than the Prime Minister), so if “Porlock” works closely with him, why are Holmes’ occasional bribes of a tenner by post sufficient to prise anonymous warnings from “Porlock”? They can’t add much to his wages from the Professor, and they imperil his life. Holmes suggests that “Porlock” has been experiencing pangs of conscience; so how did he rise so high under the ruthless Professor? Now, the opening chapter – in which Holmes receives a coded message from “Porlock”, then another which instead of supplying the key writes in fear and haste to say that he may have been discovered and Holmes should forget it all – is very entertaining. It’s great fun to read how Holmes deduces the way to break the cipher anyway. That makes it easy to miss that those carefully disguised words are ones like “danger”, “is”, “soon” and the like, but the words written in full (as they don’t appear in the book that provides the key) are “Douglas” and “Birlstone”. If “Porlock” was afraid of incriminating himself, it wasn’t the carefully enciphered words warning of some vague danger that would do so – it was the name of the man and the place under threat of murder that would stand out, and those are the very words he writes down clearly. In fact, never mind the cipher; a message from Moriarty’s underling, delivered in fear and at deadly risk – you’d know it was some urgent warning, so wouldn’t you try and chase down “Douglas” and “Birlstone” anyway (though Holmes doesn’t have to start on this trickier piece of legwork, as a police inspector bursts in at that very moment to tell of the murder of a Mr Douglas at Birlstone House)?

Who Is “Fred Porlock”?

I was discussing this with Richard the other evening, and he came up with a theory. The answer to both his motive and his apparent mistake lies in the question of who “Porlock” actually is. “Porlock”, suggests my beloved, is Moriarty himself. He sought out Holmes and contacts him only by post; though Holmes has on occasion penetrated Moriarty’s organisation, he’s never met “Porlock”. Perhaps Moriarty, knowing Holmes had begun to investigate him, decided to return the favour. How better than by checking if Holmes was clever and interested enough to pick up on the hints of an ‘informant’ spoon-feeding him disposable drops of information? And, of course, he makes Holmes pay for the privilege; as with the mole’s misinformation through a tainted source in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (part two on BBC4 tonight), something you’ve paid for always seems worth more than something given for free. The supplying of vital inside information just too late to be useful is familiar from the ‘stings’ in several episodes of Hustle, too.

Richard having put his hypothesis on the basis of the cryptic ‘warning’, I can find several pieces of supporting evidence within the story, and none that contradict it (unless you don’t wish to believe Sherlock Holmes could be taken in). What if Moriarty has more of a motive for tipping off Holmes on this particular case than just to add a touch of verisimilitude, too late, to Holmes’ ‘source’ should he wish in the future to use “Porlock” as a channel for misinformation? Well, look at how The Valley of Fear ends. Mr Holmes successfully deduces that Mr Douglas has not in fact been murdered, but instead killed his own intended assassin and dressed the body (of similar build, and with a horribly blasted face) in his own clothes in order to make other prospective killers believe him already dead. “Douglas” is another false name in this case, cover for a brilliant detective to escape retribution from the gang he rounded up, so – his cover blown – he flees to South Africa at the end of the story, but is lost “overboard” just as a sardonic note arrives for Holmes from Moriarty (unsigned but unmistakable). Moriarty has been hired to find a very clever detective, one who has already avoided death many times. What if the latest assassin should fail? Moriarty’s reputation rests on his omnipotence, and Holmes observes at the end that the “accident” is a sign that Moriarty does not allow himself to be associated with a failure.

How does Moriarty know that Douglas has evaded death at Birlstone? Even two rather competent police officers – Holmes, for once, gives them both credit – assume they’re investigating Douglas’ murder. But what if Moriarty decided to make absolutely sure that all had gone to plan in the case of a brilliant detective’s death by setting an even more brilliant detective to investigate it, reversing the usual ‘set a thief to catch a thief’? He has no way to foresee that the circumstances will turn out to be so bizarre that a leading Inspector will call Holmes in anyway, so “Porlock” sends Holmes a note to pique his interest, timed to arrive just after the attempt occurs. And it is indeed Holmes’ investigation that allows Moriarty to make sure of his own man.

Knowing Holmes Too Well…

Perhaps the writer of the radio adaptation with Clive Merrison had his own suspicions; while he doesn’t blame “Porlock”, in that version, unlike the book, Holmes does berate himself for the death, saying it’s all his own fault. That version, too, suggests Moriarty’s omniscience; the ‘American’ half of the book is told by a narrator in the third person, rather than in Watson’s subjective tones. In the penultimate scene of the radio play, this manuscript is delivered into Moriarty’s hands along with news of the “accident”. Suddenly, you recognise the voice of narrator Ronald Pickup now as the voice of Moriarty, and of course the scene closes with Moriarty starting to read it aloud – the first line we’d heard spoken at the opening of part one, bringing the tale full circle. This suggestion of Moriarty’s all-pervasiveness within the story, incidentally, was given an eerie little twist for me; with the first part broadcast on a Friday and the close the next Monday, who should walk by me on the street in the intervening weekend but Ronald Pickup? It’s as if the man was, appropriately, everywhere while the story was still underway. In the best of the Basil Rathbone films, too – the period mystery The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Moriarty diverts Holmes from the ‘mundane’ job of guarding the Crown Jewels by concocting a deliciously complex, clue-strewn and attention-grabbing murder. It’s occurred to other authors, then, that Moriarty might take advantage of Holmes’ jackdaw mind.

You want another piece of evidence from The Valley of Fear itself? Well, how about two in the name “Porlock”. When not occupied by an exciting case, Mr Holmes suffers from such ennui that he keeps his brilliant brain entertained by flooding it with cocaine. “Porlock” is, as I said at the beginning, famously associated with a traveller who interrupted a drug-fuelled flight of fantasy. Perhaps Moriarty is mocking Holmes’ reliance on recreational drugs by supplying him both with tidbits interesting enough to jolt him out of his hallucinations, and with a name suggesting someone else who did just that. Perhaps it’s an expression of fake solicitude, of mocking ‘sympathy’. ‘Poor Sherlock,’ Moriarty might have oiled, seeing this brilliant brain with nothing to divert it. ‘Poor Sherlock… Porlock.’

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