Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's final Sherlock Holmes novel, "The Valley of Fear", is notable for being the only story other than the short story The Final Problem where Professor Moriarty plays a direct role. We know that the "The Valley of Fear" is set before The Final Problem, even though it was written afterwards. I'm wondering if it's possible to more accurately date the novel, within the fictional chronology of Sherlock Holmes stories. If, for example, there are references to older cases Sherlock and Watson solved.

Although I do realize that Moriarty was solely intended as a device to kill off Holmes, I would like to get a vague idea of how long Holmes was aware of the existence of "the famous scientific criminal".

1 Answer 1


In Chapter I, we have a rough indication of the year, when Inspector MacDonald arrives (p. 4):

Those were the early days at the end of the ’80’s, when Alec MacDonald was far from having attained the national fame which he has now achieved.

For comparison, this falls around the time of one of Doyle's earliest works, The Sign of the Four, set in 1888. Now, at the end of the first part, Watson asks readers to "journey back some twenty years in time" for the second part of the story, which takes place in 1874 and 1875. Clearly, the first part can't take place in 1895 because Moriarty was dead by then - The Final Problem takes place in 1891. So if we assume that "twenty years" is an approximation, we can place The Valley of Fear at 1888 or 1889.

I would place the story at 1889, given that it's a better approximation, but Watson appears to be living with Holmes at the time. In the epilogue, they receive a letter:

Then one morning there came an enigmatic note slipped into our letter box.

This is further supported when it is confirmed that Mrs. Hudson is still the pair's landlady. Dr. Watson married sometime in 1889, meaning that the events took place sometime that year or in 1888 - possibly 1888. It appears that Watson married in 1888, as per The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor.

We can be more specific as to the day. Holmes notes that he ordered the new edition of Whitaker’s Almanac because it is January 7th of the new year.

I have some evidence here and there that Holmes has known about Moriarty for perhaps a few years. It must not have been too long, because while when Holmes first mentions Moriarty (p. 1), Watson exclaims that he has heard about the criminal before (from Holmes) - although in The Final Problem, he states that he has never heard of him! Likewise, the police are likely unaware of Moriarty's doings. MacDonald tells Holmes that Scotland Yard and other agencies have a favorable impression of the Professor (p. 5):

. . . we think in the C. I. D. that you have a wee bit of a bee in your bonnet over this professor. I made some inquiries myself about the matter. He seems to be a very respectable, learned, and talented sort of man.”

Holmes changes this impression by pointing out that Moriarty could not afford several luxuries than he has - a painting by Jean Baptiste Greuze, for instance - on a professor's salary. This may be the first time the police consider Moriarty a potential criminal, which is admittedly unsurprising, given that Moriarty's web keeps him well-hidden.

Holmes does say that he has been in Moriarty's rooms three time on various occasions, though he has yet to meet the Professor himself. He also mentions that he has "dozens of exiguous threads" that implicate Moriarty in various crimes, and that it could take MacDonald anywhere from three months to two years to study him. This suggests that Holmes has been aware of Moriarty's activities for some time - possibly a few years.

Putting this all together, I think we can estimate that Holmes knew about Moriarty since at least, say, 1885 or 1886.

  • It can't be as early as 1886, because at the end of Part One we "journey back some twenty years in time" to 1875.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 23, 2017 at 0:30
  • @Randal'Thor It can't be 1895, either, because Moriarty was dead by then. It could be that the 20 years refers to 20 years from the date of the publication, but that would put it much later, unless Watson supposedly released this in 1895.
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 23, 2017 at 0:31
  • Sure, but approximating eleven by twenty would be a stretch. Approximating fifteen of sixteen by twenty would be much more plausible, and would set TVoF not long before TFP. This makes sense, IMO, given the extent of Holmes's knowledge of Moriarty; I get the feeling that the web is beginning to close.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 23, 2017 at 0:32
  • @Randal'Thor Fair enough. I'll put it in 1889, then - 14 years. Any longer and we're out of the 1880s.
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 23, 2017 at 0:33
  • If according to the stories, "The Valley of Fear" takes place before "The Final Problem", then why doesn't Watson know about Moriarty in the latter story? That is the main question.
    – MH Holmez
    Apr 21, 2021 at 10:49

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