The Colonial Conan Doyle: British Imperialism, Irish Nationalism, and the Gothic

By Catherine Wynne | Go to book overview

Chapter 1

Imperial War and Colonial Sedition: Soldiers, Mollies, and Fenians

Ernest W. Lucy commences his 1882 study of an Irish-American secret society by noting some interesting discrepancies between fiction and fact: “It is a trite saying, that the romance of real life is more romantic than that of fiction. And, if we set aside those fictions, which call in the supernatural to enhance their interest, that saying is not far from the truth. No sensational novels (hardly excepting those of Wilkie Collins) contain incidents more terribly mysterious than many of the facts occurring in the records of human crime and calamity.” 1 The year 1887—five years after Lucy's observations—witnessed the arrival of Sherlock Holmes with the detective's first story, A Study in Scarlet, which featured in Beeton's Christmas Annual. Undoubtedly, Holmes outclassed Collins' Sergeant Cuff's forays into detection as he delved into the mysterious, the sinister, and the sensational Victorian underworld of crime. Holmes discovered the criminal and the uncanny in the seemingly ordinary. But Lucy's generalization becomes more specific. “Among such facts, ” he continues, “there are few more notable in later years than the long series of crimes committed in the State of Pennsylvania by the secret association known there as the Molly Maguires, with the circumstances which resulted in its ultimate detection, and in the condign punishment of the chief criminals.” 2 It is hardly surprising, therefore, that when William Pinkerton, whose family's detective agency was instrumental in bringing the society to justice, allegedly related the Molly Maguire story to Doyle on a transatlantic crossing at the turn of the century, the writer should later appropriate it for a Holmesian escapade. 3 The result was The Valley of Fear, published in 1915.

The Valley of Fear is not Doyle's only story with an Irish theme—the Molly Maguires of Pennsylvania, who feature in this story as the Scowrers, could claim their antecedents in, and affinity to, an agrarian secret organization

-19-

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