I must know the opening scene to The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-2) by heart. Of course, I’ve read the book at least half a dozen times, and the opening is the kind of scene that sticks in the mind. It’s also the opening after which so many Sherlock Holmes pastiche openings are modelled. The number of stage and screen adaptations of Baskervilles I’ve seen must be well into double figures, and from what I remember not one has deviated from this scene, with Holmes and Watson discussing a yet-to-appear guest, deducing his character from a walking stick he left in their flat.
It’s the most famous Sherlock Holmes novel, and one of the best-known detective stories – at least by title – of all time. I recently reread Baskervilles as part of a research project and found myself, as always, amazed by how funny the writing style can be. The humour kicks off in that opening scene, when Watson tries to apply Holmes’s methods of deduction and thinks he’s done well, only to be put in his place by a beautifully condescending Holmes. It’s sometimes hard to remember – and Arthur Conan Doyle himself didn’t believe it to be true – that Holmes is a very funny character. He’s acerbic and dismissive and it’s fun to see him put down everyone around him. I always want his deductions to be wrong but, of course, they never are.
The other thing that surprised me on this reading was how much like a golden age murder mystery Baskervilles is. It’s certainly a gothic story, replete with fog, moors on a which a man can lose his life, a house without electricity, creepy siblings, even creepier servants, and a family heritage of degeneracy. And, true, the murderer’s identity is revealed just over half-way through. But there are clues and deductions and the narrative is not finally resolved until all the loose ends have been tied up.
Doyle got the idea for The Hound of the Baskervilles on a golfing holiday in Norfolk (my home county). In the first printing of the story as a serial in the strand, he thanked ‘my friend Mr Fletcher Robinson’ for telling him about a legend in Dartmoor concerning a ghostly hound. After a few field trips with Robinson, Doyle planned and wrote his most famous work.
I probably don’t need to tell you the story, but it involves a legend surrounding Baskerville Hall in Dartmoor and the ancient Baskerville family. The legend concerns a giant, spectral dog, and the latest baronet, Sir Charles Baskerville, is said to have been scared to death by the legend. Holmes is called in when Baskerville’s doctor feels uneasy about footprints found near the body.
‘A man’s or a woman’s?’
[…] ‘Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!’
Holmes sends Watson to Baskerville Hall with the new baronet, Sir Henry, and a plot soon emerges – a plot concerning ‘refined, cold-blooded deliberate murder.’ There are deep-rooted family secrets to be uncovered, and it turns out that this part of the world is a hotbed of sexual impropriety. Doyle offers his readers a cynical look at heritage and a surprisingly honest take on marriage.
Formally, The Hound of the Baskervilles is like a long short story with elements of the mid-nineteenth century epistolary novel. If I was teaching a course on the development of the crime novel, I’d place this one between The Moonstone and Trent’s Last Case on the syllabus.
This hasn’t been an immensely detailed review because I am assuming that most people at least know the story. What I’ve tried to highlight are the things that excited me on the umpteenth reading. I’m sure I’ll get something else out of it on the umpteen-and-first. If you haven’t read The Hound of the Baskervilles, I would strongly recommend it – as if it needed my recommendation.