Let’s revisit a classic, shall we?
Sir Charles Baskerville, scion of the Baskerville clan who have lived on Dartmoor in south-west England since the 16th century, has died, and died in unusual circumstances: having one evening first stood outside Baskerville Hall overlooking the moor for at least ten minutes, and then apparently turning from the house and “appear[ing] from thence onward to have been walking upon his toes”, he was found dead on the ground with “no signs of violence…upon [his] person, and…an almost incredible facial distortion — so great that Dr. Mortimer refused at first to believe that it was indeed his friend and patient who lay before him”. So disturbed is Dr. James Mortimer by this death, he heads to London to seek out the services of one Sherlock Holmes…the very same Sherlock Holmes who went over the Reichenbach Falls in 1891.
It always struck me that The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) would have been a far better resurrection of Sherlock Holmes than the following year’s ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ (1903). Holmes’ return was never exactly going to shock people in a narrative sense — “Here’s a story narrated by Dr. John H. Watson, M.D. that definitely doesn’t feature the genius detective character indelibly linked with him and whom everyone loves, wink, wink…” — and ‘The Empty House’ is, let’s face it, weak sauce. The moment in this where Holmes reappears after a long absence from the narrative (that’s hardly a spoiler…) would have been a magnificently joyful piece of reintroduction to the man readers were itching to see after nine years…but, well, it wasn’t to be. Instead Doyle shuffled the cards of his chronology and set this in 1884, nine years before he’d attempted to clear the decks for his own legacy to be better appreciated by literally throwing over his personal albatross.
Context aside, you can sort of understand Doyle’s excitement to write this. Not only is it arguably one of the few books in the genre to actually do the “olde timey documente” trope effectively — get it out the way early, use it to tell the story rather than to embellish the story — it’s also a brilliantly compact idea that has resonated down the years because of its sheer simplicity and horror: members of a wealthy family are being hunted down by a giant dog on the deserted plains of Dartmoor: who ya gonna call? And Doyle knows he’s onto something good, and comes out all literary guns blazing: the last line of chapter 2 is surely one of the most famous ever written, and rightly damn so.
And, whisper it, but Doyle seems to enjoy the company of his detective again, whose ego sees him genuinely nettled at times, not least on account of Mortimer’s ability to show both genuine insight (that ‘he waited at the gate for 10 minutes’ deduction) and then put his foot in things with quite delightful innocence…
“I came to you, Mr. Holmes, because I recognised that I am myself an unpractical man and because I am suddenly confronted with a most serious and extraordinary problem. Recognising, as I do, that you are the second highest expert in Europe–”
“Indeed, sir! May I inquire who has the honour to be the first?” asked Holmes with some asperity.
“To the man of precisely scientific mind the work of Monsieur Bertillon must always appeal strongly.”
“Then had you not better consult him?”
And yet the joy of the best Holmes is how keenly Doyle knows him — his intelligence so brilliantly communicated though the effortless reasoning applied to, say, Mortimer’s cane which is left when the doctor find Holmes away from home it first calling (“It is my experience that it is only an amiable man in this world who receives testimonials, only an unambitious one who abandons a London career for the country, and only an absent-minded one who leaves his stick and not his visiting-card after waiting an hour in your room.”), the humorous asides (“…I confess that once when I was very young I confused the Leeds Mercury with the Western Morning News…”), and the casual disdain at the eerie history of the Baskervilles that has left Mortimer so damn shaken:
“[I]f your supernatural theory be correct, it could work the young man evil in London as easily as in Devonshire. A devil with merely local powers like a parish vestry would be too inconceivable a thing.
However, for all Holmes’ pricked ego and fulmination against supernatural agency, there’s never a sense of any lollygagging once the problem is presented — despite, of course, that claim of needing to remain in London to first resolve a blackmail case (who would have believed that even for an instant?). Indeed, there’s an air of almost Shakespearean awe in the closing stages of chatpers 3: “…if the devil did desire to have a hand in the affairs of men … He was running, Watson — running desperately, running for his life, running until he burst his heart — and fell dead upon his face … This, then, is the stage upon which tragedy has been played, and upon which we may help to play it again.” No desultory dismissal of the case this; for all his hubris, Holmes’ curiosity is piqued and the threat upon the moor as real to him at first flush as it will be when they encounter the dusky stretches of Grimpen Mire and that echoing, ghostly bay of unknown origin roaring out into the darkness.
I like, too, how this opening section builds around the three characters of Holmes, Watson, and Mortimer — yes, Henry Baskerville, recalled from emigration in Canada to take up the family mantle, is a background presence, but Doyle does well to ground the first third of the book around Mortimer’s conviction of peril and Holmes’ steady agreement in the face of quite justified reservations. Despite the largely sedentary nature of this part of the plot, with men sat around in a room telling each other things, it never becomes tedious. Surprising to realise, but the building of the plot is mostly done in that opening section and we are a third of the way into the book before anyone gets to Dartmoor — and it is here that Henry Baskerville’s presence comes into its own, his delight at the sight of that barren yet compelling space marks a canny shift in focus — and are finally introduced to the players who are to decide the shape of the game to come.
In my 20-plus year-old memory of reading this for the first time, I recalled much more in the way of, er, possibilities for guilt, and while Doyle does a fine job of making the denizens of his Dartmoor very clearly part of a community that is all agog at the young lord returned from overseas. See especially Old Frankland of Lafter Hall, who “is learned in old manorial and communal rights, and…applies his knowledge sometimes in favour of the villagers of Fernworthy and sometimes against them, so that he is periodically either carried in triumph down the village street or else burned in effigy, according to his latest exploit”.
“I haven’t had such a day since I had Sir John Morland for trespass because he shot in his own warren.”
“How on earth did you do that?”
“Look it up in the books, sir. It will repay reading — Frankland v. Morland, Court of Queen’s Bench. It cost me £200, but I got my verdict.”
“Did it do you any good?”
“None, sir, none.”
When Baskerville’s neighbours the Stapletons hove into view, things become even more interesting: Beryl Stapleton, confusing Watson for Baskerville and urgently warning him to depart the moor is a wonderful moment, and the gradual design that everyone falls into is inevitable and, for the era, quite ornate. If you can’t spot the culprit by the halfway stage then you have a lot of wonderful reading ahead of you in the genre, you lucky thing, and the various excursions upon the moor — either romantic as Sir Henry and Beryl seem to grow ever closer despite her brother’s all-too-apparent objections or eerie as we fear for the presence of the hound or of the fugitive Selden “the Notting Hill murderer” who has escaped from the nearby Princetown prison — are likely to thrill and terrify in equal measure.
Watson, too, has time enough out of Holmes’ shadow to emerge as something more than just the “conductor of light” the detective praises him as at the very start. A moral aspect of his nature comes through (“A lucky long shot of my revolver might have crippled him, but I had brought it only to defend myself if attacked and not to shoot an unarmed man who was running away.”) and a staunch ally to those who need him, or to those whom he has been allocated almost as wards at his brilliant friend’s direction. When Caroline Crampton and I discussed Watsons for my podcast a little while ago she made the excellent point that he is a terminally trusting and incurious man, going simply where he is required naturally because that is how Doyle tells his stories, but also divested of anything close to reservations in an adamantine way that is quietly magnificent at times.
“I don’t think that I am a coward, Watson, but that sound seemed to freeze my very blood. Feel my hand!”
It was as cold as a block of marble.
“You’ll be all right tomorrow.”
“I don’t think I’ll get that cry out of my head. What do you advise that we do now?”
“Shall we turn back?”
“No, by thunder; we have come out to get our man, and we will do it. We after the convict, and a hell-hound, as likely as not, after us. Come on! We’ll see it through if all the fiends of the pit were loose upon the moor.”
Of course, he also emerges as a casual litterbug, happy to drop whatever trash he has in his hand upon the unsullied beauty of what remains one of the most naturally striking and magnificent places in the British Isles (“[W]hen I see the stub of a cigarette marked Bradley, Oxford Street, I know that my friend Watson is in the neighbourhood. You will see it there beside the path.”), but we’re none of us perfect.
The relationship between Watson and Holmes, too, is captured with remarkable brevity: the good doctor’s fully justified rancour at discovering that Holmes has lied to him and been running a parallel game the whole time is beautifully defused by the detective (“…or in your kindness you would have brought me out some comfort or other, and so an unnecessary risk would be run.”) in a manner that speaks deeply about of the mutual respect they hold each other in, and the truth of the need for hoodwinkery.
And then, of course, there is the hound.
Y’know, for a book called The Hound of the Baskervilles, there’s a surprising dearth of actual Hound, and yet Doyle matches that seriousness of tone from the opening sections with magnificent aplomb, giving us a foggy moor, a chase on foot, and the emergence of the spectral beast that has loomed out of sight all this time that still chills the blood today (“Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.”). And the familiar closing gasconade, with which the very best of the Holmes tales thrill and delight, does a good job of pulling the strands together in a way that lays the basis of the puzzle plot that the as-yet-unsuspected Golden Age would perfect to a pitch never seen before or, arguably, since (missing boots, Selden’s presence on the moor, the difficulties of traversing Grimpen Mire — surely the most Chekov’s Gun ever to Chekov’s Gun in crime fiction!).
It would be possible to overstate the qualities of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but there’s a reason that it, like Elm Street, is a name that left a shudder on my youthful brain which still afflicts me to this day. The supernatural horror may have fled long ago, but the appreciation I feel for this book has grown significantly with this reread: it’s a propulsive, brilliantly evocative piece of pure storytelling which clearly fired the imagination of its creator and, more importantly, the millions of readers who have been thrilled by it down the years. Holmes’ cases after he emerged from that Swiss ravine are as divisive a set of stories as were ever appended to a canon, but if putting up with the worst of those meant we got this, that’s a trade I’m more than happy to have seen completed.