Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)

Synopsis: When Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead on the wild Devon moorland with the footprints of a giant hound nearby, the blame is placed on a family curse. It is left to Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson to solve the mystery of the legend of the phantom hound before Sir Charles’ heir comes to an equally gruesome end. (From Amazon)

Review:

Story – We start with Holmes testing Watson’s deducting abilities before the client appears to put forward his case revolving around the death of Charles Baskerville and the curse of the hound that haunts the moors.

While it proves to hold interesting elements, Holmes is unable to leave London as he is busy with another case so he instructs Watson to go on ahead to gather particular details. The next few days and chapters revolve around Watson gathering information about the Baskerville family and the other residents of the moors. He applies as many of Holmes’ methods as he can, recording all relevant information and sending a report to Holmes back in London.

Things take a dramatic turn when Watson is warned rather surreptitiously by one of the locals to go back home to London and stay out of the affairs of the village. Naturally, this just enflames his curiosity and that of Sir Henry Baskerville and they run into trouble when they venture out onto the moors at night, only to hair the howl of this alleged beast with their own ears. Add to that, the ongoing threat of a vicious criminal loose on the moors and Watson soon finds himself embroiled in one of the most dangerous and deep-set cases of Holmes’ career.

Not wanting to stay away from the mystery for too long, the detective shows up late on to scene to begin to tie all the threads together in true Holmesian fashion. An impressive uncovering of the culprit leads to one of the more intense finales of the cases in a desperate attack and chase across the barren land. Interestingly, it is one of the few times that the criminal isn’t actually brought to justice by Holmes or the police, instead suffering at the hands of the land he knew so well and had misused to his murderous advantage. With the resolution of the Baskerville curse and Sir Henry’s safety procured, Holmes and Watson return home to London.    

Characters – By this stage, Holmes and Watson had become well-established characters and so there is isn’t that much development within in the story. However, there are some key points to consider. Firstly, we have Watson’s eagerness to impress Holmes. We know that he admires him greatly and doesn’t take his friendship for granted and, naturally, there would be moments where he would seek praise from Holmes to acknowledge that he is a worthwhile friend. This is shown initially in the opening chapter where Holmes asks Watson to deduce what he can from a walking stick that a client has left behind. He does so, applying Holmes’ methods, to which Holmes is delighted. Of course, it becomes apparent that most of his deductions were wrong and Holmes was purely delighted because his wrong answers led him to the correct ones. Obviously, this comes as a bit of a blow to the ego for poor Watson although Holmes doesn’t even seem to notice. This is classic Holmes behaviour and not the last time it happens where Holmes informs Watson on how spectacularly he failed to notice everything of importance. However, in this particular instance, there is no animosity behind it and he makes up for it by sending Watson to Baskerville Hall to gather details. This is seen by Watson to be a great show of faith and acknowledgement of his abilities, despite what has just passed, and he works hard to meet up to Holmes’ expectations and not disappoint him.

However, it comes to pass that Holmes has been monitoring the entire time from the moors, feigning his presence in London. Unsurprisingly, Watson takes this as an affront to his comptenance and is upset that, after all their years together, he still does not have Holmes’ trust. This is yet another example of their different understanding and communication of their friendship. While Watson likes things to be simple and upfront, to know exactly where he stands with things, Holmes just assumes that they are always on the same wavelength and therefore nothing need ever be discussed. Holmes had not intended to upset or insult Watson by his actions, he simply acted in the best interests of the case but his lack of social skills meant that he went about it in a rather inconsiderate manner. His apology and admittance that he was soon to come out of hiding due to the mounting danger more than cements the fact that cares about Watson and doesn’t want to put him in harm’s way.

We are also given a brief glimpse into Holmes’ emotions when they believe their client, the very man they were there to ensure the safety of, has been killed. Holmes is nothing short of distraught at this knowledge. It would be naive to assume that is was solely because of the death of this young man (although, undoubtedly, Holmes wouldn’t have been unmoved by this) but also because he would class it as an ultimate failure. Even if he did go on to uncover the culprit, the fact that he hadn’t do so in time to make a true difference would have been a big blow. The elation he shows when it is revealed to be someone else all but confirms this and his tenancity and enthusiasm returns in full force.

Lestrade makes another appearance in the closing chapters to aid in the capture of the suspect. Seeing as how he is only called in at the last minute and hasn’t been involved in the case from the start, he doesn’t get to demonstrate too much of his cynicism or confrontational attitude towards Holmes that he has become so renowned for. It is, however, always a pleasure to see him show up.

With the exceptions of Sir Henry and Doctor Mortimer (the initial client), the cast of secondary characters is one of the most shady in any of the Holmes cases. It’s definitely one of those times where you trust no-one and suspect everyone. Selden, the prisoner hiding out on the moors, is a particular foul character even though our acquaintance with him is very brief. Add onto that the viciousness of the books villain and you have what is probably the most dangerous case recorded where you aren’t convinced that people are going to come out of this unscathed.

Writing Style – Like most others, this case is narrated by Watson but this is far more crucial than usual as he is, essentially, the main protagonist for the majority of the story. It’s bookended with Holmes’ involvement; setting up the case and sending Watson on his way, to showing up at the Moors just as things begin to get especially dangerous.

It is more noticeable, in this novel, that the tale is an account from Watson’s notes. He will occasionally mention that the following extract is direct from the diary he kept while he was staying at Baskerville hall. It’s also an effective ploy in building up the drama; from the way he says how vividly he can remember the following events, we pre-empt that there is going to be some seriously grisly goings-on.

Things are also rather opposite to how we normally experience the cases, structure wise. Usually, when Holmes is taking charge of the matter, we follow his movements and his attention but are unable to identify exactly what clues he is picking up along the way. It is only after he has announced the result that he backtracks and lets everyone (including the audience) know how he reached that conclusion. So, when Watson says “Holmes studied the chair with great interest” or something like that, we know he has found a clue but we are kept in the dark as to what it is. In “Baskervilles”, Watson points out every clue he discovers to the audience, noting its possible significance to the case; we are kept informed as the story progresses. But the possible meanings of these clues and what they may lead to are still beyond us, because this is still Holmes’ area of expertise. I think it is a preferred way of re-telling a crime story when it is quite lengthy because we aren’t trying to grasp for facts right near the end. The method of keeping a lot of the information under wraps until near the end works well with the short stories but might have gotten a little too confusing in a case such as this (of course, had Holmes been involved properly all the way through, maybe it wouldn’t have been so long!). 

Other Points – I find it interesting that this one of the most popular books for adaptation and one of the most well-known; mainly because it doesn’t actually feature Holmes all that much! Although a lot of the adaptations do alter the elements of the story quite a bit. It doesn’t actually specify when this case takes place but it is believed to be 1889; this is prior to the Great Hiatus even though it was written post-Reichanbach (once again, I am inclined to wonder if Watson even remembers that he has a wife when he disappears for weeks on end at Holmes’ whim!). I read all the novels first, rather than in the order they were published but in the case of this story, it didn’t make much of a difference as it is very much a stand-alone adventure.

Worth Reading Y/N? – But of course! If you were to ask someone unfamiliar with Sherlock Holmes to name you a book, this would probably be the one that springs to mind. It’s not undeserving of its popularity; it is certainly one of the darker stories with plenty of suspense and drama but still with the perfect amount of wit. It’s also good to see Watson get some more of the limelight.

Favourite Quote – “‘Well, I am glad from my heart that you are here, for indeed the responsibility and the mystery were both becoming too much for my nerves. But how in the name of wonder did you come here, and what have you been doing? I thought that you were in Baker Street working out that case of blackmailing.’/’That was what I wished you to think.’/’Then you use me, and yet you do not trust me!’ I cried with some bitterness. ‘I think that I have deserved better at your hands, Holmes.’/’My dear fellow, you have been invaluable to me in this as in many other cases, and I beg that you will forgive me if I have seemed to play a trick upon you. In truth, it was partly for your own sake that I did it, and it was my appreciation of the danger which you ran which led me to come down and examine the matter for myself.'”

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