Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Penguin Classics, 2001 (originally published in 1902)
240 pages

No one can sate my appetite for mystery quite the way Sherlock Holmes can. As stated before, I love the character despite, or maybe because of, all of his flaws. I like Conan Doyle's writing, the the action and the unsolvable mysteries and the atmosphere of time and place. Actually, I think it sometimes gets lost in the shine of the Great Man, but Conan Doyle was really an excellent writer. He could sketch a character in just a few words (partially with the help of the idiotic pseudoscience of physiognomy; if one takes those tenets as truth in his stories, it's very easy to get a feel for a character just from their physical description), he could establish a mood for a piece very quickly, he could surprise with a very clever solution to a seemingly simple crime. The writing can somehow disappear, even though the narrator is talking directly to the reader. It makes me think I should be reading some of the other things he's written at some point, to see if I'm still as enamoured of his talents when Holmes isn't present.

About this novel itself: I have read this before, but it seemed an appropriate read for this time of year, and is my non-participatory nod to Carl's fantastic R.I.P. Challenge, which I believe finished a over week ago. I chose to read it instead of the short stories simply because of the fact that I happened to be browsing the library's e-shelves, and there The Hound was. I would argue it's Holmes' most famous case, at least somewhat familiar to everyone, even those who haven't read any Holmes and never will. And I, of course, couldn't remember what happened at all, other than that there was some sort of dire curse on the Baskerville family that involved a giant hound. It occurs to me as I write this that I think my family listened to it in the car on a road trip at some point, and perhaps I never read it myself.

For those who aren't familiar with the actual plot: Holmes is engaged by a country doctor named Dr. Mortimer to look into the circumstances surrounding the death of a baronet by the name of Sir Charles Baskerville. Dr. Mortimer was a personal friend of Sir Charles', and after his untimely demise, the last surviving heir to the Baskervilles' vast lands and wealth is coming home to claim his birthright -- and Dr. Mortimer is extremely concerned for his welfare. For the death of Sir Charles' was not at all natural, and the circumstances surrounding it were terribly sinister and perhaps even supernatural. Holmes, of course, scoffs at the idea of the supernatural, but the case is bizarre and unusual and certainly engages his interest; however, embroiled in important cases in London, he sends Dr. Watson to keep an eye on things in his stead.

Thus we end up with a Sherlock Holmes novel in which Sherlock is barely present for much of it. I'd forgotten that, specifically, and I loved spending time with Watson. Those who portray Watson as a bumbling idiot, well-meaning but dense, would do well to spend some time with this novel. Watson is hardly dense. He's a mere human, which would make anyone look somewhat dense next to Holmes. But Watson does some fine detecting in this story on his own, requiring only that Holmes confirm his suspicions.

I love the melodramatic setting, the foreboding, the use of the countryside to prey on the mood and courage of the characters. Everything here is bigger and more sinister, from the original curse, to the moor, to the solution of the mystery. It's ridiculous; I've read that some Holmes scholars view The Hound of the Baskervilles as being ridiculous and overly dramatic, a sign of how bored Conan Doyle was getting with the character that was taking over his writing life -- that the mystery in The Hound is bordering on ludicrous, along with Holmes' actions. I don't think I agree, however -- plenty of the early Holmes stories are as far-fetched as this one. And for me, only "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" can match this one for sinister good times.

Normally I strongly dislike the "supernatural" mystery that is wrapped up and explained away by logic and science, but Holmes (or should I say Conan Doyle?) can do no wrong. If you're a Holmes fan and have somehow managed to avoid this novel thus far, do pick it up. It's fun. If you're not a Holmes fan yet, you could do far worse than pick up this as an entree into the canon.

(Also, don't you love that cover? The cover I had on the e-book was just a giant Penguin, but this is an edition I'd love to have. It's one of the few that don't attempt to portray the hound, which is better left to the imagination; yet it still has a wonderful reference to the contents.)


Larissa said...

I remember reading this at school ages ago and being impressed by the gothic atmosphere.
I should read it again sometime, and get to know Holmes' universe better.

Unknown said...

I was impressed by how easy it was to read, actually, and it's not terribly long. And great for a cold, dark time of year!