Tuesday, April 19, 2016

So barren, and so mysterious - out on the moors with The Hound of the Baskervilles

A note on The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).  I just want to acknowledge that it is a good book.  The two earlier novels featuring Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890) are among the very worst books I have read in the last ten years – or the bad parts of them are among the very worst parts of books I have read – so it is a pleasure to read a good example.

I write this as someone who is not a fan of Sherlock Holmes.  I mean that in the positive, rather than colloquial, way.  A “fan,” in this case the Holmesian, is a specific kind of reader.  She is well aware of the problems with the Mormon half of A Study in Scarlet but values the novel for its Holmes lore, for the violin and the first meeting of Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson.

Or, in later stories, other Holmes motifs –  the cocaine, or Irene Adler  (“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman”).  That is the first line of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” found in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892).  Does Irene Adler ever appear again in anything written by Arthur Conan Doyle?  Doesn’t matter; it has been an imaginatively productive idea for later incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.  Fans knew what to do with it.  Fans are creative.

By the writing of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle was working with a mature concept and well-known characters, perfected in the 1890s in what became two volumes of short stories.  He knew them so well that he could make the daring move of dropping Holmes out of much of the novel.  He knew that Watson was an interesting enough character on his own, and that the tension created by Holmes’s absence – when and how will he return to the book? – would be enjoyable.  I found it enjoyable.

The use of the Devonshire landscape, or a little sliver of it, was original and interesting.

“It is a wonderful place, the moor,” said he, looking round over the undulating downs, long green rollers, with crests of jagged granite foaming up into fantastic surges.  “You never tire of the moor.  You cannot think the wonderful secrets which it contains.  It is so vast and so barren, and so mysterious.”  (Ch. 7)

A good place to set loose a gigantic demon dog on a cursed family.  That last line is amusingly blunt, Doyle’s character directly telling me how to feel.

Barren and mysterious worked for me, but it always felt quite small.  Near the end of the novel,  delaying a dramatic moment, Watson reviews the landscape:

Outside the sun was sinking low and the west was blazing with scarlet and gold.  Its reflection was shot back in ruddy patches by the distant pools which lay amid the great Grimpen Mire.  There were the two towers of Baskerville Hall, and there a distant blur of smoke [etc., etc.]…  (Ch. 11)

As if Doyle has sketched it out on a map, which he likely did.  This moor is in Devonshire, bordering Thomas Hardy country; the novel is one of many examples of contemporary novelists who had gotten interested in the people living in some of the more unusual landscapes of England.  The prehistoric stone huts that dot the moor were a Hardy-like feature, a way to give the setting some temporal vastness.

Easy to understand why later writers, real fans of Holmes and Watson, would want to pilfer from, imitate, and rewrite this novel.


  1. I agree about the daring - and the pleasure - of taking Holmes out and then, so dramatically, bringing him back. It works beautifully. I don't care much for the hyper-cleverness of the Holmes stories (too bloodless for me, by and large), but I've come to really like Hound. It's also perfect for teaching because it so neatly (maybe too neatly) sets up the supernatural vs. natural explanation thing that is so key to Holmes's usual methods and values, and then allows for a bit more wonder and actual mystery than usual.

  2. Holmes has a savory but strong flavor, I guess.

    I can see your issue with the neatness. With that setting, and setup, a little more weirdness or uncertainty would be interesting. Maybe that has to be someone else's later Holmes story, not Doyle's.

  3. You're right, you know - Baskervilles really *is* the most successful Holmes novel. Doyle's short stories are a perfected form, and the best Holmes things to read. I hadn't really thought about it before, but the other two novels are flabby and really have too much going on that isn't to do with Holmes. But the short stories are concentrated wonderfulness, and I *do* love Hound very much.


  4. You can see the evolution of the genre in these Doyle stories and novels. With the first books, there is not really a detective genre. By Hound, there is, and that book becomes an exemplar.

  5. I led a seminar on the history of Detective Fiction beginning with the Dupin stories, then to The Moonstone (still the greatest detective novel ever), to Silver Blaze and A Scandal in Bohemia plus Hound of the Baskervilles, and ending with Agatha Christie's Appointment with Death, one of Poirot's finest ratiocinative recitations. What makes Hound singular is that the reader is solving at least some of the crime contemporaneously with Holmes (and in Silver Blaze, also) while in most of the stories we simply are spectators or bystanders to his greatness. The genre developed in ways that left Doyle's work more like an island than part of the stream (to strain a metaphor), and perhaps that's why modern readers find A Study in Scarlet and the other two little novels so vastly inferior as novels, no matter how rich they are with Holmesian lore. A recent column on Dickens and Star Wars (yes) highlights our continuing fascination with serial fiction and how characters develop, something that Holmes aficionados have had difficulty proving (not without trying, of course). Holmes and Watson have life changes, but do they really change as characters over the arc of the Canon? I'm not so sure, certainly not with the clarity that a contemporary practitioner like Elizabeth George uses to give her detectives a multi-book arc that, in many cases, threatens to overshadow the mysteries contained within the novels (one senses from the recent series "Grantchester" that something similar is happening there). At the end of the day, however, I have concluded that Doyle's Holmes stories stand alone in their greatness; they are impervious to criticism from their devotees, and beyond the reach of literary historians. They are a fabulous dead end in the developmental chain, the Neanderthal whose mystery and uniqueness improves with time, but whose like we shall never see again, having been absorbed by the force of what many would consider the inferior strain of detective fiction generally. Having said that, I suspect I have worn out my welcome, and will move on...

  6. Worn out, no, that was great. I completely understand how the stories can be so often imitated yet be a dead end, how they can look more unique after so many imitations.

  7. Holmes and Watson have moved out of literature and into mythology so the question of how good the novels and stories are is irrelevant. We know all about Holmes and Watson without ever needing to read Doyle.

  8. Yes, characters who have escaped their texts, like Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and Dracula.