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.