The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was written 8 years after The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, in which Holmes supposedly died, but is set before that time. According to Wikipedia, its success prompted Doyle to write more Holmes novels, and it’s rated as one of his best Holmes stories.
It opens in typical fashion with Holmes wowing Watson with various deductions before they’re visited by a client. Dr James Mortimer has traveled to London to ask Holmes’ advice. It seems that the most recent baronet of Baskerville Hall in Devonshire (and Mortimer’s neighbor) , Sir Charles Baskerville, died of extreme fright apparently after being pursued by a large hound. A mysterious, monstrous hound killed one of his ancestors, and this and the ancestor’s evil deeds grew into a legend that the Baskervilles were cursed. Though the hound didn’t attack Sir Charles directly, its nearby footprints seem to give credence to the legend. Dr. Mortimer’s problem is that the new heir is supposed to arrive from Canada, and Mortimer doesn’t know whether it is safe to conduct him to Baskerville Hall. Holmes asks Mortimer to bring the new heir, Sir Henry, to him when he arrives. By the time they meet, though, Sir Henry has received an anonymous warning to avoid the moors at Devonshire, and one of his boots has been stolen. When they leave Holmes’s apartment, he discovers that Sir Henry is being followed. Henry wants to go to his estate despite the weird occurrences and warnings. Holmes is busy with another case but sends Watson to the Hall with Henry and Mortimer to observe, meet the staff and neighbors, and report back to Holmes.
Holmes says early on that there are several strands to the case, and he has to try various ones to find out which will lead him to the truth. His investigation and Watson’s reports put some strands to rest easily, but others cause more excitement and concern. An escaped convict hiding out in the moor complicates the case. When Holmes does arrive in Devonshire he discerns who was responsible for Sir Charles’s death and realizes Sir Henry is in imminent danger himself, but he does not yet have enough concrete evidence to make a case. While he waits to close the net on the perpetrator, will he be too late to prevent yet another crime?
In my venture through the Holmes novels in publication order, I’ve been piecing together his character as a whole and comparing it to some of the modern characterizations and adaptations of him. Most modern portrayals present him as somewhat rude, but I haven’t found him to be so in the novels, as least not yet. He is pretty egotistical, though. In one amusing exchange, he and Watson are disagreeing about their deductions from a certain piece of evidence. Watson eventually concedes by saying, “You may be right.” Holmes responds, “The probability lies in that direction.” Another conversation is perhaps a little more snide:
“Really, Watson, you excel yourself,” said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. “I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.”
He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me keen pleasure, for I had often been piqued by his indifference to my admiration and to the attempts which I had made to give publicity to his methods. I was proud, too, to think that I had so far mastered his system as to apply it in a way which earned his approval….
[After differing over the evidence in question] “I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous. When I said that you stimulated me I meant, to be frank, that in noting your fallacies I was occasionally guided towards the truth.”
Watson’s character continues to emerge as well. Some older film versions portray him as a dumpy old man whose only purpose is a foil for Holmes and a chronicler of his cases: thankfully more modern adaptations show more of his strengths. In this story he is described as “fleet of foot” in a chase scene, and though some of his conclusions are wrong, his observations are helpful. When Holmes sends him with Sir Henry, he says of Watson, “There is no man who is better worth having at your side when you are in a tight place. No one can say so more confidently than I.” Watson himself confesses, “The promise of adventure had always a fascination for me.”
I listened to the audiobook read very nicely by Derek Jacobi. He not only portrayed the different characters very well, but he incorporated the action into his voice, sounding like he was running when his characters were, etc. I also looked at some passages a little more closely at the Project Gutenberg online version of the text.
I do agree that this is the best Holmes novel I have read/heard so far. Doyle did an admirable job setting the scene for a Gothic-type mystery with the depressing old house, the mysterious legend, and the dangerous moors, and the plot was adequately suspenseful.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)