Friday, June 20, 2014

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The quintessential Sherlock Holmes adventure
The Hound of the Baskervilles, originally published in 1902, is one of only four novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that feature the great detective Sherlock Holmes. Though Holmes is probably better known through his short stories, it is in the novels that Conan Doyle truly excels. The lengthier format gives the author the opportunity to develop more complicated plots, delve deeper into Holmes’ methods of detection, and more thoroughly explore the relationship between the two main characters. This novel may very well be Conan Doyle’s best.

Dr. Mortimer, a physician from Devonshire, calls upon Holmes and Dr. Watson in their Baker Street flat. Sir Charles Baskerville, a client and friend of Mortimer’s, has died a mysterious death on the grounds of his rural estate in Dartmoor. According to a legend dating back to the 18th century, the Baskerville family is haunted by a terrifying hellhound. When Mortimer reveals that signs of a giant hound were found near the corpse, Holmes’ interest is sufficiently piqued to take on the case. He agrees to investigate the suspicious circumstances of Sir Charles’ death and insure that the same fate does not befall the family heir, Sir Henry Baskerville.

Like Holmes, Conan Doyle was a man of science, but he also had a keen interest in the supernatural. While the Holmes stories are always firmly grounded in the world of natural science, Conan Doyle wrote many other tales of horror and mystery that dealt with matters of the occult. Here the author’s two areas of interest collide, as Holmes is faced with an ostensibly supernatural phenomenon. Up to the very end of the book the reader is kept wondering whether Holmes will ultimately debunk the myth of the hound, solving the mystery through scientific fact, or whether this may finally be the case where Conan Doyle indulges his spiritualist leanings and leaves some of the supernatural questions unanswered.

Today’s mystery aficionados who expect to be baffled by a convoluted plot with unexpected twists and turns may be disappointed by this novel. By today’s standards, many of the Holmes mysteries are not remarkably baffling, and the Hound of the Baskervilles is no exception. The conclusion of the case is not entirely unexpected. Throughout the book I felt like I was always a half step ahead of Watson, if not ahead of Holmes. Nevertheless, when the hound shows up the reader can’t help but be awe-stricken, spooked, and perplexed. What this century-old mystery lacks in complexity and surprises it makes up for in atmosphere, character development, suspense, and brilliant storytelling. A lot of today’s writers can craft an intricate murder far more puzzling than any of Holmes’ cases, but few if any can tell the tale as expertly as Conan Doyle.

The Hound of the Baskervilles may be the quintessential Sherlock Holmes adventure. It not only epitomizes Conan Doyle’s artistry as a novelist, it establishes a template for its genre that has been adopted and adapted by countless imitators. With such iconic standing comes the risk of familiarity, yet even more than a century after its publication, this classic still holds plenty of surprises. If you haven’t read this novel, you don’t know Holmes.

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