Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Review - Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Published by: Book-of-the-Month Club
Publication Date: 1902
Format: Hardcover, 249 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

221B Baker Street has had a visitor. Only Holmes and Watson were out. Though the person left behind a walking stick and the two men seek to analyze it in the hopes of a clue. They don't have long to wait to figure out whose deductions were right (Holmes) and whose were wrong (Watson). The potential client is one Dr. James Mortimer who brings a bizarre story about a family curse. The Baskervilles of Devonshire are supposedly cursed by a hound that wanders Dartmoor due to the nefarious deeds of Sir Hugo Baskerville hundreds of years earlier, thinning their ranks whenever possible. Dr. Mortimer would agree with Holmes and Watson that this is all a fairy tale if it wasn't for the recent death of his dear friend, Sir Charles Baskerville; whose body was found near massive animal footprints that could only have been left by a hound.

The reality versus the mythical is what interests Holmes, but if Sir Charles is dead, why does Dr. Mortimer care? Because his heir, Sir Henry Baskerville has arrived from Canada and is to take up residence on the moor and Dr. Mortimer doesn't know if the story will scare him or prove as a warning. Though it is quickly apparent that Sir Henry is in danger, from a real, not a mythical foe. He is followed, one of his new boots is stolen, and he receives a letter that is either a threat or a warning. Holmes decides that Watson will accompany the two men to Devonshire while he finishes up some pressing cases in London. Watson had scoffed at the story of the hound, but down in Devonshire, there's something primal about the moors that make myths seem real and not to be scoffed at. Can the two men save Sir Henry, or is he going to be yet another victim of the bloody Baskerville legacy?

There are only four stand alone Sherlock Holmes books, and I can guarantee that the only one that everyone knows is The Hound of the Baskervilles. They might not know what it's about, but it has proliferated across people's bookshelves all over the world. I actually don't know how many copies I have around my house, it being part of an old children's library set I have as well as a classics set, not to mention the Book-of-the-Month Club edition I am reviewing here. But it's the classic one I remember so well. It was cloth bound and had a glowing hound on the cover, even though the edition of Frankenstein in that set was far more memorable with the turquoise binding and the monster having long flowing hair. I remember this edition so well because I was supposed to read it in seventh grade. Note the "supposed to" in that sentence. My grade school had crazy amounts of homework. I kid you not. On average I had eight hours of work a night. This paid off when I went to high school because I was so good at multitasking that I could finish all my work during class time during the two days a week I actually bothered to show up.

In fact I didn't really have any outside homework until my junior year in high school, and that's only because I finally got a teacher who inspired me to work. But back in seventh grade, besides those eight hours of work a night we were expected to read two other novels a month and write lengthy book reports on them. Seeing as I actually needed to sleep occasionally I sometimes wouldn't have the time to finish these extra books. So while I was supposed to read The Hound of the Baskervilles, in fact my mom read it and wrote the book report. In fact at one time or another every one of my family read and wrote a book report for me in an effort to keep my pre-teen sanity. But of all those books I was supposed to read, The Hound of the Baskervilles was the one I actually wanted to. So now I finally have and I hope this review will stand in lieu of the book report all these years later.

What surprised me the most about The Hound of the Baskervilles is that it was written prior to The Return of Sherlock Holmes. I had always understood it as Conan Doyle killed Holmes off in 1893, hue, cry, uproar, people cancelling their magazine subscriptions left and right, publisher weeping to Conan Doyle to not destroy him and Holmes, but Conan Doyle staying firm till ten years later he caved into demand and starting writing the short stories again in 1903 with "The Adventure of the Empty House." But this is not the case! The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialized in The Strand Magazine from 1901 till 1902! So he caved twice! I've always found it odd how much Conan Doyle seemed to hate his own creation, much like Victor Frankenstein of the aforementioned turquoise bound book. He hated his creation so much he killed him only to have the death not stick. He is immortal because of Sherlock Holmes, and yet he tried everything not to write him. In fact, The Hound of the Baskervilles was never intended to be a Sherlock Holmes story! As he was writing it he realized that Holmes was necessary, in fact essential, and as an added bonus it would appease the public.

But there is one person, narratively speaking, who lucked out with Conan Doyle's hesitance to write Holmes, and that is Watson. By keeping Holmes at bay Watson was left to play. Yes, Watson still has a little too much of the "I wish Holmes was here" obsequiousness, but the fact remains that Holmes is hardly in this story. He's there at the beginning and at the denouement to tie up all the loose ends, but in-between it's all Watson all the time. It's Watson's observances and recollections that help Holmes solve the crime. It's Watson taking the risks and striking out onto the moors alone. Sure Holmes gave him the basic outline of what he should do, but it's Watson risking his neck everyday for Henry Baskerville. While the previous volume of adventures showed the development of Watson as more than just Sherlock's number one fanboy and biographer, it's The Hound of the Baskervilles that sets Watson up as Holmes's equal. As I have said before, I've never been down on Watson like many are. In fact I've always rather liked him. But the truth is it's not until this point, which is ironically the half-way point in the Sherlock canon, that Watson finally gets his props. Go Watson!

Though what I loved about this book had nothing to do with Watson or Holmes and everything to do with the mood. The awesome Gothic mood. Myth and legend were the starting off point for this book, so it makes sense that this eerie atmosphere pervades the book, with the misty moors and the baleful howls on the wind. Because it's set on Dartmoor not far from Daphne Du Maurier's Bodmin I couldn't help but compare this story of Conan Doyle's to Du Maurier's work. In fact, I would place money on Du Maurier being inspired by The Hound of the Baskervilles to a great degree in writing her seminal work, Jamaica Inn. Both books have outsiders haunted by the bleakness of the moors and the dangers of hidden mires, and the dark majesty of the tors. In fact it was kind of like stumbling on a lost classic by Du Maurier. The truth is that I can see how it could have worked without Holmes, he's just the deus ex machina as many have complained. The real star of this book is the land. Even if you're not a fan of Sherlock Holmes, I urge you to pick this up just for it's Gothic awesomeness.

Yet I must warn you. Though I will totally stand behind this book I will add the caveat that Conan Doyle is a clunky writer. Sometimes with older books you have trouble adjusting to the writing style. It takes awhile to get into the flow when reading Jane Austen, or more specifically Shakespeare. Shakespeare is one of those writers who you're lost for about the first third, and then everything clicks and when you reach the end you really want to go back to the beginning because now you're in the zone. There is no zone with Conan Doyle. There is no time at which his writing flows and you're like, yeah, bring it on. It's a struggle. Constantly. And all uphill. Reading five of his books in a row I have yet to find any nice common ground where my mind could rest and just enjoy the reading experience. You will have to fight the text to enjoy these books, which is probably why I have found them more enjoyable as a re-read. I've fought the text once and won so I know I can do it again. So you can be victorious and come out enjoying the book, but you will also be a little exhausted by the whole experience. Which might be how Watson viewed this whole case...


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