21.4.13

Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles

Arthur Conan Doyle was the highest paid author of his time. He was also prolific; in my post on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I pointed out that Doyle wrote over 70 books. Although he believed his calling was historical fiction, he is remembered today for his Sherlock Holmes mysteries. As Macintyre wrote in The Times: “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created, simply, the best-known and most lasting detective in literature. The fictional sleuths that came before were preamble to Sherlock Holmes; those that followed were all, in some way, derivative.” The Sherlock Holmes stories and novels were bestsellers during Doyle's lifetime and are still popular today. He wrote only four Holmes novels: The Hound of the Baskervilles, A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, and The Valley of Fear.

When The Hound of the Baskervilles was first published, Doyle had not written a Sherlock Holmes mystery for 8 years. Tired of his creation, he only revived Holmes because of intense public pressure from readers. The novel became an instant success and has remained in print ever since. It was first serialized in 9 instalments from August 1901 to April 1902 in the popular British magazine, The Strand. According to Macintyre, the novel has inspired 24 films.

The story begins with the ancient legend of a ghostly hound, one that haunts the Baskerville family from generation to generation. After Sir Charles Baskerville dies under suspicious circumstances, his descendent, Sir Henry, becomes the new owner of the Baskerville estate. Before moving into Baskerville Hall, Sir Henry receives an anonymous letter warning him to stay away. He decides to ask Holmes to investigate the mystery. The story combines a haunting ghost story, a Gothic atmosphere, a strange legend, and a gripping murder mystery.

The evocative suspense-driven atmosphere is one of the greatest strengths of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Throughout the central section of the novel, Doyle builds anticipation by keeping Holmes offstage. We are immediately drawn into a story in which the lives of all the central characters are in immanent danger.

Like Poe before him, Doyle weaves the fantastic into his mystery stories, juxtaposing scientific/logic reasoning with superstitions and the supernatural. The Gothic trappings of Baskerville hall, its isolation on the lonely moors, the eerie sobbing heard within it in the middle of the night, and the strange tale of the ghostly hound and increase the mystery and suspense in this memorable tale.

What resonates long after the novel is finished is the haunting setting. Watson describes the effect that the ancient moors produce on those who visit them:
The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once out upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you, but on the other hand you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of prehistoric people. On all sides of you as you walk are the houses of these forgotten folk, with their graves and the huge monoliths which are supposed to have marked their temples. (75)
The inscrutable, primeval moors are a fitting landscape for the barbarous impulses of criminals and murderers. Another place of profound mystery is the deep abyss of the Grimpin Mire, a pit of quicksand that kills the unwary.

P. D. James points out that Doyle’s talents neatly coincided with social developments of the time, thereby meeting “the needs and expectation of his age. The Sherlock Holmes saga provided for an increasingly literate society and the emergence of an upper working and middle class with leisure to read” (2009, 36).

Doyle. Arthur Conan. The Hound of the Baskervilles. 1902. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

James, P. D. Talking About Detective Fiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.