I finished The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a few days ago. This was the third full-length novel Doyle wrote that featured his famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. In the introduction to my volume of Holmes, Doyle is quoted calling The Hound “a real creeper”, which I wholly agree with. His publishers called the plot “one of the most interesting and striking that have ever been put before us”.
When I was very young, my grandma let me borrow a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was a small hardback, a little thicker than a Nancy Drew, with a dark blue cover. I think there was an illustration of the hound on the front. However, at that age, I found Doyle’s language old-fashioned and boring, so I returned the book to my grandma’s shelf. But I never forgot that there was a detective called Holmes who solved a mystery about a hound. As I got older, I watched the old movies and listened to the old radio shows featuring the detective, rekindling my admiration for both Sherlock Holmes and his author. For a time, I was listening to the stories and novels as audiobooks, but I am so glad I finally decided to read this novel for myself.
The Hound of the Baskervilles begins as a narrative; then several chapters are told as though they were from the letters of correspondence to Holmes from Watson; then, one chapter is an “extract from the diary of Dr Watson”. After that, the story proceeds as narrative again. I believe that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s genius is seen in his use of Dr Watson as the story teller in all of the Holmes tales, but especially this one. If he had written them from the detective’s point of view, then many of Holmes’ amazing abilities would have seemed like boasting. And if Holmes was the story-teller, he would have to tell his readers his plans. Since Watson is the writer, however, Holmes’ plans and movements remain a mystery to both Watson and the reader on many occasions.
Another stroke of genius on Doyle’s part is how real he makes Dr Watson seem. When Watson presents the letters he wrote to Holmes as part of the narrative, he states, “One page is missing, but otherwise they are exactly as written.” It strikes me as funny that Doyle as Watson would write this line. Since this is a work of fiction, no real letters ever existed. Yet, it gives credibility to Watson as the writer, and helps the reader to forget for a moment that the work is fiction.
Now for the story. Beginning in the flat at 221B Baker Street, Holmes uses his powers of deduction to describe a visitor that he and Dr Watson had missed the previous night merely from the walking stick the visitor had left behind. The visitor was Dr Mortimer, who returns to them that day, bringing to the detective a very strange mystery: the death of Sir Charles Baskerville. Plagued at the end of his life by the family legend of a cursed hound, Sir Charles died of a heart attack brought on by stress and fear. The doctor was not entirely convinced Sir Charles’ death was natural, but there were no indications that it could have been murder. However, the purpose of the doctor’s visit to Sherlock Holmes was that Sir Charles’ heir would be arriving that day from Canada. Would Mr Holmes be willing to accompany him back to Baskerville Hall which was situated on the moor in Devonshire? His purpose would be twofold: to protect the heir, Sir Henry, and to discover if Sir Charles had truly died a natural death or if there was some truth to the legend of the hound.
After a series of mysterious events in London, Holmes sends Dr Mortimer, Dr Watson, and Sir Henry to the moor while he remains in London to clear up another case. Dr Watson is in charge of keeping Sir Henry safe and keeping Holmes up-to-date on all of the goings-on in Devonshire. Who are the neighbors? What are the servants like? Any little thing, no matter how small it may seem, Watson is to write to Holmes about it. The danger begins for Watson and Sir Henry as soon as they arrive in Devonshire. Although they are not willing to believe there is a supernatural hound hunting the moor for the Baskerville family, they do learn that a dangerous convict has escaped from a nearby prison. He had been tracked to the moor, and the police believed he was hiding on that vast expanse. They hoped to find him before many days had passed.
There are several neighbors on the moor that Watson tells Holmes about. The most prominent of which are a naturalist and his sister, Mr and Miss Stapleton; they are the closest neighbors to Baskerville Hall. Stapleton described the moor to Watson as “so vast, and so barren, and so mysterious”. Not long after their arrival, Sir Henry begins to court Miss Stapleton. This is met at first by anger and jealousy from her brother. He eventually apologizes for his behavior, stating he has only his sister in this world, and he did not want to be left alone if she ended up marrying Sir Henry.
There are two servants are Baskerville Hall, Mr and Mrs Barrymore. They had been at Baskerville Hall for many years, but on two occasions, they make it known that they are ready to leave the Hall. The will not say why. Mr Barrymore is a quiet man, but intense, and he wanders the Hall at odd hours of the night. Mrs Barrymore is a sad woman, but she denies that she is the one Watson hears sobbing in the night. Dr Watson suspects they know more about Sir Charles’ death than they are willing to tell, and this he writes to Holmes about them.
There are many twists and turns in The Hound of the Baskervilles. From what I can tell, the events of the novel take place in about two or three weeks’ time. Holmes does eventually arrive at Baskerville Hall, but only stays one night there. In that one night, he solves the riddle of why anyone would want to murder the Baskervilles. He reveals to Watson that he suspected foul play the very first time they heard about the case. Holmes also knows who the villain is, and though his investigations had confirmed this, he could not prove his case in court. He had to wait for the man to make an attempt on the life of Sir Henry so that he could be caught in the midst of the act.
The moorlands that Dr Watson describes are gloomy, vast, and foreboding. At the end, a terrible fog rolls over the moor, so that Holmes and Dr Watson can barely see. The danger on the moor that night is greater than it had ever been, and Sir Henry, walking alone on the moor in that terrible fog, must confront the curse of the Baskervilles. Will the Hound claim its last victim? Or can Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson rescue the heir before it is too late?
I’m afraid that is much as I can tell you. I don’t want to give away the ending. But I do want to encourage you to look past the old-fashioned language. The story may start slowly, but I can assure you, it is not boring. I wish someone had told me when I was young that the story would get better if I just kept reading it. I probably wouldn’t have returned it to my grandma’s shelf.