Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

(This review is Part III of my examination of the four Sherlock Holmes novels in advance of the new movie debuting on Christmas Day. For other books that are actually forgotten, head on over to Patti Abbott's blog.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third novel in the Sherlock Holmes canon by his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After his first two Sherlock Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of (the) Four (1890), Doyle set about writing a series of short stories during the 1890s. As is well known, Doyle became disenchanted with his fictional hero and killed Holmes in 1894. The public clamor for more Holmes stories could not be sated and, in 1902, Doyle wrote his best novel and, arguably, one of the greatest novel in the history of detective fiction.

Although published in the 20th Century, The Hound of the Baskervilles (Hound) actually takes place before Holmes's apparent death in 1893. The novel opens with Holmes and Watson examining the walking cane of a visitor. The man is Dr. Mortimer, a country doctor from Dartmoor. He relates the strange circumstances surrounding the death of Sir Charles Baskerville a few months prior and how it may involve a curse on the family of Baskervilles. Holmes listens patiently until he comes upon the obvious question: how can he, Holmes, a man of cold reason, assist Dr. Mortimer on a case with apparent superstitious qualities? It is not Sir Charles that Mortimer is worried about. It’s Sir Henry Baskerville, the heir. He’s to arrive in London that very day and Mortimer wonders what to tell the young man.

Naturally, Holmes takes the case and, more than once, seems to relish the mental exercise of the problem. Like a master plotter and storyteller, Doyle plants seemingly random pieces of evidence (Sir Henry’s missing boot, the man with the black beard who follows Sir Henry in London, a letter composed of words cut out of a newspaper warning Sir Henry of impending danger) and leaves it up to the reader to sort it all out. Holmes, of course, is ten steps ahead but keeps his thoughts to himself.

Holmes also decides to take a breather during the middle part of his own book. He sends Watson to Baskerville Manor to look after Sir Henry while staying behind in London. But, like Count Dracula in the book that bears his name, Holmes is ever present, even when not on center stage. What Holmes’s absence does for Watson, however, is give the good doctor a chance to be the star of the show. He takes his charge to protect Sir Henry to heart, rarely leaving the young baronet’s side. Reading the story in his own voice, Watson is modest but you can tell he takes great pride in doing his duty.

Although not specifically named “Part II,” the Dartmoor section of the book is distinct from the scenes set in London and contains it’s own set of oddities. Why is the butler, Barrymore, sneaking around the house at night? What is the fate of the escaped convict now sleeping somewhere in the moor? Who are the neighbors of Sir Henry and how might they play a part in the greater story? Most of all, however, is the mystery of the baying hound, its ululations flowing over the moors like the fog, chilling the bones of all who hear it?

For those who have not read the book, I shall go no further. Doyle’s storytelling muscles are at their peak with this novel. Chapter after chapter, he builds mystery upon mystery, laying them until they become somewhat complicated. He lets the reader have a few moments of satisfaction when he reveals certain mysteries along the way. Even so, the larger questions still remain unanswered and it is up to Holmes himself to reveal the entire truth.

Perhaps the years of writing short stories helped Doyle with pacing. Where his first two novels bogged down with slow story lines, Hound all but hurries through the prose. Like a good page turner, Doyle packs a good deal of information into each chapter and leaves the reader with cliffhanger chapter endings that force you to keep reading and find out what happens next.

An underrated trait of Doyle’s writing is his excellent descriptions. At one instance, where Watson meets a certain character for the first time, he spends an entire paragraph describing the person before ever a word is uttered. Much of the action takes place outside the rooms in Baker Street or in the Baskerville Manor. This allows Doyle’s descriptive writing to shine as he illustrates the countryside with words. One of my favorites is Watson describing part of the moor upon first seeing it.
“It is a wonderful place, the moor,” said he [Stapleton], looking round over the undulating downs, long green rollers, with crests of jagged granite foaming up into fantastic surges.
I first read this novel back in ninth grade and loved it. Hound was my introduction to Holmes and I quickly read the first two novels and short story collections. It’s been upwards of two decades since I last read this book. I was curious to see how it held up, particularly in light of my burgeoning writing career and all that I have learned along the way. Splendidly, in fact. Even though I knew the plot points going in (or remembered them as the story progressed), I still had a blast re-reading this novel. It’s still my favorite Holmes novel and one of my favorite mystery novels of all time.

4 December - A Study in Scarlet
11 December - The Sign of Four
18 December - The Hound of the Baskervilles
25 December - The Valley of Fear


pattinase (abbott) said...

Read it! Yay!

Leah J. Utas said...

I hadn't read any Holmes until now. Your love of the books compelled me to pick up a collection of short stories the other day and I've just started it. I'm reading "The Speckled Band" and I'm hooked.

Laurie Powers said...

This is a fantastic review and the perfect summary. I tried to read HOUND when I was a teenager but never finished - you've convinced me to try again. I'm putting it at the top of the pile.

Randy Johnson said...

Now you need to read Michael Hardwick's pastiche sequel, THE REVENGE OF THE HOUND.

Scott D. Parker said...

Patti - Yay back at you! Is this the only Holmes story/novel you've read?

Leah - [bows in appreciation] Thank you. And Mr. Doyle thanks you, too.

Laurie - I'm happy to spread the Holmes love. I've decided to keep reading Holmes and read some of the short stories I've never read.

Randy - This is exactly what I've been looking for. I tried to search for a sequel and, to date, haven't found one. Thanks!

Evan Lewis said...

Another fine Holmes review. Makes me want to read it yet again.

Scott D. Parker said...

Evan - Thanks again for stopping by. I've finished The Valley of Fear now. Biggest problem now: how hard to swing as I critique that book. Reminds me of a saying: if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Or, more to the point of this book: if Sherlock Holmes in barely in a Sherlock Holmes novel, is it really a Sherlock Holmes novel?

Barbara said...

I need to do a book review as my English project and this was the book I picked for reading. Hound was the book that introduced me to literature and writing, four or five years ago, as I was around 11 years old. I've read the book three times since then, in different languages for different purposes (the third one was in English) and it never ceased to amaze me. What actually amazed me in your review was the fact you explained exactly every one of my thoughts and feelings about the book. The descriptions, the little mysteries that "chain" the reader to the novel...
Best review I've seen so far!