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

I have to admit that this is the first book I’ve ever read about Sherlock Holmes. I know that Sherlock Holmes is an extremely popular character and that the character shows up in a variety of movies and television shows even now. For whatever reason, I’ve never taken the time to read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works.

The story is written from the point of view of Dr. John Watson, a friend and colleague of Sherlock Holmes. As it is pretty much a given that Holmes will solve whatever mystery will present itself in this story, having the story written from the perspective and point of view of Watson is a very clever way to give the reader details and information that may or may not have anything to do with the presented mystery. Watson admires Holmes and his intellect and believes himself inferior to Holmes. In this way, he presents himself as the “average man” and one who believes himself lucky to be able to study with and learn from someone as prestigious as Holmes.

An article in the Baker Street Wikia discussed at length the similarity between Edgar Allen Poe’s character of C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, but the article makes it clear that Holmes believes himself superior in all ways to any other potential detective or intellectual mind before him. Watson comments on this similarity in The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Holmes responds with disdain by discussing “that trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and very superficial.” And yet, the Hound of the Baskervilles begins with Holmes doing the exact same thing to Watson, as they sit and contemplate the walking stick left in their office.

While I may not have read or watched any of the Sherlock Holmes stuff before, I think that I remember someone telling me once that all of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries are solved through Holmes’ intelligence and always had completely logical explanations for everything. Even knowing that, however, I still believe there was enough evidence presented at the beginning to allow me to believe that the Hound of the Baskervilles was the real, supernatural deal. I wasn’t trying to come up with logical explanations for the presence of the Hound because I read mostly horror, science fiction, and fantasy. With those kind of tastes, I’m usually willing to accept just about anything in the story. Scary glowing dogs, aliens, serial killers, escaped convicts, whatever.

I think Sherlock Holmes is interesting because it really does feel as though he is very pretentious and that he solves things because the people around him don’t pay as close of attention as he does. It’s very interesting to me that it’s been indicated that in the modern usages of Sherlock Holmes that he is not really made out to be a super genius so much as the people around him are made out to be much less intelligent than him.

Though Watson gives most of the credit to Holmes for solving mysteries, Watson is actually the one who does the leg work for this particular case. Watson doesn’t appear to get any responses to his letters once he arrives at Baskerville Hall with Henry Baskerville and so he is forced to do the best he can on his own. But Watson is actually very astute because he resolves the concerns with Mr. Barrymore’s creeping around the hallway at night without any assistance from Holmes. Between Watson and Baskerville, they find out that the escaped criminal living on the moor is Mrs. Barrymore’s brother, Selden. Watson also figured out that Mrs. Laura Lyons was involved in the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville in that she had set up the appointment with Sir Charles Baskerville that night in order to get him out in the moor and that there were a number of interested parties in how she conducted her business.

From my perspective, the only parts of the mystery that Holmes put together that Watson didn’t was that Stapleton was married and that he was another heir to the Baskerville fortune and estate. Though, it was obvious to an astute reader that the chances of the Stapletons being siblings was extremely slim because of how those two characters interacted with both Watson and Baskerville, and even with each other. Right from the initial meeting between Watson and the lady Stapleton, whose true name is Beryl Garcia, it’s obvious that the Stapletons know more about what’s going on and who the key players are then they initially let on.

Holmes also connected the use of the real-life hound with the myth from the Hound of the Baskervilles. The Baker Street Wikia also discusses Holmes by saying, “he does not allow superstition (as in the Hound of the Baskervilles) or grotesque situations to make him afraid; and he intrepidly confronts violent murderers.” Holmes knew when Baskerville’s boot was stolen in London that a real hound was likely involved and kept somewhere in the moor in order to frighten Sir Charles Baskerville to death on the night of his murder. Holmes also concluded that the same hound would likely be used against Sir Henry Baskerville in order to remove all other contenders for the Baskerville estate and fortune.

Other than those instances, the rest of the work in this case was provided by Watson. Watson’s point of view helped to provide the mysterious part of this story without allowing everything to be revealed as it happened, which would have been the case had Holmes provided the narration for this story.

I have to admit that I am not a fan of Sherlock Holmes himself and I relate a lot stronger to Dr. Watson because of his character. Overall, I would say that this story is a good introduction to classic mystery novels, settings, and characters because the clues are there for the average, non-mystery reader such as myself to pick them up, while the later parts of the story have enough action and excitement to move the characters and the story forward without becoming unbelievable or ridiculous.

I have to say that I am that reader that did not grow up with Holmes and the Hound. This is my first reading of a real mystery story (because I don’t count In the Woods by Tana French, which was required reading for one of my SHU residencies many, many years ago, as a mystery because nothing was ever resolved and I felt cheated. But that’s another story entirely). So while I am familiar with the existence of Sherlock Holmes and I am fully aware that he is supposed to be a great detective, I’ve never read any Sherlock Holmes stories, I haven’t seen the movies or the television series, and I have absolutely zero background in mystery. With all that in mind, I’d say the ending was fairly predictable, and I suspect most of that is because there weren’t any other suspects.

The Barrymore’s were cleared very early in the story with Watson finding the secret window messages and revealing Mrs. Barrymore’s brother, Seldon. Seldon was cleared because he was in prison when Sir Charles Baskerville died. That really just left the Stapletons. So even though we, as readers, were given all the clues early upon the arrival at Baskerville Hall as to *who* was involved, the question remained as to *why*, which I think is a lot more interesting of a question. Why would someone murder a man that appeared respected around the region? What was there to gain? And it was the *why* portion of the novel that drew me forward into wanting to know the *how* as well as the *why*.

Even though I know very little about the mystery genre as a whole, the question of why is always something that creates interesting motivation in most everything I read. Why do characters behave the way they do? Why would they risk everything for a specific event? Why do they do what they do? These questions are far more valuable to me as a writer because most of what I write is horror, and the serial killers, sociopaths, deadly aliens, and hungry demons occupying most of my reading and writing time are always followed by the question of *why*.

To me, that’s what makes mystery interesting.

The most effective parts in creating the spooky and foreboding sections involved the detail to which Doyle described the Moor. While I read this book, it felt a lot to me as though Doyle, through Watson, spent most of his time with descriptions of the Moor and the surrounding area. As soon as they approached the Moor in the carriage, the setting turns from images of a normal street in London and then interesting travels through the countryside to a dark and dismal turn into the clearly nefarious Baskerville Hall. He described what was necessary and removed all the frivolous aspects of things which were not necessary to move the plot forward.

I was actually torn about how to put that into words with my own thoughts on the descriptiveness of the setting. For me, the setting actually reminded me of the computer games I played as a kid, the King’s Quest series. In those games, there were a lot of dark and dangerous swamp areas, areas with poisoned water (which was a lot like the Moor in the Hound of the Baskervilles to me), and even a very Gothic inspired castle. It was those images which immediately came into my head when I read about Baskerville Hall.

The set up for Baskerville Hall was very well done, with the beginning of the story spending so much time building up the negative qualities of the area and of Baskerville Hall that I felt predisposed to see the darkness in the Moor and not the potential beauty. The Moor is set up to be a very unpleasant place, which furthers the atmosphere of foreboding.

I reminded myself repeatedly that this book was written quite some time ago and that there were different social norms, different customs and courtesies, and even different social classes. “Ill-usage” was such an awkward thing to read when Doyle clearly meant that Beryl Garcia had been physically abused.

One of the things I learned later in my semesters at SHU was that matching the tone for the target audience is a fairly important thing. And while we learn the proper spelling, grammar, punctuation, and writing styles, we also learn that not every rule-following story is well-written and some of the non-rule-following stories are either better sellers or vastly more popular. Doyle obviously knew the target audience he was writing for and used syntax that was familiar and comfortable for his readers at the time. His stories are so solid that they are still popular with many additional offshoots to this day.

About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, MA in Writing Popular Fiction, Readings in the Genre and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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