The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Sherlock Holmes canon has become comfort reading for me—insofar as reading material new to me can be. There’s just something wonderful about 1880s London, mysteries that place the focus on people rather than how shocking the crimes are (I have mentioned modern mystery and I don’t get on, yeah? Please feel free to prove me wrong), the hint of the Gothic that runs through it, and, of course, Holmes and Watson, best friends for life. I basically end every novel and collection sighing, “Oh, boys.” I just honestly enjoy spending time with these characters, which is a downright miracle for an episodic and open-ended series for me. Nice work, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, nice work.
The Hound of the Baskervilles finds Holmes and Watson approached by a one Dr. Mortimer in the aftermath of the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville, baronet. Found dead on his property of an apparent heart attack, Dr. Mortimer can’t make heads or tails of the situation and wonders if the legendary Hound of the Baskervilles—a hellhound that has haunted the Baskervilles since the English Civil War—doesn’t have some basis in fact. With the arrival of Sir Henry, the Canadian heir to the baronetcy, Dr. Mortimer fears for him, but Holmes sends Watson out on the moors to investigate the case. But was Sir Charles murdered by a human being, or is there fact to this seeming fiction?
Doyle wrote four novels in the Holmes canon—A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, this novel, and The Valley of Fear. A Study in Scarlet had the introduction of Holmes, Watson, and spending half the novel in Utah to pad it out. (Oh, yeah, problematic depiction of Mormons. Heads up.) The Sign of the Four pads itself out with the introduction of Mary, Watson’s beloved, and plenty of racism. But The Hound of the Baskervilles works much better as a novel, even if it’s only because Doyle has had practice writing the short stories, which are amazing. Despite the fact that novels have no budget (hence why George R. R. Martin started writing A Song of Ice and Fire), I was reminded about the divide between television and film. The short stories mostly take place in and around London, and the crimes Holmes and Watson thwart or solve are usually on the smaller scale. But everything is bigger in The Hound of the Baskervilles, from the setting to the scope of the crime.
It’s also one of the few stories where Holmes and Watson are separated for a long of period of time. (Fun fact: this book is set in 1889, which is after Watson and Mary, well, marry and Watson moves out. Doyle totally forgets about this fact. I’m torn between feeling sorry for forgotten Mary and imagining her having her own madcap adventures, preferably with Irene and Godfrey, because the Adlers are the best couple in Victorian England as far as I’m concerned.) Holmes sends Watson off the moors with Sir Henry pretty much on his own, and it’s up to Watson to investigate things up to Holmes’ standards. This makes things spookier, of course, as Watson lacks the almost supernatural insight Holmes has, but Doyle uses their separation to show what a thoughtful, nice, and brave person Watson is. Because of the way Watson is commonly treated in popular culture (“New Watson likes jam. We’re very happy.”), it’s sometimes tempting to think there’s some basis for this in the canon, but there really isn’t.
In fact, Doyle also takes the time to point out the defects and darkness in Holmes here. When he comes back into the picture at the end of the novel (making such a grand entrance I laughed out loud), he almost waits too long to solve the case because he wants to have the solution nice and tidy before leaping into action. He’s properly horrified at himself afterwards, but this aspect (valuing the solution over human lives) is a hugely important part of Holmes’ worldview and rightly crops up in many modern interpretations of the character, from Gregory House to Sherlock. He also keeps the people he works with in the dark, which Watson tries to put a positive spin on. And he can be downright chilling at times; while planning the capture of the murderer, Holmes suddenly laughs—and Watson notes that Holmes only laughs when something bad is going to happen. This is exactly why the vast majority of the Holmes stories are from Watson’s perspective; God only knows what it’s like inside Holmes’ head.
Bottom line: After honing this series on the short stories, Doyle returns Watson and Holmes to the novel in The Hound of the Baskervilles, which has all the character-driven mystery, touches of the Gothic, 1880s London, and, of course, the friendship between Watson and Holmes that you could ever want. A lovely outing. (But not on the moors. And definitely not at night!)