The Hound of the Baskervilles

I read The Hound of the Baskervilles as a bit of post-GRE brain decompression. Most of the books I am reading at the moment are related to my doctoral research proposal and are thus rather heavy. Also, because Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel is out of copyright, I was able to read it for free on my iPhone during a couple of my lengthy daily commutes. Previously, I had used similar bits of unallocated time to listen to the many recordings of Sherlock Holmes short stories that are available through iTunes University.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first novel-length Sherlock Holmes story I have been exposed to. While it did a nice job of letting me celebrate liberation from special triangles and the peculiar vocabulary favoured by GRE-writers, it wasn’t especially satisfying as a piece of fiction. I found most of the plot elements predictable, uninteresting, or both. Perhaps Sherlock Holmes as a character is better suited to the vehicle of a short story, in which he can make some clever deductions, unravel a mystery, and be done with things within a reasonably short span of the reader’s time. When extended out to novel length, readers will tend to see his deductions well in advance of when they are revealed, somewhat diminishing our admiration for the character’s intellect.

The novel including an annoying tendency to have Holmes go on about how this particularly case is singularly more complicated and important than his previous work. This claim doesn’t stand up very well, when you consider that some of his previous adventures included involvement in matters where war threatened between great powers or where sinister conspiracies had to be unravelled. Without revealing too much about the plot, it seems fair to say that the matter at hand here is of relatively minor significance and the mystery is not so unfathomable. Even Watson – the reliable narrator who primarily plays the role of being astonished by Holmes’ insights – nearly figures the whole thing out for himself.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

3 thoughts on “The Hound of the Baskervilles

  1. the matter at hand here is of relatively minor significance and the mystery is not so unfathomable

    As “author” of the public accounts of Sherlock Holmes’ cases, Watson is clear about his criteria: either it should demonstrate Holmes’ unique capabilities or it should be sensational or exciting. Holmes accuses of being too willing to include merely sensational cases and would be better off writing a textbook to appeal to the intellect instead.

  2. There is no question that The Hound Of The Baskervilles is the greatest by far of the Holmes novels, and has a strong argument to being the best Holmes story, period.

    One of the difficulties in the short story format for mysteries is that the length can make it difficult to give the reader a sufficient number of suspects to make the case truly mysterious. It can be tough to give enough space to “red herrings” to make them more then minor distractions. It can be tough to create a sense of place and time, and give enough attention to all of your lead characters.

    Of course, structuring something the length of a novel has its own difficulties as we saw in A Study In Scarlet and The Sign Of Four.

    But Doyle obviously learned his lessons from those earlier novels, and used the extra space in Hound to make the story breathe. We have a diverse cast, and a plethora of suspects. He gives us any number of theories and possibilities. Instead of mere red herrings, we have fully developed and fully investigated subplots. The fact that Doyle could devote an entire chapter to following three investigative “threads” that came to nothing is a testament to the virtue of having more space to tell the story.

    The decision to have Holmes absent for the middle third of the book must have seemed surprising, but it really gives Watson a chance to shine as an investigator in his own right. He discovers the Barrymores providing succor to Selden. He wheedles the information about Laura Lyons from Mortimer, and tricks Frankland into revealing what he knows about the stranger on the moor. Watson certainly does show that he is “developing the wisdom of the serpent,” and Holmes is not at all insincere when he declares, “I must compliment you exceedingly upon the zeal and the intelligence which you have shown over an extraordinarily difficult case.”

    This is my Watson–a dedicated friend and follower, but no mindless acolyte. He’s able to reason and improvise for himself, while remaining true to his charge. He won’t let superstition and local insularity stand in his way. He will observe and probe and push and finagle to get information. he is indeed the man who has lived with Sherlock Holmes for years, and learned a great many lessons.

    And although many adaptations wish to portray Watson as a dolt, that certainly not what Doyle intended. True, in many of the short stories, the limited storytelling space often left Watson filling the “gaze in awe as an appreciative audience for Holmes’ brilliance” role. But not following Holmes’ reasoning immediately (or having the breadth of experience and knowledge as Sherlock) is not the same as being ignorant, or a fool–see, for example, many of the fine police inspectors in the canon for an example of what Doyle considers an example of someone truly foolish.

    And in this case, Watson often follows fairly closely with Holmes. When Holmes gives his famous “eliminate the impossible” bon mot, Watson immediately follows his reasoning and sees exactly what Sherlock was thinking. At several other points in the story, Watson keeps up with Holmes’ train of thought; at others, he asks exactly the right questions. Doyle hardly presents Watson as a dunce, or a dunsel–he is intelligent, and a vital part of the team.

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