Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-02) has been regarded by current and contemporary Sherlockians as the best of the four Sherlock Holmes novels. Since its publication, it has been adapted dozens of times for radio, film, and television. It’s a mystery classic that I hope you’ll try!
Here’s some background and information which may convince you.
How The Hound of the Baskervilles came about:
The year 1901 marked the death of Queen Victoria and saw Doyle well-established in his career: he had achieved many of his personal goals, and was considered a serious writer and popular public speaker. That year, Doyle went on a golfing holiday in Norfolk with his friend Fletcher Robinson. On a dreary, rainy day, when golfing was out of the question, Robinson passed the time by recounting to Doyle the West Country legend of a spectral hound, which gave Doyle the idea for his story. Blogger and writer Gene Lempp wrote a fascinating post on the Legend of Black Shuck which gives more detail.
Doyle subsequently travelled to the Dartmoor area to get local color for the story, which was originally not intended to feature Holmes (he had already killed off Holmes in “The Final Problem” – pitching him over the Reichenbach Falls with Professor Moriarty). According to the author, Holmes sort of worked his way into the story; so, rather than resurrect Holmes (although he did later, in 1903), Doyle made the story a reminiscence by Watson of an earlier undocumented case.
The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialized in The Strand Magazine (where most of the stories were serialized) over a nine-month period, from August 1901 to April 1902. It was eagerly received, and long lines formed at the publisher’s office when the next installment was due out.
Doyle certainly knew how to break up the segments to keep the readers hooked. For example, the first installment ends Watson’s sleep being disturbed by the “sob of a woman, the muffled, strangling gasp of one who is torn by uncontrollable sorrow.” He also used cliff-hangers involving a dead body, a mysterious stranger, and mysterious noises in the night.
In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Doyle was able to resolve the narrative difficulty he had in two earlier full-length Holmes novels: how to explain the complex and lengthy series of events that lead up to the crime without the use of long flashbacks or tedious explanations that interrupt the story. Instead, he told the story using several different narrative voices: Watson, Holmes (who has his own account of a portion of the adventure when he and Watson are apart), the client Dr. Mortimer, and a 17th century manuscript.
Another effect of the narrative structure is that Holmes absents himself from the story for a period of time, giving Watson his chance in the limelight as a detective, a role which weighs heavily on him. The reader shares the feeling of vulnerability in Holmes’s absence, making it more of an impact when Holmes reappears (one of the climactic serial divisions at the time of publication).
The novel’s Gothic horror story trappings make it an unusual setting for a detective story: a family curse, a dark, primitive moor, a seemingly-supernatural hound, a black-hearted villain. There are lots of “thrills and chillls.” But it’s a detective story through and through, because the gothic is not its solution. There is a rational explanation for everything. Some scholars posit that this is why Doyle instinctively felt that Holmes belonged in the story.
Psychoanalytic facets of the novel:
During the time that Doyle was writing the Holmes stories, Freud was developing his theories of the unconscious mind and repression. Writers such as Conrad, Stevenson and James wrote symbolic stories in which the source of evil existed within the mad soul and had to be restrained by the intellect. The Hound of the Baskervilles treats the problem of human evil from a psychological perspective rather than a metaphysical/ supernatural one. Scholars like to read the wild, lonely, treacherous moors as symbolic of the repressed unknown unconscious mind, uncivilized and barbaric. Using this interpretation, the moor would act in conjunction with characters in the story (including the neolithic savages, the original inhabitants of the moor) to depict the unconscious, dark side of the human soul, or the primitive part of man existing beneath the civilized veneer, if you will.
There’s more I could say about this (we haven’t even touched Jungian theory), but you have your lives to get back to. If you haven’t read The Hound of the Baskervilles, I hope you’ll give it a look!
Have you ever read a Holmes story? What do you think of this Sherlock Holmes novel? I’d love to hear from you!
Until next time,