I sometimes marvel that I have got to the age I have without reading any Arthur Conan Doyle. Sometimes I think, a character becomes so ingrained into the public consciousness (Holmes or Poirot say) that it’s easy to forget the need to actually read the stories they appear in!
So, I decided to start with what is considered to be the best Holmes mystery (aficionados can correct me here!) The Hound of the Baskervilles. Not only have I not read the book, but I haven’t seen any of the myriad television or film adaptations so I came to the story completely fresh.
The book opens with Holmes and Dr Watson meeting a potential client – Dr Mortimer – who has travelled from the North of England. He recounts local legend that the aristocratic Baskervilles are cursed to be murdered by a demonic hound. The latest Baskerville life has just been claimed and the phantasmagorical hound is being blamed.
Sir Charles Baskerville has died suddenly, in strange circumstances and the footprints of a hound are discovered around his body. Dr. Mortimer approaches Sherlock Holmes to investigate the real cause of the death. Has the curse struck again or is there a more logical explanation? There is added urgency as the heir to Baskerville Hall, Sir Henry, has just arrived from the US and intends to take up his rightful place, curse or no curse.
The pressure is on Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, to discover the truth about the death of Sir Charles and rid the family of this outlandish curse forever.
Can Sherlock Holmes, a man of cool, forensic reason take on a case that contains such superstitious qualities? Of course he can, and he sends Watson off to Dartmoor along with Sir Henry to do the preliminary investigations.
The more outre and grotesque an incident is the more carefully it deserves to be examined, and the very point which appears to complicate a case is, when duly considered and scientifically handled, the one which is most likely to elucidate it.
What follows is an absolute delight. The Hound of the Baskervilles is meticulously plotted, perfectly paced and thoroughly entertaining, with the wonderful creation of the mercurial Holmes at the centre. Conan Doyle is very skilled at planting seemingly random incidents (a missing boot, a warning letter and a man with a beard) within his narrative which the plot will later come to hinge upon.
As a first time reader to the series I was surprised that Holmes was missing in action for the main section of the book, as we follow Watson and his investigation in Devonshire. But of course Holmes pervades the book entirely and his reappearance is a wonderful piece of sleight of hand which indulges his flair for the dramatic. It also gives the reader a chance to get to know the solid and dependable Watson who collects the pieces of the puzzle diligently, but needs his mentor to help put them together.
The Dartmoor section of the book is very evocative, with Conan Doyle perfectly capturing the lonely and melancholic nature of the desolate landscape and the eerie presence of the mysterious, murderous hound.
It came with the wind through the silence of the night, a long, deep mutter, then a rising howl, and then the sad moan in which it died away. Again and again it sounded, the whole air throbbing with it, strident, wild and menacing.
Conan Doyle seems to be at the peak of his talents in The Hound of the Baskervilles, flexing his storytelling muscles with skill and wit. The book is paced so well and as mystery layers upon mystery, the tension builds to a fabulous finale on the moors where Holmes, of course, solves all.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is a really satisfying read and serves as a great template for modern crime fiction. Not a word is wasted here and Conan Doyle indulges in the supernatural just enough, without overwhelming the narrative. There’s a reason books become classics and here Conan Doyle proves himself the master of detective fiction.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 292
NUMBER REMAINING: 454
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!