157 pages @350 wds/pg
• Greatest Literature list
He would talk of nothing but art, of which he had the crudest ideas."
"It is murder, Watsonórefined, cold-blooded, deliberate murder." "
"The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes."
A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen.
Arthur Conan Doyle killed off his most famous literary creation, the ultra-rational fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, partway through his writing career. Holmes was taking.... more
COMMENTARYHolmes confronts the horror
First thing you have to do is forget all the movie and television productions you've seen of this story.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably Sherlock Holmes's most famous case, Arthur Conan Doyle's most successful detective novel, and his tale that most easily translates to cinematic treatment. All those misty, moody scenes on the moors.... The horror of the hound from hell, eyes blazing as it attacks its terrified victims.... The haunted heir in the mansion and his enigmatic neighbours....
But even on the printed page, Doyle establishes an atmosphere of mystery here that goes beyond the usual presentation and solution of a puzzle. Like the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, this detective story becomes literature.
All right, I'm getting a little carried away. This is not exactly The Grapes of Wrath. It's still an escapist thriller. And the spine-tingliness of it may not faze a modern public weaned on Stephen King novels and slasher films.
But if you can put out of mind our more jaded world and imagine yourself back in late 19th-century or early 20th-century England, you may be able to read The Hound of the Baskervilles with something like the excitement folks did back then.
There's also the theme of rationalism going up against, and defeating, the paranormal—which I like—and which Doyle did not emulate in his own life. But an odd thing about The Hound of the Baskervilles is how little of Holmes's reasoning is displayed in the narrative.
In fact, for much of the story Watson is the protagonist, having been sent by Holmes to Devon to investigate the goings-on with the Baskervilles. Partly, we understand this is a literary device to allow the lesser detecting partner to present us the mystery in all its details and then allow the greater to make a thrilling appearance and solve the mystery.
But there may be other factors at work here. The Hound of the Baskervilles was written nearly a decade after Doyle had killed off his popular hero at the Reichenbach Falls. Bowing to relentless public pressure for more Holmes, the author gets around the death by situating Hound in an earlier time. But he may still have been reluctant to have the novel completely absorbed with the figure he thought was stealing public appreciation from what he considered his more important works.
The result is a greater attention paid to details of setting and atmosphere, as well as a greater buildup of suspense in Hound, than in works that have Sherlock involved from the beginning. And when the conclusion comes—with that damnably charismatic character back at the centre—it is all the more effective.
I'm not sure this is lasting literature. (Though how many other popular novels from 100 years ago are still being read today?) But if I had to pick the pre-World War I genre novel that had the best chance of becoming a mainstream classic, this would be the one.