Let's begin this new feature right at the beginning - with the book that began my mystery-reading career.
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“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"
With those words, the stage is set for one of the most terrifying cases ever solved by Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
I was first introduced to Sherlock Holmes when I was about ten years old – and my immediate love for the Holmes stories has formed the basis of my life-long fascination with fine mystery novels. When I began this series of podcast reviews, The Hound of the Baskervilles was one of the first books up for discussion.
Most of the Holmes stories are just that – short stories; there are only four novels and 56 short stories that make up all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writings about Sherlock Holmes. Of the novels, I believe the best – by far – is The Hound of the Baskervilles. It first appeared as a serial in the Strand magazine in London in 1901 and 1902. As with many of the stories, it is narrated by Holmes’s one-time roommate, friend and chronicler, Dr. John Watson.
A country doctor comes to consult with Holmes. The doctor tells Holmes and Watson the legend of a curse on the Baskerville family, who live on Dartmoor in Devon. The legend tells how an early Baskerville was pursued to his death by a giant hound from Hell. Supernatural nonsense? Perhaps. But the visiting doctor goes on to speak of the recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville. The elderly baronet died of heart failure – but he had evidently been running from something. And, near the body, the doctor observed – to repeat the classic line – “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound.”
It quickly becomes apparent that – whether one believes in the hound or not – someone or something is pursuing Sir Charles’s heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, first in London and then later when Sir Henry – and Dr. Watson – travel to Baskerville Hall, on the edge of the desolate moor in Devon. Complicating the situation, a dangerous convict has escaped from a nearby prison and may be hiding on the moor. And there are reports – too many to ignore – from farmers and others living nearby about some animal, seen at night, that looks like some kind of glowing, giant hound. Watson himself, walking on the moor, hears the strange howling of an unseen hound.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe this is the finest of the Holmes stories. I say this for a number of reasons. First, there is the powerful and eerie atmosphere. In order to make the legend of the hound work effectively on the reader, Doyle had to create a truly frightening atmosphere. The lonely moor, the treacherous bog that could lure horses – and humans – to their deaths, Baskerville Hall with its somber atmosphere – all these are created effectively.
Here's an example: Watson is lying in his bed on his first night in the hall:
“I found myself weary and yet wakeful, tossing restlessly from side to side, seeking for the sleep which would not come. Far away a chiming clock struck out the quarters of the hours, but otherwise a deathly silence lay upon the old house. And then suddenly, in the very dead of the night, there came a sound to my ears, clear, resonant, and unmistakable. It was the sob of a woman, the muffled strangling gasp of one who is torn by an uncontrollable sorrow. I sat up in bed and listened intently. The noise could not have been far away, and was certainly in the house. For half an hour I waited with every nerve on the alert, but there came no other sound save the chiming clock and the rustle of the ivy on the wall.”
Now that is fairly typical of the kind of chapter ending you might expect to find in a serialized mystery novel, as this was – it is obviously designed to keep the reader coming back next week or next month to read the next installment. It adds greatly to the overall atmosphere of gloom hanging over Baskerville Hall – an atmosphere in which the notion of a giant demonic hound is not nearly as unlikely as it might seem.
If you aren’t familiar with the original Sherlock Holmes stories, this is a good place to start. While the modern mystery story did not originate with Doyle, his stories really were more influential, perhaps, than any written earlier. The Holmes stories were written in the late nineteenth and very early 20th centuries, but mystery writers still are creating detective characters modeled on Holmes and Watson. Almost any good bookstore can point you to collections which include all the stories – the novels and the short stories as well – and they are readily available. If you haven’t read them…what are you waiting for?
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For more details and quotes, you're welcome to listen to my original podcast review from 2007 by clicking here.
Next week: And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie.