We come to Sherlock Holmes the way Ian Fleming fans approach Bond films. Those who inhale all things Bond know all the opening (and irrelevant) action sequences, the appearance of the bad girl who seems good, and the good girl who seems bad, the hissable villains bent on world domination, the plot outlines and country tours, and appreciate each new iteration like a connoissieur would know the vintage and characteristics of a particular year. Holmes fans similarly luxuriate in the minutiae of standardization: the more or less constant invocation to the muse, where Watson mentions various previous cases and then settles on one; the intial conversation between the bluff, beefy doctor and the intense, rapier-thin detective; perhaps a demonstration of near-magical deduction and then the visitor, or Lestrade or Gregson, and then the game’s afoot. The facts are presented, people are interviewed and after a false start or two, all is tied up with a bow. With very few exceptions, Holmes remains the same, from A Study in Scarlet through to His Last Bow, and in this consistency lies his attraction – we know what we are getting (again, like Bond) and return to his cases with the ease and familiarity of long habit.
I make these points to illustrate how little I actually need to discuss the actual plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles at all. Sure, this is one of the few novellas about Holmes which Conan-Doyle wrote, but it follows all the predictable outlines and scenarios, and showcases all the talents of the famous detective we have been led to expect: his powers of observation and deduction; his ability to disguise himself; and his dry way of incisively cutting to the chase and seeing the relevant facts that lay he case open for solution. About the only thing missing is the Baker Street Irregulars.
In form, Baskervilles is fairly straightforward. A scion of a noble family is found dead on the moors, mere paces from his mansion (with the obligatory look of horror on his frozen features). A hound is said to have killed him, part of a familial curse spanning generations. Holmes is called in to not only investigate the death, but to protect the last remaining heir to the family name. From these bare bones, a novella of uncommon power was spun, relying mostly on the sheer atmospheric nature of the location: the dark, brooding moors, dreary mansions, and characters coiling in and out of the story with motives perhaps straightforward, maybe not. It’s quite the most Gothic of all of Conan Doyle’s wotrks (in my opinion, anyway), and reminds me somewhat of Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, or Conan-Doyle’s own The Adventure of the Speckled Band with which it also shares many stytlistic similarities.
Sherlock Holmes has been so much a part of our cultural landscape that it’s hard to imagine a time when Conan Doyle’s creation didn’t exist. He has dominated our mental ideas of the private detective and the dispassionate, rigourously analytical private eye (quite aside from the more noir-ish Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe), and been portrayed by more actors on film than perhaps any other fictional character ever created. All subsequent fictional detectives and private eyes to some extent live in his shadow, right up to, and including, Dr. House MD. And yet he had his genesis not just in Conan-Doyle’s mentor Dr. Joseph Bell, but in Poe’s Dupin (Murders in the rue Morgue) and Monsieur Lecoq from the pen of Émile Gaboriau…and even older progenitors created in short stories by Voltaire and Blicher in the early 19th century, and truly ancient fictional characters of astute reasoning and detailed analysis written by Arabic writers and Ming dynasty Chinese fiction (though there are stylistic differences, to be sure). The thread from them to Homes is taut: and indeed, continues, for who among us who loves reading is not aware of Hercule Poirot, Elijah Bailey, Lord Peter Whimsey, or PD James’s Adam Dalgleish?
Conan Doyle wrote the first Holmes story back in 1887 when he introduced Watson and Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. As was the custom of the time, he wrote it in serial form for magazines, but it was when he wrote single, self-contained short stories for Strand Magazine that the character really took off. So much so that Conan Doyle, who had interests in writing beyond the detective, and lavished more love and care on his historical works like Sir Nigel and The White Company, or his essays in muscular exploration (The Lost World) tried to kill Holmes off in The Final Problem, (where Morarity, our hero’s nemesis, was introduced) only to relent (public outcries do have their uses) and bring him back later – eight years later – in The Adventure of the Empty House, and then, Baskervilles.
These days, all the other writings of Conan Doyle are mostly forgotten by the lay public – Professor Challenger, Sir Nigel, Micah Clarke have faded from the minds of most. But Sherlock Holmes continues to exert a curious sort of fascination. We who love Holmesiana delight in meeting a fellow, so the most obscure details can be discussed. Where did Holmes keep the tobacco? (the persian slipper). Where did he store his cigars? (the coal scuttle). What did Holmes do with his gun in his rooms? (fired a patriotic “VR” pattern of bullet holes on the wall). What happened to Mrs. Hudson, Gregson, Lestrade? Where exactly was Watson wounded in Aghanistan, leg or shoulder? What more is there of the Diogenes Club and Mycroft Holmes? Why did Holmes never actually buy a house of his own? What were the fascinating adventures alluded to but never written down: that of Colonel Warburton’s madness, the “singular affair of the aluminium crutch”, the full account of Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife, the “repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby the banker,” The Adventure of the Tired Captain, and the strange case of Mr Jason Phillimore who went back into his house to get his umbrella and was never seen again. I just love the names of these cases, real or not…they lend that air of verisimilitude to Holmes, that of an old, ongoing story with corners around which we can barely see.
Those of us who early on in life gave our admiration to Conan Doyle and his creation and gained so much enjoyment thereby, have reason to be grateful to all those opthalmic patients who did not go to see a young doctor back in 1891. It was there, waiting for patients who never arrived, that Conan Doyle started writing and saw the possibilities of his creation. Holmes fans the world over must heave a sigh of relief at this confluence of events: it may not have been elementary, but it sure was fortuitous.