Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Stick to the road, stay off the moors.

Homes, boots, and Union Jack. Photo by Alli Kirkham

"Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table."

I can't believe that I hadn't read any Sherlock Holmes until only a year or two ago. It's so easy to understand how people become attracted to the world that Doyle describes - is brimming with soot and mystery and humor. Dr. Watson is a kindly guide, sympathizing with the reader and leading you along the path of Sherlock's mad deductions, pouting as his own suppositions are unceremoniously bounced aside by the unconventional irregular but sticking with his friend nonetheless.

I don't know that I've ever read any series that is as character driven as the Holmes stories. The Hound of the Baskervilles is actually somewhat unique in this, with the titular Sherlock missing for a significant portion of the novel. In spite of his absence from the pages, though, the detective's guiding influence is felt through Watson's thoughtful narration.

Holmes novels are fascinating because one can generally read in each of them a pet conceit of the author - which leads me to ask what Doyle wanted to defile in Baskervilles. In A Study in Scarlet we are given Doyle's unfettered opinion of Mormons; The Valley of Fear presents the reader with a bleak picture of racketeering and gang activity in the US; The Sign of the Four is constructed around the exploitation of the British East India Company. Only in The Hound of the Baskervilles does the carrying action of the story occur entirely in England (rather than in the lawless wilderness in America or in an English-controlled backwater). Perhaps Baskervilles is Doyle's criticism of the wilderness of the romantic novel; the setting is quite similar to Catherine and Heathcliff's love-lorn moor, there are two romantic beauties tormented by a beast of a man, peasants are terrified by the supernatural, nobody's marriage ends well, and there are even a couple of jabs the English legal system and its unfair malleability, all of which can be read as attacks on the overwrought romanticism and contrived obstacles found in Wuthering Heights. Or perhaps I'm simply projecting my dislike of the star-crossed loathers onto Doyle's deconstruction of a ghost story.

Whatever criticisms of other texts may be present in Baskervilles, it's a great read. The moors are mournful, even when Doyle is writing them lightly, and the story is one of Holmes's spookier mysteries. And it's hard to walk away from when you're caught up in the action, wanting to know what happens next and hoping Watson and Holmes solve the mystery with their skins intact, in time to make it home to a cheery fire and share a pipe together.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Sherlock Holmes: The Complete 
     Novels And Stories, Volume II. Bantam Classics, a division of Random House. New
     York: New York. 2003. (Originally Published 1902).


  1. I would think tat wise parents would have provided Holmes to a young reader.

    1. Oh, you guys made sure that I had access to copies of the stories - I just tried to read it for the first time at 12 and wasn't quite ready to read late-Victorian detective stories. Then I forgot about it for a few years and ended up breaking down and buying them last year 'cause I wanted to finally figure out what all the fuss was about.

  2. I only read my first Sherlock Holmes this year....It was great. Perhaps maybe not being traditionally female reading could be the reason why. It's a heck of a lot more interesting than Agatha Christie.

    1. Yeah, I remember that they weren't widely read by anyone when I was in school, though I had seen a lot of the older movies with my dad. I think I just had it in my head that they were mystery novels and I've always found mystery novels to be really dull - I didn't realize how wonderfully character driven they were.