First thing: I was listening to Billy Joel again – which is not an unusual event because I like him a lot – and for the first time I actually paid proper attention to what his song Goodnight Saigon is about. This song, like many others, has previously had me so carried away simply by its melody and atmosphere that my brain didn't manage to absorb until yesterday that it's actually an incredibly powerful story about the Vietnam War. It nearly knocked me off my chair.
Second thing: I learned through Facebook that BBC is continuing their series of Shakespeare's history plays (having already made four of them into the well-known Hollow Crown tv-movies), and Benedict Cumberbatch is going to play King Richard III. That casting decision, in my mind, is an entirely valid reason for hyperventilation and tears of joy.
There. Now I can get to the actual point. Spooky dogs. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Dartmoor. I've made this review spoiler-free, except for that one paragraph at the end, which will be clearly marked.
The legendary canon of Sherlock Holmes had been on my endless list of "things I should get to know better in the name of common knowledge" for a very long time, but it wasn't until I got my heart stolen by the modern-set BBC Sherlock (which will get its own blog post in the near future) that I took action to read one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works. I decided to start with The Hound of the Baskervilles despite that it's not the first in chronological order because it has made by far the biggest and most mysterious reputation out of all the Holmes adventures.
The Baskervilles are an old and high family who have their ancestral home on the bleak moors of Devonshire. According to family legend, they are haunted by a monstrous black hound who has been the downfall of most of the Baskervilles. The old stories start getting around again when Sir Charles, the current resident of Baskerville Hall, is found dead on the moor with a look of terror on his face. His nephew and heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, is summoned from Canada to claim his new property, but he only gets as far as London when strange things start to happen to him; an anonymous message that warns him against going to Dartmoor, boots going missing, a bearded stalker... Also, it is not quite clear what exactly killed his uncle Charles. So what else is there to do than pay a visit to Baker Street and get Holmes and Watson on the case?
Whatever expectations I had when I opened the book – and I was bound to have some, not only because I've read a fair number of detective stories and Victorian novels, but because everyone has some sort of an image of Sherlock Holmes in their minds – I couldn't have been more surprised. And I mean that in all ways positive.
|The 1939 film is so very cheerful about its setting. Described from a Hollywood perspective obviously.|
Another delightful element in this novel is its characters. Let's start with the obvious – Sherlock Holmes proves to be one of the most charismatic literary characters in existence right on the first couple of pages. There are few others in the world with such an entertaining combination of smarts and attitude. And Dr Watson is NOT the stereotypical "dumb sidekick" that, curiously, some Holmes adaptations tend to lean towards. For one thing, Sherlock actually sends him on his own to Baskerville Hall to help Sir Henry and make sense of the case. That's a tremendous act of trust, people! Dr Watson does most of the on-page detective work here, and he's not screwing it up. He very efficiently takes up the task that Sherlock sets him, to find out as much as he can about Sir Henry's neighbours. This enables us readers to meet a collection of (mostly) upper-class Dartmoor residents, all of whom we curiously find out are quite messed up one way or another. Dark secrets are unravelled, but some of these people are generous enough to provide us a much-needed laugh in the middle of the forbidding, supposedly haunted moorlands. My favourite character has got to be Dr Mortimer, who introduces the case of the Baskervilles to Sherlock Holmes and then spends much of his on-page time being all nerdy about different shapes of skulls. Mr Frankland is also worth mentioning – his hobby of choice is flinging away most of his fortune to put up court cases that concern his own life very little or not at all, because of course the actual legal forces in the area are getting none of the important things done.
Skip this paragraph if you don't want spoilers. There was just one element in this otherwise incredibly exciting and brain-stimulating book that didn't quite live up to my expectations. Quite ironically, this element was... the actual hound. I don't quite know what I was anticipating to be the deal with the supernatural, glowing killer dog, but the way it was handled was just conflicting, in my opinion. First we get chapter after chapter of gossipy hints about a "spectral hound" that has been after the Baskervilles for ages. Then the escaped convict Selden dies and it starts to look like some beast is actually out there. In the second to last chapter, the titular hound appears and... somehow it turns out to be just an ordinary, mortal canine which just happens to be gigantically huge and seems to give the impression of spitting flames out of its mouth. Come on, even the fact that the dog was dabbed with phosphorus can't explain that bit. And if the beast was mad enough to attack and kill whoever Stapleton pointed to it, how did it never cross its mind to attack Stapleton himself? It doesn't make sense!
End of spoilers. So, this is definitely a book that I can recommend, and it works quite well as an initiation to Sherlock Holmes in my opinion. It's a quick read – the Penguin English Library edition that I read is 175 pages – and builds up very nicely all the way. There are dozens of film and television adaptations of this particular Holmes story, and I'm definitely interested to see at least a couple of them. Have you seen any adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles that you could recommend?
PS The Shakespearean Lovers Quiz is in dire need of participants – don't be daunted just because it has the word "Shakespeare" in it!