Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Hound of the Baskervilles

Alright, I am determined to write this blog post today, but it's so hard to concentrate. Two absolutely mind-blowing things happened to me yesterday and I have to share those first before I get to the point.

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.
Of course I was not expecting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to be a boring writer (why would so many people read him if his books were dull?) but I definitely wasn't expecting The Hound of the Baskervilles to be so entertaining in a modern way – I really can't think of a more descriptive expression than that. It's compact, fast-paced, fun and constantly throwing in new characters and plot threads on the reader's plate! The mystery builds up brilliantly until the very last chapters, and the atmosphere on the misty, swampy moors is nerve-wracking. For goodness' sake, we even have to witness a poor pony drowning in the bog! I really do want to visit Dartmoor now, though, because of its depiction in this and War Horse. The Victorian period wasn't exactly favorable towards scandalous and dark elements in literature, but The Hound of the Baskervilles definitely doesn't shy away from things like sadistic husbands, marriage troubles and supernatural beasts. (Maybe things were starting to loosen up on the late Victorian years, which is when this novel was published?) I can completely understand why Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss were so inspired to re-invent Sherlock Holmes in modern day.

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!


  1. This was the first Sherlock Holmes novel I ever read and I really enjoyed it already on the first reading (I have now read it a few times). I absolutely love Holmes as a character, he is so very unique and what makes Conan Doyle's work so extraordinary to me is knowing that he invented a lot of the crime solving methods Holmes uses.
    The books are great to read because the language really isn't too complicated. I personally love Jeremy Brett's interpretation of the character on screen :)

  2. I'm a MASSIVE fan of the BBC's Sherlock! I'm really looking forward to your blog post!

    This novel was my first Sherlock Holmes story as well and it's still my favourite out of the Sherlock Holmes novels (although I haven't read A Valley of Fear yet). I love it for everything you said: the atmosphere, the pace, the characters, the humour. One of my favourite moments in any of the stories is when Mortimer calls Holmes the "second best detective in Europe" and Holmes then gets really offended. It always makes me laugh! Now that you've read this book I'd move onto 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' and 'The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes'. You can't really go wrong when it comes to the Arthur Conan Doyle stories though. I've read almost all of them. It's only the final few books that I haven't read.

    I haven't watched any other adaptations of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' but I've heard good things about the Hammer Horror version. And also the ITV Granada version of the story with Jeremy Brett.

    I've been to Devon before but not to the Dartmoor region. The West Country has some of the very best countryside in the UK. You'd have a great time there :)

    Ah, so you're familiar with War Horse as well? I've got a a joint book, play and film review of it sitting in my draft box. I should have it published by the end of the month.

    I'm so excited about Benedict being in the follow-up to The Hollow Crown but I'm even more excited about his Hamlet! I don't think there's a chance I'd be able to get tickets for it but I'm hoping that they'll do a live cinema broadcast.

    I take it you've watched The Hollow Crown then? I thought that it was absolutely magnificent :) I'm so glad that it was a big success. It definitely seems to have encouraged the BBC to do more Shakespeare adaptations.

    I loved this post!

  3. Interesting, that two of my readers had their first Sherlock Holmes experience with The Hound of the Baskervilles! It really does have reputation, it seems.

    I've just seen the War Horse film, but I would love to see the play too, it has become such a big thing in the theatre world!

    I've seen most of the Hollow Crowns and am drafting a post on the first part, Richard II. I'm really glad that BBC has decided to do Richard III, since the title character is possibly the most famous (and most interesting to watch) of "Shakespeare's kings". I am SO looking forward to hear all those monologues recited in Benedict Cumberbatch's wonderful voice...

  4. Ben Whishaw was breathtaking in Richard II! I was so happy when he won a BAFTA for it! It couldn't have been more deserved. I really wish that Tom Hiddleston could have at least got a nomination for his roles as well though :(

    Yes, Benedict has a wonderful voice! If you want to hear more of his voice work I'd suggest listening to Cabin Pressure. It's a BBC Radio 4 show and it's hilarious :) There's also the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Neverwhere which he even sings in. And then there's his voice work as Smaug and the Necromancer in The Desolation of Smaug but I don't think you need me to tell you about that one ;)

    I'm sure you'll appreciate this as well:

  5. Regarding the canon I'd suggest beginning with The Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four to get the Holmes & Watson history established before moving on to the short stories.

    I just got slightly blown away by Anthony Horowitz's The House of Silk, which is a very recent (2011?) Holmes novel attempting to sit right in with the canon. I approached it with grave misgivings, but it actually does a very good job of it!

    The characters are sharply depicted and the story is really quite enjoyable, even if Horowitz can't entirely resist the temptation of humanizing Holmes a bit further than what's done in the canon. But in the end it was all too good to fret about! I especially liked the wise and empathic voice he'd given to the aging Watson, recollecting this most gruesome adventure.

    Horowitz is also a screenwright (or, atleast, televisionwright?), and seems to be one to keep an eye on. I happened to see Collision, a show of his, and enjoyed it too.

  6. This was my first Holmes story too! Found it at the library when I was 12 or 13 and fell madly in love. It's still my favorite :-)

    I loved your description of Dr. Mortimer going all nerdy about skulls. He's such a trip! And I really am annoyed at how Watson got depicted as being dumb in so many adaptations (::cough::especially by Nigel Bruce::cough::).

    My favorite adaptation is the Jeremy Brett :-) But I want to rewatch the BBC Sherlock version to see if I like it better now that I know how they handled it. I think I'll like it better.

    The canon kind of jumps around in time, so it doesn't really matter where you start. I think that this book and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are the best.

    I have to disagree with the comment above -- I was quite disappointed by The House of Silk. I didn't hate it, either, but I found the dialog off and wasn't a fan of the subject matter. You can read my review here.

    1. Oh yes, Nigel Bruce's Watson... I watched the whole Hound of the Baskervilles film of 1939 and I was seriously wondering how on Earth a perceptive man like Holmes could let that man go to Dartmoor all by himself, AND carry a gun. There were many other things about that film which I didn't like, there'll be more about that later... But I LOVE the BBC Sherlock adaptation because it made enough changes to accommodate for a modern setting, but still showed obvious respect towards the original work. Oh, and that rabbit discussion at the beginning cracks me up every time.

    2. My problem with the Nigel Bruce/Basil Rathbone adaptations is that in order to make Holmes look smarter, they make Watson dumber. This is lazy writing. Watson is a perfectly intelligent guy -- he is a medical doctor, for pete's sake!

      The BBC adaptation made me kind of really angry because of the way Sherlock tricked John, and what he made him go through. However, now that I know that's coming, and what happens later in the series, I think I'll be more okay with that. So I do need to watch it again.

    3. Yep, you nailed "the Watson problem". I've only seen the first two Rathbone/Bruce films but I've heard that they made Watson EVEN DUMBER in the subsequent, modern-day set films. I don't know how that's possible. And I certainly would never trust him as my doctor.