Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Release the Hound!

Almost a decade after killing off his famous detective Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reversed course. He wasn't yet prepared to bring Holmes back from the dead, but he did decide to write a new adventure set in the years before the character met his end. Doyle also changed things up in the format. Instead of creating another short story, he returned to the full length novel that first introduced the detective. And so The Hound of the Baskervilles came to be.

The Hound of the Baskervilles might just be the most influential tale Doyle ever wrote. It's the story of a wealthy old country man who dies under mysterious circumstances, having perhaps been frightened to death by a ghostly hound that has allegedly haunted his family's manor for generations. Now that the man's only living heir is taking over the estate, Holmes must get to the truth before this phantom reappears.

This is the first time that Doyle ever wove anything overtly supernatural into a mystery tale, and you don't have to look far to come up with countless writers since who took the idea and ran with it. Standing on the shoulders of The Hound of the Baskervilles is everyone from Stephen King to Scooby Doo. (Indeed, the true nature of the ghostly hound feels like a scheme that would have been revealed by the latter.)

That said, it's probably not Doyle's best effort from a writing standpoint. Within his clever construct of a story, he really plays around with style more than he should. It's easy to understand the impulse; if he was going to return to Sherlock Holmes, he would certainly want to do something different. But the narrative is a bit choppy for this experimentation. After starting off in the traditional style of Watson writing a post hoc chronicle from his own memories, two chapters in the middle suddenly switch to a transcription of letters Watson supposedly wrote at the time. It's also not very effective to separate Holmes and Watson for the middle act of the tale as Doyle does; fans clamoring to see the two characters together again after so many years must surely have been disappointed to have them apart for most of the novel.

Still, the mystery holds together fairly well overall. The writing is more brisk than most of Doyle's efforts, despite the greater length. And as I said, the influence this story had on the genre can't be underestimated. I'd rate The Hound of the Baskervilles a B. If you're curious about the tales of Sherlock Holmes, but don't plan to read them all as I'm doing, this story at least should be on your "must list."


Anonymous said...

This is my favorite of the Holmes novels, but I tend to prefer the short stories myself.
Doyle was never a great novelist.

(I guess I should stop commenting here -- everyone does it on your facebook page...)


Jean-Luc Simard said...

That would explain why I never see comments on Evan's posts anymore!