The Hound of the Baskervilles: Sherlock Holmes’ (and Conan Doyle’s) Finest Hour

The world reeled in disbelief and grief.

Sherlock Holmes was dead.

But not for long. His resurrection—or resuscitation, to use a more practical term instead of such a mystical one out of reverence for the Master—his resuscitation brought with it a matchless struggle between logic and magic. Out of the tomb, a hero and a horror arose. The hound of a foggy ring of hell bayed. The champion of rationality donned his deerstalker and took to the hunt. The game was afoot. The Hound of the Baskervilles is more than just one of the most singular cases of Mr. Sherlock Holmes’ singular career; it is also a gothic tour-de-force, pitting method against madness in a race of reason and religion, of fact and fantasy, of natural and supernatural, of life and death.

Or rather, not so much death as murder: “refined, cold-blooded, deliberate murder.”

It all began by the fact that Sherlock Holmes was dead.

Murdered.

The Reason for The Hound
In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle opened his diary, recorded the terse entry Killed Holmes, and clapped the leaves to with finality.

“The Final Problem” had been published in The Strand Magazine, which recounted the events that plunged Sherlock Holmes to death beneath Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls grappling his arch-nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. Readers were shocked and dismayed, wore mourning bands in public, and shed tears in private over the impossible pages of The Strand. It was, without doubt, a premeditated murder by Mr. Holmes’ creator. For some time, Arthur Conan Doyle had contemplated slaying the detective he had brought to life and fame in 1887 with A Study in Scarlet as an expedient to pay the bills. For, though successful in covering the costs of living, Sherlock Holmes himself came with a price—time and energy. “He takes my mind from better things,” Doyle wrote shortly before releasing “The Final Problem,” where he finally disposed of his problem and wound up Sherlock Holmes for good and all.

It was not, however, good for all.

Soon the widespread anguish over Holmes’ demise gave way to widespread anger. The rebellion of civilized readers was rumored. In the words of Doyle:

I was amazed at the concern expressed by the public. They say a man is never properly appreciated until he is dead, and the general protest against my summary execution of Holmes taught me how many and how numerous were his friends. “You Brute!” was the beginning of a letter of remonstrance which one lady sent me, and I expect she spoke for others beside herself… I fear I was utterly callous myself, and only glad to have a chance of opening out into new fields of imagination.

One of the fields of imagination that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was to traverse was the proverbial valley of the shadow of death. After he lost his son in World War I, Doyle became intensely devoted to psychic sciences, séances, and spiritualist phenomena, becoming one of the most prominent leaders of these movements of his time. Considering his interest and eventual immersion in efforts to conjure up the spirits of the dead, it is not surprising that, in response to the outcry against the death of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle conceived of a conjuring to assuage the pain of a bereaved people. In 1901 he gave his rioting readership The Hound of the Baskervilles, being a reminiscence of Sherlock Holmes, carefully dated as occurring before the catastrophic Reichenbach affair. Holmes was still dead—for the time being. (“The Adventure of the Empty House” of 1903 proved the ultimate conjuring and capitulation in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles arrived in serial publications beginning in the summer of 1901 and 30,000 copies of The Strand flew from the stands. The magazine could not be printed fast enough to supply demand as droves of devotees lined up down Southampton Street waiting to seize the publication hot off the press. Sherlock Holmes’ return was received with wild enthusiasm, due in no small part to the wild events that occasioned his return: the demonic Baskerville Curse.

The Biggest Thing for Years
To reveal the crime perpetrated in the plot of what is widely considered the finest hour of Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson (perhaps even the greatest detective story ever written), would be a crime of almost equal magnitude. The scene of the crime alone should suffice to entice the uninitiated.

Commanding a view of the foul and forbidding moors of Devonshire, Baskerville Hall presides like a hoary forebear of long-forgotten times. Whispers circulate among the peasantry of an ancient curse that (quite literally) dogs the family line—a curse begotten by the monstrous Hugo Baskerville of yore; who, for his crimes and atrocities, was suddenly done to death by a gigantic, spectral hound. Ever since, the Hound plagued the family sorely, causing the masters of Baskerville Hall to suffer unhappy, sudden, bloody, and mysterious deaths. On the fourth of May 1889, the curse claimed a modern victim. Charles Baskerville, philanthropist and gentleman, was found dead in the yew alley perpendicular to the mansion. No signs of violence; a face contorted with fear; and, near the body, footprints of a gigantic hound.

houndIs it possible that the curse of the Hound is true? Moreover, is the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, safe in his ancestral home? Such were the problems presented to Mr. Sherlock Holmes as he sat smoking cigarettes in his chair by the fireplace; a man disinclined to put stock in fairy tales. “I have hitherto confined my investigations to this world,” the famous consulting detective declared after hearing the fantastic facts of the case, “In a modest way I have combated evil, but to take on the Father of Evil himself would, perhaps, be too ambitious a task.” Nevertheless, Holmes took up the task, and ambitious it was—“the biggest thing for years.”

There is hardly any classic element of the detective novel missing from this masterpiece: the newspaper-clipping note, the false-whiskered villain, the red herring, the twist ending, the presiding genius, the eleventh-hour exposé. (Doyle actually invented most of what is considered standard for detective fiction. It was he, incidentally, who coined the “smoking gun” expression in “The ‘Gloria Scott.’”) But perhaps most significant of the many achievements of The Hound of the Baskervilles is its creation of a remarkably vivid environment: a gothic setting of shadow and suspense. The atmosphere of the narrative is so thick and rich it can be cut with a knife. While the setting of 221B Baker Street is as wondrous as ever—complete with tobacco smoke, tea trays, newspapers, and momentous dialogue—the scene set over the great Grimpen Mire and the outlying English countryside possesses a dark lining despite its pastoral quaintness. There is a famous and apt interchange between Holmes and Watson in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” that captures the danger of Dartmoor: “the lowest and vilest alleys in London,” Holmes states, “do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” This paradoxical premonition is the paranormal premise of The Hound of the Baskervilles, decrying the criminal potency that exists when human habitation is stretched thin and the aberrations of the human condition can escape scrutiny. A distinguishing mark of The Hound of the Baskervilles that arises from this eerie axiom is that it is the one case in the Canon where the story dominates Holmes rather than Holmes dominating the story. Though unusual, it is not to be wondered at overmuch considering the pervading aura of gloom, menace, and folklore that sets its teeth into the tale. The mystery of the legendary Hound of the Baskervilles is poignant because it unfolds against an embodiment of mystery: a misty, miserable moor, where even the powers of the great Sherlock Holmes are called into question.

The Hound of the Baskervilles presents a unique challenge for Mr. Sherlock Holmes: the challenge to match his intellectual strength against forces beyond common comprehension, or even common sense—and, therefore, beyond common crime. Truth itself almost seems the sinister, elusive one that must be tracked down through a bizarre tangle of broken threads and revealed at all costs. “Come on!” the pursuers cry out, crying out for every reader, “We’ll see it through if all the fiends of the pit were loose upon the moor.”

Though Conan Doyle revisited supernatural themes in later Holmes stories, such as “The Sussex Vampire,” none compete with the compelling enormity and chilling improbability of the Hound. Few mysteries are so driven by the desire and determination to understand the mystery of existence, and form a coherent comprehension of the world (or worlds) that surrounds human dealings; and this is, perhaps, one of the reasons why The Hound of the Baskervilles has been held in such high regard for over a century. As high, in fact, as the regard Mr. Holmes himself had for it: “I am not sure that of all the five hundred cases of capital importance which I have handled there is one which cuts so deep.”

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

  • Paul

    “Truth itself almost seems the sinister, elusive one that must be tracked down through a bizarre tangle of broken threads and revealed at all costs.” This is awesome.

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