This is a well-known mystery which I have shockingly never read before and it is the final Holmes tale by Doyle for me to read, having blitzed through the 56 short stories and 3 other novels a while back. Going into this story I thought I had remembered who the killer was, so was quite pleasingly picking up clues to prove their guilt, only to realise half way through that I had mis-remembered. If Holmes ever opened a detection/sleuthing academy I don’t think I would ever get through the entrance exam. But then I don’t think Dr Watson would either, taking more time than ideal to realise the back handed compliment Holmes gives him at the start of the story: ‘It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.’ Never mind Watson!
This duo are faced with quite a perplexing mystery in this adventure. Dr James Mortimer comes to them with the legend of the hound of the Baskervilles, a not wholly of this world canine who has dogged the footsteps of the Baskerville family since the 18th century. Why has this got any relevance to the present of the story? Well it just so happens that another Baskerville, Sir Charles, has bitten the dust, his heart having given out one evening. Yet Mortimer says that around the crime scene there were the prints of a very large animal and it is also then suggested that Sir Charles was running away from something in great fright when his unwell heart collapsed. Mortimer is concerned that the new heir, who is arriving in the country from Canada at this very moment may also be in danger, but what from? Small incidences here and there gave Holmes assurance that there is something very human in the agency behind these goings on and tasks Watson to go with the new heir to Baskerville Hall in the remote Devonshire moors. Readers more astute than Watson will know that Holmes is no doubt working behind the scenes as Watson dutifully gets to know the local inhabitants, but will he be able to take on the beast?
As much of a fan as I am of Doyle’s work I must admit to being a bit disappointed by this one. Then again I don’t think the novel length cases of Holmes are his most satisfying. This is a story which has caught the popular imagination in artwork, film and more, yet I found on paper that this tale was a lot less dynamic and exciting than I was expecting. Moments of high tension and drama which can be found in TV and film adaptations just don’t appear in the story, which let such potential pass by. One such instance is the Grimpen Mire, which in the book drowns at least two moor ponies, yet at the end of the story a moment where this mire could come into its own, it is hugely underused. I think what else made this a less than satisfying read was Holmes decision to spend most of the story off the page, as Watson in the forefront made the action and dialogue far less vibrant. Holmes in the background also means the reader has to have a lot more told to them at the end to get the solution.
Though to end on a more positive note one theme I hadn’t really thought about in conjunction with this story was the way it explores the vulnerability of women at the time, especially in marriage. This story also has Holmes get the weirdest of compliments by Mortimer who says he ‘covet[s] your skull.’ Holmes like all good hosts lets this one slide and quickly changes the subject. After all I don’t think books on manners and etiquette of the time quite cover this scenario…
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Animal in the title