Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book Report: "The Hound of the Baskerville" (Doyle, 1902)

“At the same instant Lestrade gave a yell of terror and threw himself face downwards upon the ground. I sprang to my feet, my inert hand grasping my pistol, my mind paralyzed by the dreadful shape which sprung out upon us from the shadows of the fog. A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen.”

--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

Leigh: We've gone through a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories so far but this time we have to tackle probably the most well known and most loved story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. For those of you who are confused and might live under a rock that doesn't get Wikipedia, Baskervilles was written after Sherlock Holmes fell off of a cliff but takes place chronologically before that. It's really ACD's way of testing the waters to see 1, if there was still an audience for Sherlock Holmes (there was/is) and 2, if he actually still wanted to write Sherlock Holmes stories (he did.)

This one takes the best parts of all of his stories, I think, and makes one really great one. While I do like the short form stories a lot, the longer form ones allow more mystery to be built and more clues thrown out for the audience to try to solve. But a problem with the longer form ones is that the story time seems to exponentially grow like with Study in Scarlet. This one takes all of the mystery bits that we enjoy and seems to keep the story time to a minimum and doesn't try to shove it in random spots like with The Sign of Four

What the audience gets then, is a mystery about a centuries old hound from hell that has been sent by the devil to torment and punish the Baskerville family for one bad seed. The mystery comes to Holmes and Watson after Charles Baskerville, the current-ish descendant is found dead of a heart attack caused by being scared to death and clearly it was the Hound that did it. Holmes and Watson hear all about the mystery and the mission to protect the last descendant from this damned dog. But Holmes can't be bothered. He's too busy with other stuff so he sends out Watson to protect the last Baskerville and to collect clues in moors. 

So there is obviously a mystery in this story but Holmes doesn't appear in most of the novel. Most of the clues seem to be found by Watson or told to the audience in the epilogue. We've talked before about having Elementary change the character's names and it becoming an instantly better show because there isn't (weren't) a lot of things connecting it to the original Sherlock Holmes canon. What about this one? Would this story still work if it weren't a Sherlock Holmes story? Could it still be enjoyable if it were a mystery novel starring someone else? And what about that mystery? Confusingly convoluted or delightfully difficult?

Austin: Would this still work if it weren’t a Sherlock story? Sure. Will it be as remembered? Hell no.

To me this story succeeds for two reasons. The first is the wonderfully gothic imagery it creates. The book used the word "moor" so often, I honestly started to get a bit cold. There may have been fog in my room; I don't know! This is often seen as the horror one and that makes perfect sense. When Sherlock's master plan comes down to throwing the client in danger as a beast is lurking in the dark, it's quite spooky. It's some of Doyle's best writing.


With just those elements, this story will be remembered probably with the same love as a book like The Moonstone, which is awesome. Why this succeeds as a fantastic Sherlock Holmes story is because it tests the character. I was caught off guard by how cocky Sherlock was in the first few chapters. He has plenty of very funny zingers against Watson and the client. That starts to fade away the more he takes this case seriously. The supernatural is coming up against his firmly believed reason and it catches him off guard.

Also it tests the Sherlock/Watson relationship. The opening is a familiar analyzing breakdown but Watson gets to take the reigns. Then Sherlock is cocky and finds all sorts of extra stuff. This ends up being foreshadowing for how the rest of the story is played out. Watson is running solo for a good chunk of this novel because at this point Sherlock respects what he can discover. We learn that he's secretly running parallel to the story gathering his own clues, a lot of which overlap with Watson's discoveries. There is more than just friendship with them but now properly work colleagues. 

What's interesting is that this is easily the most popular Sherlock Holmes story and yet people never seem to talk about the conclusion the way that And Then There Were None or Murder on the Orient Express are referred to. Any theory on why that is? Also do you like how it all comes together? Could the epilogue chapter have been a little shorter? (The answer is yes to the last one.)

Leigh: When ACD hits his stride of writing, it seems like everything should be shorter. That epilogue is no excuse. I would've like for maybe the epilogue to just be part of the story, find out more of these clues shortly after the final conclusion or have these clues half revealed during the story and then Holmes connects them all for us when telling Watson what he's found. I just think that there probably was a better way to format this one than what ACD did. Wikipedia is telling me though that this one, like many other Sherlock Holmes stories, was serialized so that might be the reason for the long epilogue. 

"Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame."

I love the fact that this story tests the relationship of Holmes and Watson. All too often, Watson is chasing after Holmes like the most loyal puppy that ever did live. While Watson's character is loved because of this, it can get stale. With Hound, it seems almost like Watson is getting frustrated with the world's greatest detective. Like you said, Holmes has a couple of jabs at Watson and the client, something that Holmes only does to the most annoying and frustratingly pompous clients. He then plays up the fact that he is too busy to take this case even though he really isn't. And since he's too busy, he sends Watson in his place. This could go two ways; Holmes is confident enough in Watson to find the solution to the mystery or Holmes is so far above the case that he's sending his lackey. I think Watson feels more of the second one. It works though because Watson gets that, "I'll show you" mentality and seems to be in his best form. 

Why don't people talk about this ending? That's a great question. I have no idea. It could be because it's one of those that every little piece is so complicated that if you said who the killer is, you'd then have to explain who the heck that person was. That's one reason why the epilogue is so long. The connection isn't really there during the book and Holmes has to explain it once they're back in London. Because of this huge gap in connections between murderer and intended victim, do you think that the mystery of it all actually works? Or is it because of this complexity that there is extra horror put into this mystery?

Austin: I think you're on to something here. The other classics I mentioned can have a one phrase that can sum up the ending twist. "The X did it." I think it fits into the other classics like The Three Coffins where the conclusion is the way all the pieces are put together. With this case in particular, I think there is a lot of satisfaction that it wasn't a mythological conclusion. There are a bit of convoluted steps in place, but they are real steps. The dog is mortal. (Scratch that, was mortal.)

That further proves my point that if the dog is mentioned in the title, the odds are very high that dog is toast by the end of the story. Marley and Me, My Dog Skip, Old Yeller, Turner and Hooch and now The Hound of the Goddamn Baskervilles. I understand there are a number of examples that counter this claim, but I think it's insane that all 101 Dalmatians survived a nutjob puppy murderer who couldn't even get one. ONE.

Sorry, I'm off topic. Think back to the Peter Cushing film we reviewed. That film ends with the moment of safety after the dog has been stopped. That is the difference between horror and mystery. A mystery needs to have all the pieces fit and that's why there's the epilogue to show you all the mechanics. A horror film is all about is dealing with the terror. I don't need to know how Freddy Kruger accesses people's dreams; I need to know if he has been stopped. I think Hound works on both levels. Typically there's not a lot of fear in mysteries because we know that whoever is the murderer had a reason to kill that individual. When there isn't reason, then it's horror. Serial killers will keep going and demon hounds--just from the name alone--seem to work on the same level.

Now that I ramble a bit about the horror elements, let's check out how two popular comedians handle this material. We'll be watching the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore version, which can be found on YouTube starting with THIS link. I'm very curious! Join with that one very soon. (Sorry for our awkward schedule again. This time it's my fault for my recent work in Chicago.)

And here is Leigh Montano with the final words...


No comments:

Post a Comment