Title: The Hound of the Baskervilles
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Penguin Classics (2010)
Language: The finest English
A great novel or the Greatest Novel?
So far this year, I’ve read the book again, listened to an audio dramatisation and watched a couple of versions on video. This book hits all my buttons. It’s got a murder, hints of the supernatural, the relentless march of scientific logic and is possibly the best Scooby Doo mystery ever.
Here is a quick list of the aspects of it which tickle my fancy. Below that, there’s my view of several versions of the story in different media.
Oh, yes. There are spoilers but if you haven’t read this classic by now or know the story from the multitude of film adaptations, shame on you.
He is either incapable of or places absolutely no value on empathy. The emotions of other serve only to annoy him. He cannot understand why Watson is disappointed to think that all his effort of chronicle the events on the moor went unnoticed and unappreciated by Holmes. Or when he believes that his client has been eaten by the hound, his sole concern is how could he not have seen this coming. The only thing that matters to Holmes is the intellectual puzzle. Others only serve as data on which a conclusion can be calculated.
Watson, the British Bulldog
Watson is the epitome of the British Bulldog. He is loyal and doggedly determined to prove himself the equal of every setback and encounter. Watching him twist and turn as he confronts the conflicting duties of loyalty to Sir Henry and proving his worth to Holmes is magnificant. I also like the sheer physicality of the man. To check with the postmaster in the village of Grimpen, he undertakes “a pleasant walk of some four miles.” Perhaps it’s just that we are weak today but I’m not taking a round trip of about 13 kilometres (four miles there, four miles back) for anyone.
Class Struggle on the Moors
The lot of the serving class is truly despicable. Can you imagine telling your stuff “go to your room and we’ll talk about this in the morning”? Holy crap! I’m not sure what surprises me more, that the upper crust feel entitled to treat people like this or the fact the the servile classes accept it. No wonder anarchy was being actively promoted as a paradigm for civil society (cf. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent). But the attitude survives. I remember my dad complaining of this when he spent some time there talking business improvement with steel mill owners in the 1980s.
There are a couple of moments of genius in the story aside from the slow, inexorable development of the supernatural atmosphere. One is Mortimer describing how a “man of science” cannot countenance a belief in the supernatural but is unable to find an alternative explanation. There is a moment when Watson believes he may have to break up the fledgling romance between Sir Henry and Miss Stapleton in order to meet Holmes’ injunction to stick with Sir Henry to protect him from harm. The best occurs at the death of Selden, the murderer hiding out on the Moor and brother to the housekeeper at Baskerville Hall. This is one of the classic quotes of all time:
“Evil indeed is the man who has not one woman to mourn him”
The family curse, the demon dog, the sins of the father being visited on his descendants. All of these are common and, at the time, very current beliefs. Of course, the educated classes would not believe such rubbish but those benighted souls who lived in Cornwall and Devon definitely did. Everyone knew so. All the characters embody this scientific paternalism. On the other hand, the demon dog is a true piece of folklore throughout Britain. The mixture of real folkloric elements into this murder mystery is one of the key aspects of the work for me.
The Scooby Doo Plans
Best of all is the recognition that this novel contains not one but two Scooby Doo plans. First, there is the plan to use the legend of the Hound to kill Sir Henry. An enormous hound is made spooky by the application of phosphorus – “a cunning preparation of it” – to its hide. The sounds of its baying in the night scares the peasants. The braver peasants are cowed by the glowing form of the beast. That would be enough but no, Doyle’s genius chucks in another Scooby plan. To catch the perpetrator, Holmes dangles Sir Henry in from of both the villain and the Hound, regardless of the danger to his client. The only thing that is missing is Holmes throwing Watson a scooby-snack (Holmes, then, fulfills the role of Velma.)
Film and TV Versions to Look For
Among the rubbish, these treatments of the story stand out for one reason or another.
1939 – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce – The classic Holmes; get this one if nothing else. I don’t like the characterisation of Watson as a bumbling fool but he does make the perfect foil for Rathbone’s precision.
1982 – Tom Baker – Holmes as barely controlled madman. It could almost be an episode of Dr Who.
1983 – Ian Richardson – Holmes as upper-crust manic genius. This is perhaps the best version of Holmes ever recorded and the one I reckon is closest in tone to Holmes as Doyle wrote him.
And for a complete whack-job version of the story:
1978 – Peter Cook and Dudley Moore – Don’t expect anything approaching the story other than in name only. I wore out my VHS copy of this film.
Audio Version – If you can find issue seven of the Orbis part-series “Talking Classics,” there is nothing better than listening to the subtle vocal characterisations of Peter Egan reading an abridged version of the story. I listen to this CD maybe once a year.