Arthur Conan Doyle - The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
‘Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!’
I have read my copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles so many times that the pages have gone soft with much turning, but Dr Mortimer’s words to Holmes never fail to thrill me. This is where Arthur Conan Doyle achieves the perfect balance between rational deduction and the terrors of the Gothic subtext. No amount of empirical reasoning can make Baskerville Hall a homely spot (even though Sir Henry starts stripping the creeping ivy off the mullioned windows), or tame the wild corners of Dartmoor, let alone penetrate to the terrifying heart of the Grimpen Mire. Even though we start with one of those enviable breakfasts in 221B Baker Street, and end up comfortably by the fire on a November evening, the ghosts encountered in the West Country are not entirely banished. The London fog still lurks outside the window, and Sir Henry’s health is broken by his encounter with uncanny forces.
Holmes himself is an equivocal figure, as he hides out on the moor alongside a maniacal convict and a luminous hound. Like the hound, he prefers to act by moonlight. Like the convict, he uses a Neolithic stone hut as his secret lair: the suggestion of a remote and savage ancestry is applied not only to those who belong on the moor, but to the sophisticated Londoners who have come to solve this rural mystery. It is the inimical fog, not the human villain, which nearly defeats Holmes.
Paradoxically, this is a great detective story because it defies its own genre. On the first page, Holmes observes Watson’s actions reflected in the coffee pot on the breakfast table; deduction, he remarks, is always prosaic when the logic is made explicit. Detective stories tend to reassure the reader that reason can and will overcome evil, but The Hound does nothing of the sort. Watson sets out to ‘make the reader share those dark fears and vague surmises which clouded our lives so long, and ended in so tragic a manner’. The arrest of Stapleton is nicely contrived, but it doesn’t do much to allay the dark fears. Holmes thinks best in a ‘room filled with smoke’ from ‘the acrid fumes of strong, coarse tobacco’. The detective, in fact, is as equivocal a figure as the hound; by occupation, indeed, he is one himself. This is the perfect detective story because nothing is quite as simple as the light of reason makes it seem.
Further reading: A Study in Scarlet (1887), the first Holmes mystery, opens with a bloody murder in Brixton; The Lost World (1913) introduces Professor George Edward Challenger.
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