Sherlock Holmes is the stuff of literary legend, a character who has transcended the books and author who brought him into the world and even the genre which has provided his vehicle.
As a cultural icon, Detective Holmes has many faces, be it the traditional Basil Rathbone incarnation, a hands-on, superhero-esque Robert Downey Jr in Hollywood’s recent action movie transformation, or the rather more detached and intellectual Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC’s Sherlock. The latter has certainly filtered my mental image of the great fictional detective, but The Hound of the Baskervilles marks my first encounter with Holmes’s origins and the character as Arthur Conan Doyle originally envisaged him – and not a deerstalker in sight.
In this most famous of the Holmes stories, the detective faces one of his toughest challenges. Sir Charles Baskerville has died suddenly in strange circumstances, a death connected with an old legend about a supernatural hound that haunts the Baskerville family. As Charles’s heir Henry moves into the family’s isolated Dartmoor home of Baskerville Hall, Holmes and Watson are brought in to solve the mystery. While Holmes’s scientific mind dismisses such fantastic myths, the case is dogged with superstitious rumour (no pun intended) and the baying of a hound is heard across the moors at night …
Uniting all the trademark elements of a gripping crime thriller with a generous dash of the Gothic, Doyle creates a memorable page-turner. Without having read any other Holmes stories with which to compare it, I tentatively suspect that the enduring popularity of this novel over all the others is its incorporation of something beyond the usual detective yarn. While the supernatural may go completely against the grain of Holmes’s signature scientific approach, it adds a vital element of doubt that heightens the tension of the text; could this be the one case which Holmes fails to solve? Is there a force greater than the detective at work here?
The famous sleuth himself does not disappoint, being every inch the eccentric but brilliant mind that his cultural status had led me to expect. He is also the mouthpiece for some quite wonderful speeches, combining genius with a healthy dose of arrogance. If I were Watson, however, I might frequently be quite miffed by Holmes’s dismissals; the following lines, for instance, stand out in my memory as the ultimate backhanded compliment: ‘It may be that you yourself are not luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it’. Ouch.
Having Watson as narrator, however, proves to be a canny decision on the part of Doyle, and Holmes’s sidekick provides the perfect narrative viewpoint on events. Through the eyes of this rather ordinary man, with whom readers can identify far more than with the figure of Holmes, we are allowed to shape our own impressions of all the main players and suspects and formulate our own theories. This device also allows us to see Holmes in all his glory as refracted through the consciousness of one of his greatest and most loyal admirers.
To delve further into the plot would be to ruin Doyle’s meticulously engineered suspense machine, but suffice to say that this is an extremely clever and well-crafted detective novel. I must admit that I am far from an avid reader of crime fiction and am not often tempted to read detective stories, but this classic kept me hooked and was made all the more interesting by the unforgettable central figure of the greatest and most famous detective that literature has given us. He may not constantly claim centre stage throughout the narrative, but this novel rightly belongs to Mr Sherlock Holmes.