Cold Reads: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Even before seeing Robert Downey Jr.'s awesome performance in Guy Ritchie's film Sherlock Holmes, I had been a fan of the genius detective for some time. For some reason I was always intrigued by Holmes, something about this figure of reasoning and bravery resonating within me. I still consider him to be one of my literary heroes, right alongside Batman. The Hound of the Baskervilles helped bring back some wonderful memories and reinstate my assertion that Holmes is one of the greatest characters in the history of literature.
Master detective Sherlock Holmes and his good friend Watson are spending the day, much like many others, in Holmes' apartment in 221B Baker Street when they receive a call from one Dr. Mortimer. The good physician relates to the duo an old legend in regards to the Baskerville family, one that tells of a hideous demon hound that visits each male member of the clan as a harbinger of death. The prophecy seems to hold some truth, as Sir Charles Baskerville was recently found dead on the moor near his estate seemingly from fright, not a mark on him or any sign of what he was eluding. Young Henry Baskerville is to take his uncle's place as the baronet residing at the shadowy Baskerville Hall. Holmes has Watson travel with the young man, but the task may prove too daunting for the doctor. Along with several mysterious personalities floating around, Watson soon hears the terrifying howls of a beast upon the moor, warning of a hellish visitation yet to come...
Doyle has a terribly genius way of writing, providing enough details of the scenery to paint a vivid picture without becoming tedious. He gives the background characters enough development to flesh them out but not so much as to detract from the main focus of the story. I couldn't help feeling myself smile a few times while reading through the interactions of the characters, feeling as if they were people whom I had met and talked with myself. Doyle has the mind of both detective and writer, providing all the necessary facts and data but giving them the perfect literary twist to enhance the enjoyability of the prose.
The moor is the ideal locale for Doyle's story. It provides a misty, mysterious atmosphere, just the kind of place you'd expect hell spawned demons and spirits to be roaming about. It's a primordial place, the swampy land that the earth was composed of at the beginning of time. How fitting is it that such an ancient place carries with it the superstitious beliefs and fears of an older people? The devil hound is a monstrous symbol of those beliefs, the personified (or is it houndified?) image of the gripping terror that seized the hearts of those first civilizations. All those anxieties of death and darkness are imbued in the glowing eyes of the Baskerville hound. Its howl strikes a chord in the souls of the characters who hear it, an eldritch cry that summons all the primitiveness inside of them to the surface.
To combat these forces of evil, Sherlock Holmes serves as our figure of guidance and reasoning. Although Holmes remains in the shadows himself for most of the novel, his impressive presence is the beacon of light that guides Watson through the thick fog that covers the moors and his own mind. The powers of reasoning have arrived to battle the looming shadow of fear and superstition. It is interesting to see how Holmes handles the situation, this being his most mystical of cases. He keeps his mind entirely open to all possibilities; he does not shun the idea of there being a genuinely supernatural presence on the moor, but he is always on the watch for any signs of a human perpetrator. He is the perfect detective, open to all ideas and theories and ready to battle any force, man or monster, when he is called to action. How can you not love a character like that?
Doyle imbues his Sherlock stories with a magic that only he seems to get right, a sense of intriguing mystery that gets me giddy with excitement everytime I read one of his adventures. The mystery is in no short demand in this novel. When one strange incident ends, another picks up after it without losing any steam. A letter is found in Henry's hotel, warning the baronet of imminent danger on the moor. Holmes and Watson spot a bearded stalker tailing Henry in the streets of London shortly afterwards. When Watson arrives at Baskerville Hall, he learns of an escaped convict who is running about the countryside, murder never far from his devious mind. The old butler has a peculiar habit of walking in the halls late at night, as if on some purposeful mission. Just from these examples alone, you can tell that Doyle never allows time for his readers to become bored. You'll find yourself hardly able to put the book down at all, constantly engaged in each moment of the story. If Doyle succeeds in his mission, you'll become so entangled in the goings-on that the mystery of the Baskerville legend will be revealed before you have time to blink.
And what is a good mystery without a barrelful of shady characters to occupy the procedures? Everyone in the story seems to have some type of motive, or at least a suspicious foible, that keeps Watson and the reader guessing as to just what is going on. The butler and his wife seem to be hiding some terrible secret from Watson and Henry, evident in the butler's aforementioned prowlings and his wife's midnight weeping. A naturalist and his sister also live on the moor, a hospitable pair of people who seem to open their home and hearts to any passers-by. But there is an underlying tension between the two, the sister mistakenly taking Watson for Sir Henry and thus imploring him to leave the moor at once before her brother discovers what she has said. The murderous convict on the moor creates a heightened sense of danger. Now with two predatory beasts running about, the chances of a two-way trip along the swamp road seem unlikely. And who could that phantom-like watcher spotted on the tor by the light of the moon be? Doyle is a master of weaving these intricate mysteries, all the while keeping the main story of the Baskervilles intact and completely fascinating.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is just what the detective ordered. Intriguing mystery? Check. Shady characters and dark deeds abound? Affirmative. Moody atmosphere and terrifying monster for the horror fans? You bet. Perhaps the greatest adventure of the world's most superb sleuth? Oh yeah. So put on your deerstalker caps, fill up your pipes, and take out your magnifying glasses for a little examination into a luminary novel of the mystery and horror genres. You'll soon deduce that the reasons behind the book's greatness are simply elementary.