In my determination to read all of the classic detective fiction I recently picked up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. I have a collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories, but those are a little too simplified for my tastes. They consist of a setup for the mystery and then a detailed description of Holmes using his near supernatural ability of observation to determine the culprit. Most of these never develop any real sense of mystery because Holmes is too brilliant for the readers good. We are briefly marveled by his powers of observation and deduction, to the point that we begin trying to concentrate our own powers to the mundane tasks of our lives. Upon some contemplation, though, it is easy to realize that paying attention to details will not bring us the answers the super detective seems to collect from the air at will. There are too many possibilities as to why our neighbor has a bit of mud on his pants cuffs to be able to surmise the reason out of sheer reasoning.
This being said, I was looking forward to reading a longer length novel about this super sleuth. With more pages, surely Doyle would prepare a better mystery for his hero to unravel. Still with a mere 174 pages, Doyle managed to create a more well rounded story and develop enough mystery to satisfy my tastes.
The story revolves around Henry Baskerville and his inherited homestead amongst the moors of England. It seems his family has been haunted by a demon hound for generations. The patriarchs of the family have befallen many a beastly end in this home. Not one for superstition, Henry moves to the homestead from America after he inherited the land when the previous owner, Sir Charles Baskerville, fell dead of fright. After a series of threats and strange circumstances, Dr. Watson travels to the Baskerville home to investigate. Holmes has announced himself too busy in London to be able to make the trip himself.
This point was a brilliant maneuver by Doyle. Allowing the more human Dr. Watson to do much of the investigation himself allows the mystery time to develop rather than be solved immediately by Holmes. Dr. Watson investigates the few residence around Baskerville Hall and finds them all to be rather suspicious in their own way. Suspense is built by the appearance of an escaped convict loose in the area, and the appearance of a mysterious stranger roaming the moors.
When Holmes does appear back on the scene, Doyle allows action to take the place of Holmes usual verbal pomposity. Though, we are told numerous times that this is a most interesting and difficult case by the detective. As if the reader is too dumb to appreciate the difficulties of the case, we need to be reminded by Holmes over and over again. Once the case is solved, the novel is concluded with a meeting between Holmes and Dr. Watson months after the case had occurred. Here Holmes once again must amaze us with his brilliant deductive powers. Once again, a mystery novel must tie up loose ends with a lot of verbiage.
The Hound of the Baskervilles was a light, enjoyable read. It is easy to see why Sherlock Holmes mysteries were so popular. The are easy to read, quickly paced, and pack enough muscle to keep the page turned. Holmes penetrating powers of observation and deduction are fascinating. Like a magic trick, they entrance the reader and make us feel that with a little help and a lot of practice, we could also perform such feats. As serious literature, the book fails to be scrutinized. I will read more of the Holmes mysteries, and these books will hold a place on my book case, but they will have to hold a secondary shelf to the true masters of the genre.