Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Perhaps no fictional character has been as diluted by their own popularity as Sherlock Holmes. Fictional detectives of all stripes--OCD Monk, Shawn Spencer from Psych, Lieutenant Columbo, Hercule Pirot--crib from Holmes's bag of tricks. Even the deerstalker cap and pipe, rarely mentioned in the stories themselves, have become iconic, indicating mystery when they appear in silhouette on the spine of a book.

With that in mind, why even read The Hound of the Baskervilles? Not only is it a story about Sherlock Holmes, familiar to everyone from your grandmother to your niece, it may be the defining story. The title at least has passed into popular parlance, just like the name of its protagonist. That's why those reading it for the first time might be a little surprised at what they find.

Holmes, as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is no do-gooder saint. He's an egotistical, arrogant, cocaine-abusing, opium-smoking, lying misanthrope, far from the good-hearted detectives built ostensibly in his mold. He treats his partner and only friend, Dr. Watson, with a mixture of condescension and concern, has no problem with breaking the law to solve his cases, and, really, just doesn't think of the children. However, it's not in spite of his flaws but because of them that Holmes is such an enjoyable creation. He is completely without superstition and without the slightest doubt in his abilities.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of only four Sherlock Holmes novels written by Doyle. Holmes is called into the case by a doctor drawn into a strange case. Charles Baskerville, wealthy landowner, is found dead without a mark on his body, thought to have been felled by a giant black Hell hound who haunts the family. Holmes takes the case, but, unable to go himself, he sends Watson to investigate and report back. Hound stands out from the short stories because Holmes himself is absent from large parts the novel, and the reader is given unfiltered information from Watson's letters back to Holmes. The end of the story, where Holmes captures the criminal and explains his methods is satisfying on a visceral level. Almost nothing is left unanswered, and the plotlines fit like a puzzle. It just works.

That, ultimately, is why reading Sherlock Holmes is still worthwhile. In spite of the doppelgangers, Holmes himself still stands alone, an idiosyncratic literary creation that is often imitated but never duplicated. This year sees the release of two movies based on Sherlock Holmes, one a comedy and one a complete reinvention, starring a gay, karate-kid Sherlock, but for those interested in Sherlock Holmes, the original stories are the place to start.

Bonus: Word Cloud!


Christopher said...

This is a great review.

Also, the Psych guy is named Shawn Spencer. I love that show.

Brent Waggoner said...

Psych is pretty good. I've only seen a couple shows. Once I realized it was basically a detective cartoon, I enjoyed it a lot more.

Christopher said...

A lot of it falls flat and the actual mysteries are about ten times as improbable and ridiculous as Monk. But it's a lot of fun and sometimes the humor is pretty sharp.

Brent Waggoner said...

Once I stopped watching it as a detective show and started watching it as a comedy, my enjoyment increased 10fold.