17 February 2013

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles"

The Demon Hound of British lore.
Art by Sidney Paget
You guys know me as a fantasy and horror writer, so any books or movies I've reviewed tends to fall under that genre umbrella. But I am also taking a Mystery Classics genre course at SHU to not only meet my credit requirements, but to also qualify for financial aid, whee! So I picked Mystery to be the wild-card genre I study. In all honesty, I won't ever write straight mysteries because I think they're too difficult for me, but I knowI can learn a thing or two from the genre that'll help engage my readers, as well as some tips about heightening tension and playing with mood and tone.

My first book in the Mystery Classics course: The Hound of the Baskervilles.

This is my first experience reading about Sherlock Holmes. I'm familiar with Holmes and Watson thanks to film and theater, but this is the first time in my life I sat down and read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As for the Hound of the Baskervilles, this is my first experience with it altogether. I haven't even seen the movie versions of it, so I looked forward to having a "newborn" experience with the book.

I noticed since joining the program that there are certain things that would be marked in red if we submitted it to a critique workshop...and I feel like the modern reader would put a big red X in the opening scenes, because it's all dialogue, and it's a case of telling over showing, which is something readers are inclined to skip over if there's too much of that going on. In this instance, though, I felt like opening the novel with Holmes and Watson analyzing the cane was a great setup for the entire book--in fact, for any Sherlock Holmes story. The character is fond of saying things like, "The game is afoot!" and the first chapter is all about the game.
The banter is a trademark.
And so is this hat.

Image (cc) Cyrillic

The banter between Holmes and Watson is practically a trademark of the duo; not only do they compete with each other (more accurately, Holmes competes with Watson), but deductive reasoning in and of itself is a game. I felt like it was a perfect example of what the reader could expect for the rest of the novel--how these characters work and how they process information. On top of that, Doyle's writing kind of presses the reader to partake in the game as well. I think a lot of this comes from Watson's first person narrative, which comes across like he is having a conversation with the reader. And Holmes' manic energy and excitement is a bit contagious. So when I read The Hound of the Baskervilles, I played the game too--I kept trying to guess everyone's true role in the story as well. 

My most successful guesses surrounded the Stapletons. When Watson first encounters Stapleton, I was immediately suspicious of him, just because he proceeded to ask Watson a lot of questions right off the bat, as if he was testing the waters with him. And then as soon as he was done with questioning, he immediately offered to assist Watson in any way he could. Maybe I've watched too many interrogation videos from Snapped but usually when the accused asks all the questions, they are trying to gain the upper hand of the conversation. Then after they glean information, they offer to help in any way possible, to cover their tracks and come across as innocent--because a "nice" person couldn't commit such an awful crime. As soon as I finished reading Watson and Stapleton's opening scenes, I decided Stapleton had something to do with the murder. 

The next assumption I made that turned out to be correct was the fact that the Stapletons were husband and wife. When Stapleton first mentions his sister to Watson, it seemed innocent enough--"May I have the pleasure of introducing you to my sister." Nothing wrong with that. But when Watson finally meets Miss Stapleton, I grew suspicious. Watson gushed on and on about how beautiful she looked, and that was the red flag. If Miss Stapleton was so gorgeous, she wouldn't be living with her brother. She'd have been married off to someone already, because she would've been seen as quite the catch. If she was ugly, or if Watson didn't emphasize her appearance so much, I would've assumed that Miss Stapleton was a spinster and that's why she lived with her brother. I'm guessing that the clue I should've picked up on was the fact that Watson noted how the Stapletons looked like polar opposites--one light, one dark--but that didn't really register for me as the telling clue, just because we have polar opposites in my family (my sister and I don't look related at all. She's petite, tan, and blonde, and I'm pale, black-haired, and very tall). I just thought it was highly suspect that someone almost supernaturally beautiful could be unmarried. Of course, when Sir Henry pursues Miss Stapleton and her "brother" violently overreacts, that made up my mind. 

Be wary of the pretty lady!
Art by Charles Dana Gibson
As for the rest of the characters, and the actual "howdunit" of the mystery... that didn't really interest me. I felt like Selden and Mrs. Lyons were more like props than people, so they were just blips on the radar. And I knew that Holmes wasn't gone from the story, because you can't introduce the lead character, make the opening all about him, and then have him disappear from the book. Although it took me a second to figure out that Holmes was the figure living in the barrows, when Watson made the connection, I was like, "Of course it's Holmes, he always disguises himself and shows up unexpectedly." If I was living in 1902, I wouldn't have such an informed opinion about the character (thank you, Hollywood!) and probably would've been quite shocked at the discovery.

As for the story's resolution, I wasn't particularly impressed with it, but I still felt like the explanations sufficed. When the issue with Henry's boots appeared early on, I suspected they would be used for footprints, but it made sense when Holmes stated they were used to capture Henry's scent for the bloodhound. The painting, used to make the connection between Stapleton and the Baskervilles, felt a little convenient, as well as the rational explanation of phosphorus making the Hound glow. Still, I felt like the story was tied up well and every mystery was accounted for. 

My favorite parts of The Hound of the Baskervilles had mostly to do with mood and setting. The mansion, the moors, the Grimpen Mire, the old standing stones, barrows and liths...I absolutely loved the description of the dark and wild world of Dartmoor. I also am familiar with many English ghost stories, and I've read a lot about family curses and demon animals, so I enjoyed the Baskerville legend of the hound as well. Even though the Hound of the Baskervilles is a realistic tale, I felt like Doyle's description of the setting was almost like reading worldbuilding from a fantasy novel. I truly got a sense of wonder reading about Dartmoor.

Rough Landscape of Dartmoor,
(cc) by  Lostajy
Overall, I was quite pleased with the book (moreso than I expected) and whizzed through it easily. Older literature is sometimes more difficult for me to wade through (largely because of the vernacular of the time period) but I was sucked into the story quickly. I'm not sure how I would feel about the book if I lived during the time of its publication--I'm pretty sure it was serialized first, and I think I'd lose patience with having to wait in between chapters. But the book on the whole was very fun and enjoyable.

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