Tuesday, August 18, 2009

184. The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

History: This book was originally serialized in the British Strand Magazine from August 1901 to April 1902.
Plot: The rich landowner Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead in the park of his manor, surrounded by the moorland of Dartmoor, in the county of Devon. He appears to have died from heart attack, but the victim's close friend, Dr Mortimer, is convinced that the death was due to a supernatural creature, which haunts the moor in the shape of an enormous hound with blazing eyes and jaws. Fearing for the safety of Baskerville's heir, his nephew Sir Henry, coming to London from Canada, Dr Mortimer appeals for help from Sherlock Holmes. The doctor also reveals that he found the footprints of a gigantic hound near Sir Charles' dead body but did not report it knowing that no one would have believed him.
Dr Mortimer tells Holmes and Watson of the so-called Baskervilles' curse that has, he believes, been killing the Baskerville heirs for centuries, in revenge for the misdeeds of one Sir Hugo Baskerville, who lived at the time of Oliver Cromwell. According to the legend, Hugo Baskerville was an evil man with a sadistic streak. He became infatuated with a yeoman's daughter and one evening kidnapped her and imprisoned her in his bedchamber. The maiden managed to escape while he was carousing with his friends. A drunken and furious Hugo cried that he would give his body and soul to the Powers of Evil if he could only overtake her. He rode after her onto the Moor, his hunting hounds upon her scent and his friends in pursuit. Some hours later his friends heard bloodcurdling screams and followed the sound to the bodies of Hugo and the girl. She had died from fear and fatigue, while a giant spectral hound stood over Sir Hugo's body. With his friends watching, the hound ripped out Hugo's throat and disappeared into the night.
Holmes soon discovers that Sir Charles had been waiting for someone. He was found with his face contorted into a ghastly expression. His footprints suggested that he was desperately running away from something. It was known that elderly Sir Charles' heart was not strong, and that he planned to go to London the next day. Intrigued by the case, Holmes meets with Sir Henry, who has arrived from Canada and is visibly upset to have received a cryptic note delivered to his hotel room, where no one knew he would be staying, warning him to stay away from the moor. Holmes recognizes the cut-out letters from the previous day’s Times, suggesting that the sender was a person of education. Only the word "moor" is handwritten. He marks the sputtering of the pen and the lack of ink, suggesting that the pen and ink were from a hotel. The fact that the letters were cut with small nail scissors suggests a woman, as does the scent of perfume. The latter detail Holmes keeps to himself. Sir Henry has also had a new boot stolen.
Holmes asked if there were any other relatives besides Henry. Mortimer tells him that Charles had two brothers. Henry was the son of the elder Sir Henry who settled in Canada raised him in both Canada and the USA. Another brother, Sir Roger, was known to be the family black sheep. A blackguard, wastrel, and inverterate gambler, he had left for South America to avoid creditors and died there alone.
Despite the note's warning, Sir Henry insists on visiting Baskerville Hall. As Sir Henry leaves Holmes' Baker Street apartment, Holmes and Dr Watson follow him and spy a man with a fake-looking black beard in a cab also following him. He escapes when chased but Holmes catches the cab number. Holmes then stops in at the messenger office and employs a young boy, Cartwright, to go around to the hotels and look through the wastepaper in search of a cut-up copy of the Times.
By the time they return to the hotel, Sir Henry has had another boot stolen, an old one now. When the first missing boot is discovered before the meeting is over, Holmes begins to realize they must be dealing with a real hound (hence the emphasis on the scent of the used boot). When conversation turns to the man in the cab, Dr Mortimer says that Barrymore, the servant at Baskerville Hall, has a beard, and a telegram is sent to check on his whereabouts. The inheritance is also discussed – while it is a sizable amount, the next in line is James Desmond, an older man with few interests in wealth.
At the end of the meeting, it is decided that, Holmes being tied up in London with other cases, Watson will accompany Sir Henry to the Hall and report back in detail. Later that evening, telegrams from Cartwright (who was unable to find the newspaper) and Baskerville Hall (where Barrymore apparently is) bring an end to those leads. Also, a visit from John Clayton, who was driving the cab with the black-bearded man, is of little help. He does say that the man told him that he was the detective Holmes, much to the surprise and amusement of the actual Holmes.
Dr Mortimer, Watson, and Sir Henry set off for Baskerville Hall the next day. The baronet is excited to see it and his connection with the land is clear, but the mood is soon dampened. Soldiers are about the area, on the lookout for the escaped convict Selden. Barrymore and his wife tell the baronet that they want to depart from the area as soon as is convenient, and the Hall is, in general, a somber place. Watson has trouble sleeping that night, and hears a woman crying, though the next morning Barrymore denies that could have happened.
Watson checks with the postmaster and learns that the telegram was not actually delivered into the hands of Barrymore, so it is no longer certain that he was at the Hall, and not in London. On his way back, Watson meets Jack Stapleton, a naturalist familiar with the moor even though he has only been in the area for two years. They hear a moan that the peasants attribute to the hound, but Stapleton attributes it to the cry of a bittern, or possibly the bog settling. He then runs off after a specimen, but Watson is not alone for long before Beryl Stapleton, Jack's sister, approaches him. Mistaking him for Sir Henry, she urgently warns him to leave the area, but drops the subject when her brother returns. The three walk to Merripit House (the Stapleton’s home), and during the discussion, Watson learns that Stapleton used to run a school. Though he is offered lunch and a look at Stapleton’s collections, Watson departs for the Hall. Before he gets far along the path, Miss Stapleton overtakes him and dismisses her warning. Watson notices that the brother and sister don't look very much alike.
Sir Henry soon meets Miss Stapleton and becomes romantically interested, despite her brother’s intrusions. Watson meets another neighbor, Mr. Frankland, a harmless eccentric whose primary pastime is initiating lawsuits. Barrymore draws increasing suspicion, as Watson sees him walk with a candle into an empty room, hold it up to the window, and then leave. Realizing that the room’s only advantage is its view out on the moor, Watson and Sir Henry are determined to figure out what is going on.
Meanwhile, during the day, Sir Henry continues to pursue Miss Stapleton until her brother runs up on them and yells angrily. He later explains to the disappointed baronet that it was not personal, he was just afraid of losing his only companion so quickly. To show there are no hard feelings, he invites Sir Henry to dine with him and his sister on Friday.
Sir Henry then becomes the person doing the surprising, when he and Watson walk in on Barrymore, catching him at night in the room with the candle. Barrymore refuses to answer their questions, since it is not his secret to tell, but Mrs. Barrymore’s. She tells them that the runaway convict Bruce Selden is her brother and the candle is a signal to allow him to get food. When the couple returns to their room, Sir Henry and Watson go off to find the convict, despite the poor weather and frightening sound of the hound. They see Selden by another candle, but are unable to catch him. Watson notices the outlined figure of another man standing on top of a tor with the moon behind him, but he likewise gets away.
Barrymore is upset when he finds out that they tried to capture Selden, but when an agreement is reached to allow Selden to escape out of the country, he is willing to repay the favor. He tells them about a mostly-burnt letter asking Sir Charles to be at the gate at the time of his death. It was signed with the initials L.L. Dr Mortimer tells Watson the next day that it could be Laura Lyons, Frankland’s daughter who lives in Coombe Tracey. When Watson goes to talk to her, she admits to writing the letter after Stapleton told her Sir Charles would be willing to help her, but says she never kept the appointment.
Frankland has just won two law cases and invites Watson in, as his carriage passes by, to help him celebrate. Barrymore had previously told Watson that another man lived out on the moor besides Selden, and Frankland unwittingly confirms this, when he shows Watson through his telescope the figure of a boy carrying food. Watson departs the house and goes in that direction. He finds the dwelling where the unknown man has been staying, goes in, sees a message reporting on his own activities, and waits.
Holmes turns out to be the unknown man, keeping his location a secret so that Watson would not be tempted to come out and so he would be able to appear on the scene of action at the critical moment. Watson’s reports have been of much help to him, and he then tells his friend some of the information he’s uncovered – Stapleton is actually married to the woman passing as Miss Stapleton, and was also promising marriage to Laura Lyons to get her cooperation. As they bring their conversation to an end, they hear a scream and the sounds of a man being pursued by the hound.
They take off running and when they see the body, they mistake it for Sir Henry. As their misery and regret grow, they realize it is actually the escaped convict Selden, the brother of Mrs Barrymore, dressed in the baronet’s old clothes (which had been given to Barrymore by way of further apology for distrusting him). Then Stapleton appears, and while he makes excuses for his presence, Holmes pretends to be returning to London.
Holmes and Watson return to Baskerville Hall, where over dinner, the detective stares at Hugo Baskerville's portrait and then it hits him. Calling Watson over after dinner he covers the hair to show the face to reveal none other than Jack Stapleton. This provides the motive in the crime – with Sir Henry gone, Stapleton could lay claim to the Baskerville fortune. When they return to Mrs. Lyons’s place, they get her to admit Stapleton’s role in the letter setup, and then they go to meet a Det. Lt. Lestrade at the station whom Holmes has called in by a telegram .
Under the threat of advancing fog, Watson, Holmes, and Lestrade lie in wait outside Merripit House, where Sir Henry has been dining. When the baronet leaves and sets off across the moor, the hound is soon let loose. It really is a terrible beast, but Holmes and Watson manage to shoot it before it can hurt Sir Henry, as well as discovering that its hellish appearance was acquired by means of phosphorus. They discover the beaten Mrs. Stapleton bound and gagged in the bedroom, and when she is freed, she tells them of Stapleton’s hideout deep in the Great Grimpen Mire. When they head out the next day to look for him, they are not able to find him, as he is dead having being sucked down into the foul and bottomless depths of the mire and Holmes and Watson only find Sir Henry's boot used by Stapleton to give the hound Sir Henry's scent.
Review: 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.
Opening Line: Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table.
Closing Line: Might I trouble you then to be ready in half an hour, and we can stop at Marcini's for a little dinner on the way?"
Quotes: "It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it."
Rating: Good.

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