Saturday, August 12, 2006

Bad Puppy

Title: The Hound of the Baskervilles
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I feel silly admitting that I just began reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about two years ago, when I bought The Complete Sherlock Holmes, vols. I and II, very cheaply at Barnes and Noble. Each book is about 700 pages, and I’ve been making my way through them slowly. Or, rather, I’ll read a bunch of stories within a very short time period, then get tired with it and move on to something else. Which explains why it took me so long to reach Hound of the Baskervilles, even though it’s the most famous: it’s the last story (more a novel, really) in Volume I.

Anyway, on to the plot! If anyone actually doesn’t already know it, that is.

A wealthy English landowner, Sir Baskerville, is discovered one night lying face down in his yew tree lane. Upon moderate inspection, it becomes clear that the unfortunate gentleman is completely dead, the victim of a sudden heart attack. But if that’s the case, how does one explain the nearby footprint of a massive hound? And does this all actually have something to do with a legend that the Baskerville family is cursed by such a beast? (I’ll let you answer that question.)

The new heir is sent for, Sir Henry Baskerville from Colorado. But the late Sir Baskerville’s doctor suspects foul play, and, upon meeting the new heir in London, brings the young man to meet the famous Sherlock Holmes…just in case something questionable is stirring. And, naturally, since this is a mystery, there is! Two of Sir Henry’s boots are quickly purloined, he receives an anonymous note warning him to stay away from the moor as he values his life, and a mysterious bearded man follows him through London. Clearly, there are games afoot.

In many respects, Baskervilles is classic Holmes. Everything usual is there: the systematic deduction, the attention to details, etc. etc. etc. Everyone knows that stuff already. But the novel is rather unique in two very important aspects, both of which make it essential Sherlock Holmes reading.

First, Holmes himself is absent from much of the story. When Sir Henry travels to his new estate, it is Dr. Watson who accompanies him. For much of the book, Holmes is nothing more than a distant, though overwhelming, presence. One feels, perhaps, that Conan Doyle rather dislikes his own hero, and doesn’t want him around much. After all, the last time he’d written about Holmes, he’d sent him plunging to his death over Reichenbach Falls, wrestling with his arch-nemesis, Dr. Moriarty. But it’s refreshing to spend some alone time with Dr. Watson, and I enjoyed cheering for him, especially as Holmes himself can often be rather mean to his best friend and chronicler.

Second, the really beautiful thing about Baskervilles is Dartmoor itself, where most of the story occurs. The moor is mysteriously beautiful, and much more interesting than the technical details of mundane sleuthing that otherwise occupy the book. Conan Doyle paints a clear picture of this desolate and yet intriguing place, where ghosts moan and pixies patter. There are the ruined remains of an ancient civilization, the stone houses where Bronze Age Man once lived, and a nearby prison, from whence a desperate criminal has recently escaped. Best of all, there’s Grimpen Mire, a horrifying peat bog that can swallow a man – or a horse – before the poor creature can do anything about it.

After reading Baskervilles, I simply had to do some online research about Dartmoor. (In my world, “online research” = Wikipedia.) I found two really cool things, and I want to share.

New ghost stories are still growing in Dartmoor. The one I read about concerned “hairy hands.” Apparently, late-night drivers lose control of their cars when these hairy hands appear on their steering wheel and force them from the road. [Digression: This particularly tickled me because there’s a famous contracts case nicknamed The Hairy Hand case. A man who’d had his hand scarred underwent a revolutionary skin graft procedure. The procedure had several problems, and one thing in particular went wrong: the doctor had taken the skin from the man’s very furry chest. Bizarrely enough, hair began sprouting within days. Naturally, the patient sued, thereby immortalizing himself and providing amusement for generations of law students.]

There is also the annual charity Dartmoor Jailbreak, where civilians (not prisoners) 'escape' from the prison and travel as far as possible in 4 days whilst dressed in convict clothing and without directly paying for their transportation. If you look on the website, someone once made it all the way to New Zealand! Seriously, I want to do this one day. Who’s aboard?

So, yes, to cut this very rambling and starting-to-digress review short, The Hound of the Baskervilles is definitely recommended reading. It’s genre writing at it’s best, and if the mystery is not entirely unpredictable, the journey itself is more than worth it.

posted by Elizabeth at 10:31 AM


Blogger reyn said...

I'm totally with you on the jailbreak. Let's bust outta the joint!

8/12/2006 3:28 PM  

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