Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles
I have told you something about natural mysteries (The Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and the Abominable Snowman). Now I’d like to introduce you to another kind of mystery. These are written mysteries, or mystery stories.
In the United States, Washington Irving wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in 1820. Nataniel Hawthorne wrote his gothic masterpiece “The Scarlet Letter” in 1850. And Mark Twain published “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in 1884. All of these stories contain elements of mystery, horror or suspense, with creepy characters in often spooky settings. But the first truly “modern” mysteries were written by the American Edgar Allen Poe. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” published in 1841 Poe introduced a new kind of fictional character to readers, a scientist-detective named C. Auguste Dupin. At theaters right now you can see the movie, The Raven, a mystery thriller about the life & works Edgar Allen Poe.
British writers were also producing some fantastic stuff too. And growing up in Canada these were the books that got me excited when I was a boy and still amaze and influence me today; not just the big, atmospheric novels by Charles Dickens such as “Great Expectations and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” but faster-paced thrillers like Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”, “Kidnapped” and “Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde” or H.G. Well’s “The War of the Worlds” and “The Invisible Man”. But nothing, nothing, caught my imagination more than one book in particular that brought together a great detective and a truly great mystery. I’m talking about Sherlock Holmes and “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.
Everybody likes a good mystery, and a lot of people like a mystery that is solved by a larger-than-life detective. The classic detectives- the ones you see on Masterpiece Television, for example- include that sweet old lady detective, Miss Marple, and the funny little Frenchmen with the moustache, Hercule Poirot. Both these detectives were created by one of the world’s greatest mystery writers, Agatha Christine). But the most popular detective of all time is Sherlock Holmes.
The creator of Sherlock Holmes was a man named Arthur Conan Doyle, an English doctor who spent his free-time writing historical novels. His inspiration for the cool, analytical character of Sherlock Holmes was one of his professors at university, Doctor Joseph Bell. And much to Conan Doyle’s surprise his Sherlock Holmes stories became an incredibly popular phenomenon. In total Conan Doyle wrote 4 novels and 56 short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and his quiet, though able, partner, Doctor Watson.
What was unique about the detective Sherlock Holmes were his incredible powers of observation and deduction. He could just look at a man and tell you where he was from, what his job was, where he had been injured, where he had been in his life…things like that…just from information he saw on the person…the sort of shoes or clothes the person wore, how he walked, his haircut, his accent. In other words he was great observer of facts, and nothing mattered to Sherlock Holmes but the facts. His most famous saying was, “eliminate the impossible and what you are left with- no matter how strange or unlikely- must be the solution”.
Conan Doyle became famous because of Sherlock Holmes. And, remember, this was in a time before movies, before television, even before the radio. The stories of Sherlock Holmes were first published in news magazines which were the most popular medium of communication at the time. Magazines were cheap and that’s what most people read. And to make money the newspaper owners had to publish exciting stories people would pay to read, real or not. Before Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens was the first writer to realize the possibilities of newspaper publication. His novels such as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations were published first in the newspapers also- a chapter at a time each week- before they were published in the more expensive book form. Following Dicken’s example, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ stories were published the same way too, in the newspapers first, so they would be wider read by the public.
But even as he became rich and famous Conan Doyle eventually grew tired of writing about Sherlock Holmes and nothing else. So after some 20 stories he had Holmes die in an accident. The public however became so upset about the death of Sherlock Holmes that Conan Doyle had no choice but to bring him back to life, if only in print. He really does meet his death at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland during a fight with his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty but Conan Doyle began writing new stories about Holmes that were set in a time before his death at the falls.
Throughout all the stories Conan Doyle uses Holmes friend Doctor Watson as the one who writes about Holmes and his detective cases. Doctor Watson is what we call “the narrator” of the stories. And it seems only fair that when Holmes did make his first appearance after Conan Doyle had “killed” him the action in the story centers around Doctor Watson for more than half the story.
The most famous Sherlock Holmes story of all is The Hound of the Baskervilles. And it is a novel not just a short story. It has all the elements of a great mystery: a great detective, a great villain, a damsel in distress, an ancient document that tells of a family curse, a monstrous beast in the form of a killer hound, a scary setting which are the misty moors of southwestern England, a haunted house which is Baskerville Hall, exciting action and chases, some funny parts and, of course, a series of murders that must be solved before it’s too late.
First published in 1902 The Hound of the Baskervilles is a popular book for readers of all ages. Anyone can read it. It’s not an adult book filled with too much blood or nasty things happening to people. And it’s not a kid’s story with little or no action. It’s a great mix of all the elements that make for a great mystery story. But, if the written story was popular, what has been even more popular are the films and television movies based upon the story. The Hound of the Baskervilles must be one of the most filmed stories of all time. Soon after it was published it was first produced in Germany as a black & white silent film in 1914. It’s most famous version in 1939 starred Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the two actors most usually associated with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. It was also filmed with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, famous for many low budget horror movies filmed in the late 50s and early 60s. Most recently it was a Masterpiece Television film, one of few versions actually filmed on the moors of Dartmoor.
And on May 13 this year The Hound of the Baskervilles will be presented again on Masterpiece Mystery Television in a modern version where Sherlock Holmes uses email, cell phones and GPS to get the job done but without losing the cool appeal that has always been his trademark. Don’t miss this one! Look for the older film versions too. And of course read the book…preferably alone in bed on a wild, stormy Cape Cod night!