The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)

‘Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!’

Fed up with the difficulty of constructing the crossword-puzzle-like short stories, and keen to concentrate his energies on the historical yarns which he much preferred, Conan Doyle had killed off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem, published in the Strand magazine in December 1893 (one hundred and twenty years ago to the month).

But his other novels and stories (and plays) didn’t do nearly so well financially, the clamour from fans and publishers alike grew louder and, on board ship back from the Boer War where he had worked as a volunteer doctor at Bloemfontein, he struck up a friendship with one Fletcher Robinson who knew a story about a legendary monster hound – and so the seed of his most popular story was sown.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialised in the Strand from August 1901 to April 1902 before being published in book form later the same year.


As usual the text is itself made out of a tissue of other subsidiary texts which are, in effect, pasted together to make up the master text. Thus in the first few pages Watson looks up details of Dr Mortimer in a medical register, Dr Mortimer presents H&D with a manuscript from the 1730s which tells the legend of the Baskervilles, before reading out the newspaper report of the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, there is the mysterious letter made from words cut & pasted from the Times newspaper, a number of telegrams and, of course, most of the events down in Devon are described in the letters the faithful Watson posts to Holmes, before he uses diary form, and before he reverts to traditional 3rd-party narrative.

So the texts themselves enact the problem or challenge of assembling disparate evidence into an orderly narrative.


I’ve made up this word to describe the way every Holmes text mentions a sizable number of other Holmes cases/texts, thus creating the impression of a potentially endless universe of stories. Thus increasing the plausibility of the fictional context or universe in which the fictional character can operate. Hence the many people who write letters to 221b believing Holmes is an actual person. Thus the crossover fictions which involve him with Jack the Ripper or the Great War. Bigging up Holmes’s reputation.

One wonders whether Conan Doyle, exasperated at having to revive his fictional puppet, wrote some of these ones tongue in cheek:

I was exceedingly preoccupied by that little affair of the Vatican cameos, and in my anxiety to oblige the Pope I lost touch with several interesting English cases. (Chapter 2)

In chapter five Holmes claims to have dealt with ‘five hundred cases of capital importance’, quite an inflation since the 70 or so Watson mentioned in the previous volume. In the epilogue a few other quick cases have been solved before Holmes has time to tie up all the loose ends: the card scandal of the Nonpareil Club and mystery of Mlle Carère.


As Holmes lays the situation before him the young Sir Henry Holmes, barely returned from the colonies to claim the cursed title and house, exclaims: ‘I seem to have walked right into the thick of a dime novel’. But making a character point out that he is appearing in a cheap melodrama doesn’t in any way prevent him from actually appearing in a cheap melodrama.

Not only the Gothic atmospherics laid on heavily in the gloomy and accursed ancestral home in the middle of the bleak and ominous Dartmoor, but the characters have a wonderful Edwardian cheesiness:

There he sat, with his tweed suit and his American accent, in the corner of a prosaic railway-carriage, and yet as I looked at his dark and expressive face I felt more than ever how true a descendant he was of that long line of high-blooded, fiery, and masterful men. There were pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils and his large hazel eyes. If on that forbidding moor a difficult and dangerous quest should lie before us, this was at least a comrade for whom one might venture to take a risk with the certainty that he would bravely share it. (Chapter 6)

Or the description of the fine specimen of Edwardian womanhood, Miss Stapleton:

She was darker than any brunette whom I have seen in England—slim, elegant, and tall. She had a proud, finely-cut face, so regular that it might have seemed impassive were it not for the sensitive mouth and the beautiful dark, eager eyes. With her perfect figure and elegant dress she was, indeed, a strange apparition upon a lonely moorland path. (Chapter 7)

And her subsequent realisation that her husband was a bounder:

‘Thank God! Thank God! Oh, this villain! See how he has treated me!’ She shot her arms out from her sleeves, and we saw with horror that they were all mottled with bruises. ‘But this is nothing—nothing! It is my mind and soul that he has tortured and defiled. I could endure it all, ill-usage, solitude, a life of deception, everything, as long as I could still cling to the hope that I had his love, but now I know that in this also I have been his dupe and his tool.’ She broke into passionate sobbing as she spoke. (Chapter 14)

Only the figure of Holmes the calculating machine lifts these fictions above the pulp melodrama which so many of their situations consist of. That and the soundness of Conan Doyle’s sentences. They are beautifully grammatical. Even when describing the most overwrought emotions Conan Doyle’s prose remains clear and sound. (Contrast him in this with Kipling’s horrible prose style, infected with archaisms and biblicalisms and tags of argot.) They are the textual equivalent of Mrs Hudson and the bachelor rooms, they are anchors of safety and security, a measure of the man’s bluff Edwardian hearty good cheer.

The horror

I was standing in front of him, when I saw his eyes fix themselves over my shoulder and stare past me with an expression of the most dreadful horror. (Chapter 2)

Something brown was rolling and tossing among the green sedges. Then a long, agonized, writhing neck shot upward and a dreadful cry echoed over the moor. It turned me cold with horror. (Chapter 7)

Barrymore sprang up from the window with a sharp hiss of his breath and stood, livid and trembling, before us. His dark eyes, glaring out of the white mask of his face, were full of horror and astonishment. (Chapter 9)

A terrible scream—a prolonged yell of horror and anguish—burst out of the silence of the moor. That frightful cry turned the blood to ice in my veins. (Chapter 12)

Holmes laid his hand upon him and held it up again with an exclamation of horror. (Chapter 12)

You only have to compare the liberal use of ‘horror’ in Conan Doyle’s penny-dreadful melodramas with Joseph Conrad’s famous use of it in Heart of Darkness, to realise how thin and superficial the Conan Doyle is. There is pretty much no psychology at all in them. Gentlemen have a hereditary nobility, ladies are dignified and beautiful, criminals are stunted and coarse, the baddy is a cunning fiend! We are barely dealing with people but ciphers in a game of Cluedo.

In the Holmes texts we can see Victorian melodrama, a strand in Dickens and a central concern of Wilkie Collins, giving birth to its offspring, the American dimestore novel which mutates into the pulp fiction of the 1920s and 30s, and in its country of birth gives rise to the Golden Age of Detectives between the wars, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercules Poirot et al.

The British Empire

As in all the previous stories there is a strong colonial connection: the previous Baskerville, Sir Charles, had made his fortune in South African gold and the new tenant, Sir Henry, has to be recalled from adventures in the States and Canada where he had lived a manly outdoor life.

As in the previous two novels and many of the short stories there is a strong sense of the interconnectedness of, the easy travel to and from, the Anglo-Saxon colonies – America, Canada, Australia, South Africa – and that these are places where a man goes off to make his fortune, to forge a new personality, to return transformed. Kipling is the great embodiment of this moment, carrying his Indian heritage with him to the South Africa of the Boer War or the Vermont of Teddy Roosevelt, an ideology of supreme confidence in the White Man’s destiny to rule and triumph.

Though both Conan Doyle and Kipling are concerned at the rise of Germany or our unpreparedness to defend the Empire, neither of them begins to doubt that the ideology is itself fatally flawed, unlike the bitter fatalism of Conrad for whom the entire project is a savage farce.

No, after all the twopenny ‘horror’, Holmes and Watson are home again by the fireside in 221b Baker Street, as Holmes ties up the last outstanding loose ends of his latest and greatest triumph.

Holmes and the Boer War

See also my analysis of Holmes and the Boer War ie the war revealed the shocking malnutrition and stuntedness of English conscripts, crystallising late-Victorian anxiety about the degeneration of the race. The Hound of the Baskervilles is, at bottom, a cautionary tale about degeneration within one family: in which the degenerate, dastardly, half-Spanish Stapleton/Baskerville who has inherited the degraded blood of the libertine Hugo, mistreats his lovely wife and tries to murder the fine, upstanding Sir Henry, not only the heir to the noble blood of the family, but steeled and hardened in the tough, manly world of the Anglo-Saxon colonies. Pure blood versus impure blood. Nobility and pure breeding versus half-breed mongrel. Sincerity and honesty versus criminal concealment. Anglo-Saxon morals versus low, half-hispanic treachery!

Read The Hound of the Baskervilles on Project Gutenberg

Illustration for the Hound of the Baskervilles by Sidney Paget (Wikimedia Commons)

Illustration for the Hound of the Baskervilles by Sidney Paget (Wikimedia Commons)

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