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A READER'S JOURNAL

The Hound of the Baskervilles
A Novel

by
Arthur Conan Doyle
Published by Bucaneer Books/NY in 2008

ARJ2 Chapter: Reading for Enjoyment
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2008

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After watching so many of Sherlock Holmes' adventures in the Black & White films over the years, it was sheer pleasure to hold in my hands a small red-covered cloth-bound book of 124 pages which contained all the original words of Arthur Conan Doyle. No longer did some script-writer come between me and the master detective story writer and his creations. I was back at the helm of my adventure into the dark moor. With my inner ears I could hear the howling of the fearsome hound, and in my imagination I could observe the deer as they were sucked into the great Grimpen Mire. My beating heart provided the subtle up-tempo background music — letting me know that the “game was afoot.” I could follow the very thoughts of Dr. Watson as he attempted to assist his colleague, Sherlock Holmes, in uncovering the mystery, striving ever to keep himself alive while doing so.

The game begins with a cane left behind by a visitor the night before. Watson shares his deduction with Holmes and is greeted with responses of Good!, Excellent! "Perfectly sound!" and when Watson finally says, "Then I was right!" Holmes replies "To that extent."

[page 2]"Has anything escaped me?" I asked with some self-importance. "I trust that there is nothing of consequence which I have overlooked?"
       "I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous. When I said you stimulated me I meant, to be frank, that in noting your fallacies I was occasionally guided towards the truth. Not that you are entirely wrong in this instance. The man is certainly a country practitioner. And he walks a good deal.
"

Apparently Sherlock Holmes, like God, never wastes a mistake. And also like God, Holmes anticipates the unfolding of fate as we readers might anticipate our turning of the next page of a book we are reading.

[page 4] Now is the dramatic moment of fate, Watson, when you hear a step upon the stair which is walking into your life, and you know not whether for good or ill. What does Dr. James Mortimer, the man of science, ask of Sherlock Holmes, the specialist in crime? Come in!"

Nothing much has happened except a conversation between Holmes and Watson, but already we feel the pace of the novel step up and our wonder increase. Dr. Mortimer brings with him the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles which began back in 1742, and relates how Sir Charles Baskervilles died under suspicious circumstances recently:

[page 12, 13] "On the night of Sir Charles's death Barrymore the butler, who made the discovery, sent Perkins the groom on horseback to me, and as I was sitting up late I was able to reach Baskerville Hall within an hour of the event. I checked and corroborated all the facts which were mentioned at the inquest. I followed the footsteps down the yew alley, I saw the spot at the moor-gate where he seemed to have waited, I remarked the change in the shape of the prints after that point, I noted that there were no other footsteps save those of Barrymore on the soft gravel, and finally I carefully examined the body, which had not been touched until my arrival. Sir Charles lay on his face, his arms out, his fingers dug into the ground, and his features convulsed with some strong emotion to such an extent that I could hardly have sworn to his identity. There was certainly no physical injury of any kind. But one false statement was made by Barrymore at the inquest. He said that there were no traces upon the ground round the body. He did not observe any. But I did — some little distance off, but fresh and clear."
       "Footprints?"
       "Footprints."
       "A man's or a woman's?"
       Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered:
       "Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

Holmes had a rather specific definition of what some might call guesswork, and he shares it with Dr. Mortimer.

[page 23] "We are coming now rather into the region of guesswork," said Dr. Mortimer.
       "Say, rather, into the region where we balance probabilities and choose the most likely. It is the scientific use of the imagination, but we have always some material basis on which to start our speculation.

When Dr. Mortimer leaves Holmes' place, Holmes follows him and notices a man with a black beard in a carriage, who quickly moves off down the street. Holmes has second thoughts about his behavior when he spotted the man.

[page 27, 28] "On observing the cab I should have instantly turned and walked in the other direction. I should then at my leisure have hired a second cab and followed the first at a respectful distance, or, better still, have driven to the Northumberland Hotel and waited there. When our unknown had followed Baskerville home we should have had the opportunity of playing his own game upon himself and seeing where he made for. As it is, by an indiscreet eagerness, which was taken advantage of with extraordinary quickness and energy by our opponent, we have betrayed ourselves and lost our man."

Later when Holmes inquires of the cabman who his fare was that day, he identifies him as "Sherlock Holmes." Dr. Watson records Holmes' surprise, which in movie fare would only be hinted at by the actor playing Holmes. Note the use of the word "foil" in Holmes' response to his surprise. It is a fencing metaphor about being touched by an epee, a foil, during a fencing bout. Holmes was foiled in the sense of an opponent slipping in a touch during a fencing match and also in the sense being thrown off the track of his prey. A subtle and poetic use of ambiguity by the master author, Doyle.

[page 36] Never have I seen my friend more completely taken aback than by the cabman's reply. For an instant he sat in silent amazement. Then he burst into a hearty laugh.
       "A touch, Watson — an undeniable touch!" said he. "I feel a foil as quick and supple as my own. He got home upon me very prettily that time. So his name was Sherlock Holmes, was it?"

Another gem of literary note is when Dr. Watson comments in a letter to Holmes about his complete indifference to whether the Sun moved round the Earth or the Earth round the Sun. (Page 55) This would be precisely the position one might take who was versed in Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity. Both ways of describing the motion of the Sun and Earth are merely maps, and whereas the maps may represent the territory, it can never include all of the territory, and more importantly, making a map does not change the territory one whit!

Soon an escaped convict who murdered someone, and another stranger, who is spotted in a tower by night, are loose on the moor, which is a most inhospitable place with no means of acquiring food. All this heightens the mystery as we move into the second half of the book, in which Dr. Watson is mucking about in the moor along with Dr. Mortimer, Stapleton (a naturalist), Stapleton's sister, and of course the unseen, looming presence of the great Hound. One feels like the plot of this book has gotten stuck in the great Grimpen mire, and cannot be extirpated. But just then, there's even more: a lady's initials L. L. shows up on a crumbling note and must be identified.

Dr. Watson undertakes a daring plan to ensnare the murderer, Seldon, who is apparently living in one of the ancient stone dwellings in the moor. Gun loaded, he waits through the night, and instead of Seldon, he ensnares the strangest quarry of them all. We catch a hint of who this quarry may have been in this next passage.

[page 108] One of Sherlock Holmes's defects — if, indeed, one may call it a defect — was that he was exceedingly loath to communicate his full plans to any other person until the instant of their fulfilment. Partly it came no doubt from his own masterful nature, which loved to dominate and surprise those who were around him. Partly also from his professional caution, which urged him never to take any chances. The result, however, was very trying for those who were acting as his agents and assistants. I had often suffered under it, but never more so than during that long drive in the darkness. The great ordeal was in front of us; at last we were about to make our final effort, and yet Holmes had said nothing, and I could only surmise what his course of action would be. My nerves thrilled with anticipation when at last the cold wind upon our faces and the dark, void spaces on either side of the narrow road told me that we were back upon the moor once again. Every stride of the horses and every turn of the wheels was taking us nearer to our supreme adventure.

The tale winds to a dramatic conclusion and all the loose ends are tied up. If it can be said that, "All writers can be found under Gogol's Overcoat", then surely all mystery writers can be found breathing in the smoke from Sherlock Holmes' pipe. One can spot a close similarity to the way the mystery is revealed to us, deepens, spreads out in many directions, and then is all pulled back together neatly in both Sherlock Holmes stories and the modern TV series, The Closer.

One little teaser by the author appears in the last paragraph when Watson asks his colleague to clarify one more point for him. Doyle clears away the last loose end by an elegant explanation, saying in effect that he cannot predict future actions. No doubt he recognizes future actions to be mere mind maps, with which we may amuse or direct ourselves, but no way are they qualified as facts.

[page 124] "No doubt. There only remains one difficulty. If Stapleton came into the succession, how could he explain the fact that he, the heir, had been living unannounced under another name so close to the property? How could he claim it without causing suspicion and inquiry?"
       "It is a formidable difficulty, and I fear that you ask too much when you expect me to solve it. The past and the present are within the field of my inquiry, but what a man may do in the future is a hard question to answer. Mrs. Stapleton has heard her husband discuss the problem on several occasions. There were three possible courses. He might claim the property from South America, establish his identity before the British authorities there, and so obtain the fortune without ever coming to England at all; or he might adopt an elaborate disguise during the short time that he need be in London; or, again, he might furnish an accomplice with the proofs and papers, putting him in as heir, and retaining a claim upon some proportion of his income. We cannot doubt from what we know of him that he would have found some way out of the difficulty."

We have closed the book on the mysterious Hound of the Baskervilles. He has led us on a merry chase through the pages of this novel, howling dreadfully right on cue. We have been interrupted by no TV commercials nor had to watch obnoxious previews of coming attractions. The projector bulb did not burn out and the projector operator did not miss the third reel. Our popcorn was popped fresh a few feet from our comfortable seat. No one answered a cell phone the next seat over and began talking during the chase over the moor. All in all we spent a marvelous couple of hours in the magical world woven by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We have gained a new respect for his marvelous writing. Actors and directors may come and go, screens may turn Technicolor and High Definition, but the original handwritten words of Arthur Conan Doyle will ever conjure their magic for all future generations of readers.




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Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne

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