How does an early-twentieth century mystery novel hold up over a hundred years later? Surprisingly well. It helps, of course, if that story was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and features the legendary characters of Dr. John Watson and Mr. Sherlock Holmes. The novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, is by all accounts, a classic. It features a legend of a spectral hound, an ages-old family curse, and a setting that is moody and ominous and brooding enough to be a worthy stage for mystery, danger … and murder. Just as importantly, the characters of the story are vibrant and plausible providing for suspects, victims and villains that are worth reading about.
The central mystery of the story revolves around the Curse of the Hound of the Baskervilles. The ancient legend speaks of a particularly profane man who, in the midst of his perversions, is run down by hound of hell, which delights in ripping out the man’s throat. As a result, the curse is to follow the Baskerville family until they can atone for the vile ways of their progenitor. So now, in modern times, when Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead, with the tracks of a large canine beast around his body, the legend is revived and the fate of his heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, becomes a desperate matter for Sherlock Holmes and his friend Dr. Watson.
Baskerville mansion is located in the vicinity of Dartmoor, a barren, boggy, and ominous landscape that is perfectly situated to evoke an atmosphere of gloom and danger. There are bleak hills capped with granite, and the Great Grimpen Mire, a bog so deadly it routinely claims victims — such as ponies — that wander too far into the much and are unable to extricate themselves.
Against this backdrop, Dr. Watson is dispatched to watch over Sir Henry and keep him from harm. And this points to the most curious decision of the entire book: to spend a great deal of its central passages entirely without the singular character of Holmes. As the story concludes, it certainly does a very good job of explaining the plausibility — indeed the necessity — for Holmes’ absence. But the decision also robs the book of the opportunity to watch Holmes and Watson working together. This, then, is perhaps the biggest hurdle to readers enjoying the story.
Still, Watson makes for a reliable and entertaining central figure. And, more importantly, the absence of Holmes allows the various characters of the story to take center stage. And this, along with the brooding atmosphere of the setting, is where the story really entertains. Whether its the Stapletons of Merripit Hall, the butler and his wife, the escaped convict holed up on the moor, or Mr. Franklin of Lafter House, there’s no lack of characters to serve as suspects or potential victims.
As for the mystery, it’s notable that the villain is revealed with enough time left in the story to for there to be a proper showdown between Holmes and the culprit. The result is a climactic sequence which is both thrilling and deadly.
Overall Grade: B
The Hound of the Baskervilles is a vibrant, engaging book which ought to be a solid entertainment for readers. Its mystery isn’t predicated on the overuse of (often arbitrary) plot twists. Instead, it focuses on character and mood to convey a tale which is engaging both intellectually and emotionally.