Friday, 3 June 2011

Spectral hounds and ghastly deeds out on the moors!

The Hound of the Baskervilles
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I first read The Hound of the Baskervilles many years ago in my early teens, I think The Sign of Four was my first Sherlock Holmes book, borrowed on impulse from the local library, it was the beginning of what was I think my first literary crush.  As a teenager Holmes entered my consciousness as something of an ideal hero: the cerebral man of action for whom the rational intellect was the ultimate weapon.  Doyle's stories had a great vitality, just as his hero was a vital and compelling figure.  From that first book I went on to read every Sherlock Holmes story I could find and from there to read everything I could find written by Doyle.  In that process I discovered Doyle wrote a varied range of fiction, aside from the stories of the great detective, I also discovered with relish his wonderful science fiction which for me rivalled the best of Wells and Verne.  Doyle himself became a figure of interest and I also read biographies of the man himself, as complex and as fascinating as his fictional creations, but it has been a long time since I have engaged with any of Arthur Conan Doyle's wonderful stories, until now, but having just re-read The Hound of the Baskervilles I will definitely be re-reading more of his work.

This book proved a great escapist read, filled as it is with a compelling narrative and evocative atmosphere, essentially gothic in tone, as much a ghost story as a crime novel, this book enters the imagination and sets up a dark residence.  The subject of the plot is well known: Holmes and Watson are approached by a Dr Mortimer to investigate the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville and protect his heir Sir Henry from succumbing to a similar fate.  The recent death and the continuing looming threat seem to stem from the legendary curse on the Baskerville family of a spectral hound hunting down the descendants of the villainous Sir Hugo whose vile behaviour originates the curse.

The story begins in London but then sees Holmes dispatch Watson as Sir Henry's bodyguard to Baskerville Hall in Devon.  It is from this point that Doyle wonderfully evokes the gloomy moors and the terrifying great Grimpen mire; '...a false step yonder means death to man or beast.' Doyle peoples his gothic landscape with a cast of likely suspects, including an escape convict wandering the moor, through Watson's eyes the reader is granted the clues to the mystery, while Holmes remains a mysterious figure lurking in the background. The novel progresses at an urgent pace and I read most of the short novel in one day.  It was a freezing cold, bleak Autumn day at that and this novel made a perfect companion, as I sat nestled in my home library by a cozy fire with cats and my own hound for company. The book celebrates the power of the imagination, evoking so fully character and setting, Doyle loves to blend hard logic and scientific rationalism with the power of imaginative thought, he has Holmes sitting in an armchair while mentally exploring the Baskerville landscape:
"The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.  Where do you think that I have been?'
'A fixture also.'
'On the contrary, I have been to Devonshire.'
'In spirit?'
I to travelled to Devonshire, Baskerville hall and it's haunting surrounds, re-living a youthfull enjoyment of a great novel.  Next time I visit my favourite bookshop I will be seeking out more Holmes stories and also Doyle's science fiction which I now also want to re-read.

I read this in a popular penguin edition and I really love these inexpensive, iconic editions, the evocation of the old penguin editions seems to add to the enjoyment of reading a title like this, couldn't resist the promotional video for these:

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