Sherlock Holmes is sitting at the breakfast table one morning when Watson arrives and peruses a walking stick left by an unknown visitor to the Baker Street apartment the night before. Holmes invites his doctor friend to make his best guess about the mysterious visitor based on both the engraving and the stick itself; when he does, Holmes commends him and Watson is pleased with the praise for his deductions. Unfortunately, his conclusions were wrong; the praise was for inspiring Holmes to draw more accurate conclusions. The walking stick appears to belong to a young doctor who once worked in a London hospital and now practices medicine in a rural setting and owns a dog. A quick look at the Medical Directory shows Holmes to be correct, even down to the dog (a spaniel)—which Holmes sees as he rises and looks out the window. Holmes invites Watson to stay and expresses his anticipation of an adventure about to begin.
The visitor is Dr. Mortenson. Once he is settled, he presents his rather unusual problem. In his pocket he carries a document given to him by Sir Charles Baskerville, a friend who died three months ago. The letter, written in 1742, relates the story of a family curse placed on Hugo Baskerville, “a most wild, profane, and godless man.”
Hugo Baskerville is lord of a manor and has fallen in love with a young peasant woman who lives near his estate. On a night when he knows her father and brothers will be away, Hugo and five or six men kidnap her and hide her in an upstairs room. The frightened girl hears the drunken revelry downstairs and escapes down the ivied wall and strikes out on foot over the moors toward her home, which is three leagues distant. When Hugo discovers the girl has left, he returns to his men and unleashes his fury. One of the men suggests they release the hounds on her, and Hugo immediately acts on the idea. He orders a groom to saddle his horse and release the dogs; after giving them the girl’s kerchief, the hounds race in “full cry” over the moors by moonlight.
The entire thing happens so quickly that the drunken men do not at first respond to this dramatic event, but soon they grab pistols and flagons of wine and mount in pursuit. They pass a shepherd on the moors and ask if the maiden had passed by, but he is stuck dumb with fear and does not respond at first. When he finally speaks, he tells them he saw the maiden being chased by the dogs, but he also saw something else—Hugo Baskerville riding maniacally with a “hound of hell” in silent pursuit. The men move on and soon see Hugo’s mare, frothing at the mouth and riderless, heading their way. The men are frightened but go on to find their friend. Soon they see the bravest dogs cowering in fear at the edge of a gorge. A few of the more intrepid (or sober) men move forward to see the fallen body of the maiden, who died of fright and exhaustion. Then they see their fallen friend as a huge black beast, larger than any hound they have ever seen, tears his throat out. The men turn shrieking from the sight and never recover from the shock. Since then, many Baskerville men have suffered violent and mysterious deaths. Because of this, the letter warns, no Baskerville should ever be caught on the moors at night.
At the end of the reading, Holmes dismisses the story as a fairy tale until the doctor produces a relatively current newspaper article that recounts the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, the most recent bearer of the family name. He was a widower known for reviving the family’s fortunes and demonstrating his munificence to the town. The Barrymores are a husband and wife serving as butler and housekeeper, and they detail the events of the evening of Sir Charles’s death. As always, Sir Charles walked the Yew Alley of Baskerville Hall to smoke a cigar before retiring. That night he did not return. Barrymore found his body at the end of the Alley. The murder remains unexplained, though there are several bits of evidence from which to work. First, the man’s footprints appeared to have changed partway down the Alley; second, the man’s face was contorted to such an extreme that Dr. Mortenson did not believe it was his friend when he saw him. The coroner’s verdict was death from natural causes. The next Baskerville heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, a nephew, has been notified.
Holmes is a now a bit more interested and asks for any particulars that may not have been detailed in the newspaper account. Mortenson says he did withhold several things from the public report, fearing no one would ever again inhabit Baskerville Hall if he told all he knows. There was an incident several weeks before the death in which both he and Hugo caught a glimpse of some huge, otherworldly creature on the grounds; it was on this night that Mortenson received the letter from his friend. Also, twenty yards from Hugo’s body on the night of the murder, the doctor observed the footprints of a giant hound, which is something he would not have looked for if he had not known the legend. Others have reported seeing “a huge creature, luminous, ghastly, and spectral” roaming the moor. The doctor is convinced there may be supernatural elements at work. He is seeking the great detective’s advice regarding the wisdom of bringing the last Baskerville heir to such a doomed fate. Holmes asks for twenty-four hours to ponder, and Mortenson agrees to bring Sir Henry to see him tomorrow. Holmes spends the day studying a map of Devonshire and assimilating all the known data; Watson does the same.
In the morning their guests arrive, and the young baronet explains that he would have come to see Holmes even if the doctor had not brought him—he, too, has a mystery to solve. He has received a clumsily crafted letter warning him to stay away from the moors if he values his life and his reason. It was delivered to his hotel room. He had only chosen that hotel at the last moment, so it is evident someone is following him. Also, one of his new boots was stolen or misplaced overnight. Dr. Mortenson tells Henry about the letter and the curse, and Henry insists that he will continue the journey to his ancestral home. The four men agree to meet again in several hours; when the visitors depart on foot, Holmes rushes Watson to gather his coat and hat in order to follow them and discover who is following the Baskerville heir. Holmes sees a man in a taxi with a large, bushy beard (probably fake) following the two men; when he endeavors to catch the man, Holmes is spotted and the man shouts for his taxi driver to make a getaway. Holmes berates himself for his ineptitude but does get the number of the taxi for further investigation.
At lunch, Sir Henry is angry that one of a second pair of boots has been stolen, although the hotel assures him they will be found. Holmes asks Mortenson if he has an acquaintance in Devonshire with a bushy black beard, and the doctor names Barrymore, Sir Charles’s butler. They establish, via telegram, that Barrymore is at the Hall. They also find Henry’s new boot in the very room in which they are dining. Furthermore, the amount of money left by Sir Charles after some small settlements and charitable donations is 750,000 pounds; however, the only one who inherits any significant money is Sir Henry, and the next in line for inheritance is a saintly man who refused even a small settlement from Sir Charles. The complexity of the mystery heightens for Holmes, and he asks Henry to allow Watson to accompany him when he goes to Baskerville Hall. Watson will keep Holmes apprised of events there while he finishes some important cases in London.
At Baker Street that night, the cab driver Holmes had followed comes to inquire into a complaint about his service. When Holmes questions the man, he gets very little useful information about the bearded passenger who left town on a train except his name—Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is amused by the audacity of the bearded man and expresses his misgivings about sending Watson on this trip. Watson assures his friend that he is armed and will take every precaution for his safety.
Before Watson leaves, Holmes asks him to send regular reports of the activities in Devonshire untainted by whatever theories Holmes is pondering. Sir Henry’s other boot is lost for good, and the three men board the train as planned. A waiting carriage takes them to Baskerville Hall. They leave behind them the more lush and fertile land and arrive on the moors, a dark, austere, and melancholy place. Dr. Mortenson spies an armed soldier on a hill and asks what has prompted such security. The driver tells him that an escaped convict, the Notting Hill murderer, has created fear in the area for the past three days.
Barrymore greets them when they arrive at the hall, and Dr. Mortenson goes straight home to his wife and waiting practice. Sir Henry purposes to install more lighting, for the hall is an intimidating sight in the darkness of the moors. Inside he shows his delight at the imposing structure, which has been his ancestral home for five hundred years. Barrymore is polite but tells the new Baskerville master that he and his wife will be leaving as soon as it is convenient. When questioned, the butler says they were enough staff for a reclusive elderly man but are not prepared for a young man and his future needs. When pressed further, Barrymore says they were too emotionally attached to their former master to continue on here without him. Neither excuse rings true. That night Watson has trouble sleeping; in the middle of the night, he hears a woman’s muffled sobbing but nothing more. The next morning things appear much less formidable to both men. When Barrymore is asked if heard a woman crying in the night, he denies hearing anything of the sort; however, his wife’s red, swollen eyes tell a different story. Sir Henry settles in front of a mountain of paperwork, and Watson heads to town.
Watson is dismayed to find that the telegram sent from London to establish Barrymore’s physical presence in Devonshire had failed, making the black-bearded butler the most likely murder suspect in Watson’s mind. Watson is hailed by a man with a tin container and a net, who introduces himself as Jack Stapleton of Merripit House. The naturalist addresses Watson by name and presumes the famous Sherlock Holmes is working on the Baskerville murder case. Stapleton has been in the area two years, knows (from Dr. Mortenson) that Sir Charles had a heart condition, and is adept at circumventing the deadly bogs of the Grimpen Mire on the moor. By paying careful attention to certain landmarks, he is able to navigate the dangers of the swampy spots and reach the habitats of the creatures he is studying. Suddenly they hear a low, haunting sound, a kind of strange moaning floating over the moor; Stapleton dismisses it as the sound of some nearly extinct bird, but Watson is not convinced. As Stapleton flits off to chase a butterfly, Watson is startled by a young woman who emphatically warns him to leave the moors. Stapleton returns and introduces his sister, Beryl, who is embarrassed to have mistaken Watson for Sir Henry. They go to Merripit House, and Watson is struck by how little resemblance there is between these siblings. On his way home, he is...