Critical Evaluation

Because the Sherlock Holmes tales are one of the first instances of a magazine series based on one character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may be considered, in a limited sense, a literary innovator. As a writer of detective stories, he made no secret of his admiration for Edgar Allan Poe and Poe’s creation, the French detective Dupin. His admiration for Poe’s plots was nearly matched by the impression made upon him by the American author’s ability to create gloomy ambience. Building on the work of predecessors such as Poe and Wilkie Collins, Doyle created two characters whose popularity was unrivaled until the advent of Agatha Christie’s characters Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings.

It is ironic that Doyle, who did not consider the Holmes stories to be serious literary efforts and, in fact, tried to kill the Holmes character in his story, “The Final Problem,” in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894), is immortalized as the creator of one of the most famous figures in detective fiction. Despite his own disinclination to continue the Holmes stories after he had established himself as the author of such novels as The White Company (1891), Doyle nevertheless began again. The expenses of his home and family after success had been achieved continued to increase beyond even his expanded earning power, and the public refused to believe that Holmes was dead. Some, believing implicitly in Holmes’s existence, were convinced either that Watson had made an error or that the stupid intermediary, Doyle, had garbled the information. When Doyle needed money again, the public was waiting for this particular product.

The series of tales in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905) is the answer to Doyle’s need and to the demands of the public. However, this series of stories was preceded by The Hound of the Baskervilles, a novel-length story that Doyle wrote after an acquaintance told him a similar tale one day on Dartmoor, when damp and dismal weather made playing golf impossible. Doyle’s fascination with the subject persuaded his friend to take Doyle on a small walking tour of the area. In this case, the plot came to him before he began to consider the character he would use to unify it. He decided to use a well-known character who would need no introduction. In this way, The Hound of the Baskervilles became a Holmes story, some would say the best known of all the Holmes stories. Still not committed to the idea of reviving Holmes, Doyle used the simple expedient of setting the tale in the time before Holmes’s apparent death at the Reichenbach Falls.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is Doyle’s tour de force in this genre. The barren and forbidding moor of Devon, the Grimpen Mire, the spectral hound, dark and old Baskerville Hall, all create an atmosphere that is both more exotic and more gothic than any possible venue in London. Doyle’s descriptive powers are given full reign by the stratagem of absenting Holmes from the body of the story, leaving the narration to the letters and diary of the far more credulous and impressionable Watson. Through Watson’s observing but undiscerning eye and ear, the reader senses the implied threat of the moor and is witness to the animal-like visage of Selden, the mysterious actions of the Barrymores, the contradictory and alarming behavior of the Stapletons, the horrifying sounds of the unseen hound, and even the sinister presence of the mysterious stranger who is actually Holmes.

The disappearance and surprising reappearance of Holmes is a stock-in-trade used before by Doyle to mask the solution to a riddle and, ostensibly, by Holmes in order to lull a villain into a false sense of security. It is clear from Holmes’s summing up at the end of the tale that the rational detective was at no point impressed by claims of supernatural forces stalking the Baskerville family. One critic notes that the references to “light” and “darkness” in this tale represent, as in previous stories, Holmes as the light of reason opposed to the darkness of both evil and ignorance. Holmes’s appearance in the story with his lucid, analytical approach would prematurely debunk the legend and dissipate the gothic atmosphere. It would also make withholding the solution much more difficult, for it is his appearance that brings the answer to some of the most vexing questions in the mystery. Holmes’s absence also accentuates his mental acuity, since he is not present to be misled by false evidence. The Barrymores’ actions are not pertinent to the solution of the problem. The Stapletons’ actions are puzzling only if one does not know that Sir Charles’s brother had a son—Stapleton. Holmes is free of the confusing influences of the other characters and is therefore able to see more clearly into the heart of the mystery.

The villain is described by Holmes quite early in the story as being “worthy of our steel.” Stapleton, alias Baskerville, is an unusual entomologist who thinks nothing of dashing into the dreaded Grimpen Mire in pursuit of a butterfly for his extensive collection. He is, in fact, the only person who is determined enough to mark a safe passage through the treacherous bog that has swallowed up so many creatures. However, when he and Watson witness the agonizing end of a small moor pony as it sinks into the ooze, Stapleton is notable for his cold-blooded lack of concern, thus demonstrating that, despite his determination, he lacks compassion for living beings. Until Holmes unravels the mystery and kills the great hound, it is as if Stapleton is in league with the great bog and the moor. Even the fog rolls in at precisely the wrong moment and forces Watson, Holmes, and Lestrade to retreat during their ambush. He is very much a part of the gothic horror of the story.

Thus, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a compilation of the narrative and plot techniques that made the Holmes stories so popular. Further, it is a novel-length tale that is as cohesive as any short story, with all the action concentrated in one locale. Its combination of mystery and gothic techniques as well as its length makes it a standard by which Doyle’s and other writers’ efforts are measured.