illustration of Sherlock Holmes in profile surrounded by various items from his many mysteries

The Best of Sherlock Holmes

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Student Question

Which Sherlock Holmes story has the greatest literary merit, in your opinion?

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I have always found The Hound of the Baskervilles to be the best Sherlock Holmes story in terms of literary merit.  It seems like so much more than a detective novel.  It breaks the pattern in many ways.  First of all, most of the book takes place on the moor and not in London.  Also, Watson narrates his own story for most of the book, while Holmes is supposedly in London but is really in a hut on the moor.

The mood of the story is one of the greatest reasons for its literary merit.  It is dark, gloomy, foreboding ,  and often frightening.

Then fourteen miles away the great convict prison of Princetown. Between and around these scattered points extends the desolate, lifeless moor. This, then, is the stage upon which tragedy has been played, and upon which we may help to play it again…. (ch 3, p. 21)

A desolate landscape, no inhabitants but scattered farmhouses, and legends passed down through the generations: now that’s gothic!

All of the Holmes stories present a picture of late Victorian England, but there are several unique aspects to this book.  First of all, there are the Baskervilles themselves.  Henry returns from abroad to claim the seat of his ancestors: How Victorian!  There is a forbidden romance, and a hidden one.  Watson is the quintessential Victorian gentleman.  He’s good with a gun, and he always behaves properly.  He puts up with a lot, especially in this book.  Holmes has him completely fooled, but instead of punching Holmes he just goes along with it.

“Then you use me, and yet do not trust me!” I cried, with some bitterness. “I think that I have deserved better at your hands, Holmes.” (Ch 12, p. 86)

As usual, Watson accepts Holmes’s explanation of why he had to keep Watson in the dark so he didn’t give the whole thing away.

In most cases, we do not get to solve the mystery until Holmes finally feels like cluing us in.  However, this book is different.  Since Watson is the one collecting and reporting clues, the reader finally gets to follow the mystery from beginning to end and have a chance to solve some pieces.  We cannot solve the entire mystery, because Holmes still holds some of the cards, but we do know about the mysterious candle appearing in the window of the Baskerville mansion and we can deduce that someone in the house is communicating with the convict.

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