Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland. As a young man he seemed destined for a career in medicine. In 1876 he attended the University of Edinburgh Medical School. There he met Joseph Bell, whose deductive powers and dramatic flair he would later embody in the character of Sherlock Holmes. In the early 1880s he served as a medical officer on an Arctic whaling ship and ship’s surgeon on a voyage to West Africa. By the summer of 1882, he had settled in the town of Southsea in the south of England. In 1885 he received his medical degree. Even after he was a well-established writer, he continued to pursue his medical education, becoming an eye specialist. His medical practice was unsuccessful, leaving him plenty of free time to write.
For many years, the region around the Baskerville estate was poor and backward, but when Sir Charles Baskerville returns to claim his estate, the region again begins to prosper. By devoting his vast fortune-earned in business-to better the community, Sir Charles fills the long-empty role of leadership that is the duty of the Baskervilles. But into this otherwise happy and orderly society comes disorder in the form of two utterly evil men. One is a convicted mass murderer escaped from prison, who lurks about on the moors; the other is Seldon, a clever criminal, who is insidious enough to corrupt the faithful Baskerville servants into the service of evil.
The late Victorian setting of The Hound of the Baskervilles is an orderly one. In it, each person has a role to fill, and when every role is suitably filled, society prospers. But the social order is endangered by those bent on its destruction, and the villains come in many disguises.
Sherlock Holmes is a private investigator who operates out of his rooms at 221B Baker Street in London, England. Well-to-do, he takes only the cases that interest him. He is high-strung and restless, and, although he finds a creative emotional outlet in playing the violin, it is often not enough to amuse his troubled mind when he is not on a case. He then injects himself with cocaine. It takes years for his associate, Dr. Watson, to wean him away from his addiction but Watson is ultimately successful.
The techniques in The Hound of the Baskervilles are common to most Holmes mysteries. First, a client visits Holmes, and Holmes makes some clever deductions about him. Then the client introduces the problem that Holmes must solve. In this case, a country doctor, James Mortimer, tells Holmes of the strange death of Sir Charles Baskerville. An unusually observant man, Mortimer noted a giant paw print near the body and the cigar ash near the gate-both important clues and enough to arouse Mortimer’s suspicions. In a typical case, Holmes would go to the scene of the crime, sift through clues, and decide on a course of action. These steps make for a suspenseful and fast-paced narrative.
The Hound of the Baskervilles depicts the kinds of individual disorientation that are created by social disorder. For instance, love is perverted by evil in the novel. Selden, the notorious Notting Hill murderer, uses his sister’s love to evade the law. Stapleton uses his own wife to lure Sir Henry Baskerville to his doom. He pretends love and offers marriage to Laura Lyons in order to persuade her to entice Sir Charles into a dark walkway where he meets the Hound itself. All who encounter these evil lovers are endangered because their relationships are as confused and misleading as the narrow paths of Grimpen Mire. Sir Henry in particular is tempted by the allure of another man’s wife and is left with a disordered mind at the novel’s end. But the steady, clear light of reason, as embodied by Sherlock Holmes, works throughout to pierce the chaotic darkness and unmask the sources of evil.
1. What is your initial reaction after reading the manuscript that explains the myth of the “Hound of the Baskervilles”?
1. Compare The Hound of the Baskervilles to several of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short stories. Discuss the similarities.
Although The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most popular of the Holmes adventures, the series consists of four novels and a multiplicity of short stories. The short stories are consistently entertaining and every Holmes enthusiast has a favorite. Most often included in anthologies and textbooks is “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” because it is a good example of Conan Doyle’s style and skill in plotting. It was Conan Doyle’s favorite Holmes story.