Literary Qualities

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.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, however, Holmes sends Dr. Watson to work on the case at Baskerville Hall, while he announces that he must stay in London to work on another case. This would seem to derail the novel because its main character is absent for several chapters. Nonetheless, the device works. Dr. Watson, a level-headed man, pursues his assignment and begins to uncover a sinister scheme. When Holmes reappears to solve the mystery, there is no sense of the reader being cheated for he has been working behind the scenes all along. Even after Holmes explains everything to Watson and identifies the murderer, he must still out-think the villain and catch him in the act.

Conan Doyle drew on many sources for his own well-wrought detective stories. The most important precedents for the Holmes adventures were Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of “ratiocination” and the novels of Wilke Collins. Poe’s tales feature the great French detective Auguste Dupin, who uses his intellect to solve bewildering crimes. As in the Holmes stories, someone brings Dupin a mystery; then Dupin sifts through the clues and devises a plan to unmask the villain. Conan Doyle’s stories follow this pattern, even to the point of making Holmes analytical and arrogant like Dupin.

Collins’s influence may especially be seen in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In his two most famous novels, The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868), Collins tells the stories through the letters and diaries of the characters. This technique creates a tone of immediacy, as if the reader were seeing the narrative unfold moment by moment. In addition, the mystery is enhanced because the reader can know no more than his characters. Yet, all the clues needed to solve the mystery are presented; the reader may sift through them and try to be a step ahead of the characters.

Three chapters of The Hound of the Baskervilles are told through Watson’s diaries and letters to Holmes, creating an effect similar to that in Collins’s novels. In addition, Collins added the gothic atmosphere of the supernatural to his fiction, making even everyday scenes and events seem full of looming violence or evil. The Hound of the Baskervilles also uses this technique, making after-dinner walks in the yard seem ominous and dangerous. Some critics have gone so far as to assert that Sergeant Cuff from Collins’s The Moonstone is the model for Sherlock Holmes because both men look alike, are analytical, and retire to the country to raise roses. Whatever the sources of the Holmes adventures, their ingenious blend of crime and day-to-day life, and their clear narratives make them original and engrossing reading.

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