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Holmes vs. Hound

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1902
Finished June 2, 2012

Right now I live in Japan. Turns out Japanese people are familiar with Sherlock Holmes too. One of my students wrote that he enjoyed the movie with his family (“Shaaroku Hoomuzu” could have no other meaning). Another girl named her cat after him. The first-year junior high students learn about London’s Sherlock Holmes Museum in English class when Yuki, fictional textbook star, visits with her friends Judy and Matt. “Matt is a Sherlock Holmes fan.” “Let’s go to Baker Street by tube.” “Wow! London is a wonderful city.” I concur. Yatta!

Even the 72-year-old owner of my small-town hardware store has read Sherlock Holmes. It’s impressive. He doesn’t speak much English, but when he does, he has the most interesting range of vocabulary. That’s because he loves mystery novels, as he tells me every week in our English conversation group, and he’s learned most of what he knows from reading thick English paperbacks by Ian Rankin and Agatha Christie. It takes him two months to finish one. He marks up every copy, translating new words and rewriting sentences. He often asks me, “How about mystery novels? Do you like mystery novels?” Yes, I do, I say. But really, I haven’t read a wide variety within the genre; I mostly read a bunch of dime-a-dozen children’s detective books when I was young. And Sherlock? Having only previously read one or two stories, I could hardly call myself a huge fan.

But I do love the guy. His intelligence, his quirks, his focused mind and constantly surprising behaviour. The way he almost delights in others’ confusion when he himself has just solved an impossible riddle, and shamelessly revels in displaying his brilliance to his colleagues. I can just see Watson rolling his eyes as Holmes excitedly embarks on yet another one of his seemingly insane ventures. Oh wait, maybe that’s just Jude Law I’m picturing. Either way, after seeing the most recent onscreen adaptation of this enigmatic detective’s adventures (maybe it wasn’t quite as good as Guy Richie’s first, but still, Jackie and I laughed the whole way through, in a theatre of otherwise silent Japanese movie-goers), I was craving a good Victorian mystery featuring these two gentleman. I figured that one of the most well-known Holmes tales was a good choice.

Interesting to note:The Hound of the Baskervilles was written after Doyle took an 8-year Holmes hiatus. The story is pretty gothic, with its haunting, lonely moor and lots of darkness and mist. And howls and shadows and candlelight and footsteps in the night. Brrrrr. Maybe it’s even more a gothic horror than a mystery novel. There’s the legend of a deathly, monstrous hound who roams the moor in search of members of the Baskerville clan. Then there’s Sir Henry, the Baskerville heir after Sir Charles’ untimely death, which was thought to have been caused by the sight of the beast. Of course, Holmes doesn’t believe the legend in the slightest, and works instead to find a logical explanation for all of the supernatural speculation.

I’ve never really analyzed detective fiction before, but I’m noticing how ridiculously similar the structure is across the genre.

  • Sleuth finds mystery
  • Suspects arise; mystery gets complicated
  • One suspect seems particularly guilty; soon discovered to be wrong
  • All seems lost; evidence re-examined
  • Suddenly, it becomes exceedingly clear! The true culprit has been right under their noses the whole time
  • Dramatic race to the end, subsequent unveiling of case’s intricacies, and then…
  • All is right with the world.

But I don’t care that mysteries are so structurally un-innovative. They are that way because it works. Maybe I’m being a bit anti-postmodernism, but there is something completely satisfying about a story that ties up all the loose ends in such a systematic fashion, and ends with justice appropriately served and everything well and good.

What most impresses me about Doyle’s writing is the wealth of knowledge he had himself to be able to oversee a character such as Sherlock, who is pretty well versed in science, medicine, typography, perfume identification (“There are seventy-five perfumes, which it is very necessary that a criminal expert should be able to distinguish from each other”), survival skills and a host of other subjects. You think Holmes is the brain in the story until you remember that Doyle is the brain behind the brain.

I think Doyle has created some very rich and memorable characters in his Holmes-Watson team. I wasn’t very attached to Sir Henry, Dr. Mortimer or the Barrymores. But Watson stands out in this story; about half of the book is completely carried by him, as Holmes is temporarily out of the picture, leaving Watson to work on the case. He proves himself very dependable and worthy of working alongside his livelier, brilliant counterpart. Way to go, Watson. *applause*

That being said, I read mysteries for two reasons – adventure and escape. The suspense is thrilling, and really, it’s pretty hard to stop reading a mystery once you get sucked into the plot. To be honest, as long as that is satisfied, I’m a bit less picky about other literary merits of the novel – not entirely indifferent, but less so than I am for other genres. It’s like a guilty pleasure. Fortunately, Doyle’s novels also score well on the literary front. He’s witty and descriptive and masters the atmospheric settings that make his stories memorable. 4 out of 5, ladies and gentleman.

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2 comments on “Holmes vs. Hound

  1. Look into Hornung’s Raffles stories.

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