Terror in the West Country
I have read everything under the sun which has Sherlock Holmes appearing in it, including regrettably many of the spin offs which have tried to build crime fiction around this brilliant character but with indifferent success. But as usual I digress from the main matter – I finished reading The Hound of Baskervilles.
As I stated before, I have read all the works featuring Sherlock Holmes a million times over and more. But like a very fine wine, every time I revisit the stories, there are new nuances that I can appreciate and new details which I can savor and enjoy. So I went back to The Hound of Baskervilles after a gap of nearly 5 years if not more!
The setting was perfect – the dim setting sun of a chilly September evening which was suddenly overtaken by ominous storm clouds followed by incessant rain and thunder. I did not plan to read the Baskerville because of the weather; in fact I started the book and then the weather changed and it definitely aided the reading.
There have been many things said about the book already, so I cannot seem to say anything original – but I do agree with one simple assessment: it’s one of the finest murder mysteries ever written. Well before the age of high-tech crime and DNA and bio-chemical findings to trace a diabolical murder, this is a simple tale of greed, murder, sheer terror or thrill and brilliant deduction in tracing the criminal in the good old-fashioned way of using instinct and brains.
The story is simple enough – Sir Henry Baskerville becomes the new heir to the Baskerville Hall in Devonshire, after his uncle, Sir Charles Baskerville dies due to a heart complication. However the executor of the will and Sir Charles’s friend and neighbor, Dr. James Mortimer is not convinced that Sir Charles’s death was all natural and is concerned about the well-being of the young Sir Henry Baskerville and therefore seeks out Sherlock Holmes to help in the matter. Dr. Mortimer is worried that Sir Henry might also meet the same end as his uncle and describes the legend that had plagued the Baskerville Hall for centuries – 500 years ago, a Hugo Baskerville, a villain and a thug of highest order had imprisoned country lass, who had refused his amorous advances. In order to escape the clutches and a fate worse than death, the girl climbs down through her window with the help of ivy creepers that grow on the edges of the house and runs away into the moors in the middle of the night. On discovering that his prey had fled, he unleashes his hounds to trace her and follows after them. However his companions soon flow him to prevent any violent actions and discover in the deep moors, the dead body of the girl but also the body of Hugo Baskerville – his throat being ripped apart by an enormous hound. It is believed that the Hound comes back to kill the heirs of the Baskerville Hall and Sir Charles’s heart attack was brought on by the sight of such a hound. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson then embark on a journey into the very heart of the West country to find the terror and understand if there were actually more things between heaven and earth, which attributes to the truth of the legend.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle beautifully captures the moors and the atmosphere. The wild untamed beauty of the West Country is captured in all her majesty and terror. The wild bogs and the proud, lonely and sometimes sinister moorlands is presented very beautifully as a fitting background to this eerie tale, waxing and waning between background and foreground as the story flows. The characters besides Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are well-rounded and complete with the human capacity of greatness and simple at the same time – Dr. Mortimer could clearly deduce that Sir Charles was waiting for someone the night of his death near the yew path, by discovering the ashes of what constituted as two cigars; at the same time he could not understand why Sir Charles walked on his tip toe towards the moor where his body was discovered; Sherlock Holmes clearly deduces that Sir Charles was running and not tip toeing. His diabolical characters are truly villainous and without the modern-day description towards macabre, his villain is truly a nerve tingling, extremely terrifying character. Finally Sir Arthur’s approach towards women always makes me wonder if he only knew the strongest and fiercest of them since all his women characters from Ms Irene Adler to the women of this novel are passionate, intelligent, loyal and fierce – there is nothing milk and honey and namby pamby about them, something unlike most of the late Victorian writers. The story builds up to its final climax with some very heart stopping moments and nearly scream out loud instances. The mystery of course is like I said a simple tale, but the setting and the intrigue makes it a marvelous read and reading in an evening like today, makes one look over the shoulder to make sure all is well.
While this tale is celebrated for the “crime fiction” genre, there is one more element that stands out. This is a streak that runs through all almost all Sherlock Holmes based novels – that of “Noblesse oblige”. There is always an element of kindness and good conduct towards the less fortunate not only by Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson but by the other protagonists as well. Though first impulse is the stiff adherence to British Law approach, it often gives away to a more kinder resolution, even it means siding against the law to give someone a better chance at life! That kind of humanitarian undertone of the story is often lost in the broader platform of crime and intrigue, but read closely and it’s there!
All in all, it is an absolutely marvelous read and if you have not read, please read it. If you have, then go back and settle down in a comfortable chair, with a beverage of your preference and read it again!