Following the death of Holmes in The Final Problem, Arthur Conan Doyle resisted bringing Holmes back from the dead for a decade. In 1901, however, he did return him with a retcon story set earlier in Holmes’ career, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. A wise decision: it’s one of the best-known Holmes stories, and it’s been filmed more than any other tale in the canon (dozens of times in the silent era alone).
Weirdly, I remember thoroughly disliking it as a kid. Equally weird, I reread it recently and I’ve no idea why I didn’t like it. It’s great.
It opens with Holmes and Watson returning home to find a visitor missed them but left his walking stick behind. Convenient, as it allows Holmes to demonstrate his deductive skill (not the first time Doyle used that trick), though Watson makes some sharp deductions too. The visitor, Dr. Mortimer, returns to 221B and explains his plight. He lives in Dartmoor and his friend Sir Charles Baskerville died recently. Officially heart failure; unofficially, Mortimer sees a connection with the family legend of a demonic hound. Why else was a hound’s pawprint found near Sir Charles’ body? Now with his heir coming to Baskerville Hall, Mortimer has a fear the curse will strike again …
Holmes soon discovers a more human agency shadowing Sir Henry Baskerville in London. Having a conflicting case, he sends Watson to stay with Sir Henry in Dartmoor; in reality Holmes is lurking nearby, confident the murderer will show his hand more freely without Holmes’ presence. Despite this ruse, Watson actually does excellent work. He provides full details on the locals (one of whom is a crotchety eccentric who enjoys suing people just for fun), on Sir Henry’s romance with Beryl Stapleton, sister of a local lepidopterist, and on some of the more suspicious goings on around the area. By the time Holmes reveals himself, he’s pieced everything together and he’s ready to move. It turns out Beryl’s brother is the real killer, a distant Baskerville kinsman plotting to eliminate those between him and the title.
Part of the reason it’s so popular, and so adaptable is that it’s the only Holmes novel that doesn’t have a major flashback section (Sign of the Four‘s is smaller than Study in Scarlet or Valley of Fear, but it’s there). There’s the eerie setting. Watson’s solo act. And I think it’s a plus that Stapleton simply disappears at the end — we can assume he died in the treacherous local bogs but we’ll never know for sure. That’s something’s Doyle’s done in other stories, but there’s less certainty here; if it were a comic book I’d be waiting for Stapleton to return.
Of course this has Doyle’s weaknesses too: how Stapleton, well known in the area, could present himself as the heir and not draw suspicion is something even Holmes can’t explain for sure (this led to one fan theory that Dr. Mortimer was in on it with him). Still it’s a fine bit of storytelling, no matter what I thought in my youth.
Probably the best known adaptation is Universal’s 1939 THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, which I watched last weekend (all rights to poster image remain with current holder). This introduced Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as the definitive theatrical versions (I’d consider Jeremy Brett the ultimate definitive version, but he’s TV), even though Bruce, as I’ve mentioned before, is a bit thick. Watching this right after finishing the book makes me notice what got changed. Early on, this sets itself up with more of a Who Is The Killer vibe than the novel, as someone suggests one of Sir Charles’ friends and neighbors is behind his death. This also cleans up Stapleton’s complicated love life to remove any hint of adultery.
The one misstep they make is that instead of the seemingly supernatural Hound of the book, Stapleton’s secret weapon is just a big dog. Okay, very big, but still a poor substitute for the horror of the novel’s climax. And instead of the dog killing the Baskervilles through sheer terror (the novel establishes they have a hereditary weak heart), it appears Stapleton’s plan is simply to have the dog rip Sir Henry’s throat out. Which is a lot harder to pass off as “heart failure” than fear.
With Richard Greene (later best known as ITV’s Robin Hood for my generation of kids) as Sir Henry, John Carradine as a sinister butler, Nigel deBrulier as a madman on the moore, Wendy Barrie as Beryl and Lionel Atwill as Dr. Mortimer.