Welcome to the Edwardian era! Ironically, Sherlock Holmes enters the 20th century with a throwback story firmly set in the Victorian era. Originally serialized from August 1901 to April 1902, the story takes place in the years before the death of Holmes as recorded in “The Final Problem,” itself published in 1893 and set in 1891.
It’s the third of four novels in the series, and beyond doubt the most popular story in the entire canon. Part of that can be chalked up to simply being such a good story. It’s regarded by the most dedicated of Sherlockians as the very best of the original canon, and is often considered to be the most perfect of the Holmes stories. You can decide for yourself what that even means or if it holds up to such hype or scrutiny. By and large, this tale is celebrated not only for its success as a quality story, but just as often because of what it represents: the triumphant return of the hero. Loyal readers had to wait years for this story, the first since Holmes was killed off in a blaze of glory. It was not, however, the resurrection readers hoped it would be. Instead, as mentioned, it was an account set before his death, a way of testing the waters to see if there was, in fact, an audience who would still want to read about Holmes after so many years and so harsh a betrayal. Of course they wanted more. It’s so easy to say such things given the benefit of more than a century’s hindsight. So let’s talk about the story and see what it is that fans the world over put on the pedestal.
Sir Charles Baskerville is dead. He was found on the grounds of his Devonshire estate, Baskerville Hall. His friend, Dr. James Mortimer, fearing for the nephew and sole heir of the estate, Sir Henry Baskerville, comes to Sherlock Holmes for consultation. Officially, the cause of death is heart attack, but the victim died with horror fixed upon his face and “the footprints of a gigantic hound” nearby. A family ancestor, Sir Hugo Baskerville, according to the stories, sold his soul for help in abducting a woman and was presumably killed by a large, ghostly hound. Sir Charles believed in the curse, and he most certainly died of fright trying to escape something.
Holmes, of course, does not believe in the supernatural, but he is nevertheless intrigued to learn the legitimate circumstances behind this strange death. He meets with Sir Henry, newly arrived from Canada, en route to take possession of the estate. Sir Henry, it seems, was looking forward to consulting with Holmes himself. He received an anonymous note, cut and pasted from newsprint, warning him to stay away from the moors on the Baskerville estate. Further, one of his new boots is missing from his London hotel room. The Baskerville family line is discussed in brief. There were three brothers: Sir Charles was the eldest, the black sheep Rodger was the youngest, believed to have died without heirs in South America, and Sir Henry is the only child of the middle brother. Despite the warnings, Sir Henry means to move into the estate. When Holmes and Watson follow Sir Henry from Baker Street to Sir Henry’s hotel, they notice a bearded man following in a cab. They give chase to no avail. Dr. Mortimer reveals that the butler at Baskerville Hall, Mr. Barrymore, has a beard. Sir Henry’s boot reappears, but an older one vanishes.
When Holmes sends for the cab driver who ferried the bearded man, he is amusedly caught off guard to learn the stranger gave his name to the cabby as “Sherlock Holmes.” Holmes is held up with other cases, but is more interested than ever to see this through, so he sends Watson with Sir Henry to Baskerville Hall with instructions of frequent reports on what he observes: house, grounds, neighbors… everything.
Upon arrival, Sir Henry and Watson learn that there is an escaped murderer on the loose, a man named Selden, who is believed to be in the area. They also learn that Barrymore and his wife, who also works at Baskerville Hall, wish to leave the estate soon. When Watson hears a woman crying in the night, it is clear to him that it’s Mrs. Barrymore. Her husband denies it, however, and he can find no proof that Barrymore was in Devonshire when the chase in London took place.
Watson meets siblings who live nearby, the naturalist Mr. Stapleton and his beautiful sister. An animal is heard, and Stapleton disregards it as being related to the stories of the hound. When Stapleton is out of earshot, his sister, mistaking Watson for Sir Henry, warns him to leave She meets Sir Henry later, and the two fall in love, angering Stapleton. Stapleton later apologizes and offers Sir Henry to dine with him.
Because Barrymore isn’t suspicious enough, Watson and Sir Henry catch him at night in an empty room with a lit candle. Barrymore refuses to answer questions, but Mrs. Barrymore reveals that Selden is her brother. Barrymore has been leaving supplies for him and is signalling to him. Watson and Sir Henry pursue Selden on the moor, but he evades them. Watson notices another man nearby.
An agreement is struck to allow Selden to flee the country, upon which Barrymore reveals the contents of a partially burned letter requesting Sir Charles to be at the gate at the time of his death, signed with the initials L. L. At Mortimer’s suggestion, Watson inquires after Laura Lyons, who admits to writing the letter in the hopes of securing financial help for her divorce. She says, however, that she did not keep that appointment. Watson tracks the second man and discovers that Holmes has been investigating independently. He reveals that the Stapletons are not siblings but rather husband and wife, and that Mr. Stapleton promised marriage to Laura Lyons to get her cooperation.
A scream is heard, and they discover Selden, dead from a fall. At first they believe him to be Sir Henry, but rather Selden was wearing Sir Henry’s old clothes.
At Baskerville Hall, Holmes takes note of a portrait of Hugo Baskerville, observing a resemblance to Stapleton, and realizing he’s likely an unknown family member seeking to lay claim to the wealth through elimination of the family line. Upon Holmes’ summons, Inspector Lestrade arrives, and Holmes and Watson accompany him to the Stapleton home where Sir Henry is dining. Sir Henry walks homes across the moor, and the trio rescues him from a hound that Stapleton releases. The dog is shot dead in the struggle. Holmes reveals it to be an ordinary, mortal dog. It’s a mix of bloodhound and mastiff, painted with phosphorus to give it a spectral appearance (a story point I first learned about in a Scooby-Doo cartoon). Miss Stapleton is found gagged and bound inside the house. Stapleton himself dies in an attempt to reach his hideout in a nearby mine. Sir Henry’s boot is also found, used to give the hound his quarry’s scent.
Some weeks pass, wherein Holmes can provide Watson with additional case details. Stapleton is revealed to be the son of Rodger Baskerville, also named Rodger. His widow is Beryl Garcia of South America. He lived a life of crime for a number of years before learning of the fortune. The boots were exchanged as the old boot had more of a scent that the hound could track. Selden was attacked because of the sent from Sir Henry’s old clothes. Mrs. Stapleton was imprisoned to prevent her interference once she spoke against the plot.
Conan Doyle’s inspiration for this tale comes from a legend of Brook Hall involving Richard Cabell, who died in 1677. Cabell was a county squire who lived for hunting and gained a reputation for evil for having sold his soul, to say nothing of being an immoral man. Rumors circulated that he murdered his wife. Upon his death, he was laid to rest in a tomb in Buckfastleigh. On that same night, a phantom pack of hounds came across the moor to howl at his tomb. From that night, usually on the anniversary of his death, he could be seen leading the phantom pack across the moor on the hunt. To attempt to put his soul to rest, the villagers erected a large building around the tomb with a huge slab to keep him there.
Of course, Devonshire, like pretty much all of the British Isles, is covered in supernatural tales, so it may be a conglomeration of stories that inspired The Hound of the Baskervilles. Baskerville Hall itself is believed to be based upon one of three possible locations. The first is Fowelscombe, seat of the Fowell Baronets (Elizabeth Fowell was the presumed murdered wife of Cabell). The second is Hayford Hall, the actual home of Richard Cabell. And the third is a location in Mid Wales built in 1839 by one Thomas Mynors Baskerville, formerly named Clyro Court, renamed Baskerville Hall. Investigation of all three sites offers quite the appreciation for what would ultimately become the manor estate of the novel.
Conan Doyle wrote this story shortly after returning to his home Undershaw from South Africa. He had been there working as a volunteer physician in Bloemfontein at the time of the Second Boer War, at the Langman Field Hospital. It had been eight years since he’d killed off Holmes, and it would be another two years before we learned that Holmes faked his death.
In the audio, Stephen Fry notes that Holmes and his creator are polar opposites when it comes to the supernatural. The enduring popularity of Holmes can be partially attributed his steadfast debunking of supernatural forces. Conversely, Conan Doyle was a staunch believer in such matters, which resulted in his continual embarrassment as charlatans would hook him and be revealed later for what they were. He even befriended Harry Houdini, who would explain to him how his illusions were created, but Conan Doyle dismissed the explanations, believing to the end that Houdini was truly capable of the impossible, a belief that ultimately cost him the friendship.
My buddy reader BrokenTune is headed off on vacation, so we’re going to take some hiatus time. We commence with the “resurrection” of Sherlock Holmes on Friday, April 20. Think of it this way. You’re only waiting three weeks instead of the years that contemporary readers would have to wait.