| A honorary fellowship of the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry being conferred on Holmes in October. (Reuters)
When Conan Doyle published the first instalment of The Hound of the Baskervilles in The Strand Magazine in 1901, readers fell upon the story like ravening hordes. There were queues around the block and the magazine’s circulation almost doubled to 300,000.
That immediate success is easily explicable. After being killed off at the Reichenbach Falls eight years earlier, Sherlock Holmes was back. Admittedly, Doyle made this a case left in Watson’s notebooks from their previous adventures, but the public didn’t care: they were just rapturous to be reunited with their hero.
More than a century later, The Hound of the Baskervilles is still the most popular and best-known of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
It is probably not read as much nowadays, but its central place in our culture has been preserved by a staggering 18 film and television versions, the first a German silent screen version in 1914. More recent incarnations have starred actors as various as Basil Rathbone, Stewart Granger, Peter Cushing, Ian Richardson, Peter Cook and Jeremy Brett, and their quality and tone has varied as much as their cast list.
The BBC, which has not essayed The Hound since a best-forgotten mini-series starring Tom Baker in 1982, is now wading back into this murky terrain, with a glossy 100-minute film starring Richard Roxburgh as Holmes and Ian Hart as Watson.
This is a very modern take on the tale. Set when the story was published, rather than 30 years earlier when it is set, its first image is of a body on a mortuary slab. Shot in stark monotones and set mainly in sleeting rain, it is in almost equal measures racy and enjoyable, and irritating and miscast. Which makes it more or less like every other screen version — good in parts.
It does boast a first — an animatronic Hound. However, since this dog is every bit as unconvincing as every other Hound you’ve ever seen, it doesn’t amount to much of a step forward.
This is the irony of The Hound of the Baskervilles: the power of its images make people want to film it, but it works best on the printed page. No screen depiction, however sophisticated, can communicate the visceral terror of Dr Watson’s description: “Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.”
Yet in many ways the novel is itself an oddity. For one thing, Holmes is absent for six of its 15 chapters, in part at least because he is on the point of solving the mystery in Chapter 4 — when he correctly deduces that the Hound is real.
He then has to get out of the way and allow Watson to bumble around a bit, or there would be no novel. In doing so, he exposes his client — Sir Henry Baskerville — to great danger, and in the end, in fact, fails to catch his quarry.
Indeed, one reason the murderer has to vanish in the terrible Mire is that in any showdown his motives and actions would not stand close analysis.
In these and other ways, The Hound of the Baskervilles is imperfect. But, in setting up an opposition between unfettered evil in the wilds of Dartmoor and the civilised rationality of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle taps into something far deeper than the average detective story.
As the novelist John Fowles suggests in his Afterword to The Hound of the Baskervilles: “One thing Doyle must have seen at once... was that he had at last found an ‘enemy’ far more profound and horrifying than any mere human criminal. The Hound is the primeval force behind Moriarty: not just one form that evil takes, but the very soul of the thing.”
The resonance of that image has led critics to suggest that the Hound represents everything from the id to the proletariat baying at the gates. Such interpretations, however far-fetched, could not be applied to any other Sherlock Holmes story.
In his essay The Guilty Vicarage (reprinted in Faber’s Complete Works: Prose, Vol II), W.H. Auden suggested that “detective stories have nothing to do with works of art”. But perhaps the reason The Hound of the Baskervilles has become the best remembered Holmes adventure is precisely because it disobeys so many of the rules of the detective story and imports large elements of expressionism and gothic melodrama.
It has an imaginative punch that makes people return to it over and over again. Thus it is arguable that this fascinating, flawed novel actually does what Doyle always dreamt of doing: breaks free of the bounds of genre and aspires to the condition of literature.