Hound of the BaskervillesThe Hound of the Baskervilles
by Arthur Conan Doyle

This makes the umpteenth time I’ve read this book, but I still enjoy myself every time. This time around, I was re-reading a portion of the book as part of a recording project for LibriVox.  Now that the completed audiobook project has been released, I’ve been listening to the entire book again, enjoying the familiar old story as if it’s being read aloud in the kitchen by a gathering of friends.   (The LibriVox audiobook version of Hound of the Baskervilles.)

Classic mysteries are my library’s equivalent of peanut-butter sandwiches, the food loved early in life that still tastes good today, though I know it functions as an occasional snack in what has to be a more complete diet. I started as a girl with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, then moved into Agatha Christie, then discovered the wide world of Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Ellis Peters, Martha Grimes, and all their clan.

In the classic mystery, something is out-of-kilter in the world, somebody has gone off the rails and disrupted the orderly relations of society by crime, sin, or lie. The detective discovers what has gone wrong, how and why and by whom. By the end of the story, justice and truth are satisfied. The classic mystery helps take away the bitter taste left by the daily news accounts of seemingly incurable evil. It has a calming influence that says, “Wait awhile, things will become clear, right will return.”

Sherlock Holmes stories are the root stock of the whole genre. There were a few earlier forerunners of Holmes, but Holmes is everlastingly durable. Long after I know the plots of all the stories and the answers to all the riddles, the stories still give me pleasure. The best mysteries aren’t simply intricate plots — although unraveling the clues is an expected pleasure when reading a new one.  But more than plot, a good mystery has to have good leading characters.  I don’t have to find the detective friendly or easy to get along with, but I have to believe in his or her intelligence and honesty. I have to trust the detective to be a straight seeker of truth in the crooked world gone askew. Holmes may be an annoying egotist, but he is zealous for the truth. Why does Watson — so often undervalued by Holmes — remain his loyal associate through so many adventures? They are alike in wanting truth, and in doing what they can to discover it, each in their own characteristic style, (Holmes coldly logical and incisive, Watson pragmatic and warmly bulldoggish).

I always liked the short stories better than the novels, because most of the novels digress in the middle for several chapters of wandering back-story, as though Doyle is trying to pad a short story to the length of a novel.  Hound of the Baskervilles is the exception. This is the one Holmes novel that’s as full and tight as the short stories.  The “problem” of filling in the lengthy middle of the book is solved here by turning Watson loose to do some detective work of his own, clearing up a little side mystery that was serving as a red herring, and doing it with diligence and good sense. Of course, after Watson has successfully solved the mystery of Barrymore’s strange manner, the signal lights on the moor, and the mysterious stranger in the huts, Holmes has to be Holmes and dismiss Watson’s contribution as irrelevant busywork.  Watson gives one huff of dismay, then looks expectantly to Holmes to discover where we are to go from here. And we readers, though rolling our eyes and groaning at Holmes’ ego yet again, find ourselves following Watson’s example, trusting Holmes’ judgment.

The atmosphere of the book is so lovely — airy moors, green bogs, prehistoric stone remnants. Away from London streets and city traffic, there’s a nice sense of having room to breathe.  Threaded through the story are hints of unseen forces, legends and ghosts and hell-hounds and curses.  But all along, we know what kind of a story we’re reading.  We know that it’s a classic mystery, not a Gothic fantasy. Yes, there are dangerous forces out there.  But they are real-world forces, greed and jealousy and violence.  If a man is murdered, it’s not because there’s an ancient curse on his blood, but because his death benefits a greedy relative.  In the world of Sherlock Holmes, there is a reason behind wrongdoing which makes sense.

There are always wrongs that simply can’t be righted. In this case, a old man is still dead, a wronged woman still remembers her suffering, a married couple still feel a family shame. But those things that can be put right shall be, to the extent possible. As time goes on, fresh wrongs will assuredly arise, so Holmes and Watson and every good person must stay vigilant. But a good classic mystery like Hound of the Baskervilles promises us that any effort to uncover truth and restore order is not wasted, that such efforts really do help smooth the workings of human society.

 

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