Sunday, May 10, 2020

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles; The Valley of Fear


Opening Passages: From Hound:

Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a “Penang lawyer.” Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. “To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,” was engraved upon it, with the date “1884.” It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry—dignified, solid, and reassuring.

“Well, Watson, what do you make of it?”

From Valley:

“I am inclined to think—” said I.

“I should do so,” Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently.

I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I'll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. “Really, Holmes,” said I severely, “you are a little trying at times.”

Summary: Dartmoor is a legend-heavy area of Britain, filled with ghost stories, including packs of spectral hell-hounds and horsemen without heads and nighttime visits by the devil; it is scattered throughout with Neolithic and Bronze Age remains, like stone circles and remains of ancient settlements; and it is a fairly rainy area of the country, with peaty soil that tends to absorb water like a sponge and then hold it, creating bogs and mires and tufts of apparently firm moss that are floating on deep laters of watery mud. Doyle will use all three to excellent effect in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the most successfully atmospheric of the Holmes novels. In the aftermath of a baronet's death from fright on the moors, Dr. Montgomery comes to Holmes and Watson for advice on what to do about the baronet's heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, who is coming from his farm in Canada. When they meet Baskerville, they find that strange events are already starting to accumulate around him, with a warning note, the theft of a boot, and a stranger tailing him. Holmes starts investigating the matter, but as Baskerville intends to go to take possession of Baskerville Hall, Holmes sends Watson to go along with him for his protection, saying that he himself cannot go due to other cases that need to be resolved.

The splitting of Holmes and Watson works extraordinarily well. Watson, thrown on his own devices, manages to uncover and partly solve certain puzzles, and leads us through the essential elements of the mystery, which are tied up with an escaped convict in the neighborhood and local legends of a terrible black hound. Carefully detailing everything for Holmes, he talks to Barrymore the butler and his wife, the neighboring Stapletons, and others, and gives us time to appreciate the spookiness of the environs before we get down to the full solution of the mystery with the reunion of Holmes and Watson, and with the help of Inspector Lestrade the two help head off a bad end for Sir Henry.

The Valley of Fear has a very different atmosphere; despite largely taking place at Birlstone House, a moated manor house, it is much more modern in its feel. Inspector MacDonald comes to Holmes with a puzzling case, but finds that Holmes already knows something about it because in his pursuit of Moriarty he has received information related to it. John Douglas of Birlstone House had been shot in his house with a sawed-off shotgun, his head practically blown to pieces. A number of additional puzzling pieces of evidence have been discovered by the locals before drawing in Scotland Yard and the famous consulting detective. At Birlstone House, Holmes will rapidly uncover the different elements of the case, including Douglas's fear of some kind of secret society from which he had been hiding, but the key to the mystery will be a missing dumbbell. Behind the whole thing will be a Freemason-like society of murderers in Pennsylvania and, of course, Moriarty's criminal network in the British Empire.

Each of the Holmes stories is essentially a melding of two stories, a Holmes framework and another story from another genre that takes us into a strange place far removed from the rationality and modernity of London -- Utah, India, Dartmoor, Pennsylvania (in all cases it is a literary version of the locale rather than a real one). Of the four, the Hound melding is easily the most successful in terms of structure; the two tales flow smoothly into each other and the Gothic genre conventions of the Dartmoor detour work very well with the detective fiction tropes of the frame. It also helps that Watson and Holmes actually go to Dartmoor and resolve parts of the case there. Of the four, I think the Valley melding is the least successful. The Pennsylvania detour is very interesting in its own right, a sort of crime-thriller gangster-tale prior to the rise of gangster tales, but it practically stands as its own story, as does the Birlstone House frame. The melding is not a complete failure; the Pennsylvania episodes explain some features of the Birlstone mystery, and there are plenty of thematic links -- criminal networks and secret identities being particularly notable ones -- but narratively one gets the sense that Doyle wanted to write a short story about Pennsylvania murder societies and, being continually pestered for more Holmes tales that he didn't particularly like for their own sake, thought that this was a way he could give the public Holmes while writing a kind of story he thought more interesting. That said, I very much enjoyed the Pennsylvania episode, which is some of Doyle's best writing, and the book I think deserves better than it usually gets in the shadow of the highly (and deservedly) popular Hound.

Favorite Passages: From Hound:

He wanted to know the object of my inquiries, but I managed to satisfy his curiosity without telling him too much, for there is no reason why we should take anyone into our confidence. Tomorrow morning I shall find my way to Coombe Tracey, and if I can see this Mrs. Laura Lyons, of equivocal reputation, a long step will have been made towards clearing one incident in this chain of mysteries. I am certainly developing the wisdom of the serpent, for when Mortimer pressed his questions to an inconvenient extent I asked him casually to what type Frankland’s skull belonged, and so heard nothing but craniology for the rest of our drive. I have not lived for years with Sherlock Holmes for nothing.

From Valley:

Holmes laughed. “Watson insists that I am the dramatist in real life,” said he. “Some touch of the artist wells up within me, and calls insistently for a well-staged performance. Surely our profession, Mr. Mac, would be a drab and sordid one if we did not sometimes set the scene so as to glorify our results. The blunt accusation, the brutal tap upon the shoulder—what can one make of such a denouement? But the quick inference, the subtle trap, the clever forecast of coming events, the triumphant vindication of bold theories—are these not the pride and the justification of our life's work? At the present moment you thrill with the glamour of the situation and the anticipation of the hunt. Where would be that thrill if I had been as definite as a timetable? I only ask a little patience, Mr. Mac, and all will be clear to you.”

Recommendation: Hound is Highly Recommended and Valley is Recommended. Really, though, they are both must-reads for anyone who likes detective fiction.