Random Thoughts About the Hound of the Baskervilles

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I recently read this Arthur Conan Doyle classic, first published in 1901, for a book club I am in. In case you don’t know, Sir Charles Baskerville dies under mysterious circumstances at Baskerville Hall, located in Devon, along the moors of Dartmoor. Charles’s friend and neighbor, Sr. Mortimer, contacts Holmes for help. Mortimer explains that there is a curse on the family involving an ancestor, Hugo, who chased and locked up a young woman. The girl escaped, running across the moor, and Hugo called on evil spirits to help him capture her. Both the ancestor and the girl were found dead, their throats ripped out by a giant hound standing over their bodies.

Henry Baskerville, heir to the Baskerville estate, arrives form Canada to claim his inheritance, and is warned away by a strange letter. Holmes and Watson are on the case. Watson travels with Henry as a kind of bodyguard/sleuth to the Baskerville Estate, while Holmes remains in London. They meet the Barrymores, a couple who have long looked after the house, and the Stapletons, Jack and Beryl, a brother-sister neighbor family. There’s a deranged killer on the loose upon the moors, which is of course, a red herring.

One of the tensions in the book is between Holmes’s scientific approach and the mythic tale of the demonic hound. Holmes refuses to accept that that a scientific worldview cannot capture and explain the events, but the people of Dartmoor are more inclined to believe in supernatural phenomena. Holmes, of course, ends up right.

I didn’t hate reading the book, and I appreciated the storytelling gift Doyle possessed. We also watched the 1988 film starring Jeremy Brett, which was excellent (it is one of 24 film versions of the novel). I was struck by some similarities and differences to the romance reading I have been doing. The following comments are about this book, not about mystery as a genre.

A similarity is the use of folk tales to frame the plot, something I have seen in a lot of romance. Also, of course, you can feel the genre constraints — you are secure in knowing that the mystery will be solved and justice will prevail. This last point raises a question I had: what does a book have to have to be called a “mystery”? Does justice have to prevail? Does the reader have to be able to solve the mystery (no reader could have figured out who the culprit is in this book — Holmes gathered information off stage). Does the culprit have to be unmasked and the main questions answered about motive and method, etc.?

The differences from romance struck me even more. For one thing, this is a very male-centric book. Not only do you have a central relationship between two men who have no women in their lives, Holmes and Watson (there is a ton of slash fiction, I discovered, about these two, much of it BDSM, with Watson the subordinate to Holmes’ controlled domination. It fits really well with their personalities in the book.). But all of the other women in the book are victims or tools of the men they are with. Women’s sexuality is a prop for the generation of crimes, an item of of exchange between men dueling for masculine supremacy, but never explored in its own right. Women in this book are used, killed, beaten, betrayed, and deceived. And yet we are never told their stories in the detail we are told the men’s –  what motivated them? What did they hope for? The moor — which is unpredictable, dangerous, easy to get lost in  — it actually sucked the culprit to his doom — symbolizes femininity, women’s sexuality, women’s fertility, and the danger they pose to men.

I realized in addition to the HEA, there is something I can count on when I read romances:  they take the experiences of women seriously. Extract the perspective of female characters from romance, and you no longer have a book. Or at least not a book I would want to read.

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