Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this is one of those books that may seem very familiar even to those who have never actually read it. But they really should because it holds up beautifully. It is certainly the single best known title in the Sherlock Holmes canon (officially made up of 4 novels and 56 short stories) – but is it the best of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of his ‘consulting detective’? Well, maybe not, but it has most of his virtues – clever deductions, the wonderful central duo and a fine prose style.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason at his Sweet Freedom blog.
Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered: “Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”
Originally serialised in The Strand Magazine, the story was an instant hit and its attractions and reasons for its popularity at the time were clear. Holmes had been killed off a decade earlier in ‘The Final Problem’ and this prequel gave his adoring public a brand new adventure, though it teased readers by keeping the hero off-stage for much of the first half of the story. This however makes the role of Watson much more prominent, another reason it stands out, along with its Gothic trappings with its memorable setting in a country pile on the Moors. And then there is the monstrous hound itself …
“It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.”
We all know the story, right? Sir Charles Baskerville dies one night and his nephew Henry arrives from Canada to take over the title after inheriting the family estate in Devonshire. This Gothic pile is near the Grimpen Mire, a dark and forbidding foggy expanse, a sort of temporal no man’s land that, with its remnants of Neolithic habitation, seems to be stuck in ancient times, with all the attendant folklore to go with it. But does a monster really stalk the Baskerville family? And what about the escaped convict on the moors? And who is creeping around the Hall at night?
“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”
After its opening flourish – in which Holmes and Watson deduce who might be owner of a Penang walking stick and following a murder attempt in London (and learning that the villain is passing himself off as ‘Sherlock Holmes’) – our consulting detective is kept away on business. Thus it is entirely though Watson’s eyes that we learn more about all the main characters, kept Holmes’ fans tingling in anticipation for him to join the adventure but also accepting perhaps that the characters tends to work best in short doses (or short stories in fact). There are plenty of ingenious touches (was this the first novel to feature an anonymous letter made up of words cut out from a newspaper?) and the whodunit element, while not exactly hard to crack, is none the less nicely and fairly developed. The lack of a strong female role in this one does hurt it slightly and it is interesting how this has been addressed in some of the film adaptations (see below). On the whole though it’s still a terrific read and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
The book has been adapted dozens of times for the cinema and television all over the world. Jeremy Brett and Edward Hadwicke played it on TV and Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce did it at the cinema and it was also parodied by the likes of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. And there was also a fairly free version by Mark Gatiss for the Cumberbatch and Freeman series My personal favourite probably remains the version made by Hammer Studios starring Peter Cushing as Holmes, Andre Morrell as Watson and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville. The story is both simplified (there are fewer characters and the opening London sequences curtailed considerably) and elaborated upon (the horror aspects are emphasised, both in the flashback prologue and by having Baskerville attacked by a tarantula in London instead of a gunman). It also turns the main female conspirator into a femme fatale rather than a tragic victim of the real culprit. But the cast is superb (John Le Mesurier is wonderful as the butler, Bannerman), with the double act between Cushing Morrell especially good (they were even better two years later in Hammer’s Cash on Demand). Not a perfect film by any stretch (the hound, as ever, proves a disappointment) and not the most faithful, but on its own terms it works extremely well.
It is now available internationally in a superb looking Blu-ray (I particularly recommend the UK edition released by Arrow, and not just because I happen to know some of the people who helped put it together). I also recommend the audio adaptation released by Big Finish starring Nicholas Briggs and Richard Earl – I have a dedicated microsite dedicated to their continuing series here.
Director: Terence Fisher
Producer: Anthony Hinds (UK), Kenneth Hyman (US)
Screenplay: Peter Bryan
Cinematography: Jack Asher
Art Direction: Bernard Robinson
Music: James Bernard
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Andre Morell, Marla Landi, Francis De Wolff, John Le Mesurier, Miles Malleson
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘animal in the title’ category: