THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1902) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cover_(Hound_of_Baskervilles,_1902)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.”

Doyle-Hound-hb-shiltonWe 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:


***** (4.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Arthur Conan Doyle, England, Friday's Forgotten Book, Hammer Studios, Sherlock Holmes, Terence Fisher, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1902) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. le0pard13 says:

    The Hammer film adaptation is mine, as well. Perhaps the thumb on the scale is the fact it was my very first exposure to this Arthur Conan Doyle story. That and the marvelous cast and typical touches of a “Hammer” film keep right at the top to this very day. I did enjoy how Jeremy Brett and Edward Hadwicke played it on TV, though.

    • Thansk Mike – I love the TV series on the whole but their Hound was a bit poor I felt (shot on an obviously low budget too) – their version of Sign of Four is wonderful though.

  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    This is my favourite among the four novels.
    There have been several film adaptations not only in UK and USA but also in several other countries like India, Russia and Germany.
    There are 2 Indian film adaptations, Jighansa (1951) in Bengali and Bees Saal Baad (1962) in Hindi. Both were super hits.

    • Thanks for that Santosh – I’ve not seen those Indian version though havce seen adaptations from Italy and Russia. For me it is always a toss up between Hound and Sign of Four as the best novel

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Include me in the Hammer adaptation group too, Sergio. But getting back to the book, it is a classic of crime fiction, isn’t it? I think one of the things that really impressed me was the deliciously creepy atmosphere Conan Doyle created. Such a terrific buildup of suspense, too. Just a fine example of the crime fiction of the era.

  4. Colin says:

    It’s always a bit tough to take on one of the acknowledged classics like this, but well done on summing up the strengths and weaknesses of the novel and the movie too.
    I think this is probably the best of the novels, although I agree The Sign of Four is strong too.
    As for the movies, the Rathbone/Bruce version was the one I saw first and remained the benchmark in my mind for an awful long time. The Hammer film is terrific though and I’ve grown fonder of it with time – I’d be hard pressed to say which is my favorite now, so I won’t even try to answer that one. The new Arrow release is beautiful and has the movie looking better than I’ve ever seen.

    • There have been way too many version fo the book (I think on TV they are usually used to help potentially launch a new series – ever seen that really awful version starrign Stewart Granger as Holmes and William Shatner as Baskerville – it’s online but I donlt recommend it). It does help when you have a really nice home video version to fall back on but in fact the Blu of the Rathbone and Bruce version is pretty decent in HD. It was also really refreshing to see how well the book held up

      • Colin says:

        Yes, I saw the Granger version many years ago, after seeing a still in the Otto Penzler Encyclopaedia of Mystery and Detection had got me curious, but remember next to nothing beyond feeling somewhat disappointed.

        • One of the oddities is Universal’s use of stock music, much of it from William Castle’s NIGHT WALKER, which is great music but totally inappropriate!

          • Colin says:

            Yes, that’s just wrong for the film.

            Racing off topic, for a change, I quite liked The Night Walker when I saw it and would love if a decent copy were available. It came out on DVD in Italy a while back but the Amazon review sounds like it’s a poor transfer.

          • Yeah, I saw that Night Walker DVD a while ago and for a nano second got all excited and then realised that from the comments that it must be a bootleg – infuriating as I agree, its a great little flick and the re-uniting of Talor and Stanwyck is a nice bonus. One of the first films from a Robert Bloch source that i ever saw and still like it and remember it with pleasure.

          • Colin says:

            Very disappointing. I could have lived with it probably being a bootleg (I know, I’m a bad person) if it were a decent one at least. I still hope it gets an official release somewhere, some time.

          • You would think that it would be obviously saleable, right? Great cast, well known genre producer-director, from the author of ‘Psyco’ (music from the finger snapping guy from The Addams Family … OK, maybe not the last one …)

          • Colin says:

            Yes, a bit of a puzzler. It belongs to a genre whose fans typically snap up stuff like this too.

          • Well, I always tell myself that (wouldn’t want to think of I’m so niche as to ne pushed out of the marketplace!)

      • JJ says:

        Dude, you had me at William Shatner…now I simply have to know!

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Every time I go back to this book I realise just how good it was. And you’re right about the Cushing version – it is excellent. He was a great Holmes!

    • Thanks Karen – I hadn’t read it in ages and I kept wondering what it would have felt getting hold of it originally, after that 10 year late Victorian drought of Holmes and Watson adventures!

  6. tracybham says:

    Amazing that there are so many adaptations to choose from. I haven’t read any of the books, but someday I hope to do so. (I had planned to in 2015 and that probably won’t happen so I make no promises as to when.)

    • You really should Tracy, you really should 🙂

      • tracybham says:

        You are right, Sergio. So here is the question. I was going to start with A Study in Scarlet; it is very short. Do you think reading in any order matters? What novel is best for a complete novice.

        • Scarlet is noit the best fo the novels by any strecth but it is the book in which Holmes and watson first meet, so in that sense yes. If you want to get them at their best, then dive right in with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and then go back to fill in the blanks. Holmes is always best probably in the shorter works, one has to admit that, but Hound and Sign of Four are very good novels all the same.

  7. Bradstreet says:

    It really is a superb book, although one could really describe it as a thriller rather than a detective novel, as the intention seems very much to generate suspense, which it does. For once the explanation of what was going on is almost an afterthought, a summing-up in the last chapter. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the adaptions, although none quite seem entirely satisfying. Have you seen the Peter Cushing TV version? Again, it isn’t perfect, but it’s very close to the book and comes to a thrilling conclusion. The Clive Merrison Radio 4 version is excellent, but it does have the advantage of being able to leave the Hound to our imagination.

  8. dfordoom says:

    There was a truly atrocious 2002 BBC-TV version with Richard Roxburgh as the worst Holmes ever.

  9. Hi Sergio, I haven’t seen any of the cinematic or television adaptations though I have read and enjoyed the book. In fact, I am planning to read the book again. An abridged version was part of our English syllabus in school.

  10. Jeff Flugel says:

    Good on you for tackling such a well-known classic, Sergio! I remember rather liking that Roxburgh/Hart version from several years back…very atmospheric, anyway. The Brett version isn’t one of the strongest of the Granada series but still has many fine points. I agree with you that overall the Hammer version is arguably the best…though none of them has ever quite captured the Hound itself properly, so all have a slight whiff of letdown about them. The book is great, though.

    • Thansk Jeff – ah, well, looks like we may only disagree about the Roxborough version, but I have not seen it in the best part of 15 years. I do remember wishing they hadn’t made so much of the drug angle and they made the villain too easy to spot (not that it’s difficult in the book either, but …)

  11. Todd Mason says:

    HOUND was the first Holmes fiction I tackled, and found myself rereading the first chapter several times, just to savor the improbability that Watson would guess so far wrong on certain things, Holmes so correctly in counterpoint, and then the visitor coveting Holmes’s skull (my first exposure to the word “fulsome”). Meanwhile, the Hammer film got a 1974 or ’75 re-release in the States, at about the same time, and the newspaper ads made much of it supposedly being banned somewhere, somehow (asking my father about it, he rather dismissively noted, A lot of films used to be banned in certain places for the most trivial reasons, though that wasn’t quite how he put it). Considering SNUFF had just been marketed recently making much of its supposedly banned and Actually Murderous status (perhaps even by the same distributors), it did make me wonder.

    • Thanks Todd. It is a great place to start, I agree – that is so weird about the film. I wonder if the semi pagan aspect to the prologue got it in trouble? As you say, not easy to get banned somewhere or other – it was financed by United Artists as a US release and was certainly geared for them. Apparently the canadian release length was much shorter …

  12. Oh you make me long to read it again and see some versions…

  13. Bradstreet says:

    I do wonder whether the whole idea that it was banned anywhere was simply an invention of the distributors. Hammer got their fingers burnt a little when the film was originally released. They were worried that Holmes might appear “a bit of a fuddy-duddy” to the audience, and so concentrated the advertising on the horror aspects of the story. I’ve heard that they were pretty upset when the BBFC passed it with only an A certificate (roughly a modern PG). The confusion of what seemed to be a horror movie where kids were allowed through the door led to low ticket sales in the UK, and hence no more Sherlock Holmes movies from Hammer. It’s rather a shame, as I would have loved to see what they would have done with THE SIGN OF FOUR.

    • I agree, Sign of Four could have worked a treat. Apparently the film did well at the box-office overall despite rumours to the conrtary and that the lack of a follow-up was really about the difficulties dealing with the notoriously money-grabbing Doyle estate.

      • Bradstreet says:

        By ‘the Doyle estate’ I assume that at this point they would have been dealing with Adrian Conan Doyle. I’ve read articles by various people detailing their experiences with him. At least one person has intimated that the reason for John Dickson Carr ducking out of the latter part of THE EXPLOITS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES was not due to Carr coming down ill, but rather not wanting to have to work with Adrian any more…

        • I suspect for Carr it was a bit of both, which I can well believe! Fox apparently stopped making the period Rathbone and Bruce films partly because they didn’t like dealing with Doyle and Universal also had a hell of a time getting their deal set up … Even the Jeremy Brett series had problems with the estate.

  14. Mike says:

    Great stuff Sergio. The last time I read this was back when my son was covering it out of interest and I did the same, and really enjoyed it all over again. As for film versions, whilst I love Cushing and Morrell’s ‘fit like a glove’ take on Holmes and Watson in the Hammer release, also its focus on the story’s more supernatural elements, it remains Rathbone and Bruce for me. It was the first one I saw, many years ago on TV, and I loved it – fast paced, fun, atmospheric, that great prologue and oh Watson, the needle!

    • Yes, that last line is amazing given the era the film came out. I do really like the Rathbone and Bruce version but because they get slightly sidelines in favour of the top-billed Richard Greene, for me they are even better in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which only suffers by having a weaker plot.

  15. Bev Hankins says:

    I love this one! I think it’s my favorite Holmes story. And I’d have to say that the Rathbone/Bruce version just nudges the Hammer film out of first place–primarily because Rathbone was the first Holmes I ever saw on-screen and this one is actually pretty faithful to time period (I’m a purist that way–I like my Holmes in period).

    • Thanks Bev, it’s a grewat book. And yes, of the Rathbone & Bruce films, only the first two were really Victorian and I do like it a lot too for this reason. But I do love the recreation of 1890s London in their follow-up film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes squaring off against Moriarty – it was a big influence on the current Cumberbatch series.

  16. TomCat says:

    It’s sad, disheartening and borderline criminal that nobody has mentioned the 1983 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles with Ian Richardson as Sherlock Holmes, which was, incidentally, my first, official exposure to Sherlock Holmes. So my opinion may be a bit colored and biased, but I think it’s one of the best adaptations to date.

    The only thing that can really be sad against it is that Richardson was evidently having too much fun in playing Holmes, which is really, really hard to miss in the chase-scene from The Sign of Four. It had great music as well!

    So if these two Richardson adaptations continue to be overlooked, I’ll be forced to write a long, rambling and hackneyed blog-post singing their praise and even suggesting they’re superior to the Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone versions. You’ve been warned, fellow mystery enthusiasts!

    • Thanks for joining in chum and greatly look forward to your post TC 🙂 I like both of the Richardson films, which offer typically faithful adaptations by Charles Edward Pogue, but I though both the Watsons (Donald Churchill and David Healy) were a bit of a letdown – I prefer his Joseph Bell in the underrated Murder Rooms by David Pirie. I also think the Brett / Harwicke Sign of Four is superior in every way.

  17. Pingback: Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle | A Crime is Afoot

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