Critical Essay: Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles
"Holmes is a man! Holmes is a great man! ? Sherlock Holmes lived, Dr. Watson lived?" (Shreffler 22). Since his very first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, the fame of Sherlock Holmes combined not only that of the literary character, but also that of the actual man. At almost the exact instant Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary creation became public it also became a phenomenon. Doyle then released another work and then another - all featuring the beloved Holmes. No one expected such reception. The detective genre was relatively unexplored since the days of Edgar Allen Poe's Monsieur Dupin. This success became an even bigger shock to Holmes' creator. By 1902, Arthur Conan Doyle had moved on to other works such as, The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896) The Tragedy of Korosko (1898), and The Great Boer War (1900). History novels became his focus and, therefore, Doyle decided to end the literary existence of the character that generated his fame. In The Final Problem (1893), Holmes battles death and loses as he falls off a cliff with his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty. However, Doyle could not end his most famous character' public existence. Doyle's fans became outraged. His other works found nothing of the success he had seen with the Sherlock stories. To some, Sherlock Holmes was more real than his literary creator and, therefore, they could not reconcile how Doyle could end the life of their Great Detective. Holmes' fame had turned him from a literary figure to a living being, a permanent fixture of culture, and this metamorphosis caused the public to push Doyle into writing The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Hound of the Baskervillles itself blurred the line between reality and fiction and, although it did not resurrect the already infamous Holmes, it did quench the relentless thirst of the public as it became the most beloved and best selling story created by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Sheockmania began almost immediately. A Study in Scarlet was the beginning of what, for some, would border on obsession. Although part of the literary genre created by Edgar Allen Poe, as T.S. Elliot remarked Sherlock Holmes did "not seem to be descended from either Sargeant Cuff or Monsier Dupin" (Shreffler 17). "Beeton's Christmas Annual" published A Study in Scarlet in December 1887. From that point on, Doyle's readers anxiously awaited future stories starring their now favorite detective.
Over the next few years after the publication of A Study in Scarlet Sherlock Holmes became a phenomenon. In 1892, Doyle published The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes followed by The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes in 1893. At this time Doyle also developed a relationship with The Strand - the magazine in which he first released The Hound of the Baskervilles. Just the name "Sherlock Holmes" became part of the English dictionary, along with its rapidly developing cognates (i.e. - "Sherlockian," "Holmesian," etc.). "What Conan Doyle did was simply tremendous; he made his principal character, Sherlock Holmes, into that extraordinary thing, a household word" (Haining 7). However "tremendous" this creation became he still was, to Doyle, a creation. Thus, in 1893, Doyle decided to separate from the shadow of Sherlock's fame by throwing him over the Reichenbach Falls. Holmes' fans did not appreciate this action of Doyle and he became "assaulted with such a barrage of complaints that he was forced to restore him [Sherlock Holmes] back to life" (Haining 7).
Thus, in 1901, the Great Detective yet again entranced Doyle's readers as they turned the pages of Sherlock Holmes latest expliots in The Strand. The Hound of the Baskervilles quickly became a success. Sales of The Strand rose rapidly. Doyle's new story provided no resurrection of Holmes, but it did supply a new tale that rapidly became one of the favorites of the Holmes canon. In it, an apparently supernatural hound disturbs the residents of Devonshire by fulfilling a curse on the Baskerville family. The beginning presents a familiar scene to Sherlockians (fans of Sherlock Holmes) as Holmes and his assistant, the dependable Dr. Watson, ponder a mysterious object left behind by a recent visitor they did not have the good fortune to meet. It appears to be a cane, somewhat worn, possibly belonging to a physician of some sort. Watson presents his hypotheses first which, in turn, stimulates Holmes' own thoughts on the matter. This is a familiar part of the basic format of a Holmesian story - Watson first, then Holmes who presents his ideas as he negates those of his companion. This can be seen in The Hound of the Baskervilles when Holmes states in reference to Dr. Watson, "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" (3).
The above phrase may also act as a parallel to the relationship between Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle in 1901. The public fervor for a re-emergence of the famous detective forced Doyle to abandon his original plan of moving on to other genres and laying Holmes to rest. Doyle's audience could recall Holmes' name as if it had been part of their language as far as memory would allow them to look back. However, they could not necessarily be able to tell you who Doyle was, or the fact that Sherlock Holmes was a product of the overshadowed writer's imagination. "It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light" does not simply refer to Dr. Watson - it also points to Doyle himself. Being Sherlock's creator makes him the "conductor," but that does not mean that he was able to stand in the light that he conducted. By the time of the publication in novel form of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1902, Holmes and Doyle had traded places - Doyle had faded from the foreground of the public's memory whereas Holmes had transformed into a real person. People began to approach Doyle and relate to him the latest experiences they had with the talented detective and some even wrote letters requesting Holmes' services. Doyle once related a story about a Holmes' fan whom,
? is said to have consulted Sherlock. "I am greatly puzzled, sir. In one week I have lost a motor horn, a brush, a box of golf balls, a dictionary, and a bootjack. Can you explain it?" "Nothing simpler, madame," said Sherlock. "It is clear that your neighbour keeps a goat." (Shreffler 14)
The most obvious form of this new perception of Sherlock Holmes became the fan club.
Holmes' fan clubs, aside from heralding him as the Great Detective of all time, quickly began to deny the existence of Doyle by such things as not allowing his name to be spoken during meetings, asserting that Doyle
never existed, etc. One such group is the Baker Street Irregulars (B.S.I.). At one point during a radio discussion one of the B.S.I. stated,
We're paying Doyle (I'm sorry I mentioned his name) the supreme literary compliment: we are believing his creations, assuming them to be much more important than he is and willing to read any story he tells us about them. (Shreffler 24)
The Baker Street Irregulars, as with many of the Sherlockian fan clubs, saw Sherlock Holmes as being a living, breathing, human, made of flesh and bone not words and ink. Whenever they are asked questions such as why is Sherlock not at 221B Baker Street when one visits, they reply with such answers as "he was out on a case" (Shreffler 26) instead of validating any belief that Holmes himself is a work of fiction. One of the most famous people who the Baker Street Irregulars could lay claim to as being a member was President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1942 he accepted an honoris causa
membership into the society, "I am glad to have a part of any movement whose purpose is to keep green the memory of Sherlock Holmes" (Shreffler 197) he wrote in his acceptance letter to the Baker Street Irregulars. Five letters written by F.D.R from August 5, 1942 to March 19, 1945 survive from his time with the B.S.I. and show his particular interest in the genealogical history of the Great Detective. In one he describes a place where he goes to relax, "In that spot the group of little cabins that shelter the Secret Service men is known as Baker Street" (197).
The Hound of the Baskervilles
helped to blur the distinction between Holmes the literary creation and the belief in Holmes the real person. It is a story based upon an old legend of a real family by the name of Baskerville in England. Baskerville Hall, the setting throughout most of the book and the home in which Watson stays as he gathers information on the other characters and the curse of the Baskervilles, is also an actual building located in England,
Arthur Conan Doyle was a family friend who often came to stay here [Baskerville Hall]. During his many visits he learnt of the local legend of the hounds [sic] of the Baskervilles. It is reputed that on nearby Hergest Ridge he translated this into probably the most famous case for his celebrated detective Sherlock Holmes. However, at the request of his friends he set the book in Devon "to ward off tourists." (Baskerville Hall, see "supplementary materials")
By the year that The Hound of the Baskervilles
was released Sherlock Holmes fame was enough to boost the novel into best seller stardom. People did not buy the book because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote it, or because of praise by literary circles. They bought it because it presented another opportunity for them to see the master detective at work, a master detective who had died a few years before. Sherlock had entered into the American conciousness at a time when,
? the reading of fiction in America [had become] something of a mania. Novels were devoured as much as read, and the public appetite appeared to be insatiable. . . . The fiction that was most read and most extensively discussed in the [eighteen] nineties came from British authors, it was generally agreed, and much of it was the sensational kind of novel that was not even reviewed. (Redmond 12)
Doyle wrote the most famous of his works when both the desire for British literature was in demand in America and the fame of Holmes had reached a peak making Holmes an immortal character and his death in The Final Problem
Another factor that at the time of the publication of The Hound of the Baskervilles
became a debated topic was whether it was well written or not. Negative criticism of Sherlock Holmes' literary value, in particular The Hound of the Baskervilles
, arose. One such critic wrote, "Conan Doyle's favorite stories, The Speckled Band
and The Hound of the Baskervilles
, are not merely implausible, they are impossible, and the Sherlockian societies have had immense fun correcting and accounting with heavy scholarship for their [the novels'] errors" (Shreffler 43). Those faithful to Holmes praised and continue to praise The Hound of the Baskervilles
as being one of the better-written Holmes tales in its presentation of a complex monkey-puzzle that the famous detective must solve. When one of the B.S.I. was asked which one of the Holmes stories he enjoyed the most he replied, " 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' - it's simply marvelous" (Shreffler 28). Although there is no strong evidence as to whether or not this debate promoted the novel to the best seller lists, Holmes' fans continue to praise it as one of their favorite tales as seen above. One way of reconciling these two different points of view was the following,
It is of course, the dramatic ability, rather than the pure detective ability, that does it. But it is a dramatic ability applied with great cunning and concentration; it is not split about. The content of the story may be poor; but the form is nearly always perfect. (Shreffler 18)
This dramatic ability transformed Sherlock Holmes into a real being from a literary creation which, in combination with the strong desire for his resurrection by the public, propelled The Hound of the Baskervilles
to become a best seller in 1902. The story of the extraordinary hound and its role in the curse of the Baskervilles aided in the growing myth of the real Holmes with the subject matter on which it focused. Upon its release, The Hound of the Baskervilles
did not receive acclaim for being the amazingly well written novel of its day. It was, however, what the public had wanted so badly and had forced Doyle into creating -another adventure with their favorite detective. Although The Hound of the Baskervilles
had made its first appearance in "The Strand" where many read its Devonshire tale, although many pirated editions had been printed previous to its official release, The Hound of the Baskervilles
still received its own spot on the best seller lists of 1902 thanks to the myth of the existence of its celebrated detective. As an ad placed by McClure, Phillips & Co. on March 15th, 1902 (before the release of The Hound of the Baskervilles
stated: "Sherlock Holmes is without question the most popular character in contemporary fiction. His is the name that will attract most attention in a display headline. His is the name that will make a book a 'best selling book.'" The name of Sherlock Holmes is what boosted The Hound of the Baskervilles
into the best seller charts not the novel's literary accomplishments, not the fame of its author, but the renown of the ever-popular detective.
Modern critics continue to debate the literary value of The Hound of the Baskervilles
, but Sherlock Holmes' continuing fame remains very apparent. Arthur Conan Doyle continued to create new adventures for the "famous detective" (Doyle 57) including The Last Bow
(1917) and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
(1927). Other authors continued the Holmes adventures after Doyle's death on July 7, 1930. Many different tales, plays, musicals, movies, television series, etc. all starring the now immortal Holmes continue to be created. His transformation from literary character to cultural legend provided not only the basis behind best selling popularity of The Hound of the Baskervilles
, but also his continuing popularity almost an hundred years later.
Baskerville Hall Hotel
. Home Page. 19 July. 1999. Baskerville Hall Hotel.
Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Hound of The Baskervilles
. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1902.
Haining, Peter. ed. The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook
. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1974.
15 March 1902.
Redmond, Donald A. Sherlock Holmes Among the Pirates
. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Shreffler, Phillip A. ed. The Baker Street Reader
. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984.