Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 4

The final stage of my August reading marathon of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in an edition published by The Folio Society. The set consists of five volumes of short stories issued in 1993 and four volumes of novels which came out the following year. The series has a very attractive binding of an offset wrap around design on each book which makes the spines also display the image and appropriately the books are printed using the Baskerville font.

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Two novels and fifty six short stories down, just two novels to go to complete the exercise

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The Hound of the Baskervilles

As mentioned in last week’s blog “The Hound of the Baskervilles”  appeared in Strand magazine in August 1901 was serialised over the following eight months. Doyle did not intend this to be a reboot of the series and it is deliberately set before the ‘death’ of Holmes in “The Final Problem”. It appeared in book form in 1902 and the next year Doyle gave in to public pressure and ‘resurrected’ his most famous creation. The first two novels had disappointed me but this was an excellent adventure well told. In the many years, if not decades, since I last read it I had managed to completely forget the plot other than a vague memory of a luminous dog chasing people to their death so the solution was still a revelation to me.

It all starts with the arrival at Baker Street of Dr Mortimer, a country physician from Devon with the strange tale of a curse on the Baskerville family from the time of the English Civil War when Hugo Baskerville had kidnapped the beautiful daughter of a neighbour intending to force her to marry him. The maiden escapes and he sets off to hunt her across the moor having first offered his body and soul to the Devil if he could catch her. Catch her he did but with a tragic end as found by three of his friends who followed him.

The moon was shining bright upon the clearing, and there in the centre lay the unhappy maid where she had fallen, dead of fear and of fatigue. But it was not the sight of her body, nor yet was it that of the body of Hugo Baskerville lying near her, which raised the hair upon the heads of these three dare-devil roisterers, but it was that, standing over Hugo, and plucking at his throat, there stood a foul thing, a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon. And even as they looked the thing tore the throat out of Hugo Baskerville, on which, as it turned its blazing eyes and dripping jaws upon them, the three shrieked with fear and rode for dear life, still screaming, across the moor. One, it is said, died that very night of what he had seen, and the other twain were but broken men for the rest of their days.
“Such is the tale, my sons, of the coming of the hound which is said to have plagued the family so sorely ever since.

Holmes is not interested in superstitious “fairy tales” and says so but Dr Mortimer does catch his attention when he says that the the most recent owner of Baskerville Hall had died of heart failure in the grounds and near the body was “the footprints of a gigantic hound!” There is but one remaining Baskerville to inherit the estate and he is to arrive in London from Canada that very day and Mortimer wants to know what to do. Hugo Baskerville duly arrives at Baker Street and the fact that he is clearly being followed by somebody and even more peculiarly has had two of his boots stolen on separate nights convinces Holmes that there is more to this case than superstition but apparently he is too busy in London to look into it in person so Watson will have to go.

All this happens in the first five chapters and for the next six (90 out of the 211 pages in my edition) the case is solely pursued by Watson and we get his reports back to Holmes along with extracts from his diary as the narrative. I really enjoyed the way Doyle wrote this, it was good to see Watson at work rather than just following Holmes and reporting on his actions. The addition of an escaped prisoner from the high security prison on the moor further complicates the tale and leads Watson down other tracks other than those immediately involved in the case in hand. The reappearance of Holmes in the story with just 59 pages to go is the signal for the various strands of the case that have been apparently heading off in various directions to be drawn together, even that of the convict is significant right until the end. It’s a great story, far better than the first two Holmes novels and makes me look forward all the more to the final book in this reading marathon.

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The Valley of Fear

First serialised in The Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915 “The Valley of Fear” was published in book form in February 1915 in America by George H Doran and in June that year the UK edition came out published by Smith, Elder and Co. this was the only time that the American edition preceded the UK one for any of the nine books.

OK at halfway through this book I felt a deep sense of disillusionment, here we are back to the worst aspects of the first two novels, lots of back story with no Holmes and Watson, in this case far worse than those books as over half the book is back story. But I persevered and I’m glad I did so because whilst it doesn’t involve our heroes it actually reads like a separate novella which includes a couple of the characters from the Sherlock novella making up the first half. The first part (99 pages in my edition) is an excellent Holmes and Watson tale which is complete in itself, there is no real need for the American adventure in part two other than to pad the story out to novel size. When read in the original serial I’m sure readers felt they were being short changed as the 107 pages (again my edition) that has no Holmes, but instead is a Pinkerton Detective Agency mystery, would have made up probably five months of the magazine.

The Holmes story is probably the closest Doyle gets to the classic ‘locked room mystery’ there is no obvious way for the culprit to escape as each possible solution is shot down by the ridiculousness of the events needed to affect such an escape. And there is also The Case of the Missing Dumbbell to solve! The mystery is maintained until the last few pages and it is an excellent place to finish my Holmes and Watson marathon; but it isn’t where it ends. There are still the 107 pages of Pinkerton and 3 pages of epilogue to go. Now I said at the start of this review that I wasn’t happy with the way the novel was split but unlike the first two novels, where it really did feel like padding, the non-Holmes story was actually very good and written (and consequently could be read) as a complete separate work. It also has to be said that I worked out who Jack McMurdo was, not just in his alias in this part of the book relating to the first, but also his real profession within a few pages so there was absolutely no surprise at the end. Neither was the epilogue unexpected as Professor Moriarty had been mentioned at the start so I was fully prepared for him to act at the end but I did really enjoy this story after I got past my initial disappointment.

This marathon reading of the Holmes and Watson books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been great fun, some I have read within the last few years, others (like the two here) it has been decades since I last tackled them but I’m very glad I gave them all a go this month and I recommend anyone to dip into the stories and enjoy the evolution of one of the greatest fictional detectives.

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