If you were asked to name the most famous mystery stories of all time, the greatest mysteries that have ever been told, chances are pretty good that The Hound of the Baskervilles would be on that list, and would be placing pretty high. Having been called one of the greatest mystery novels ever written, the most famous Sherlock Holmes book is celebrating the 120th anniversary of its publication.
After killing the character of Sherlock Holmes in the 1893 story ‘The Final Problem’, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spent almost a decade being sent letters from fans asking, or downright demanding, that he bring the character back. Holmes was such a popular character that the public couldn’t take his passing, and thanks to this level of harassment Doyle gave in and wrote a new novel telling a ‘lost’ story from Holmes’ past. Thus The Hound of the Baskervilles was born, and I’ve never been more grateful for obsessive fans hounding a creator!
The story of The Hound of the Baskervilles begins when Dr James Mortimer visits the home of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in London, asking for their help. His friend, Sir Charles Baskerville, was recently found dead on his estate in Dartmoor, apparently having died of a heart attack. However, Mortimer tells the detectives that Baskerville had a look of pure terror on his face, and believes that his death is related to the legend of the Hound, a large, spectral dog that has haunted the family for generations, and taken the lives of many of its members. He backs up his claims by saying that large paw prints were found nearby.
Despite dismissing the claim of the monstrous dog, Holmes agrees to meet with Henry Baskerville, the next in line in the family, and to look into the mystery. Sending Watson to Dartmoor to look into things for him, the mystery seems to deepen when Watson, Henry, and Dr Mortimer experience strange, unsettling events in the night. Things seem even more dire when the trio learn that an escaped murderer is loose in the surrounding moors. Thus begins a case that will go on to be one of the most popular in the entire Sherlock Holmes catalogue.
It would seem like the inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles came from the legend of Squire Richard Campbell, a figure that has been described as ‘monstrously evil’ by historical accounts. Inspiring the story of the Baskerville ancestor, Campbell was said to have sold his soul to the devil, as well as murdering his own wife. Upon his death a pack of spectral hounds were said to be seen around his tomb, and that ever since, on the anniversary of his death, his ghost could be seen leading the hounds across the moors. Having an interest in the supernatural, despite it being an area that Holmes never put much stock in, Doyle was drawn to this story and took a number of the elements for the creation of his own tale, and would even go on to explore Dartmoor in person in order to capture the correct look and feel of the place for his first Holmes story in almost a decade.
Despite The Hound of the Baskervilles being a Sherlock Holmes story, and the first one since the character’s death, and following a several year gap, the story doesn’t feature Holmes a great deal. Instead, Watson is very much the lead character for this story. Watson has always been a huge part of the Sherlock Holmes world, especially as the stories are written from his perspective, but Holmes is still largely the key figure in the stories, with his absences being small when they happen. But for The Hound of the Baskervilles Watson carries much of the story, especially when Holmes sends him off to Dartmoor alone to investigate for him.
I don’t know if Doyle’s decision to sideline Holmes in this story came from a desire to showcase Watson as a capable lead, able to head up an investigation himself on the chance that he might want to continue the stories without Holmes’ return, or if perhaps he felt out of practice writing the character after so long and didn’t want to feature him much, or maybe even it could have simply been him messing with his fans by releasing a new Holmes story that hardly featured the character. Whatever the reason for Doyle’s decision, it actually worked out rather well, and gave the often overlooked Dr a chance to shine on his own without Holmes there.
The Hound of the Baskervilles became a huge success after its release, and this is probably a large part of why Doyle would bring Holmes back to life for real a few years later. The story has only grown in popularity over the years, and has become one of the most adapted books of all time, with more than twenty film and television versions of the story, as well as audio books, audio plays, stage plays, and even appearances in comics, anime, manga, and video games. With the huge popularity of the story, the fact that fans were demanding it for years, and that it helped to bring the world’s greatest detective back from the dead, it has well earned its place as one of the greatest mystery stories of all time.