The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Plot/Story:

“The darkness was rising, but much was still hidden by the shadows.” From the Moors of Devonshire to 221B Baker Street comes Dr. James Mortimer. His aged and aristocratic friend, Sir Charles Baskerville of Baskerville Hall, has died under mysterious circumstances. It seems a vicious hell-hound has returned to the grounds, reigniting an old family curse that appears to be extinguishing the Baskerville heirs one-by-one, until only one—Sir Henry—remains. Mortimer and Sir Henry explain the family history, and a threat against Sir Henry, to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, begging for help and for answers. After spotting a bearded man following Sir Henry and Dr. Mortimer around London, the famous detective and his equally famous partner soon realize the threat is real. Holmes, too busy with a number of cases to leave for Devon, and worried that he has been spotted by the criminal anyway, elects to stay in London, asking Dr. Watson to play the role of primary observer, detective, and bodyguard to Sir Henry. But can Watson alone keep Sir Henry safe from a supernatural evil, especially when a new love enters the picture and threatens to further endanger the heir’s life?

Characterization:

Being one of the few novels in the Sherlock Holmes series, there is more opportunity to introduce multiple characters and for those characters to develop somewhat over the course of the 160-ish pages. That being said, I did not find the same depth or detail as in A Study in Scarlet. I was blown off course slightly in the early part of the book by the circumstances of one character in the Baskerville family lineage, but as it turns out that was a clever red herring, which caused me to mistake the real villain (although I was close and it became obvious not much later). Some have claimed that The Hound of the Baskervilles is a bit lazy for Doyle, that there is not as much heart or interest in it, possibly because Doyle had hoped to be finished with the series but felt pressured to continue it (pressured by a rabid fan base and by his publishers). I cannot agree with that opinion, although I do believe that The Hound of the Baskervilles is definitely different from Doyle’s previous installments. This feels a different kind of mystery, a different kind of detective story, and with a different kind of hero and villain.

Dr. Watson, for example, gets the most amount of page time. As the usual narrator for these stories, it is not unusual to get his perspective most of the time, but in this case, he is actually the first-hand protagonist, too. Sherlock is present only in the beginning and, of course, in the end, to take the credit as usual. Nevertheless, Holmes is much more genuinely complementary of his partner and even the Inspector than ever before. Could he be growing up? And the villain, who/which shall remain nameless, is both what he/it appears, and not. The secondary characters, from the crotchety old telescope man who sues everybody in town for the fun of it, to the two female characters, and the Baskerville housekeepers, are interesting and add something to the universe being created in this little moorland scene.

Prose/Style:

Something I will never get used to is how quickly I sink into a Sherlock Holmes story, and how rapidly I move through it. This one came in at 160 pages in my edition, a Bantam Classics with tiny font. And yet, I read the entire thing in less than 3 days. The reason for this is not just that the stories are always gripping, clever, and humorous, but that the writing is special, too. I think Doyle was a kind of anthropologist-philosopher who always had unique and enlightening things to say about the human race. An example that struck me came late in the book, when the speaker remarks, “[it] may have been love or may have been fear, or very possibly both, since they are by no means incompatible emotions.” What a special little insight there, unexpected and yet so wholly relevant both to the plot and to human nature more generally. As a master of pace and suspense, clever logic and word play, and good old-fashioned human psychology and emotional insight, Doyle has few peers, particularly in this genre. It makes reading the Sherlock Holmes tales both fun and meaningful.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

SERIES SPOILERS AHEAD! If you have not read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmesand/or “The Final Problem,” you might want to skip this next part. Understood? Well, then, if you are ready, let’s carry on:

This is the first Sherlock Holmes installment following “The Final Problem” (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes) wherein the detective apparently gives his life to end Moriarty’s evil machinations. As it turns out, Holmes did not die, but readers will not be treated to an explanation in this first “return.” There were certainly enough reasons why one might conclude, after reading “The Final Problem,” that Holmes might still be alive. One thing I would have liked to see, here, would have been a reckoning of that particular series plot hole, even though it might not have anything in particular to do with this specific installment. That aside, the novel is filled with insights into science and mythology, superstition and the nature of evil. What I think I found most appealing about this particular installment is that it balances a history of bad luck with the opportunities that arise for a true villain to capitalize on myth and on peoples’ fears. A small castle in a small town on the moors of Devonshire seems a perfect setting for the story that unfolds in The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is the reality of daylight, where one can walk safely through the moors if one follows the visible pathways, juxtaposed against the true danger of the night, where even a lifelong resident might get lost in the fog and disappear forever. The metaphor is a treat. Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

This is the first book completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

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Thoughts: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

1065804The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 55

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is the third in the Sherlock Holmes series, following two novels (A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four) and a collection of short stories (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). It contains eleven stories, in total, which, much like the previous titles in this series, tackle a range of social, political, and ethnic topics, all the while entertaining the reader with witty narrative and engaging, sometimes surprising mysteries and detective work.

My edition is, unfortunately, true to the revised original American edition of the collection, which edited out a story called “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.” The story is now printed in American editions of the collection titled “His Last Bow,” which I do have, so I’ll get to it eventually. Of course, I’m a purist, though, so it irks me very much to have to read stories out of the order of original publication or author intention.

That being said, the collection is a good one. I particularly enjoyed “The Yellow Face,” which was a story of ahead of its time, in my opinion. This one tells of a young American woman who meets a young British man, they marry and move to England together. Soon enough, the woman’s secret history is uncovered, and the revelations are (for the time) shocking. As a modern reader, however, there is a certain delight and admiration for the risk Doyle took, here, and for the stance that the narrative takes on issues of equality and human decency. It was a pleasant surprise.

Others in the collection which I rather enjoyed include “The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual,” both of which had interesting elements of darker, Poe-esque mystery; also, “The Reigate Puzzle” and “The Naval Treaty,” both of which had elements of heightened daring, danger, and suspense. Finally, of course, there is “The Final Problem,” which is not only a wonderful short story, but, knowing the history of the series, a moving read. It adds a very deep, personal element to the character of Sherlock Holmes, a human side which his character sometimes (intentionally) lacks. Even knowing that the series continues, it was a difficult read and a sad ending!

All this taken into consideration, I still prefer, over all, the first collection in the Holmes series. I was bothered by the very close similarity of “The Stock-broker’s Clerk” to an earlier Sherlock Holmes story (“The Red-headed League”). The two stories seemed like the reworking of a very similar plot. Of course, Doyle wrote from a standardized formula of sorts, but even still, it felt to me much too similar, in this case. Perhaps to Doyle, too, considering where he tried to go with “The Final Problem.”

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection is an interesting piece to the overall Holmes collection. As in the previous works, this one is narrated by Watson, but many of the stories find Watson specifically trying to point out just how unremarkable Sherlock Holmes is – how lucky he sometimes gets, how even he can be stumped, at times. The purpose of this is probably two-fold; first, to set up readers’ expectations for the last story in the collection and second, to round out and make more realistic the Sherlock Holmes character in general. Perhaps there had been some instance that Doyle make Sherlock Holmes seem less of a superhero – how interesting can a character with no flaws be, after all?

Ultimately, I continue to be pleased with these stories and every time I revisit the next book in the collection, I find myself wondering what took me so long to get back to it. These are always some of the most fun, entertaining, and engaging reading experiences, and it rarely takes me more than a few days to get through the entire book. Doyle’s writing, in Memoirs, remains fresh and accessible, and he continues to push certain boundaries, which adds depth and intrigue to books which might otherwise be simply light, “pleasure” reading.

One final note: I may or may not have known this (though I certainly didn’t remember), but the title from another favorite book of mine, by Mark Haddon, actually seems to have come from one of these stories! In “The Silver Blaze,” Colonel Ross asks Sherlock Holmes, “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” and Holmes replies: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Wow!

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 13+
Interest: Mystery, Detective Stories, 19th Century Britain, Social Justice, Crime, British Fiction, Short Stories, 1,001 Books.

Notable Quotes:

“Of all ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.” (“The Gloria Scott”)

“Any truth is better than indefinite doubt.” (“The Yellow Face”)

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” (“A Case of Identity”)

“It is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognize danger when it is close upon you.” (“The Final Problem”)

“I never can resist a touch of the dramatic.” (“The Naval Treaty”)

“It’s every man’s business to see justice done.” (“The Crooked Man”)

Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Final Verdict: 3.50 out of 4.0

YTD: 06


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is the third installment in the series and, unlike the first two installments – which are novels- this one is a collection of ten short stories.  The rating I apply here encompasses the collection as a unit, though some stories are naturally “better”/more effective or more entertaining than others.   The collection starts with “A Scandal in Bohemia,” a story that – to lovers of the series (be it in book, film, or television form)- is of utmost importance and excitement, because it is the introduction of Ms. Irene Adler, the one woman who gets the best of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.  I was delighted with this story, although it – like many others in the collection- was rather easy to figure out.  Some other favorites in this set include “The Five Orange Pips,” which has the Ku Klux Klan as its villains; “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” which is one of the few in this set that I actually misjudged a bit; and “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” which is just so creepy, one wonders if this is where a bit of Poe influenced Sir Doyle (even though Doyle openly derided Poe’s detective stories).   All-in-all, I enjoyed the set of stories quite a bit – they provide for interesting and entertaining glimpses of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in various cases, without necessarily needing to develop a single story over an extended period of time, as the novels do.  I believe the inclusion of the short stories in the timeline adds much to the Holmes Universe – I look forward to the next set (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes) and following that up with the next novel in the series (The Hound of the Baskervilles).


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

While the Sherlock Homes stories are almost assuredly interesting and entertaining (and even confusing or mysterious for some), and while Doyle’s writing is surprisingly engaging, particularly for a detective/crime genre, one thing that is usually “good” without being “great” is Doyle’s characterization.  Holmes and Watson are certainly identifiable, as are some of the regular minor characters, such as Inspector Lestrade.  Still, after two novels and 10 short stories, now, one would hope to see not just identifiable characters, but ones which are growing, changing, evolving, or surprising us in some way.  Although Holmes does get bested a few times in the short stories – and admits to it- this is the only minor growth in character throughout the collection.  Many of the stories follow the same format, thus Holmes and Watson react and quip in the same ways.  The antagonists and/or auxiliary characters in each story are interesting, too, but since the crimes are often easily solved, characterization suffers here as well.  Still, I am interested by these characters and I still enjoy following their stories and interactions – they are likeable (and not), which makes me want to spend more time with them again in the future.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The one element of the Sherlock Holmes series which has yet to fail me, after three consecutive parts, is the writing itself.  Doyle is an incredibly talented writer – he crafts stories well and executes them even better.  Even when the mystery is not so mysterious – and when I have figured it all out by the mid-way point of the story, I still want to keep reading it, and I still enjoy finishing it, because the prose is just a joy to follow.  The dialogue is well-done, too. One of the most enjoyable parts of the series is witnessing the back-and-forth between Holmes and Watson (particularly when Holmes is chiding Watson for his “dramatic” way of retelling the cases in narrative form – Holmes believes the stories should reflect more on his methods, whereas Watson believes the stories should present the crimes/cases themselves, and the seemingly extraordinary way that Holmes manages to solve them).  There is also clearly a growing relationship between the two men – Watson writes into his narrative how disappointed he is whenever Holmes seems to overlook potential happiness (typically the presence and disappearance of a beautiful woman), for example – this relationship is demonstrated more in the prose and dialogue than in the actual characterization itself (as they grow more comfortable with and accustomed to one another, their way of speaking to and about the other also changes), which is intriguing.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

I was initially impressed by Doyle when I read the first installment of the Sherlock Holmes series, A Study in Scarlet.  This primary novel helped me to realize that Doyle knew much more about the world – history, politics, religion, etc. – than I ever realized.  He does it again here with the short stories, particularly in terms of American politics/sociology, as well as science and British colonization.  These stories are not just entertaining, but also instructive – and, to me, no story is better than one which is simultaneously enjoyable and educational.  In addition to examining larger, global issues, Doyle also exposes his readers to philosophical arguments about the nature of crime and punishment – there are many instances in this set of stories where Holmes, after solving the crime, lets the criminals go free, even when the crime committed was murder.  One might agree or not with Holmes’s reasoning for why he lets certain criminals go, and what he believes their ultimate punishment to be (or to be valued at), but that the question is raised in the first place is certainly daring and unique, particularly for a time and a culture where every crime has its punishment, and vigilante justice was not looked kindly upon.  Further, Doyle explores the human elements of friendship, marriage, family, and relationships.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Detective Stories, Mystery, Crime, History, British Fiction, “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die.”


Notable Quotes:

“It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

“The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name.”

“There is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace.”

“A man should keep his little brain attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.”

Review: A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 6
Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Well, well, well.  I suppose I should have known that enjoying this first book in the Sherlock Holmes series would be elementary, my dear – indubitably!  Seriously, though, I am taken aback by how much I enjoyed this book.  I am not typically a murder-mystery reader or lover, and I took up the Sherlock Holmes collection out of a sense of obligation to the mass popularity it has gained and out of a sense of nostalgia for the old black & white television episodes I watched with my Dad, as a kid; and, of course, to the very amazing (in my opinion) recent film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (which I loved, loved).  So, okay, what I am saying is – even though I am not a lover of the genre in general (my only experiences with it are some Agatha Christie and E.A. Poe), Doyle certainly made a believer and cautious-fan out of me.  A Study in Scarlet introduces us to Holmes and Dr. Watson, as well as some of the bumbling London investigators, whom Holmes has a somewhat patronizing contempt for.  A murder takes place, an odd one, and Holmes is called-in to investigate.  Just when certain police detectives believed they had cracked the case, the suspect is found dead!  In what I assume to be typical Holmes fashion, the unsuspected killer is lured to 221B Baker Street, where he is apprehended, and then the reader is afforded his complete back story, including an incredibly detailed and interesting regional history, which brings us twenty years earlier, to the southwestern United States deserts.  The reader learns that so much more is involved than imagined, and what little clues were discovered actually amounted to just about nothing.  Did I have anything figured out?  Nope.  Did I believe Holmes’s deductive reasoning, as he explained how he “analyzes backwards?”  Sure – because there is no other choice.  I’m more of a Dr. Watson – intrigued, capable, sometimes helpful but, more than anything, simply along for the ride.

 

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

Doyle does a very nice job of giving the reader a clear understanding of these characters’ personalities and, to some extent, their histories and motivations.  Far more is learned about Dr. Watson than Holmes, though, which is partially frustrating but also extremely clever, because Holmes and his talents are such fascinating mysteries in their own right – it helps to propel the overall mystery of the story.   What is most impressive, though, is the amount of time and attention paid to the “villain” and villains (the supposed and the actual).  Doyle writes an intriguing history for this man – evoking a great sense of empathy from the reader, and a fantastic understanding of time and place.  We learn, just in time, who is this man, and to what lengths he has gone to avenge himself of an unspeakable crime, committed by a deeply sinister group of people (a group who I will not expose in order to prevent any type of religious debate from breaking out in response).  The minor characters, too – the incompetent detectives and their noble counterparts (Holmes’s gang of merry-men – street urchins) are given enough page time to be recognizable as characters long-familiar, though we are meeting them for the first time.  All-in-all, the first meeting is done so well that this reader cannot help but want to spend more time with the characters, to see how they will develop and what type of predicaments they may find themselves in later.

 

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

For a book published in 1887, I cannot believe how well-paced and easy to read it is, overall.  It does not have simple language or easy prose, by any means, but the narrative voice is so witty and engaging that the pages just turn and turn.  Dr. Watson’s narration via journal form is great and, though it is epistolary in form, it is written as if the reader is witnessing the events in real-time, which allows for a greater depth of involvement and connection to the characters and plot. I also enjoyed the break between “present” narration and the flashback, provided for the benefit of the murderer – that it was separated into two parts to accomplish this was well-planned and received (it kept the main plot from being convoluted or over-powered by the sub-plot).  It was also interesting to get that history and back-story after the crimes had taken place – it was almost as if we were thinking like Holmes – back-tracking from “resolution” to causes, as he claims to do, whenever he is confronted with a mystery.

Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

The attention paid to modern science and medicine, plus historical criminal studies and psychology, really helps to progress the story and to allow the reader a real sense of Holmes’s genius and tenacity.  Holmes is certainly innately gifted, but A Study in Scarlet does give the reader glimpses of how much time and effort Holmes puts into thinking about clues in each case, and about the vast amount of reading and research he has done, in general, to allow himself to become the greatest crime-solver in history.  All of this did not come from nothing – Holmes is talented, yes, but he is not superhuman, though he enjoys being thought of as such! (See quotes 1 & 2 below).  Also, as mentioned above, the sub-plot and back-story of the criminal in America is just brilliant.  The attention to detail that is paid to the Mormons, the establishing of Salt Lake City, and the very real dangers that dissenters to the religion were faced with was wholly unexpected and almost breath-taking.  I was caught completely off-guard by this sub-plot and, while reading it, I could not believe how much new information I was getting – it took the idea of “mystery novel” to an elevated level.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult

Interest: Mystery, Murder-Mystery, Mormonism, Vengeance, History

Notable Quotes:

“I’m not going to tell you much more of the case, Doctor. You know a conjurer gets no credit when once he has explained his trick, and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all.”

“They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” he remarked with a smile. “It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.”

“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

“There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.”

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.”