Wednesday, December 5, 2012

28. Legends

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”
—The Hound of the Baskervilles

By far the most popular work of the canon, The Hound of the Baskervilles ranked 44th in the ‘100 Books of the Century” as determined by the editors of Le Monde, and one of only ten English-language novels to grace the top 45. The book has been translated more languages, adapted into more films and television serials than any other work in the canon, as well as generating comic books, plays for stage and radio, a musical work (arranged for double bass) and an opera as well as numerous works of homage, parodies, and mentions in various circles of popular culture. Hound also signaled the “return” of Holmes, and an end to the Great Hiatus, although when it began its serialization in The Strand in August of 1901 (not appearing in novel form until nearly a year later), readers wishing for a resurrection of the great detective were dismayed to find that Hound occurs out-of-time, its action taking place four years prior to the events of “The Final Problem.” Sherlock Holmes, for all intents and purposes, was still dead. Disappointment notwithstanding, the popular appreciation of Hound was undaunted, and Conan Doyle himself was soon taken up again with the myth and legend of his creation, writing to his mother that “Holmes is at his very best, and it is a highly dramatic idea”

To appreciate both Hound as its author intended and Conan Doyle’s apparent change of heart regarding Holmes, it is to legends that we must turn our attention. First, considering its popular appeal and continuation of the Holmes canon, we must ask what the novel does to the legend of Holmes. As Pierre Bayard writes in his 2008 book Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles:

There are two ways to solve the mystery of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The first is to find an entirely different point of view from which to read the story—a wholesale reinterpretation in which all of the events take on a different meaning the moment we stop observing them…But this sort of shift is difficult to make; experience shows that it is possible to reread the same text for years before being able to glimpse it from the correct angle […] The second way is to proceed logically through the story […] To reach a solution by this technique, we have only to apply Holmes’s own method.

Indeed from Bayard’s contention, it was Conan Doyle himself who benefitted most from the Great Hiatus, allowing himself—and, consequently, his readership—to find a “correct angle” from which to read of Holmes’s exploits—and, thus, to ossify the elements of the Holmes legend before setting pen to paper once again. In Hound, Holmes is less a character than a presence, appearing only sporadically to address the details of the crime directly, or when an interlocutor, such as Watson or Lestrade, requires his particular cognitive stamina. Where the Memoirs attempted to humanize Holmes but only succeeded in exacerbating the author’s antipathy for the character, Hound reconfigured both the detective—and the detective story—out of its comfort zone. Combining elements of Gothic romance and, by Conan Doyle’s own admission, a “real creeper” of a horror story, Holmes was transfigured onto new territory, which, in turn, gave his deductive abilities a newfound zest. In keeping his actual part in the action of the story minor, Conan Doyle puts his interactions at the highest premium. And Holmes does not disappoint—it is the stuff of legend.

And, in fact, it really was. For The Hound of the Baskervilles has roots in the actual myths and legends of Devon, in England’s West Country, that lends the novel its setting. Returning from volunteering for the British military in the Second Boer War, Conan Doyle made the acquaintance of Bertram Fletcher Robinson, a reporter for the Daily Express newspaper who had been raised in Devon. Traveling back from South Africa, Robinson regaled Conan Doyle with fantastical stories from his boyhood, all drawn from the local folklore. Among these stories were tales of the 17th century squire Richard Cabell, who met his end on the moors whilst on escaping justice on charges of murdering his wife. Cabell, who some in Devon claimed had made a deal with the Devil in a last chance bid to cheat death, was a skilled huntsman in life. After death, perhaps the ill-gotten result of his Mephistophelean bargain, his ghost was said to haunt the moors, leading a pack of demonic hounds ever in search of, but never catching, some elusive prey. Another story, popular among Devonshire school children, was of the Yeth hounds, who, according to E. Cobham Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, compiled and published in 1898, are said to be the spirits of un-baptized children demonically transformed into dogs without heads that roamed the Devon countryside woods at night, wailing and howling.

Obviously inspired by the Robinson and the stories, Conan Doyle originally set upon writing a collaborative work with Robinson based on the Devonshire folk tales, and the two traveled together to the area. Quickly, however, the author’s imagination took him back to his detective. Relocating him from cosmopolitan London to the eerie Devonshire countryside and embroiling him in his most complicated plot to date was just the thing to revivify Holmes. As time came to negotiate publication, however, Conan Doyle must have realized that a multi-author collaborative work was not what publishers or the reading public expected from a Holmes work, but did not shy away from naming his source of inspiration. Writing to Herbert Greenhough Smith, editor at The Strand, Conan Doyle stated “I can answer for the yarn being all my own in my own style without dilution […] But [Robinson] gave me the central idea and the local color, and so I feel his name must appear.”

The degree to which Bertram Fletcher Robinson actually contributed to The Hound of the Baskervilles is lost in history. However, what remains is the obvious care and thoughtfulness the author gave in dedicating the work to his collaborator—a dedication appearing both in its serialization and its eventual publication in novel form—acknowledging his central role in returning the legendary Sherlock Holmes to print:

My dear Robinson,

It was to your account of a West
Country legend that this tale owes its
inception. For this and for your help in
the details all thanks.

Yours most truly,

A. Conan Doyle

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