Reading History: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles

I remember it well, the first time I encountered this story. I was in I think probably fourth or fifth class in primary school in St. Paul’s. Our teacher was out sick, and we had a substitute teacher in the shape of Mr Ryan. Of the many teachers I had over the years, I never was actually taught by Mr Ryan, few have gifted me with something as profound as he did by choosing to ignore the usual run of our schooling while substituting for the other teacher.

hound
The cover of the novelised version of the story in 1902.

Instead, over the course of probably two or three days, he simply read to the class the story The Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps the most famous of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. At the time Mr Ryan read this story to us, I was first beginning to discover fantasy writing and was reading The Hobbit by Tolkien at home. It seemed to me a lovely coming together of new ideas and ways of hearing stories. Mr Ryan relished the telling of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and it was often requested apparently that he read it in whole or in part usually when he was prevailed upon to cover as a substitute.

Since then, I have only grown to love this story more and more. It was almost certianly my first introduction to the idea of a meta-narrative – a story within a story – through the letter explaining the Baskerville curse and in Watson’s own telling of things. It is also I am sure responsible, as Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes must be for millions of others, for my love of mystery, detective fiction and historical fiction.

Few stories manage to combine so many elements as this one story. The cleverness, the misdirection of ourselves, the reader, through our unreliable narrator Watson, who is – like us – desperate to emulate and outwit Holmes, is astounding.

There are few books, and even fewer fictional stories, which I can read again and again, but The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of those rare stories. There have been countless television, film and radio versions of this classic tale that makes us question the gap between what’s rational and what’s fantastical, but there is no greater pleasure than sitting down by yourself to read that opening paragraph that spins out to one of the most remarkable tales written in the English language:

Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a “Penang lawyer.” Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. “To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,” was engraved upon it, with the date “1884.” It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry — dignified, solid, and reassuring.

The story too, after all these years is itself still solid and reassuring. The reason why, when you read it, is no mystery.

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