The Hound of the Baskervilles Introduction
In A Nutshell
Did you know that in The Hound of the Baskervilles, world-famous detective Sherlock Holmes is a zombie? It's true.
Well, in a manner of speaking.
As we mention in our "In a Nutshell" section for The Return of Sherlock Holmes, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (spoiler alert!) kills off his famous detective at the end of the short story "The Final Problem," published in 1894.
We may all love Sherlock Holmes, the classic Victorian gentleman detective who uses his brilliant observations to reason his way to the solutions of 19th-century London's most bizarre crimes. However, Conan Doyle resented the fact that demands for his Holmes stories were overwhelming all of his other, more serious, writing projects. So Conan Doyle killed off Holmes by throwing his character into a waterfall with his archenemy Doctor Moriarty. And then he got down to the business of writing novels hardly anyone reads today, including Rodney Stone (1896) and The Tragedy of the Korosko (1898). (Haven't heard of those? Neither had we.)
Still, while Conan Doyle may have regarded the Holmes stories as trashy fiction, he had to admit that they paid well. Everybody wanted to read about Sherlock Holmes. Very few people wanted to read Conan Doyle's historical novel set during the Napoleonic Wars, Uncle Bernac (1897). So in 1901, Conan Doyle brushed off his detective's old pipe and magnifying glass and produced another Holmes story: the novel-length The Hound of the Baskervilles. He published it first in chapters for the Strand Magazine and then as a book in 1902 (source).
The reason we say that Holmes is a zombie in this novel is not because he has an uncontrollable desire for brains. But The Hound of the Baskervilles came out seven years after Conan Doyle killed off Holmes, supposedly for good. And it also came out four years before Conan Doyle officially brought Holmes back to life, in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905). So, like any good zombie, the Holmes in Hound is both alive and dead: alive because the novel is set before his official "death" in 1894, and dead because the book came out before Conan Doyle really committed to bringing Holmes back permanently.
Conan Doyle first got the idea for a story about a ghost dog during a golf game with an aspiring young journalist and writer named Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who originally came from Devon (the part of southwestern England where The Hound of the Baskervilles is set) (source).
Once Conan Doyle decided to add his old friend Sherlock Holmes to the plot, he had a winner on his hands. The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the most enduringly popular of the Sherlock Holmes stories, with over two dozen film and TV adaptations—including one with a robot Doctor Watson, in Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. What's more, the financial success of The Hound of the Baskervilles in both the U.K. and the U.S. encouraged Conan Doyle to return to writing Holmes stories (source).
The creepy atmosphere and suspenseful plot twists have definitely made Hound one of our favorites of the Sherlock Holmes canon.
Why Should I Care?
Detective Sherlock Holmes and his best friend and biographer Doctor John Watson are one of fiction's great buddy pairings: Holmes and Watson, Frodo and Sam, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Harold and Kumar.
Holmes fans love the genuine affection between Holmes and his long-suffering companion Watson. We can find that bromance in any of the Holmes stories, from A Study in Scarlet (1887) to the short story collection His Last Bow (1917). So why read The Hound of the Baskervilles in particular? Well, what we love about The Hound of the Baskervilles is that it gives good ol' Doctor Watson a chance to shine.
Do you know what it's like to have a friend who is really great at something? Maybe this person swims like a dolphin in the four-hundred-meter freestyle or paints amazing pictures or can achieve level 99 in any World-of-Warcraft-style MMORPG without breaking a sweat. And that's amazing—we love it when our friends have terrific, unusual talents.
But maybe we also have some skills in the swimming, painting, or role-playing departments. And while we may not be jealous of our genius friends, it would be nice to get some acknowledgment that we aren't complete disasters in these areas ourselves. Even if we really like and admire the person who is overshadowing us, it can sometimes be tough to feel like we don't get positive attention for our more modest skills because everyone can't stop looking at the insanely talented person next to us.
This is Watson's situation: we know that he's a smart guy because (a) he's narrating all of these great stories, (b) Holmes sometimes says so, and (c) he's a combat veteran and a doctor. But next to Holmes, everybody seems kind of ordinary, even a creative, intelligent man like Watson. Holmes has so much charisma and brilliance that it can be difficult to notice the steady, hard-working guy by his side.
We love Watson's loyalty and respect for Holmes. But we're also glad to see Watson spend time off on his own, doing some independent investigating, in The Hound of the Baskervilles. He may not crack the case without his buddy, but he makes a lot of important discoveries, and he keeps Sir Henry Baskerville safe against a very serious threat. Watson's intelligence and creativity in The Hound of the Baskervilles gives us a chance to cheer for the underdog, no pun intended. (Full disclosure: it was completely intended.)
We have the other three Holmes novels and four short story collections to focus on Holmes himself (and don't get us wrong—we love the guy). Still, we're glad that we also have The Hound of the Baskervilles to give Watson his place in the sun. We're nominating him for Best Supporting Actor.