Study Guide

The Hound of the Baskervilles Cunning and Cleverness

By Arthur Conan Doyle

Cunning and Cleverness

"Well, Watson, what do you make of it?"

Holmes was sitting with his back to me, and I had given him no sign of my occupation.

"How did you know what I was doing? I believe you have eyes in the back of your head."

"I have, at least, a well-polished, silver-plated coffee-pot in front of me," said he. (1.2-5)

Holmes is awesome and Watson is confused. Or at least, that's what these first sentences from The Hound of the Baskervilles establish: Holmes can make use of any tool at hand—even something as ordinary as a silver coffee pot—to make observations about the people around him. Watson's role in these conversations is to be the one to ask Holmes, "How did you know?" Without Watson, there'd be no way for Holmes to show off his reasoning. And without Holmes, Watson would not have a fascinating subject to explore in all his stories. The two of them are perfect complements.

"No mention of that local hunt, Watson," said Holmes with a mischievous smile, "but a country doctor, as you very astutely observed. I think that I am fairly justified in my inferences. As to the adjectives, I said, if I remember right, amiable, unambitious, and absent-minded. It is my experience that it is only an amiable man in this world who receives testimonials, only an unambitious one who abandons a London career for the country, and only an absent-minded one who leaves his stick and not his visiting-card after waiting an hour in your room." (1.34)

Holmes isn't just good at figuring out what happened or who did what; he's also an excellent reader of character. Holmes often gives us direct assessments of the different characters in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and we can't think of a single instance where he gets it wrong. In fact, he's so spot-on that we discuss Holmes' explanations as one of the narrative tools that Conan Doyle uses to portray character in our section on "Character Clues."

"If he were in a hurry it opens up the interesting question why he should be in a hurry, since any letter posted up to early morning would reach Sir Henry before he would leave his hotel. Did the composer fear an interruption—and from whom?"

"We are coming now rather into the region of guesswork," said Dr. Mortimer.

"Say, rather, into the region where we balance probabilities and choose the most likely. It is the scientific use of the imagination, but we have always some material basis on which to start our speculation." (4.40-2)

The line that Holmes proposes here between imagination and science seems pretty thin, especially since Holmes' "genius" is all taking place against the backdrop of a fictional narrative. Do you believe that Holmes' deductions are scientific? Considering that material observation is considered the basis for the scientific method, Shmoop votes "yes" with reservations. Reservations because he's got a cheat sheet—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

"I was looking out for loiterers in the street, but I saw none. We are dealing with a clever man, Watson. This matter cuts very deep, and though I have not finally made up my mind whether it is a benevolent or a malevolent agency which is in touch with us, I am conscious always of power and design." (4.99)

The Hound of the Baskervilles is careful to emphasize not only Holmes' smarts but also Stapleton's. (At this point, of course, Holmes does not know that the spy watching Sir Henry is Stapleton the murderer.) After all, if the novel doesn't even pretend that there's a chance that Holmes might fail, why would we keep reading? There wouldn't be any suspense if Holmes' opponent was too easy to outsmart.

"I tell you, Watson, this time we have got a foeman who is worthy of our steel. I've been checkmated in London." (5.142)

Holmes' use of the word "checkmated" here catches our attention—it's a pretty general term for failure, of course, but the "checkmate" also applies specifically to final defeat in a game of chess. Indeed, often Holmes seems to think of his adventures out-thinking Stapleton as a game of strategy. Why do you think that Holmes is in this business of detection? Does he have a strong moral sense, or is it just the best way for him to test his wits? Can you imagine Holmes ever turning to crime? Why or why not?

"I wonder what your friend Holmes would do if he were here."

"I believe that he would do exactly what you now suggest," said I. "He would follow Barrymore and see what he did."

"Then we shall do it together." (9.6-8)

Sir Henry and Watson mention Holmes here as a model for what detectives should do, so they're trying to learn from Holmes' example. Also, has anyone noticed that it's been a while since Holmes actually appeared in this novel? This passage comes from Chapter 9, and Holmes left Watson at the train station in Chapter 6. It's been about three chapters since we've had any serious Holmes time, and we're starting to miss him. Maybe he comes up in conversation here just to reassure us that we are reading a Holmes story and that he will be reappearing with his usual intellectual fireworks.

And so it was arranged. Resisting Stapleton's offer of hospitality, Holmes and I set off to Baskerville Hall, leaving the naturalist to return alone. Looking back we saw the figure moving slowly away over the broad moor, and behind him that one black smudge on the silvered slope which showed where the man was lying who had come so horribly to his end. (12.136)

This passage comes after the sudden death of Selden out on the moors, when Holmes and Watson meet Stapleton as he's coming to see if the dead body belongs to Sir Henry Baskerville (as he hopes). Stapleton (of course) doesn't admit that he's shocked at the identity of the dead man, and Holmes and Watson do not give away that they know he is guilty of murder. At this point in the plot, when we know whodunit and we're waiting to see how Holmes will stop him, the novel really changes tone. It stops being a mystery and starts being match of wits between Holmes and Stapleton. (Stapleton is obviously going to lose this match, but we keep on reading to see exactly how.)

"But one last word, Watson. Say nothing of the hound to Sir Henry. Let him think that Selden's death was as Stapleton would have us believe. He will have a better nerve for the ordeal which he will have to undergo tomorrow, when he is engaged, if I remember your report aright, to dine with these people." (13.18)

Holmes knows how people tick, and he knows how to push them to get them to act. Still, with the exception of Watson, he doesn't seem to have many friends. He likes Sir Henry, but he's still perfectly willing to use him as bait to draw out Stapleton. Holmes' highly rational and utilitarian way of looking at people often makes him seem cold and remote. It's not a good way to win friends. Luckily, Watson is around to show us Holmes' warmer side.

"Mr. Holmes," she said, "this man had offered me marriage on condition that I could get a divorce from my husband. He has lied to me, the villain, in every conceivable way. Not one word of truth has he ever told me. And why—why? I imagined that all was for my own sake. But now I see that I was never anything but a tool in his hands. Why should I preserve faith with him who never kept any with me? Why should I try to shield him from the consequences of his own wicked acts?" (13.123)

It's hard even to think of the words "Holmes" and "romantic" in the same sentence. But he's perfectly able to use other people's romantic feelings to his advantage. Here, he recognizes Laura Lyons' weak point: her belief that Stapleton will marry her. And indeed, as soon as Holmes mentions that Beryl is Stapleton's wife and not his sister, Laura immediately turns on her faithless lover. Holmes may not be personally interested in love—too messy—but he totally understands the crazy things it makes people do. In fact, maybe it's because he understands love as a motive in human behavior that he doesn't seem to want anything to do with it. His friendship with Watson appears to provide all the emotional connection he needs.

As we watched it the fog-wreaths came crawling round both corners of the house and rolled slowly into one dense bank on which the upper floor and the roof floated like a strange ship upon a shadowy sea. Holmes struck his hand passionately upon the rock in front of us and stamped his feet in his impatience.

"If he isn't out in a quarter of an hour the path will be covered. In half an hour we won't be able to see our hands in front of us." (14.30-1)

Holmes is about as clever and cunning as they come, but there are still limits to what he can do. He can't personally stop the fog from rolling in over the moors, even though it may be enough to ruin his ambush of Stapleton. This detail reminds us that, even in a story that values cleverness and intellect, there are still things that you just can't plan for or control, even if you are Sherlock Holmes.