Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Hound of the Baskervilles & The Sign of the Four [Worth Press]

Arthur Conan Doyle is justly remembered for creating the legendary Sherlock Holmes, but I think he doesn't get enough credit for writing really exciting stories. The ending of The Sign of Four, a boat chase on the Thames, is one of the most thrilling things I've read in a long, long time. Doyle had a real knack for evoking a setting (the bustle and grime of Victorian London, the moors, etc.) while also keeping the pages turning by having Holmes & Watson doing fieldwork and investigating things firsthand, often putting themselves into dangerous situations. I'm sure the character of Sherlock Holmes wouldn't be quite so famous if he were merely an armchair detective like his partial inspiration, Poe's Auguste Dupin.

Worth Literary Classics has compiled two of Doyle's novels into a single book: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of the Four. The former is probably the most famous Sherlock Holmes story, as it's been adapted numerous times for movies and television. The story of Holmes' unravelling of the Baskerville Curse (a giant, hellish hound that attacks members of the Baskerville family) is very atmospheric, though Holmes is absent from the middle chapters and those drag a bit. The Sign of the Four is notable for the romance subplot, which involves Watson falling in love (and proposing) to the lovely Miss Morstan. The main mystery involves a mysterious chest full of Indian riches, a blowgun wielding pygmy (verging on racist in description), and a variation on the classic locked-room murder. The ending is somewhat surprising, as after the climactic boat chase, the main villain explains his motives for the crime via a long flashback to events decades prior. It's interesting stuff, just curiously placed between the climax and the epilogue.

The Worth edition has some evocative, full-colour artwork before the title page: one piece depicts the glowing hound leaping atop Sir Henry Baskerville, with Holmes sprinting to his aid in the background. A map and character summaries are included for The Hound of the Baskervilles, but not for The Sign of the Four. "Figures in a Landscape", the first of three included essays, rambles a bit with no clear thesis but contains some interesting insight. "Nature and Spirit in The Hound of the Baskervilles" discusses Doyle's treatment of rationalism vs. supernaturalism, with an interesting bit at the end about his slide towards spiritualism. There's a strange irony in Doyle, the creator of perhaps the world's most famous logician, immersing himself in supernatural beliefs; while Harry Houdini, then the world's foremost practitioner of magic tricks, devoting himself to debunking magic. The last essay, "Sherlock Holmes, his method and his mind", is a bit of a weird one that sounds more interesting than it turns out. It's written by a former crime scene investigator, and purports to discuss whether or not Holmes would belong as a modern detective. The conclusion? Holmes needs crash-training in police ethics. The author does perceptively note that Doyle was ahead of his time in his use of "fractured story telling" to show only bits and pieces of the story, and then often out of chronological order.

So if you're ever wondering, yes the original Sherlock Holmes stories hold up quite well.
NEXT: Jane Austen's Mansfield Park

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