The Hound of the Baskervilles – Movie Adaptation (1959)

Movie Details

Originally released in 1959
Screenplay by Peter Bryan based on The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Directed by Terence Fisher

Key Cast

Peter Cushing is probably most known to audiences today for his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars film but he was also a frequent performer in the Hammer Horror film series where he played roles such as Van Helsing and Baron Frankenstein. This was his first appearance as Holmes but he would revisit the part a decade later, including this same story, as part of a BBC television series.

Christopher Lee was one of the most prolific and well-known faces in cinema, often portraying villains such as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. Like Cushing, he was also highly associated with the Hammer Horror films. A few years after this film he performed in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, another Terence Fisher production, this time as Holmes himself and would play the role again twice in the early 90s.

The Verdict

This atmospheric adaptation highlights the horror of the premise quite effectively. Cushing is very good as Holmes, though he is even better in the later television adaptation.


My Thoughts

The 1959 film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles is interesting in several respects. It was the first Sherlock Holmes film to be made in color and while it shows some signs of its budgetary limitations, the location filming adds a sense of scale that benefits the tale. It is also the first appearance of Peter Cushing as the Great Detective – a part he would reprise a decade later for a television series which included a feature-length adaptation of the same story. This means that we have the rather unusual situation of having two takes by the same actor on the same story and can observe some differences between them.

The film opens with a rather lusty and quite lengthy rendition of the Baskerville family legend. While the period details don’t exactly scream English Civil War to me, the general beats of the tale are there – a young woman is chased across the moor by the brutish Sir Hugo Baskerville who, moments after stabbing her, is savagely torn to pieces by a giant, devilish hound. While rather overblown (and overacted), this sequence serves two purposes – firstly to emphasize that this is a Hammer film and that the horror and action of the story will be emphasised, and secondly it limits the length of the consultation scene in which Dr. Mortimer will explain the matter to Holmes by showing us what happened rather than telling us in conversation.

From this point we switch to the consultation in which we get our first sense of Holmes and how Cushing will play him. He is certainly cold and rather imperious in these scenes which suits the tone of the production (he is a little warmer and more humorous in the television version) and there is a sense of a great energy that I consider an important part of the character. This is particularly obvious in later sequences in the film in which we see him actively examining a location as he moves quickly across the space. Perhaps most striking however is just how closely he resembles the Paget illustrations, especially in the prominence of his cheekbones and the deepness of the eyes.

While the consultation and the scenes that follow in London are certainly considerably abridged from the novel, the story does follow the basic structure. Dr. Mortimer explains why he fears for the life of the last of the Baskervilles and entreats Holmes to advise Sir Henry on whether he should go to the Hall. They visit him in his hotel, witness some signs that further emphasize the danger he is in (including a rather ridiculous animal-based assassination attempt that thankfully is quite brief), and make arrangements for Watson to stay with him for his protection while Holmes has to stay in London.

The great problem of The Hound of the Baskervilles as a Holmes vehicle is, of course, that the Great Detective is hardly in it. That is one reason why the actor playing Sir Henry was billed above Sherlock Holmes in several of the earlier film adaptations. This version keeps that structure which makes the casting of Watson and Sir Henry Baskerville all the more important as they will have to carry the mid-section of the film.

André Morell plays Watson and offers a good counterbalance to Cushing. He is not as warm as some other versions of the character but he comes over as dependable and competent, if not blessed with Holmes’ deductive genius. While he will have some clumsy misadventures during his time on the moors, they come about because of his desire to protect others rather than because he is an inherently bumbling type and he retains his dignity throughout.

Christopher Lee portrayed Sir Henry and it is rather interesting to see him in a role that is rather more heroic than he normally got to play. Indeed, as he notes in an interview that is included on the Twilight Time blu ray I watched, this represents one of the very few films in his career where he played, against type, a romantic lead. It’s a rather solid performance although that romantic subplot is rather rushed (though that clearly is not his fault) and he plays very nicely off both Cushing and Morell.

The film does a good job of capturing the scale of the moor and making it a threatening location, both in terms of suggesting that it is being stalked by a giant spectral hound but also by emphasizing its marshiness. This is most clearly shown in a sequence in which Watson falls in while trying to protect a woman. This not only creates a moment of peril, it also establishes the dangers of the crossing the mire which is an important point for later in the story.

It should be said that while the film does keep many of the plot beats of the original story there are a number of changes made, some small and some bigger. Some of these struck me as a little silly – the aforementioned assassination attempt at the hotel and a sequence involving a mine shaft are clearly there just to add visual peril as well as some suggestion of some satanic rites being performed on a body – but I feel the simplification of the villain’s role and plan is a pity. That character feels much flatter than in most of the other versions of this story I have seen as a result, making them seem less impressive as an adversary.

While this adaptation may not be as faithful as I might like, I should say that it is more faithful than I expected. The film captures a lot of the elements that I like about the story and works hard to evoke an atmosphere of dread, often with success. Most of the roles are cast well and I think Cushing proves to be a very impressive Holmes, though I personally prefer his subsequent TV portrayal where he gets to show some lighter, warmer sides to the character along with the sometimes stern and aloof characterization we see here.

It may not be the perfect adaptation of this novel but it is an entertaining one and worth a look if you are already a fan of the story.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Book Details

Originally Published in 1902
Sherlock Holmes #5
Preceded by The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Followed by The Return of Sherlock Holmes

The Blurb

The country doctor had come to 221B Baker Street, the famous lodgings of Sherlock Holmes, with an eerie tale—the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles, the devil-beast that haunted the lonely moors around the Baskervilles’ ancestral home. The tale warned the descendants of that ancient family never to venture out on the moor. But Sir Charles Baskerville was now dead—and the footprints of a giant hound have been found near his body. Would the new heir of the Baskervilles meet the same dreadful fate?

Sherlock Holmes and his faithful friend, Dr. Watson, are faced with their most terrifying case in this wonderful classic of masterful detection and bone-chilling suspense.

The Verdict

While I have issues with some loose plotting, this atmospheric story has some wonderful imagery.


My Thoughts

The Hound of the Baskervilles begins with Holmes receiving a visit from Dr. James Mortimer. He has come to consult him on the strange circumstances surrounding the death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville who had been found dead on the grounds surrounding his home on Dartmoor.

The direct cause of death was a heart attack but Mortimer notes that his friend’s face seemed to be frozen in an expression of terror. Near the body the enormous footprint of a hound was found, leading some to speculate that he may have been killed by the demonic beast said to have been responsible for the premature death of many of Sir Charles’ ancestors.

Sir Charles’ heir has recently arrived in London and intends to take up the property but has received a warning urging him not to visit the moors. Holmes agrees to meet with him and, upon learning of some strange occurrences surrounding him, he decides he will send Watson with Sir Henry to Dartmoor to protect him and to try and uncover the truth of what is going on.

If Sherlock Holmes is, for many people, The Detective then The Hound of the Baskervilles must surely be The Detective Novel. It is a work that has enjoyed a tremendous reach thanks to countless adaptations and the clear influence it has had over many subsequent works in the genre. The only comparable titles I can think of in the genre would be Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None.

I have previously shared my opinion that Holmes is a character that really doesn’t suit long form fiction as well as the short story. Both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four have points of interest but I feel each has a structural problem. For those unfamiliar with those books, at the midpoint of each Holmes identifies a crucial figure and the remainder of the books becomes a historical tale explaining the background to the events we have witnessed.

What this means in practice is that only the first half of each book is a mystery – the remainder is explanation. The case, it seems, concludes long before the novel does. Given how energetic and driven the Holmes chapters are, the sudden switch to a slower historical storytelling feels very jarring and only emphasizes how little tension or sense of discovery there is in the second half of each book.

The Hound of the Baskervilles has quite a different structure and it is all the better for it. Rather than try to sustain Holmes’ bursts of energy throughout an entire novel, Doyle opts to keep him in the background for much of the more routine parts of the investigation and has Watson take the lead.

The decision to split up Holmes and Watson is to the benefit of both characters. Watson, able to act with more freedom and less scrutiny than usual in these stories, is given a chance to interview each of the characters involved at a more leisurely pace, share his own ideas about the case, and even have a memorable late night adventure of his own on the moors.

Holmes is then able to swoop back into the story at a critical point close to the end of the book and take over the investigation. At that point we have been so eagerly anticipating his direct involvement in the case that it makes that moment feel even more important and exciting. As he reenters the story very late in the proceedings, Doyle is able to naturally sustain Holmes’ incredible energy to build a pacy, action-driven and pretty satisfying conclusion.

The Hound of the Baskervilles not only fixes the principal problems with its two predecessors, it also retains one of the elements that was most successful in them. Each of the preceding novels contained horrific elements whether that was the gory message written on a wall in blood in A Study in Scarlet or Sholto’s terrible sense of fear in The Sign of Four. This novel also evokes a sense of fear but incorporates a stronger sense of the supernatural, particularly in those passages that describe the hound itself. Where previous stories have seen Holmes explain the inexplicable, here he has to rationalize what appears diabolical.

The most obvious horror element is the hound itself. Doyle does a lot well, including giving an intriguing origin for the beast and tying it to the victim’s own family history. Throw in the desolate landscape of the moors and you have something that I think really strikes the imagination. While part of the reason that this story gets adapted so often is the plotting, this story also features some really strong visual storytelling and plenty of elements that evoke a sense of atmosphere.

While I think this is a significant improvement on the two novels that went before it, I do have to point to some elements that I do not find entirely successful. The first of these is a crucial issue with the villain’s plans. Doyle himself clearly recognizes this – he actually has Holmes point it out and describe the problem – but then he flubs the opportunity to actually answer this, simply dismissing it as something they would have addressed later.

Is it unrealistic that someone may enact a plan without having every element thought through? Perhaps not. But I find it difficult to accept that someone would accept the degree of risk their plan entails with no certainty of the benefit. While I am no fan of the detective not having all the answers, surely someone could have provided one after the fact. It just feels very untidy.

Similarly there is an issue that Watson identifies at the end that Holmes tries to answer through conjecture. While the explanation Holmes posits would fit the facts, I feel it is a bit of a stretch to fit in with the other things we know about the villain’s personality.

My final issue with the book is that there is a moment where everyone seems to show a pretty breathtaking lack of humanity (ROT13: Gur qvfpbirel gung n qrnq obql vf abg Onfxreivyyr ohg gur pbaivpg). While this would certainly fit with the character of Holmes himself, I was surprised that others did not seem to be affected in any way by what has happened – particularly Watson.

Now others may suggest that this, like many of the Holmes stories, is more adventure than detective story. There is at least a grain of truth to this, particularly in the middle section of the book. In these chapters we do learn a few important points that seem to point to the guilty party but there are quite a few red herrings too.

I feel however that this is one of those cases where many of Holmes’ observations are grounded in solid, logical thought. Sure, the villain’s identity feels obvious from the start but Holmes’ reasons for dismissing the supernatural explanation and for forming his ideas about what was happening could be easily replicated by the reader being based on the application of some simple ideas and logic.

Though not perfect, The Hound of the Baskervilles feels like a much more cohesive story than either of the two previous novels. When I reviewed each of them I counselled that those new to Holmes would be best served to skip over those novels and return to them after reading the short stories. Clearly I am not advising the same here.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is not only one of the most famous Holmes stories, it is one of his more entertaining ones too.

Sherlock Holmes Magazine

The cover for the first issue.

This week has been a frustrating one as I have been stuck at home waiting for the results of a COVID test (I feel fine – it’s a contact tracing thing). Thankfully the much-awaited first issue of Sherlock Holmes Magazine showed up when I needed it most, serving as an excellent form of diversion.

I first saw news of the publication on Twitter and had been intrigued enough to add myself to the preorders list. While I admit to not being as devoted a Sherlockian as my father (who had files full of various fanzines and publications in his office when I was growing up), I have enough interest in the Great Detective that I thought it could be interesting. That interest only grew when I saw that the magazine would not only cover the canon but the many derivative works and adaptations that have been done over the years.

For those who are curious, the magazine is glossy and heavily illustrated. It is larger than the typical US magazine, clocking in at about 12 inches by 8.25. It feels like it could sit very comfortably on any newsagents’ shelf, although being self-published and having a very limited print run, it unfortunately lacks that store shelf visibility.

The magazine contains some short snippets of news at the front but the bulk of the pages are devoted to feature articles. Some focus on the various adaptations such as the feature on the tenth anniversary of Sherlock or the fun article defending Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Watson. I found most of these to be interesting, particularly the piece discussing the history of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I hope that future issues may see similar features for some more obscure adapted or inspired works.

There are also several articles that focus on Doyle’s texts themselves such as an article about Moriarty or the fascinating one discussing how the stories came to be banned in Switzerland. I found these to be just as engaging and felt I learned something from each of them, particularly the latter. I suspect that the biggest challenge for the magazine will be creating new book-focused material that hits that sweet spot between being accessible to a wider audience and providing something of interest to devoted Sherlockians but based on this first issue I have confidence that they are up to the task.

Finally there are a couple of pieces that are quirkier and harder to categorize. The one that stands out most is the article about the Holmes tartan. This is beautifully illustrated but was probably the least interesting of the articles to me. Others may feel differently though and while the content was not particularly tailored to my own interests, I did appreciate it as a change of pace. I prefered the Holmes in Lockdown piece, discussing the Don’t Go Into The Cellar plays performed on the web during lockdown. These were completely new to me and felt surprisingly timely (I had assumed that much of the content would have been written prior to the COVID breakout).

Overall, given that this was a first issue I was very impressed. A few sections – particularly the Letters to the Editor pages – feel like works in progress (they probably would benefit from comments in response) but my overall impression has been very positive. This is a far more polished product than I had expected I would receive and as a result I feel very happy and keen to get subsequent issues. This publication seems have a lot of promise.

I think there are only two issues I have with the publication. The first is that I would love to see a reviews section focusing on new Sherlockian material or, failing that, at least an article specifically laying out what new things are on the horizon. Perhaps that will come with future issues.

The other is that there is a whole page advert at the end of this issue advertising how to subscribe but following the link takes you to a page that says subscriptions are still not available. I hope that gets updated soon: I would love to be able to sign up and support the venture going forwards.

While the first issue’s limited print run sold out very quickly, the producers have recently announced they have done a second printing and stock is available once again. If you are interested in finding out more and maybe reading a copy for yourself, check out their website for further details.

The Sherlock Holmes Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

Book Details

Originally published 2015

The Blurb

The Sherlock Holmes Book, the latest in DK’s award-winning Big Ideas Simply Explained series, tackles the most “elementary” of subjects — the world of Sherlock Holmes, as told by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Sherlock Holmes Book is packed with witty illustrations, clear graphics, and memorable quotes that make it the perfect Sherlock Holmes guide, covering every case of the world’s greatest detective, from A Study in Scarlet to The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, placing the stories in a wider context. Stories include at-a-glance flowcharts that show how Holmes reaches his conclusions through deductive reasoning, and character guides provide handy reference for readers and an invaluable resource for fans of the Sherlock Holmes films and TV series.

The Sherlock Holmes Book holds a magnifying glass to the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective.

The Verdict

An attractive coffee table volume best dipped into after reading a particular story.


My Thoughts

Dorling Kindersley’s Big Ideas, Simply Explained series is intended to provide broad and accessible introductions to a range of different topics. Other volumes had tackled topics like Politics, Philosophy and the works of Shakespeare, breaking down ideas to make them easily accessible and identifying key themes and developments.

The books are typically large format hardcovers (though there is a paperback version of this title), have a common layout and feature attractive graphics, charts and easy-to-read information boxes. While they can be read cover-to-cover, they are equally well suited to being dipped into as a more casual, coffee-table sort of read.

The Sherlock Holmes Book sticks pretty close to this formula. Its opening chapters provide biographies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the key characters in the series – Sherlock Holmes, Watson and Professor Moriarty. These are done well, offering some analysis into their characters and reference some of the real life figures that were sources of inspiration for them.

Following this we get to the meat of the book – a story-by-story exploration of the chronological canon of Holmes novels and short stories. Every one of the original stories is outlined and discussed with diagrams illustrating key deductions, plot points and relationships. In addition there are often sections that will explore a key reference or theme in more detail such as opium use, phrenology or myths about hell hounds.

At this point I probably should address the book’s ideal audience. The material here, while interesting and entertaining, is perhaps best pitched at the more casual Holmes fan rather than the complete newcomer or the aficionado. The inclusion of the solutions means that the entries should be read after reading the respective story and while I found some points of interest, the most seasoned Holmes enthusiasts will likely already know most of the material here.

In my own case I intend to make use of the book to browse in instances where I need to quickly refresh myself on a solution, make sure I am thinking of a correct title or to check a character name or identity. While I also own the ebook version, I much prefer to use the physical edition which is much easier to browse and more attractively laid out. The pricing is currently quite different however so if you are interested be sure to take a look at the sample pages to see which version suits you best (the physical edition can be sampled here).

The final fifth of the book discusses the enduring popularity and legacy of the character as well as his appearances in other forms, media and continuation novels. These cover many of the major releases through 2015 (it ends with Mr. Holmes) and unexpectedly for me this was the part of the book that offered me the most new information. There were several productions I was completely unaware of and I found myself making a list of other adaptations, reworkings and continuations to seek out.

Overall I am happy I picked up copies of this handsome book though I did so at a heavy discount. I enjoyed dipping into various entries and while I was aware of much of the information here already, I know this would have been enormously useful to me when I first began to delve deeper into the world of Sherlock Holmes. Whether it will have much value for you depends on how well you already know the canon and your interest in delving a little deeper into the background to the creation of those stories. For those with a stronger interest they might be better to look to some of the more scholarly works and journal articles about the series.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Book Details

This collection was originally published in 1893. It contains stories published in The Strand between 1892 and 1893.

Sherlock Holmes #4
Preceded by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Followed by The Hound of the Baskervilles

Note: some editions, including the first, exclude The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. If purchasing separately make sure that the story is either in your copy of Memoirs or His Last Bow if you wish to collect the whole Holmes canon.

The Blurb

In The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective’s notoriety as the arch-despoiler of the schemes concocted by the criminal underworld at last gets the better of him.

Though Holmes and his faithful sidekick Dr Watson solve what will become some of their most bizarre and extraordinary cases – the disappearance of the race horse Silver Blaze, the horrific circumstances of the Greek Interpreter and the curious mystery of the Musgrave Ritual among them – a criminal mastermind is plotting the downfall of the great detective.

Half-devil, half-genius, Professor Moriarty leads Holmes and Watson on a grisly cat-and-mouse chase through London and across Europe, culminating in a frightful struggle which will turn the legendary Reichenbach Falls into a water double-grave . . .

The Verdict

Though the stories may not be as famous as those in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, there are several that struck me as among Conan Doyle’s best.


My Thoughts

Today I continue my series of posts in which I revisit stories from the classic Holmes canon. This time it is the turn of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes – a volume that contains several of Holmes’ most famous cases.

The Adventure of Silver Blaze remains one of the most iconic Holmes short stories which I think reflects its relative simplicity. It is a good story with a simple but cunning solution.

The Final Problem is similarly quite superbly atmospheric and contains some thrilling action moments. Not to mention it introduces us to Moriarty – one of the most significant characters in the Holmes canon.

Not every story thread proves successful. Stories like The Adventure of the Cardboard Box feel rather silly and some repeat themes and ideas. Still, even when Conan Doyle’s plotting fails to thrill, he is always highly readable and gives us some truly great moments here.

Continue reading “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle”

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of Four
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1890
Sherlock Holmes #2
Preceded by A Study in Scarlet
Followed by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Also titled The Sign of the Four

I have a couple of ongoing reading projects on this blog but probably the one I am enjoying most is working back through the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have written before about their importance to my development as a reader of crime and mystery fiction and while I have found some stories simply didn’t match up to my memory of them, it is fun to return to these stories and look at them with fresh eyes.

The Sign of Four is one of the stories that I recall thinking quite highly of when I read it for the first time but I will admit to not having revisited it once since I first read it. I am not even sure that I saw the Jeremy Brett adaptation in spite of owning a copy on DVD.

The novel begins with a restless Holmes complaining about the lack of mental stimulation from his work. That situation changes however when he is consulted by Mary Morstan, a woman whose father disappeared a decade earlier after returning from India. Six years ago she began to receive a pearl in the mail at yearly intervals from an anonymous benefactor after she responded to a newspaper advertisement inquiring after her. That anonymous benefactor included with the most recent pearl a request for a meeting, telling her in the note that she was a wronged woman.

Holmes takes on the case and sets about trying to uncover the identity of the sender of the pearls. The trail will lead him to discover a body, poisoned with a dart, and start him on a search to find the man’s killer.

The opening to this book is absolutely wonderful and I think it goes a long way toward solidifying Holmes’ character. Watson’s criticism of his friend’s reliance on drugs (that famous “seven per cent solution of my own devising” for stimulation gives us a window into Holmes’ personality, making his desire to solve crimes a compulsion.

I also really quite enjoy the passage in which Holmes draws a series of inferences from his observations about a watch in his friend’s possession. Sometimes I feel these sequences in which Holmes shows off his craft can feel a little hollow or like they contain short skips in logic but I feel that the deductive chain here is far more solid and convincing.

As a child I was quite taken with the scope of the tale on offer here, particularly given how this is a story that is rooted in historical events and describes actions that took place a continent away. Having since become better read in the mystery genre, I can see that this story shares a fair amount in common with The Moonstone, itself a totemic work in the genre. While I think this story is a separate and distinct work, I was a little less taken with its inventiveness on this second reading.

I think the bigger issue though is a structural one.

The first part of the story is quite engaging as we rattle around London and meet figures from the Morstan family’s past. Not only is Holmes in strong form, the question of the pearls feels significantly odd that, even knowing the solution in advance, I felt drawn into the story once again. I also found the characters we are introduced to in this first part of the novel, particularly Thaddeus Sholto, colorful and entertaining and enjoyed learning more about his own family history.

I also quite liked Mary Morstan, even if Watson’s romantic pangs (if not yearns!) can read a little laughably. It all goes to show that Watson is at heart an old romantic, even if he can’t count his wives correctly.

The problems come in the lengthy account that closes out the story. Having pushed all of the action and incident to the front of the novel, this final section feels very static by comparison. While this problem is hardly unique to this novel – A Study in Scarlet had many of the same issues – The Sign of Four is less entertaining because of the type of information we are being given.

In that earlier book the reminiscences section is full of information we could never have known but for that account. Here however we should have already worked out a general idea of what had happened so rather than providing us with brand new information we are instead really just filling in the gaps. Unsurprisingly this makes for a significantly less compelling reading experience.

In addition to the structural similarities there is also some thematic overlap with the previous title. This is unfortunate, particularly when you read the two novels back-to-back, as it makes them seem a little less creative. This reliance on formula is all the more striking when you consider the diversity of story type and theme on offer in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

So unfortunately I can’t say that The Sign of Four quite lived up to my memories of it. There isn’t much mystery to engage the reader past the murder itself and the last third of the book is a drag. All of which is part of the reason I think first time Holmes readers would be well advised to skip the early novels and go straight to the far more rewarding short story collections.

Further Reading

Puzzle Doctor shares his views on this novel and, like me, was not enamored with the ‘really dull’ flashbacks.

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

scarlet
A Study in Scarlet
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1947
Sherlock Holmes #1
Followed by The Sign of Four

Yesterday I teased on my Twitter account that this week I would be discussing the first appearance of one of the most iconic detectives in literature. That detective is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Though A Study in Scarlet introduced readers to Sherlock Holmes it was not my first encounter with the character. That was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which I followed with the other short story collections and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

By the time I reached A Study in Scarlet I must have been about twelve years old. I recall being tremendously excited that my secondary school library had a copy and checking it out, looking forward to experiencing this piece of literary history for myself. Unfortunately twelve-year-old me ended up being somewhat disappointed with the tale but I have revisited it several times since then and found I appreciated aspects of it more than I did back then.

The story begins by introducing us to Dr. John Watson, an army medical officer who has returned to England to convalesce after being wounded in service in Afghanistan. A friend introduces him to Sherlock Holmes who, he notes, is rather odd but in need of someone to share lodgings with in the city. He soon becomes curious about Holmes’ work and is invited along when the consulting detective is summoned by Inspector Gregson to take a look at a strange crime scene.

They find a man dead with a grotesque expression on his face. There are no signs indicating a physical altercation about the corpse or in the room but a word ‘Rache‘ has been written on the wall in blood…

When reading this I am always struck by just how effective these opening chapters are and how well Conan Doyle establishes the characters of Watson and Holmes. Later stories add more details to both men’s lives but I think the core elements of each character’s personality are present already and I really enjoy their interactions.

Probably my favorite of these moments occurs early in the second chapter. It is a passage in which Watson attempts to catalog Holmes’ limitations only to give up in frustration. Holmes intrigues and yet baffles Watson as he cannot understand the detective’s absolute focus on developing some skills and knowledge at the expense of other, more everyday pieces of information.

What I like about this section and, indeed, the character of Holmes in general is that he is established to be flawed rather than superhuman. Watson likes him and so we are inclined to do so as well and yet it is clear that he could be frustrating company. Perhaps more importantly though the flaws help justify the brilliance and there is something quite entrancing about following his deductions and investigative process even if it is rarely fair play.

Similarly I think the two sequences in which Holmes and Watson investigate crime scenes are quite effectively written, particularly the first one. The message written in blood on the wall is perhaps an excessively dramatic touch (though it was one of the parts of the novel that really worked for me as a pre-teen) but I think the puzzle is surprisingly subtle. Holmes’ observations and explanations are clever and when the circumstances of the murders are explained in the final chapters of the novel I think the crime scenes make sense.

The problems with the book are found in its second half which suddenly diverges from the style and tone of the story up until that point, telling a historical narrative. This was an enormous shock to me when I first read it as it doesn’t feel integrated into Watson’s narrative. It wasn’t what I had been expecting and didn’t match what I wanted from the book at all, striking me as dull.

On revisiting the novel I find more to appreciate in these chapters. While the change of style and setting is quite abrupt, I think Conan Doyle’s depiction of the landscape and the realities of a harsh journey in the first chapter are quite striking and evocative. There is a sense of isolation and a need to survive in difficult circumstances that I think he really conveys well.

What doesn’t work for me is the tone of the second half of the novel in which every emotion is heightened to an absurd degree. Whether it is a moment of sickly sweetness in the midst of despair or the “so it has been decreed” speeches, this second half of the book lacks subtlety of character or in terms of the situations Conan Doyle creates. I would even say that it is so over the top that rather than encouraging empathy it makes the plight of the characters seem unreal.

The return to London and the narrative voice of Dr. Watson is welcome and the final few chapters of the book do a good job of pulling together the information and explaining how Holmes was able to identify the killer. Some aspects of their motivation and plan are explained and while Conan Doyle still employs that heightened, dramatic tone at times, I think he finds a better balance with the colder analytical voice of Sherlock Holmes to end on a stronger note.

Were it not for its status as the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes I suspect we would not remember A Study in Scarlet as a standout story. It has some wonderful moments that establish the characters of Holmes and Watson as well as two interesting murders but the second half of the book feels drawn out and very heavy. Still, it is a landmark adventure for the character and for that reason alone I think it is worth experiencing.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by Poison (How)

Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards

Manor
Murder at the Manor
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2016

Though I have been something of a skeptic when it comes to short crime fiction in the past these British Library anthologies curated by Martin Edwards have helped turn me around on the possibilities of the form. Over the past year I bought most of these collections and have been slowly working through them.

Murder at the Manor takes the iconic country house setting as its focus, presenting us with sixteen tales from authors from a variety of backgrounds and styles. In some cases however the setting plays little role in the story itself and few convey any real sense of those impressive historic homes.

The result is a collection that can feel a little uneven compared to some of the others in the range. A few stories such as The Problem of Dead Wood Hall and The Long Shot left me quite unimpressed. There are some stories though that I can strongly recommend that make this worth dipping into.

Several of the most memorable tales are inverted crime stories such as W. W. Jacobs’ The Well which features some truly horrific moments and James Hilton’s The Perfect Plan which builds to a thrilling conclusion. Those who prefer lighter mysteries are likely to enjoy E. V. Knox’s very amusing story The Murder at the Towers which is consistently amusing, parodying the country house mystery very effectively.

The highlight of the collection is an incredibly tense thriller by Ethel Lina White, An Unlocked Window. In that tale a group of nurses have locked themselves in a house while the Doctor is away fetching supplies because there is a serial killer who has been targeting nurses as his victims. The moment in which the protagonist realizes that they have left a window unlocked is really chilling but it is topped by a superb reveal that pushes the story into a thrilling conclusion. While this is not normally my type of read, I think it is done really well and it is likely to stay with me for a while.

Though I do feel that the stories in this collection are less consistent than some of the other volumes the British Library have published, stories like these certainly make this worth dipping into. I would suggest though starting with Resorting to Murder or The Long Arm of the Law, both of which I rate highly, unless the subject matter of this volume particularly appeals.

Continue reading “Murder at the Manor edited by Martin Edwards”

Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards

HolidayMysteries
Resorting to Murder
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2015

The idea of the detective on holiday is a rather wonderful one and, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, has been a rich source of inspiration for mystery novels. This collection is concerned however with much shorter works and features a variety of stories in which the detective or victim is travelling away from home.

In some cases the travel is incidental to the story, used to place the mystery against an exotic backdrop whereas in others the idea of being in an unfamiliar environment is critical to the story’s themes and plot. The stories that Edwards selects draw on a variety of styles and approaches and demonstrate how a basic concept can be taken in many different directions and used for inspiration in many different ways.

There are, of course, some stories from writers who are widely known and remembered such as Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton but there are also a number of stories from lesser-known figures. Of those I particularly enjoyed the contributions from E. W. Hornung, Phyllis Bentley and Gerald Findler while there are some excellent stories from the better-known Michael Gilbert and Leo Bruce here too.

As with any anthology, there are a handful of disappointments in the collection but in most cases those stories fit and illustrate the theme well and their inclusion makes sense. I would certainly say that this is one of the strongest British Library Crime Classics anthologies that I have read and would put this up with The Long Arm of the Law in terms of the general quality of the stories collected.

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Adventures
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1892
Sherlock Holmes #3
Preceded by The Sign of Four
Followed by The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

This is a revisitation for me as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the first mystery book I ever bought. I was on a class field trip to a National Trust house and saw one of those cheap paperback copies in the gift shop and, remembering that my Dad likes mysteries thought he might enjoy it. Yes, I was one of those relatives though in my defence I was only eight years old.

It turns out that Dad, who had been a member of the Sherlockian society for years, already had read it but he read some of the stories to me and I worked through the others myself. I have frequently revisited them over the years though normally I pick at them rather than taking them in bulk as a collection.

Individual comments on each story will follow but I do appreciate the variety to be found in this collection. Most of these stories work because they are centered on very simple ideas and while the reader will have no chance of working out the solutions to many of them, they generally satisfy because of their creativity.

The best stories, in my view, are those which focus on a small, simple puzzle in which Holmes has to make sense of seemingly disconnected ideas. The Red-Headed League is a wonderfully imaginative story while The Copper Beeches boasts a very clever premise. The standard is pretty universally strong and while I think many of these stories are not fair play detective stories, most are excellent adventure yarns.

Of course, revisiting mystery stories does present problems in that it is hard to know just how well structured and clued a story is. In this case I read the book for the first time close to twenty years ago and many of the solutions stick clearly in my mind. Regardless I had fun revisiting these and think several of the plots are quite ingenious.

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