Holmes still walks
Sherlock Holmes' unique methods of deduction continue to enthrall readers. Of all his cases The Hound of the Baskervilles remains the most popular 100 years after it was written, says GAUTAMAN BHASKARAN.
LONDON'S gas lit existence was eerie enough without the baying of the hound, and the gigantic footprints it left outside the country home of the Baskervilles. Developing a legend into a classic thriller, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle immortalised the story of a huge dog whose very sight on the shadowy moors of England would shock a man into death.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the favourite of Sir Arthur's four detective novels, where Sherlock Holmes leaves behind fascinating clues to masterly deduction. It is a tale which has just about every ingredient to make great reading. If there is terror and murder on the Grimpen Mire, there is also romance and comic humour. The spooky fog that engulfs the lonely vastness of the marsh is often contrasted with the brightness of the day when the sun's rays drives away the horror of the night before. The terrifying cry of the hound and the romantic interlude of the couple in love produce the kind of mystery, which Holmes loved to crack.
In fact, Sherlock Holmes is one of the few fictional heroes who have sailed past his creator; another can be James Bond, conceived by Ian Fleming. But the magnetism of the pipe-smoking, cocaine-snorting Holmes is not really a match for Bond's suave and sexy image. Maybe, Sir Arthur's icon lived in real times, mingled with ordinary people whose fears and worries arose from everyday affairs and tragedies. Fleming's creation lived in different times, and exercised his mind over issues that were far above the ground.
Understandably, the Royal Society of Chemistry has just honoured Holmes with a fellowship, the first time an imaginary character is being recognised. It said: "Many years ago, Holmes was using what would one day be forensic science in detection. Thanks to his science today, more crimes are solved than ever before." This coincided with 100 years of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was serialised in The Strand from August 1901 to April 1902.
But the canine curse of the Baskervilles might never have reared its monstrous head had it not been for an overwhelming public protest over Holmes' death in the white waters of the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Sir Arthur had killed his detective in "The Final Problem", at the end of 11 stories, collectively called "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes", and published in The Strand.
Holmes' fans would not agree to this. The display of mass emotion was unimaginable: more than 20,000 Strand readers cancelled their subscriptions, and young men and women appeared on the streets of Britain sporting black armbands and veils! They mourned the demise of their favourite guy, but they were a lot unhappier because Conan Doyle had let incompetence and evil triumph over talent and goodness by allowing Holmes to die, and the wicked Professor Moriarty to perhaps live.
Sir Arthur relented, though after eight years, and he began penning what would become the best piece of his literary enterprise, The Hound of the Baskervilles. It remains the most endearing, the sales statistics of the English manor-house mysteries of Dame Agatha Christie notwithstanding. The allusions to the scary swamp, the sinister Mr. and Mrs. Barrymore and the scourge of the "devil of a dog" evoke quicker responses from readers polled than either the China-blue eyes of Miss Marple or Monsieur Poirot's "little grey cells". Indeed, men and women who have never read mysteries have invariably read The Hound...
However, can such a thriller be without drama outside its covers? A couple of years ago, Rodger Garrick-Steele, a former psychologist and aspiring writer, caused a furore in literary circles in general and among Sherlockians in particular, when he claimed that Conan Doyle's friend, Berram Fletcher Robinson, was the true author of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Steele added more spice: Sir Arthur, in order to avoid being exposed as a fraud, persuaded Robinson's wife, with whom he was having an affair, to poison her husband. The Sherlock Holmes Society quickly dismissed this as a "complete fabrication".
But this allegation merely fuelled additional interest in Holmes. David Pirie's recent BBC drama, "Murder Rooms" and book, The Patient's Eyes explore Conan Doyle's relationship with his mentor in medicine, the Edinburgh forensic physician, Joseph Bell.
It is not only historians and documentary filmmakers who are keeping alive our man from 221, Baker Street. Modern writers continue to visualise prose in the Victorian sleuth's name. In 1992, Michael Dibdin's The Last Sherlock Holmes Story saw him stalking Jack the Ripper on London's East End. Andrew Boucher has made a career out of his New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle himself was never able to escape the shadow of his alter ego. Although he took his spiritualism much more seriously than his crime fiction, his final passages, published three years before his death in 1930, was Sherlock Holmes' Casebook.
Beginning with A Study in Scarlet in 1887, the violin-playing Holmes walked past intrigues and conspiracies for over half a century. That was, of course, through the Doyle's inkpot. But the enigma survives, as does the passion to keep Holmes on his feet. Forever.
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