Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Sherlock Holmes The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle | Thoughts on Chapter 1

Sherlock Holmes The Hound of the Baskervilles* [HOUN] by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle | Thoughts on Chapter 1

(*First published in a serialized fashion by The Strand Magazine August 1901 - April 1902. SPOILERS AHEAD)

"'I have, at least, a well-polished, silver-plated coffee-pot in front of me,' said he." The 'he' is, of course, Holmes and this is in response to the equally, of course, Watson as the good doctor begins his examination of the 'Penang lawyer ' stick and is startled by the mistaken eyes on the back of Holmes' head. And we are off deducing in a typical cosy fashion around the breakfast table, regarding said walking stick. This is all fairly reminiscent of Henry Baker's hat in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, say.

Holmes then asks Watson to take a stab at explaining the stick's owner, James Mortimer, MRCS to whom it was inscribed and presented and who in turn left it behind while visiting a then apparently vacant 221B. Holmes first seemingly applauds W's efforts, then only mildly by his lofty standards, ridicules them and him. But really, the great detective is thanking Watson not applauding per se. "Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it."

You're a dummy but I'm smart enough to see why that is and furthermore how and then that leads me to the truth at hand. Watson as a sort of facilitating talisman, then. As well as a chronicler whose chronicling leads to Holmes gaining both ever-lasting fame and occasional fortune. H has much, indeed, to be thankful for. But I imagine W gets his own financial desserts by selling his tales of these cases to The Strand. He's just made plain to see there is but one detective between the two present parties.

Although Watson was not totally wrong and that's good. Except for the life of me, I can't figure out why his physician's mind went to 'hunt' and not 'hospital.' This seems inexplicable unless he in fact knows his role well and this is him lobbing one over the plate for the benefit of Holmes. Just a bit of batting practice to get the juices flowing. Limbered-up, you know. I don't know. It's really the oddest bit of this opening chapter.

Then Mortimer arrives with his 'by Jove' 'curly-haired spaniel'. He brings both tidings of a case and his own somewhat rare Holmes insult. Before the latter, we see Holmes deduce he rolls his own cigarettes and also hear how M covets H's skull. How interesting and how oddly grotesque and then comes that "Recognizing, as I do, that you are the second highest expert in Europe--" Holmes is 'Just a little' insulted by Mortimer's rankings and insists he makes with the purpose of his visit. I feel as though Watson had a chuckle at his inclusion of this jab.

So who is Monsieur Bertillon? We'll close with the answer to that but we will not close yet. Before that, I have a question of my own. We read, "... and only an absent-minded one who leaves his stick and not his visiting-card after waiting an hour in your room." How is this hour-long period arrived at, exactly? I'd like to know. A certain length of cigar ash in a tray? The depth of footprint on the bearskin rug? Something about parsley and butter? The amount of time the rooms were unattended wouldn't serve to speak directly to the amount of time M stayed in wait.

Regardless, this is all quite familiar a setting, as I alluded to already. Almost ham-fistedly-so. Quite on-brand in a tale that does deviate in goodly-part from said branding. It feels somewhat like this was written toward the last of the writing after the Victorian creeper tale was already penned or at the least mainly-fully imagined. A sort of comfy after-thought of a welcoming inclusion? In any event, we start quite strong enough, and this is never a bad thing.

Now for Monsieur Bertillon. Although I fibbed when I stated we'd also close here. Bertillon was a French police officer who introduced the idea or technique of anthropometry into criminal investigations. This was essentially a way of IDing a suspect using their physical measurements. It eventually gave way to fingerprinting. He also invented the mugshot. Less admirably, his faulty handwriting analysis would doom the innocent Alfred Dreyfus to a life sentence at Devil's Island.

Perhaps this start is more-so a setting of the table, or really, a pre-setting. The dusting off then polishing of a bare table. We are not off nor is anything yet meaningfully afoot as the opening chapter ends. M has yet to make known the reason for his visit let alone what he seeks of Holmes. Can this whole chapter be somewhat filler? For this tale in and of itself, perhaps. But it is necessary to again plug Holmes customarily in and do take heart, please.

Because it is also a quite low-key way to soft-launch into the next chapter's movement and famed horrifyingly spine-tingling closing line...

Thoughts on Chapter 2. 

::: very :::

Online sources for this article include: Wikipedia (The Hound of the Baskervilles, Alphonse Bertillon), The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia (The Hound of the Baskervilles), and Project Gutenberg (The Hound of the Baskervilles)

For a (repeated) bit of context, (repeated) because I enclosed this bit in an earlier post announcing this project: "The Great Hiatus. The time between Doyle deciding to kill off his Holmes creation in The Final Problem (1893) and succumbing to popular pressure thus bringing the consulting detective back to life from the never-dead in The Adventure of the Empty House (1903). The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-2, serialized in The Strand Magazine) is, to be clear, set in 1889." - me.

You know those scenes tucked into an MCU movie's closing credits after I've already stumbled out of the theater with a migraine?

In the introduction of HOUN, Doyle thanks a 'Dear Robinson' for his 'account of a 'West-Country legend' used as inspiration here. This of Squire Richard Cabell of Buckfastleigh, Devon--a feared/hated hunter and evil-doer. One possibly immortal due to a deal with the devil. This is derived from the supernatural black dog Yeth Hound (a hound that never heard no and bore also an unfortunate lisp). This all under the Hellhound lore umbrella. [Same sources as above, adding Wikipedia (Black dog (folklore) and subtracting Alfonse Bertillon.]

Finally, throughout this project, I'll be using H for Holmes, W for Watson, etc. I appreciated this tact in The Sherlock Holmes Encyclopedia by Orlando Park. (Which I did not use as a reference here.)