Swirling fog, quick sand, an escaped convict and a terrifying hound, my first memory of watching a crime drama as a child, was The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), and it has haunted me ever since. I recently saw an excellent production of this iconic story at The Mill, Sonning (banner above) and it is still my absolute favourite Sherlock Holmes case.
In the first appearance since his ‘death’ in The Final Problem, Holmes investigates the death of wealthy landowner Sir Charles Baskerville, whose horror-stricken face on suffering a fatal heart attack and the presence of the gigantic footprints of a hound near where he fell, led his friend Dr James Mortimer to seek help from the legendary sleuth. Sherlock sends Dr Watson to accompany Sir Henry, the new heir of Baskerville Hall, to Dartmoor to find out more about the previous owner’s death and the sinister family curse which may have caused it. The Hound of the Baskervilles has all the elements of a classic detective story: an isolated and perilous landscape, a confined house of potential victims, and a dark, supernatural force which threatens them all.
The third of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s crime novels, the first episode was published in The Strand in August 1901, with the full-length book being released the following year. The writer’s career had been interrupted by the Boer War (1899-1902), during which he volunteered as a medical doctor and worked at the Langman Field Hospital in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He began his stint in February 1900 and spent the rest of the war trying to save the lives of British servicemen from typhoid, which killed far more men than the combat.
After his return from South Africa, Sir Arthur was on a golfing holiday in Norfolk with his friend, journalist Bertram Fletcher Robinson, whom he had met onboard a ship travelling back from Cape Town. Robinson told Conan Doyle about the legend of an enormous hound which had terrorised the inhabitants of Dartmoor, close to his family’s seat. During their time together, the pair came up with a new plot for Sherlock Holmes, involving a spectral hound on the windswept moors.
Originally planned to be co-authored, Conan Doyle’s publisher was unhappy about the arrangement so he was forced to write solo. (Sir Arthur did give credit to Bertram Robinson for his ideas and shared some of the profits.) The novel was a huge success, with American publishers offering $5,000 for new stories, which finally led to a revival of the private consulting detective in the The Return of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1903-1904.
1. The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of only five times when Sherlock and Dr Watson use firearms.
2. There has been much speculation about the model for Baskerville Hall, the most popular being a house of the same name in Hay-on-Wye, belonging to the neighbour of Louisa Conan Doyle’s family, which Sir Arthur visited regularly.
3. The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the most frequently filmed works of fiction.
4.. Basil Rathbone (1892-1967) was cast as the iconic consulting detective in 1939. He made 15 Sherlock movies in 7 years and a radio series, with Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson.
5. In the 1959 re-make by Hammer Films, Peter Cushing took over the role as Sherlock. Sir Henry Baskerville was played by Christopher Lee, who played Holmes in the 1960s.
Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, Andrew Lycett (Orion, 2007)
The Mysterious World of Sherlock Holmes, Bruce Wexler (Colin Gower, 2007)