June 21, 2016
The Art of the Novella challenge 47: The Hound of the Baskervilles
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: The Hound of the Baskervilles
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
First published: 1902
Page count: 119
First line: Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table.
Can a detective story even be a novella? Or a novella a detective story? In reading this series of classic novellas, I’ve been worrying away at the question of whether there is anything other than mere length to define what is or is not a novella. To my mind, there is, although it is hard to pin down. It is something to do with narrative load and intensity, with the telling of a tale, with completeness, directness, and economy, to the relation of storytelling to the emergence of prose fiction out of the oral tradition. The novella’s dominant characteristic cannot be exquisite partiality (the ‘something glimpsed’ of the modern, post-Joyce short story) or superabundance (the novel’s natural inclination towards excess and world-building, its acquisitiveness, addiction, its insane ambition towards comprehensiveness).
There is such a thing as a slim novel. That is something different from a novella. If the novella is slim, it must also be meaty. It must, I suppose, to continue the metaphor, be lean.
If I say that the detective story exists entirely outside of this set of considerations, I don’t want that to be taken for genre-snobbery — although maybe that’s what it is. Hear me out. I’m thinking this through.
Reading (rereading) The Hound of the Baskervilles, and glancing through my collected Holmes, I’m reminded of some obvious truths — that a detective story can’t be written in the first person (okay, there are exceptions — more on this below), and that it exists most happily as a series.
Why is this? Why do detective stories repeat themselves? Partly because the formula is so successful—the reduction of the chaos of the world to a crime that must be solved and a criminal that must be apprehended is a comforting one—and partly because the iteration this involves allows for elegant variation and subtle modulation. If every novel has at base the unspoken assumption that it could expand its field of operation to take in and describe, even explain, the whole world and all of human history—that the novel form is sufficient to the task—then the crime or detective series knows that it can do this one take at a time. And this iterative structure also gives the crime writer the great gift of allowing the development of a single character—the all-too-human detective—over dozens of books, but the sacrifice they must make for that gift is to come up with an endless series of instances to feed into the detecting machine.
In the first two golden ages of English crime writing (those grouped around, firstly, Conan Doyle and Chesterton, and, secondly, Christie, Allingham, and Sayers) the variety largely came, I think, from the puzzle element — the crossword school of detective fiction. In the more recent golden ages (I don’t know if anyone calls them that, but I mean in the American hardboiled era, and the continuing post-war explosion) it’s perhaps come down more to social factors — the cross words, you might say. The crimes to be solved seem familiar, and the light falls more on the problems in the world that cause them.
Poe is usually credited with inventing the modern detective story, with his ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ and Conan Doyle with turning that recipe into a successful formula with his Sherlock Holmes stories. But what strikes me about the Holmes (short) stories is that they point the way towards the future not just of crime fiction, as a collection of novels based around idiosyncratic detective figures, but also of crime television — not just in their shortness, but in their simplicity, their lack of multiple plots or layers, their faithful trotting out of familiar tropes. Start with a gratuitous demonstration of Holmes’s scientific method; introduce the client; set the case in progress; bring out Watson’s or Holmes’s revolver; surprisingly often, end with a chase sequence. In this, they offer a blueprint for the CSI format and its derivatives, although these shows’ frenetic editing and boilerplate dialogue allow them a veneer of sophistication: they unfailingly cram in more red herrings disguised as subplots than a Holmes short story would have dared (or cared) to.
The Hound of the Baskervilles, though. It’s routinely trotted out as the greatest of the four Holmes novels, and I had kind of assumed this was something to do with the iconic status of the hound itself, as something to grab (younger) readers’ attention, and keep the book in their memory. After another reading, though, I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s down to the book’s far superior narrative architecture. Or perhaps I mean that the other three are disappointing, narrative-wise. In two of the novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, the detective work takes up only half of the book, the rest being given over to an extended account of the backstory to the murder, returning to the opening narrative (and to Holmes and Watson) only for a brief coda.
Crucially, this means large stretches of the books with no Sherlock Holmes. (Remember that Conan Doyle rated his historical fictions as better than his Holmes stories and you’ll see why he came to think this might be a good idea.) The second novel, The Sign of (the) Four, follows the same pattern, though it shortens the backstory, and shunts it to the end of the narrative. It was after this that Conan Doyle turned to the short story format, turning out two dozen of them in two years, until 1893, which saw Holmes and Moriarty’s disappearance over the Reichenbach Falls. When, after a gap of eight years, Conan Doyle gave in to his public and returned his detective to print — if not exactly to life, as the novel is set before Holmes’s supposed death — it was with The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is the only one of the four novels that keeps its narrative focus fixed primarily on the present action, and so keeps the tension rising until the last scene. It is, simply, the best-constructed of them.
However, if I’ve just said that the problem with those backstories was that they removed Holmes from the scene, then it’s interesting that Conan Doyle does just this in The Hound, too. For a number of crucial chapters the detective sends Dr. Watson to travel down to Dartmoor without him, to look after the newly arrived and presumably endangered Sir Henry. (Narrative spoilers coming, by the way, so if you haven’t read the book, or seen or heard one of its numerous adaptations, then I suggest you go and do so.)
As with most of the Holmes stories, the story narrated in retrospect, by Watson, but for these chapters when Holmes is absent, he decides, for no apparent reason, to give over his narration to his letters back to Holmes in London, and extracts from his diary. Of course, it is in fact for a very good reason indeed, for it allows Conan Doyle to play the same trick on the reader that Holmes plays on his friend. This trick—that the detective is really on the moor, in disguise—gives rise not just to one superb moment of revelation, but also to another moment that becomes in retrospect deeply weird. Here it is.
And it was at this moment that there occurred a most strange and unexpected thing. We had risen from our rocks and were turning to go home, having abandoned the hopeless chase. The moon was low upon the right, and the jagged pinnacle of a granite tor stood up against the lower curve of its silver disc. There, outlined as black as an ebony statue on that shining back-ground, I saw the figure of a man upon the tor. Do not think that it was a delusion, Holmes. I assure you that I have never in my life seen anything more clearly.
As far as I could judge, the figure was that of a tall, thin man. He stood with his legs a little separated, his arms folded, his head bowed, as if he were brooding over that enormous wilderness of peat and granite which lay before him. He might have been the very spirit of that terrible place. It was not the convict. This man was far from the place where the latter had disappeared. Besides, he was a much taller man. With a cry of surprise I pointed him out to the baronet, but in the instant during which I had turned to grasp his arm the man was gone. There was the sharp pinnacle of granite still cutting the lower edge of the moon, but its peak bore no trace of that silent and motionless figure.
Earlier I said that few detective stories were written in the first person, and the obvious rationale behind this would be that, in the English form of the genre at least (traditionally more puzzle-oriented than the US hardboiled version), it was important that the genius detective always be a step or two ahead of the reader, and, usually, his loyal companion and amanuensis. Written in the third person, the detective becomes a sort of magical projection of the reader’s unconscious mind, knowing but unknown, until the final revelation, when the ego and id are brought together. But usually they’re there. You follow them on the page. Not here. Holmes is gone. But, crucially, and unlike in the other novels’ tedious backstories, he’s there in spirit, evoked at every turn by his friend Watson, who is writing to him, and, when not writing to him, trying to be worthy of him in his investigations. He haunts the pages.
Of course this is far from the only time that Holmes has appeared in disguise in one of his stories and gone unrecognised by Watson, but there is something superlatively mythic about this moment. He’s not dressed as a clergyman, or an old man, or a working man, or a woman. He isn’t pretending to be anyone else. He’s silhouetted against the moon, on a tor on the top of the moor, in what is essentially a gothic novel.
He stood with his legs a little separated, his arms folded, his head bowed, as if he were brooding over that enormous wilderness of peat and granite which lay before him. He might have been the very spirit of that terrible place.
Holmes as vampire. Or, given the wild setting, more like Holmes as lycanthrope.
Writing this, it occurs to me that the image has rung down the years even unto one of my favourite moments in recent cinema — the point in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox when the triumphant fox and crew, escaping in a motorcycle and sidecar from their victorious battle with the farmers, spot a wolf out on the snow-covered mountain crags. Again, silhouetted against the sky, again magical and mysterious — with something of Jan Pienkowski about its shape. The wolf walks on four legs. Unanthropomorphised, it represents the pure animal, the internal ‘other’ that Fox and his companions have lost. It scares him, but he respects and admires it and wishes it well. It is, in other words, an intrusion of the sublime.
Think again that that figure is not revealed to be Holmes until two chapters after we read it. It takes a flicking back through the book, or a rereading, to savour the full power of that description.
The other element of The Hound that raises it up above the other Holmes narratives, and points towards the increased complexity of detective fiction to come, is the interweaving of multiple plots. The story starts in the usual way, with the admittance of a client to the Baker Street apartment, and lays out its gothic supernatural premise as you might expect, but when Watson and Sir Henry arrive by train to Dartmoor, we find a new element — a violent convict escaped from the “Princetown prison” who is at loose on the moor. The way that this is used to increase the drama and tension, as a secondary element, but is then folded into the plot and explained, is a step towards not the country house, Cluedo/Clue-style plots of Agatha Christie et al, but the paranoid thrillers of Dashiell Hammett, where all parts of society are seen to be connected through crime. (In the country house/village detective story, all of society—or all that the writers considered interesting—is represented in miniature, but the world itself is cut off, most characteristically by dense fog.)
It’s a brilliant book, then — but is it a novella? I’m not sure that it is. It is too sui generis, even if that generis has become a bit less sui over the intervening years. It really represents a definitive stage in the detective story’s evolution towards its long twentieth-century run at the heart of the novel’s history. If a detective story can be a novella, or a novella a detective story, then we need to look elsewhere. And just now, inspired by this reading, I’m looking to Georges Simenon, whose Maigret books usually turn in at around 40,000 words. Novellas? Or slim novels? I’ll report back.