Summary: Mortimer reads to Holmes and Watson an early 18th-century manuscript that tells of how, in the time of the “Great Rebellion” [i.e., 1641-51], Hugo Baskerville, progenitor of the ancient and wealthy Baskerville line and a “wild, profane and godless man,” kidnapped the maiden daughter of a yeoman who held lands near his estate. For this crime, the document claims, Hugo Baskerville died, ravaged by “a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon.” The Baskervilles thus believe a curse has been placed upon their family. Holmes dismisses the story, but is more intrigued when Mortimer reads a recent newspaper account of the death of Sir Charles Baskerville. A generous philanthropist and a potential candidate for Parliament in an upcoming election, Sir Charles (descendant, of course, of the notorious Hugo) had restored much of his famly’s greatness after it had fallen upon hard times by capitalizing on financial speculations in South Africa. A widower, Sir Charles lived only with his servants at Baskerville Hall, a married couple, the Barrymores, who worked as butler and housekeeper. He lived near Mortimer, who was his personal physician; as well as one Mr. Frankland of Lafter Hall and Mr. Stapleton, a naturalist. Sir Charles was keenly interested in the legend of the Baskerville curse, asking Mortimer several times whether he ever saw or heard strange creatures and noises, especially “the baying of a hound.” Each night before retiring to bed, Sir Charles would walk the Hall’s “famous yew alley.” He never returned from that walk on the evening of May 4; at midnight, Mr. Barrymore found his master lying dead at the alley’s end, past its gate that opens onto the moor surrounding the Hall. Sir Charles’ face wore a terrifyingly distorted expression (attributed in the autopsy to cardiac exhaustion). Barrymore noted that the appearance of Sir Charles’ footprints altered once he had passed that gate, but reported no other physical clues to the inquest. Information that the newspaper account does not include, but what Mortimer now tells Holmes, is that, three weeks prior to Sir Charles’ death, Mortimer had visited the nobleman and caught a glimpse of some large, unknown black animal—the sight of which visibly shook Sir Charles. Furthermore, in the yew-alley, Mortimer saw the “fresh and clear” footprints of a gigantic hound.
Analysis: Conan Doyle effectively creates a mood of suspense and fear in this chapter: even though it is set in Holmes and Watson’s Baker Street apartment, it is filled with evocative, atmospheric descriptions of Baskerville Hall, the site of strange—and, perhaps, supernatural—occurrences. The novel is a work of mystery, not horror; nevertheless, this chapter contains elements that might equally be at home in a Gothic tale of terror: the ancient family manor, recently refurbished but still bearing marks of “evil days” gone by (p. 26); a secret, shameful family history in the tale of Hugo Baskerville and his fellow drunken revelers who are struck by terror on the moonlit moors, only to be pursued by evil and misfortune until their (sometimes untimely) deaths; and, of course, our first description of the titular hound, with “its blazing eyes and dripping jaws” (p. 24)—“such a hound of hell as God forbid should ever be at my heels” (p. 23). The circumstances surrounding Sir Charles’ death, as well, laid out in careful detail by Conan Doyle as he sets the stage for the detective tale to follow, inspire feelings of dread, which culminate in Mortimer’s nearly whispered revelation that he has seen “the footprints of a gigantic hound” (p. 30). (Indeed, we will read at the beginning of the next chapter that Mortimer’s words gave Watson, a man of science, “a shudder,” p. 31!) Some critics have pointed out that, in real life, one cannot tell the breed of dog merely from its pawprints; but, as Baker Street Journal editor Edgar W. Smith noted, Mortimer’s frequently quoted, chapter-concluding line is all about maximum artistic impact: “I remember one of my sons, when he was very young, going about the house muttering: ‘Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic cocker-spaniel!’ That, I am sure, would not have had quite the same dramatic effect…” (Klinger, p. 414).
Chapter 3: The Problem
Summary: Holmes questions Mortimer and establishes that the dog he saw was not a sheep dog; that the wicket-gate is the only exit from the yew-alley that leads to the moor, and that Sir Charles had apparently stood there for some time; that the hound’s footprints were clearly on the path and not on the surrounding grass; and that three people report having seen the hound prior to Sir Charles’ death, but none have reported seeing it since. For all this attention to the details of the night in question, however, Mortimer reveals that he does not wish Holmes to investigate Sir Charles’ death. Rather, he has approached the detective for advice about what to do when Sir Charles’ only heir, one Henry Baskerville, returns from abroad. (The only other kinsman was one Rodger Baskerville, Sir Charles’ youngest brother and “the black sheep of the family,” who is reported to have died in Central America in 1876.) Mortimer wants the charitable work begun by Sir Charles to continue, and knows that, to that end, Baskerville Hall must have a squire; but he does not want Sir Henry to go to Baskerville Hall for fear of the curse upon the family. Holmes is, of course, deeply skeptical of all such supernatural beliefs; he recommends that Mortimer simply meet Sir Henry at Waterloo Station upon his arrival, yet not tell him anything of the current situation. Mortimer departs, as does Watson, who knows that his friend needs isolation in which to reflect upon the facts of the case. When Watson returns several hours later, he finds Holmes poring over a topographical map of the Baskerville estate and the surrounding lands. Holmes has also concluded that, contrary to Sir Charles’ usual routine, the squire of Baskerville Hall was waiting at the wicket-gate; and that the shifting shape of Sir Charles’ footprints as reported by Mortimer must be due to the fact that Sir Charles began running away from something in terror.
Analysis: Conan Doyle created one of the most famous rationalists in world literature, yet he himself remained very open to “supernatural explanation[s]” of worldly phenomena (p. 38). The author was a committed Spiritualist (including his adherence to the belief that the dead could communicate with the living), and is also remembered as one of the more famous defenders of the “Cottingley fairies,” a 1917 incident in which two young girls purported to have taken photographs of fairies in their garden (later proved to be cardboard cutouts). Sherlock Holmes would never for a moment have been taken in by such a ruse, as this chapter makes plain. “We are bound to exhaust all other hypotheses,” he tells Watson, “before falling back upon” supernatural ones (p. 38). Although Holmes demonstrates some respect for Mortimer—when the physician notes the two separate droppings of ash from Sir Charles’ cigar, Holmes proclaims him to be “a colleague, Watson, after our own heart” (p. 33)—he clearly rejects Mortimer’s eager embrace of the paranormal and the otherworldly. As Holmes correctly points out, such an attitude does not quite seem to befit “a trained man of science” (p. 34). Holmes points out inconsistencies in supernaturalism’s own internal logic: for example, he seeks to disarm Mortimer’s fear for Sir Henry’s fate were the scion of the family to return to the state by pointing out that “surely, if your supernatural theory be correct, it could work the young man evil in London as easily as in Devonshire” (p. 35). And whereas Mortimer gives easy credence to reports of “several incidents which are hard to reconcile with the settled order of Nature” (p. 33), Holmes makes it his life’s work to achieve such reconciliations. In maxim-like fashion, Holmes declares to Watson (who is very often the recipient of such lessons in the Holmes stories), “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes” (p. 37). Observation and logic, not a resort to supernatural hypotheses, prove critical to Holmes’ success.
The detective concerns himself with the real world: “The devil’s agents may be of flesh and blood, may they not?” he asks (p. 38). As one who has apprehended many criminals prior to this case, Holmes knows the answer must be affirmative!
Chapter 4: Sir Henry Baskerville
Summary: At ten the next morning, Mortimer arrives at Baker Street with Sir Henry Baskerville, who has already experienced a singular occurrence. Although no one should have known that he had stayed the night at the Northumberland Hotel, he received a letter addressed to him there: a single sheet of paper containing a message composed of words—all but the last one—clipped from a printed source and affixed to the sheet: “As you value your life or your reason keep away from the moor.” To everyone’s astonishment, Holmes immediately identifies the source of the clippings as the lead article from the previous day’s Times. (The word “moor” had to be supplied by hand in ink because it is a less common word.) Holmes further deduces (from the ink splotches, indicative, he says, of a hotel fountain pen) that the sender of the letter assembled it in a hotel near Charing Cross (from the envelope’s postmark). Whether the letter is warning or threat, no one seems sure. Sir Henry is still unaware of the circumstances surrounding Sir Charles’ death; Mortimer gives him the same account he gave Holmes and Watson the previous day. Sir Henry reports that he bought a new pair of boots upon his arrival in London, and, never having worn them, left them outside his hotel room in order to be varnished overnight. That morning, he discovered one of the boots, and one only, had been stolen. Mortimer and Sir Henry begin walking back to the hotel; allowing them a lead of two hundred yards, Holmes and Watson follow them, unbeknownst to the baronet and the physician. Holmes spies a bearded man in a hansom cab also shadowing the pair; unfortunately, the bearded man notices Holmes and Watson in return, and urges his driver to move quickly on, so that Holmes and Watson cannot catch up. They lose the trail of the hansom cab; they lose track of Mortimer and Sir Henry; but Holmes did note the number of the cab (No. 2704). He plans to send a telegram to ascertain the identity of the driver of that cab; meanwhile, he hires a teenager named Cartwright to inspect the garbage from the 23 hotels in the Charing Cross area, looking for a cut-up front page of yesterday’s Times. This evidence, Holmes reasons, will lead them to the person who sent Sir Henry his mysterious letter.
Analysis: As a character, Sir Henry is not yet well-developed in this chapter; however, that is due to the fact that he serves mainly as a way for Conan Doyle to introduce deeper levels of mystery into the tale (the enigmatic letter and the stolen boot). We do, however, read that Sir Henry has “the weather-beaten appearance of one who has spent most of his time in the open air”—indicative, as he says, of having spent most of his life in the United States and Canada (p. 46)—but also “the quiet assurance of his bearing which indicated the gentleman” (p. 41). Sir Henry is both rugged and genteel, civilized and of the frontier. He also intends to continue the good works of his uncle: he intends to fully embrace his role as “squire” (p. 47) of Baskerville Hall. “There is no devil in hell, Mr. Holmes, and there is no man upon earth who can prevent me from going to the home of my own people, and you may take that to be my final answer” (p. 48). This resolve speaks to Sir Henry’s “fiery temper,” a family trait (p. 48). Therefore, although we do not yet know much about him, he emerges from this chapter as a sympathetic character in whose fate readers will be interested.
This chapter also, of course, serves to further dazzle Conan Doyle’s readers with Holmes’ logical prowess. His knowledge of various typefaces (although he allows that, as a younger man, he “confused the Leeds Mercury with the Western Morning News,” p. 44—surely a fully self-aware statement of false humility, since most ordinary people would not even begin to know how to distinguish the papers’ typography), his immediate recall of the number of hotels in the Charing Cross area, his identification of the kind of scissors used by the letter’s compositor, his knowledge of the traits of hotel fountain pens—all these instances further establish Holmes (as though he needed any such establishment in the minds of Conan Doyles’ reading audience!) as master of his “special hobby” of detection (p. 44). We also learn, however, that Holmes does not rely solely on his own efforts. His employment of young Cartwright hearkens back to his use of “the Baker Street Irregulars”—a ragamuffin group of street urchins, who perform various tasks and find out information for Holmes for a shilling reward—in the Conan Doyle’s two previous Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four.
Chapter 5: Three Broken Threads
Summary: At the Northumberland Hotel, Holmes and Watson find Sir Henry distraught because an old black boot was returned to him in place of the new brown one that was stolen. At lunch, Sir Henry announces his intention to go to Baskerville Hall at the week’s end, a decision Holmes affirms. When Sir Henry asks Holmes to accompany him, Holmes regrets that he cannot, but suggests that Watson go in his stead. Holmes tells Sir Henry and Mortimer that they were followed yesterday; he learns that Barrymore, the butler at Baskerville Hall, has a full, dark beard, as did Sir Henry and Mortimer’s unknown follower. Barrymore and his wife were left £500 each in Sir Charles’ will. Other beneficiaries include £1000 to Mortimer and numerous other individuals and charities. Sir Henry is inheriting £740,000. In all, Sir Charles’ estate is valued “close on to a million.” Holmes learns that, had Sir Henry been unable to inherit the estate, it would have passed to one James Desmond, an elderly clergyman. As the group rises from lunch, Sir Henry spies his missing new brown boot under a cabinet in a corner of the dining room, even though all previous searches had not located it.
Upon returning to Baker Street, Holmes receives telegrams informing him that Barrymore the butler is at Baskerville Hall, and that Cartwright was unable to locate the cut-up front page of the previous day’s Times. Also, he and Watson receive a visit from John Clayton, the driver of hansom cab no. 2704. Clayton tells them that his fare, so interested in trailing Sir Henry and Mortimer, was a detective by the name of Sherlock Holmes! Holmes is amused at having been bested by their unknown opponent, but warns Watson that the case is rapidly developing into “an ugly dangerous business.”
Analysis: The chapter title is metaphorical, of course: when the interview with Clayton fails to yield the name of his fare, Holmes laments, “Snap goes our third thread [of investigation], and we end where we began” (p. 63). (The other two threads were the location of Barrymore—his presence at Baskerville Hall would seem to argue against his being the bearded man who followed Sir Henry and Mortimer—and Cartwright’s failure to find the mutilated newspaper.) Notice, however, how Holmes often takes setbacks in stride. He greets Clayton’s revelation that his fare was “Sherlock Holmes,” for instance, with “a hearty laugh,” proclaiming (using a metaphor from the sport of fencing), “A touch, Watson—an undeniable touch!” (p. 61). (Klinger notes that Holmes is here alluding to Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii: “Is this further evidence of Holmes’ acting career or merely of his knowledge of literature?”, p. 457.) Holmes is secure enough in his own intellectual ability to recognize when others have bested him (a trait we see in other Holmes stories; for example, his respectful appellation of Irene Adler as “The Woman” in “A Scandal in Bohemia”)—even if, in the end, he has every reason to believe he will gain the upper hand (as he does in this case—else he would not have been able to display what Watson describes as that “remarkable” ability of “detaching his mind at will” in order to enjoy the art exhibition prior to the trip to the Northumberland Hotel, p. 53). In fact, Holmes relishes matching wits with opponents who can challenge him; in several Holmes stories, we see that he cares little for common, unimaginative criminals. No: Holmes is far happier, far more intellectually stimulated, when he is placed in a contest with, as he says here, “a foeman who is worthy of our steel” (p. 63—and one almost senses that the use of the plural pronoun refers not to himself and Watson, but the “royal we”!)
For all that it reinforces Holmes’ high opinion of himself, however, this chapter also shows us the true friendship and regard in which he holds his confidante and chronicler, Dr. Watson. When he suggests that Sir Henry take “a trusted man” with him to Baskerville Hall (albeit after begging off being that man himself because of a highly important and delicate case in which he is already involved—an explanation of which readers should make a mental note), he commends Watson to Sir Henry: “there is no man who is better worth having at your side when you are in a tight place. No one can say that more confidently than I” (p. 58). The detective may not always acknowledge it openly, but he knows Watson is much more than (as he said in Chapter 1) “a conductor of [Holmes’ own] light.” The good doctor is a man of practical common sense and also capable of direct action; as Watson himself says, “The promise of adventure had always a fascination for me…” (p. 59). The recommendation that Watson accompany Sir Henry also marks a transition to the next portion of the narrative, in which Watson will be much more directly involved in the action.