The ultimate tale of the ultimate Victorian hero, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a true masterpiece of the mystery genre, and quite possibly remains the finest mystery novel ever produced — even if its first appearance was serialized in Strand Magazine.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s unforgettable hero Sherlock Holmes matches his wits against what appears to be a centuries old curse and the ghostly hound that exacts vengeance on the Baskerville ancestors for Sir Hugo Baskerville’s sadistic misdeeds in the time of Oliver Cromwell.
Of course, (I will try not to spoil it for anyone) the curse turns out to be a classic Victorian crime motivated by money and perpetrated with the application of science to prey on the superstitious nature of a people still getting used to the Industrial Revolution. Classic Victorian crime, indeed. But also classic Holmes.
And this is the best of Holmes.
The action is taut and well drawn, the mystery is compelling, Dr. Watson has a brief spell as the star while Holmes does some hidden work in the moors, the villain is an arrogant cad, and the supporting characters, from the unfortunate escaped convict, Bruce Seldon, to the suspicious Barrymores, round out the perfect population of Victorian archetypes (but it must be remembered that while these archetypes may seem cliche to us today, they would have been fresh and new when Doyle put pen to paper).
There may be better Holmes short stories (I’ll always be partial to “A Scandal in Bohemia” and the lovely Irene Adler), but none of the Holmes stories can compete with The Hound of the Baskervilles’ breadth and scope. It is the mystery book that all mystery writers aspire to match for greatness, and the mystery book that all mystery readers must read if they are to call themselves fans of the genre.
But let me put genre aside for a second and just say this: The Hound of the Baskervilles is a great mystery novel, yes. But it is also a great novel. One of the best ever written. Period.