Note: All page numbers in this summary and analysis refer to the edition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles published in 2009 by Fall River Press.
This NovelGuide also draws on Leslie S. Klinger, ed., The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2006). Citations reading “Klinger” refer to this reference work.
Chapter 1: Mr. Sherlock Holmes
Summary: On a morning in 1879, John Watson, M.D., awakes to find the private detective Sherlock Holmes, with whom he shares lodgings at 221-B Baker Street, unexpectedly seated at the breakfast table. Holmes invites Watson to examine a walking stick left behind by an unmet visitor the previous night. What, Holmes wonders, can Watson deduce about the stick’s owner? Watson hazards his observations, only to have them clarified and corrected by Holmes, his deductive superior. Shortly thereafter, the walking stick’s owner, one James Mortimer, M.R.C.S. (Member of the Royal College of Surgeons), arrives. After exclaiming his delight at having the chance to observe Holmes’ skull (for he has heard of the detective’s brilliant intellect), he proceeds to tell Holmes and Watson why he is seeking the master detective’s help.
Analysis: Having grown tired of writing the adventures of the world’s first consulting detective and eager to turn his attention to more “serious” literature, Arthur Conan Doyle attempted to finish off his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes, by sending him over the Reichenbach Falls as the detective grappled with his archnemesis, Professor Moriarty, in a short story entitled “The Final Problem” (December 1893). The title would, of course, prove overly optimistic! Enthusiastic readers of the Holmes tales clamored for the sleuth’s return. Conan Doyle obliged with The Hound of the Baskervilles, the third—and still hailed by many critics as the best—Sherlock Holmes novel. Conan Doyle did, however, carefully label the book as “another adventure” of Holmes of the first edition’s title page—an indication that the events in its pages took place prior to “The Final Problem,” and that the reading public should not expect any further stories. When the novel proved an instant success, however, readers pressed for more. Conan Doyle relented and engineered Holmes’ “resurrection” in 1903.
The first chapter of the present work appropriately bears Holmes’ name as its title, for it is largely a brief character sketch of the detective, introducing him or reintroducing him to the book’s audience through the eyes of his erstwhile companion, Dr. John Watson. The chapter also introduces James Mortimer, an adherent of phrenology, the now-discredited belief prevalent in Victorian science, that study of the shape of the skull indicates mental capacity and even moral character. “You interest me very much, Mr. Holmes,” Mortimer announces. “I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic [i.e., relatively long] a skull or such well-marked supra-orbital [i.e., above the eyeballs] development” (p. 18). The comment is exactly the kind of thing one would expect a self-professed (and perhaps not a little self-important) “dabbler in science” to say (p. 18). Mortimer also manages the relatively uncommon feat of being able to wound Holmes’ pride when he declares Holmes “the second highest expert in Europe” (p. 19). Mortimer ranks Holmes behind Alphonse Bertillon, “chief of criminal investigation for the Paris police from 1880” (Klinger, 397). Bertillon’s method of photographing and measuring the distinctive physical traits of criminal suspects—in profile and full-on views, the basis for the modern “mug shot”—proved highly influential in police practice worldwide, only to be superseded by the advent of fingerprinting at the turn of the 20th century. Fortunately for Mortimer, his conviction that Holmes remains the most knowledgeable “practical man of affairs” (p. 19) ensures that Holmes will give Mortimer’s case a hearing.
Mortimer demurs when Holmes addresses him as “doctor.” According to Klinger, Mortimer’s M.R.C.S. credentials are today “regarded as a specialist higher qualification in surgery, awarded to doctors who have already qualified in their profession and have elected to practice in the surgical branch of it… In Mortimer’s day [, however], the M.R.C.S. was the surgical half of the standard qualification to practice, not an advanced degree, and surgeons in fact occupied a lower position in the medical hierarchy than physicians, who diagnosed patients and prescribed medication” (pp. 388-89).