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July 1, 2015

The Great Mystery of Sherlock Holmes’s Death --- And Resurrection: Post 1

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Teen Board member Alison S. has been tackling the classics for a while now, blogging about the literary merits, nuances and modern relevance of SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, FRANKENSTEIN, THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and THE PORTRAIT OF DORIAN GRAY. In this "sub-blog series," though, she's going to dig into one of the great controversies of modern literature --- the fact that Sir Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes only to bring him back seven years later "for no ostensible reason." In this post, she looks at the the first novel in which Holmes mystically reappears --- THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES --- and in future posts, will talk about the different theories behind Doyle's mysterious choice. 


After learning of the late Sir Charles Baskerville’s death at the hands (or paws) of the diabolical, fire-breathing “Hound of the Baskervilles,” Sherlock Holmes orders Watson to escort family heir Sir Henry to Baskerville Hall. But in the week before their departure, an unidentifiable, lavishly-bearded stranger stalks Sir Henry through London, while an anonymous letter warns the nobleman to stay away from Baskerville Hall and the surrounding wastelands. But Sir Henry’s one of those land-grubbing Americans (thanks for the not-at-all stereotypical depiction, Doyle), so he can’t resist the allure of free property.

And that’s when things get creepy.

What can I say about THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES? Sure, I could declare Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel “brilliant,” “ingenious" or “suspenseful,” but 114 years worth of literary critics have already applied every positive adjective in the English language to Doyle’s masterpiece of logic and deduction. I really, really wish I could say this novel lacks a love triangle, but, alas, not even turn-of-the-century, British pulp fiction can escape the Love Triangle epidemic. In Doyle’s defense, however, the “love triangle” in question doesn’t intrude on the primary plotline --- in fact, without this barely-there, apparently insignificant love triangle, the main story arc would simply crumble.

If criticizing Doyle’s iconic mystery weren’t literary blasphemy, I might point out how overwhelming this novel can feel. How Sir Arthur pummels readers with bizarre, irreconcilable clues and otherworldly phenomenon from Chapter One before finally offering any trace of a solution in Chapter Twelve. If you’re the type of reader who loves nothing more than beating the detective to the punch, well, congratulations --- beating Sherlock should be a breeze here, because he takes his sweet time revealing, well, anything. Speaking of Holmes, he also takes his sweet time actually, you know, showing up at Baskerville Hall. (Per his usual, Sherlock takes enough sweet time to give himself a cavity.)

But for all my whining, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES will satisfy even the finickiest of mystery lovers. Doyle’s iconic novel “has it all” in the truest sense of the expression: from transportive, foreboding imagery to a ghastly legend to a tangled, yet exquisitely woven web of clues, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES will delight anyone who longs to feel puzzled, confused or downright befuddled. Don’t mistake this novel for a Holmesian (that is, if you didn’t know, the adjectival form of “Sherlock Holmes”) short story stretched over 130 pages. Whereas a short story might chronicle a single mystery, a sparse handful of subjects and a smattering of clues, Doyle crams this novel full of disjointed, unexpected twists and enigmatic suspects, expanding the central mystery of Sir Charles’ murder into a constellation of red herrings and subplots.

But the greatest mystery of all may’ve occurred outside the realm of fiction. In 1893, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published “The Final Problem”, a short story culminating in the death of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle even declared that, had he not killed Sherlock, “[Holmes] would certainly have killed me.” Yet this self-proclaimed hatred of Holmes didn’t stop Doyle from resurrecting the detective seven years later, when he published Holmes’ third serialized novella, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.

Even after THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES’ publication, however, Doyle refused to admit Holmes’ (literary) immortality --- instead of acknowledging Sherlock’s literal rise from the dead, Doyle insisted the novel’s plotline unfolded before Holmes’ fatal plunge into Reichenbach Falls. But despite all his insistence that Sherlock um, stay dead, Doyle surrendered to popular demand a mere three years later; in 1903, Sir Arthur published “The Adventure of the Empty House”, declaring Sherlock’s supposed death nothing more than a ploy to outsmart Moriarty’s henchmen.

Not surprisingly, decades of self-proclaimed “Sherlockians” have formulated elaborate, perhaps even far-fetched theories explaining Doyle’s change of heart. In my next two blog posts, I’ll compare two modern-day novels’ explanations for Sherlock’s literary “resurrection” --- so ready yourself for conspiracy theories, poltergeists and Conan Doyle in drag.