Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Things May Not Be As They Seem

This week's reading of Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles gives me to understand that I am still learning how to read the novel. Last week I confidently asserted that Conan Doyle had shut down a possible path to solving the mystery. I heartily approved of this because, as I noted at length, it's important not to give your story--or your reader--too many options, otherwise the mystery seems too easy to solve. You need to set up plausible obstacles for your detective, to enable a satisfying process of unraveling the mystery.

Well, not so much. That is, the above is still true, as far as it goes, but at least one of the paths has turned out not to be permanently shut off. Having been dispatched on a fact-finding mission to Baskerville Hall--minus Holmes, for the time being--Watson discovers that the telegram he and Holmes sent to Barrymore, in order to determine whether he was at home, was not actually delivered into his hands. This means the mysterious bearded stranger who was following Henry Baskerville in London could plausibly be Barrymore after all. Therefore, contrary to my assertion last week, no path can be considered fully closed down until the book is closed. There still needs to be a mechanism for deferring various threads, for making one seem more important than the other at various times. But the world of Sherlock Holmes, I am learning, is one in which you can never quite be certain that you know what you know. This is why Dostoevsky loved detective stories: they're about epistemology.

This whole approach to reading the book, and the world, gets underscored many times over as Watson begins poking around Baskerville Hall and the surrounding moors. First, in the middle of the night, he wakes to the sound of a woman wailing. In the morning he and Baskerville ask Barrymore about it, who replies: "There are only two women in the house, Sir Henry," he answered. "One is the scullery-maid, who sleeps in the other wing. The other is my wife, and I can answer for it that the sound could not have come from her." However:
And yet he lied as he said it, for it chanced that after breakfast I met Mrs. Barrymore in the long corridor with the sun full upon her face. She was a large, impassive, heavy-featured woman with a stern set expression of mouth. But her tell-tale eyes were red and glanced at me from between swollen lids. It was she, then, who wept in the night, and if she did so her husband must know it. Yet he had taken the obvious risk of discovery in declaring that it was not so. Why had he done this? And why did she weep so bitterly? Already round this pale-faced, handsome, black-bearded man there was gathering an atmosphere of mystery and of gloom.

Then, walking back from his trip to the post office, where he discovers the slip-up with the telegram, Watson is accosted by a man introducing himself as Stapleton, who seems to know an amazing amount about the Baskerville case and Sherlock Holmes's involvement therein. Watson deflects Stapleton's questions about Holmes, to which Stapleton responds: "You are perfectly right to be wary and discreet." So are we, Conan Doyle is telling us, as Watson is our representative in the story. Still, Watson accepts Stapleton's invitation to lunch, as Holmes has tasked him with "study[ing] the neighbours upon the moor." But can Watson trust what Stapleton tells him? We don't know.
Even the landscape participates in this duplicity, as Stapleton points out:
"...You see, for example, this great plain to the north here with the queer hills breaking out of it. Do you observe anything remarkable about that?"
"It would be a rare place for a gallop."

"You would naturally think so and the thought has cost several their lives before now. You notice those bright green spots scattered thickly over it?"
"Yes, they seem more fertile than the rest."

Stapleton laughed.
"That is the great Grimpen Mire," said he. "A false step yonder means death to man or beast. Only yesterday I saw one of the moor ponies wander into it. He never came out. I saw his head for quite a long time craning out of the bog-hole, but it sucked him down at last. Even in dry seasons it is a danger to cross it, but after these autumn rains it is an awful place. And yet I can find my way to the very heart of it and return alive. By George, there is another of those miserable ponies!"

Sadly, Watson sees the truth of the Mire with his own eyes, and let's not dwell on that any more than we have to. (I recently stopped reading a book I was otherwise mostly enjoying because a character killed a puppy. But I will soldier on here.) The point I wish to make here is that in Holmes-world, you must use your eyes, and all your senses, constantly and intensely. Your antenna are always up. At the same time, you must distrust the signals those antennae give you. You're caught in a constant tug-of-war between discovery and doubt--a sort of mire in itself, in which Conan Doyle hopes to trap you, the reader.
I've often wondered how mystery writers contend with the need to dump information on the reader. What are the alternatives to having some witness magically appear and provide, in large chunks of dialog, key information that the reader and detective need to go forward? How do you keep that from just being tedious exposition? Conan Doyle doesn't avoid the large chunks of dialog, as is clear in this section. But so far, all this exposition all coming from people we have at least some reason not to trust. So we are never sure about the status of the information--or of information, period. Maybe it's entirely false, or only partially true, or true, but not in the ways we might think. We're very much off balance and becoming more so, and that's a good thing.

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