Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Holmes and the uncanny

Well, Hound gets very exciting in the section I read this week. A murderous convict loose on the moor! An encounter with a fallen woman! Horrid, blood-chilling screams and/or baying in the night! Another mysterious man loose on the moor, who appears silhouetted atop a tor in the moonlight, and when Watson traces him to his hiding place, he turns out to be...

...OK, you probably knew this before I did, but I admit, I was surprised to find out it was...

Sherlock Holmes! He has been out on the moor the whole time Watson has been conducting his investigations and proudly sending reports back to Holmes.

I stooped under the rude lintel, and there he sat upon a stone outside, his gray eyes dancing with amusement as they fell upon my astonished features. He was thin and worn, but clear and alert, his keen face bronzed by the sun and roughened by the wind. In his tweed suit and cloth cap he looked like any other tourist upon the moor, and he had contrived, with that cat-like love of personal cleanliness which was one of his characteristics, that his chin should be as smooth and his linen as perfect as if he were in Baker Street.

While glad to see his partner, Watson is understandably pissed that Holmes has been doing his own detective work while making him believe he was actually contributing something. Holmes reassures him that his reports, which he's had forwarded to him at the hut, were indeed valuable, because they allow the two of them to compare their observations. Watson is persuaded, and ends up, as usual, admiring Holmes's cunning.

What interests me in this section is how closely Holmes is tied to the spookiness--the uncanniness--of the moors. Before he knows the identity of the man on the tor, here's how Watson describes him:

And it was at this moment that there occurred a most strange and unexpected thing. We had risen from our rocks and were turning to go home, having abandoned the hopeless chase. The moon was low upon the right, and the jagged pinnacle of a granite tor stood up against the lower curve of its silver disc. There, outlined as black as an ebony statue on that shining back-ground, I saw the figure of a man upon the tor. Do not think that it was a delusion, Holmes. I assure you that I have never in my life seen anything more clearly. As far as I could judge, the figure was that of a tall, thin man. He stood with his legs a little separated, his arms folded, his head bowed, as if he were brooding over that enormous wilderness of peat and granite which lay before him. He might have been the very spirit of that terrible place. It was not the convict. This man was far from the place where the latter had disappeared. Besides, he was a much taller man. With a cry of surprise I pointed him out to the baronet, but in the instant during which I had turned to grasp his arm the man was gone. There was the sharp pinnacle of granite still cutting the lower edge of the moon, but its peak bore no trace of that silent and motionless figure.

This, combined with Holmes's odd, "cat-like" cleanliness while living in a hut on the moor, suggest that he's not exactly super-human, but maybe extra-human. Anyway, not human in the way Watson is. I wrote a few weeks ago about Holmes as an enchanter whose magic is reason. In these passages, Holmes appears as a spirit or specter, and perhaps some kind of sprite with dancing gray eyes. He may represent reason, but he's otherworldly all the same.

All this suggests that for all Holmes's brilliance, there is something not quite right about his enterprise. That notion is reinforced pronto, when, as he and Watson are comparing their discoveries of the past few weeks, they hear a terrible cry. Rushing to investigate, they find their client, Henry Baskerville,* dead.

A low moan had fallen upon our ears. There it was again upon our left! On that side a ridge of rocks ended in a sheer cliff which overlooked a stone-strewn slope. On its jagged face was spread-eagled some dark, irregular object. As we ran towards it the vague outline hardened into a definite shape. It was a prostrate man face downward upon the ground, the head doubled under him at a horrible angle, the shoulders rounded and the body hunched together as if in the act of throwing a somersault. So grotesque was the attitude that I could not for the instant realize that that moan had been the passing of his soul. Not a whisper, not a rustle, rose now from the dark figure over which we stooped. Holmes laid his hand upon him, and held it up again, with an exclamation of horror. The gleam of the match which he struck shone upon his clotted fingers and upon the ghastly pool which widened slowly from the crushed skull of the victim. And it shone upon something else which turned our hearts sick and faint within us—the body of Sir Henry Baskerville!

There was no chance of either of us forgetting that peculiar ruddy tweed suit—the very one which he had worn on the first morning that we had seen him in Baker Street. We caught the one clear glimpse of it, and then the match flickered and went out, even as the hope had gone out of our souls. Holmes groaned, and his face glimmered white through the darkness.

"The brute! the brute!" I cried with clenched hands. "Oh Holmes, I shall never forgive myself for having left him to his fate."

"I am more to blame than you, Watson. In order to have my case well rounded and complete, I have thrown away the life of my client. It is the greatest blow which has befallen me in my career. But how could I know—how could l know—that he would risk his life alone upon the moor in the face of all my warnings?"

That last self-accusation by Holmes sums it up: he has sacrificed his client for the case itself. (Notice how he says it's the "greatest blow which has befallen me...": it's still all about him, isn't it?) One suspects, despite his expression of regret here, that he'd do the same thing again in a minute.

Conan Doyle seems keen on showing us that there are consequences to Holmes's single-minded brilliance. He is not a simple hero, a seeker and defender of justice. He is driven by ratiocination for its own sake, and anyone who hires him for protection risks meeting the same fate as Baskerville.

The character of the flawed detective is itself a cliche by now. But a detective whose very brilliance is a danger to his clients is compelling. Holmes himself is the "hound" of the Baskervilles--a spectral and seemingly supernatural hunter.**

*UPDATE: Except it isn't Henry Baskerville. This is the second time I've been foiled by a plot twist in this novel. Note to self: in a Holmes story, there is no resolution until the end.

**I still think the overall point stands: Holmes's concern is with the facts, rather than with people. And he's uncanny, all right. More about these twists and turns in a subsequent post.

No comments: