No wonder people love Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most portrayed character on screen. After reading the thoroughly delightful “Hound of the Baskervilles” for this year’s Classics Challenge, it’s easy to see why.

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Those English moors are a great setting. Do I see Heathcliff somewhere there?

Because so many readers and moviegoers seem intrigued by him, Holmes has become a great canvas for quirky writers and actors to color. Currently there are two television series based on him. The British one starring Benedict Cumberbatch is too much style and not enough substance for me, and I’ve never seen the other one, “Elementary,” which has a female Dr. Watson, but which I hear good things about. Not bad for a character first introduced nearly 130 years ago.

“Hound” features, according to Sherlock himself, “the most fiendish villain” he’d ever faced, and he is pretty tricky. I didn’t even try to figure out who was doing what to whom; instead, I simply wanted to go along for the ride. This novel came out in serial form in 1901-02 after Conan Doyle had apparently killed off his detective at the Reichenbach Falls in the short story “The Final Solution.” This novel, the third featuring Holmes, is set before his death, and proved so popular Conan Doyle brought his detective back to life.

So the story, set on the moors (OK, he had me right there: I love novels set on English moors) of England, is about the cursed house of the Baskervilles. Sir Charles Baskerville has been found dead on his estate of an apparent heart attack, a look of horror on his face and the footprints of an enormous hound nearby.

This hound is important because it is part of the family curse dating back 400 years when evil Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the devil for some help abducting and raping a woman. (Nice guy.) But the hound of hell instead ate this man and a legend was born.

Hundreds of years later, the spectral dog is seen stalking the moors, howling at night and generally scaring the crap out of the locals. Holmes is brought into the case by a friend of Sir Charles who fears for the life of his heir, Sir Henry, who becomes owner of the Baskerville estate.

Holmes takes a back seat in this novel, sending his partner Dr. Watson to the Baskerville estate to gather information and send it back to Holmes in London. Most of the novel is made up of these reports Watson mails back to Holmes. There are interesting neighbors, a warning from a beautiful lady, creepy servants in the Baskerville house and an escaped murderer.

But of course, Holmes isn’t just back in London smoking opium and playing his violin. He comes in at the end, mystery solved and saves the day. It’s a completely entertaining and thoroughly accessible novel and one that has urged me to read more featuring Conan Doyle’s detective. Here’s an interesting piece on the endurance of Holmes, which is better than anything I may say.

But what I wanted to comment on is the fascinating disconnect between Conan Doyle and his creation. In “Hound,” the story turns on the existence of a creature from another realm. At least that’s what it appears to be, and that’s what the locals believe. But Holmes never once considers that a possibility, arguing that reason makes such a solution impossible. In fact, in other short stories featuring the detective I have since read, Holmes questions Watson’s ability to reason: Just look at the facts rationally, he tells the good doctor, and they will lead you to the truth.

But late in his life, Conan Doyle became a major proponent of the belief in spiritualism sweeping England in 1890s through the 1930s. He published 20 books on spiritualism—the belief that the living can communicate with the souls of the departed— and toured the world explaining it and relating conversations he claimed to have with the dead, including the novelist Joseph Conrad. His wife often acted as a spirit medium. Conan Doyle also said he’d rather be remembered for his spiritualist writings than for his novels.

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One of the Cottingley Fairies photos.

And then there’s the bit of craziness known as the Cottingley Fairies: In 1917, two young girls showed photographs they took in their garden that showed winged fairies dancing on the plants and playing the flute. It was a ridiculous hoax, of course, but the public was fascinated, Conan Doyle among them. He wrote a much-ridiculed book called “The Coming of the Fairies” because he felt the photographs were proof of another world. (It wasn’t until the 1980s that the girls, then old ladies, admitted they faked the photos.)

So, what the hell, Sir Arthur? Some historians explain that the spiritualist movement was a counterculture reaction to the repression and oppression of the Victorian era. Conan Doyle studied it for years and came to the conclusion that telepathy, mediums and talking with the dead through seances were real. The death of Conan Doyle’s son in World War I (and a subsequent conversation with him through a medium) may have tipped the scales toward a mild madness, but there’s no valid, believable explanation.

I found myself thinking about this as Sherlock gently chided Watson’s lack of common sense. To me, it’s a subject as fascinating as Sherlock Holmes and something I’ll be investigating myself someday.

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