Legend has it that a spectral hound terrorizes an old country estate in Devonshire and the bloodline that owns it. Our heroes Holmes and Watson are called onto the scene when the latest heir to Baskerville Hall dies just outside his home without a mark on him. Next to his body, there is the mark of a giant paw.
What surprised me the most about The Hound of the Baskervilles is that it’s such a beach read. I expected a Dickens level of convolutedness, but this book is simple, clear, and short. In fact I’m a little disappointed because I wanted more depth. Doyle is good and spooky when he’s describing the moors, but the characters aren’t spooky and neither is the mystery. The book ends like an episode of Scooby Doo: (the ghost is just a cranky neighbor of theirs and a dog in glow-in-the-dark paint).
But like I said, beach read. The Hound of the Baskervilles is fun to read. It’s fun to read an entire mystery with the late Victorian attitude that science can fix everything. Doyle’s habit of describing every character in excruciating detail is also fun, and led to this knee-slapper of a line:
There were pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils, and his large hazel eyes.
Elmore Leonard, one of the greats of the mystery writing community, passed away recently. I didn’t know about him until the obituary showed up, but it turns out he wrote ten tips for writers that I think are damn fine pieces of advice:
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
I disagree with some of his uses of never, but I agree with the spirit of the list: Stop trying so hard to be writerly and tell the story!
Source of his ten tips: Writers on Writing
A reclusive, bestselling author commissions our heroine to write her biography. The two women come to loggerheads about how the story should be told almost immediately. Margaret, the biographer (no relation to me) thinks there is more to Vida Winter than meets the eye and is determined to get to the root of the mystery whether Winter likes it or not. What is Winter’s real name? Where did she come from? And where is the thirteenth tale, Winter’s fabled short story that was never published?
The first thing you will notice on starting to read this book is the Gothic use of language. Margaret is a moody and shy lady who spends almost all of her time working in a bookshop. A couple of pages into the book, Margaret takes a couple of paragraphs to describe a billboard by the road. What is this? I thought. Is Setterfield trying to write a twenty-first-century Jane Eyre here?
The answer is yes. Big, old British mansions abound in this book, alongside ghosts, storms, madness, intrigues with the servants, illegitimate children, and, of course, a fire. The Thirteenth Tale is an homage to the greats of the nineteenth century, which it references throughout the text. Vida Winter’s favorite book is Jane Eyre.
That ultimately causes The Thirteenth Tale some problems. It’s a good story, with a nice mystery and a satisfying surprise at the end. But when you position yourself that close to Jane Eyre, how can you possibly measure up?