Tuesday, 30 October 2007

‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ Book Club Debate review.

My appreciation of Sherlock Holmes was born out of a summer watching reruns of a TV series starring Basil Rathbone as the unstoppable Holmes (apologies Peter!). Having never read any of the books I was excited to reconsider Holmes in relation to ‘The Hounds’. Recurring questions crept into my mind as I was reading the novel; Why does Sherlock Holmes remain such an appealing figure? Why do we relate to him so clearly and unquestionably? And why do some fans want to believe he really existed? (Can you think of any other fictional character that has a blue plaque erected in their name?)

These concerns opened the third book club debate; many members being devoted fans of the novels had some illuminating opinions to share.

Holmes is brash, unsympathetic, patronising and smug these are the attributes of our anti-hero and it is perhaps the “anti” in Holmes that makes us warm to him. As Gail suggested it is exactly this outside-ness that makes him appealing to “the everyday man on the street”. He is a true English eccentric, combining respected codes of reason with intuition and imagination. Emily (a Holmes fan from a young age) believed Holmes’ appeal lies in his impressive powers of deduction, his startling ability to deduce motives and character just by looking at a person’s face.

But it is just this idea that disturbed me, Holmes’ approach is rooted in the context of Victorian England, a post Darwinian moment where faith and belief systems were being shaken to the core. Holmes adopts many dubious scientific techniques of the time such as phrenology and concepts of biological determinism to solve his cases. At their very core these techniques are fundamentally racist, classist and unscientific by today’s standards. Angela suggested that we still pander to our Victorian heritage, as our instincts rely on judging people by their appearance. We like to think we have progressed beyond such prejudiced techniques with the use of DNA testing and high tech CSI but as Gail suggested do we really understand these techniques? Are they not to an extent still rooted in Holmes’ black and white analysis of criminality?

In “The Hounds”, Selden represents the “born criminal”. His appearance is primitive and atavistic,“ There could be no doubt about the beetling forehead, the sunken animal eyes. It was indeed the same face that had glared at me in the light of the candle from over the rock–the face of Selden, the criminal.” Pg 129.
This description suggests Conan Doyle borrowing from Alphonse Bertillon’s* creation, Anthropomorphy. This was a system of physiological measurements for the identification of criminals.

Polly questioned the condemnation of Holmes’ methods of deduction by suggesting that Conan Doyle was experimenting with creating fear through body horror. Using physical attributes to strike fear in to the reader and the characters in the book. Conan Doyle could have been referencing ideas of monsters and zombies rather than being prejudiced.

During the debate we touched on the idea of how trapped Conan Doyle was by his Holmes creation. Gail pointed out what a talented and remarkable man Conan Doyle, was; a championship sportsman, a doctor, a lawyer with a social conscience and a spiritualist. By 1893 and after writing 24 stories Conan Doyle had tired of Holmes to the point that he killed him off in “The Final Problem“. Doyle wished to focus on his historical writing but by 1903 The Strand was desperate to up their sales which had experienced a sharp decline since Holmes’ death. The magazine literarily bribed Doyle to resurrect the hero of the masses and so at a sizeable fee Doyle sold his sole to The Strand and produced “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.

Many believe it to be the best of all the stories; book club members certainly felt that it was very different to the other books in the series. Emily noted that the other stories were much shorter and punchier making “The Hounds” structure more predictable in comparison. This may have explained my overall disappointment at the lack of excitement I experienced reading the book, wishing that I had read it when I was fifteen.

What most excited me about the book was that it prompted me to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street. Having lived in London all my life I was aware of this ‘museum” but felt it was a tourist trap and not really worth a visit. I was wrong and now wish I had visited it sooner, the museum illustrated for me the most bizarre collision of fiction and history. This is as close to the truth of fiction as you get.

A Victorian bobby guards the entrance of the house ensuring that you have paid your obligatory 6 bob to get passed his subtle mix of intimidation and politeness. You ascend the narrow staircase to arrive at the first floor that combines Watson’s study and the infamous front room where all the great cases were solved. A convincing array of bric-a-brac lines shelves and tabletops whilst amongst the watercolours and photographs that cover the walls are a series of bullet holes forming the letters VR (Gail’s powers of deduction suggest they stand for Victoria Regina). What becomes problematic in this attention to detail is the fact that this is the reconstruction of the fictional house of a fictional character. A house which didn’t even exist when Conan Doyle was writing the books as Baker Street was much shorter than it is today. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that Baker St was extended and 221b was brought in to existence.

The front room becomes crowded with visitors all eager to sit in the armchairs of Watson and Holmes planted by an open fire. On the small table between the chairs lie all the paraphernalia necessary to transform yourself in to Holmes and Watson: a bowler hat, a pipe, a magnifying glass and last but not least the essential deer stalker.
5 or 6 people wait to don the garb provided. A young women perches on the chez long at the side of the room. She is a member of staff invigilating the space, dressed in a Victorian maids outfit. Even though there seems to be a distinct lack of concern for most of the objects (which you can touch and photograph with a flash!) this young women ensures the reconstruction is maintained and not too much of the bric a brac gets disturbed or stolen.

I was curious to find out who ran this “museum”, who was raking in the cash being liberally parted with at the front door. She confirmed the house was owned by a Russian family and that it was endorsed by the Sherlock Holmes Society. When asked what she thought about working at the “museum “ she began with an attempt at diplomacy but quickly revealed her true feelings. Having recently graduated from a degree in Museums and Galleries she expressed her professional horror at how wrong the whole “museum “ was as it went against everything she had been taught. She shook her head in dismay, but everything that she had expressed is the reason why the museum is so amazing, it is the inappropriateness and idiosyncratic nature of the reconstructions that make it in to a work of art. Throwing history in to question through presenting fiction as truth.

The Museum, the books, the films, the merchandise perpetuate the Holmes myth, but who will be the next fictional character to capture the imaginations of generations to come? Will anyone surpass the myth of Holmes?
Book club suggest Harry Potter. Emily informs us that a theme park inspired by the schoolboy wizard will be open in the US by 2009.

Many Thanks to Gail Burton and all the book club members for another great debate.

Please check out Emily Turner's brilliant review of the events proceedings at:


* Alphonse Bertillon (1853- 1914), Head of criminal identification for Paris Police/

Sunday, 21 October 2007

This months Book, The Hound of the Baskervilles!

This months book is billed as one of the greatest crime thrillers of all time.
We are very lucky this month to have two experts chairing the debate the fantastic Helen Brown and the wonderful Gail Burton. Helen is no stranger to Book club setting the standards high when she chaired the very first debate of Dracula, she is a book critic for The Daily Telegraph and Radio 5 Live. Gail Burton is an artist, campaigner and expert on Sherlock Holmes.
This should prove to be a lively debate, questioning the myth of Holmes, Conan Doyles relationship to his creation and the battle between reason and the imagination.