Accept no substitute. Sherlock Holmes exists in print first and foremost.
However entertaining Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing or Jeremy Brett were the problem is that we are seeing it all for ourselves. Holmes may be a genius, but the real ingenuity of these stories was picking a narrator just slightly cleverer than most of us but not as clever as the great detective. Watson’s been following Holmes long enough to know that any small detail might be significant, so he gives us every small detail; smells, sounds, accents, the lot. That’s what makes these stories work when technically-better authors languish unread and out of print. They didn’t bother to describe what most of their readers already knew. Holmes has taught Watson not to take the familiar for granted. If you want to know what Victorian Britain, especially London, seemed like to people who lived there, this is your first point of entry. No clichés, no half-remembered ‘atmosphere’, it’s all absolutely real.
And while Watson admires his friend, he’s aware of how ridiculous Holmes might seem to someone who’s not seen him in action. Whenever this story is dramatised the sequence in the hotel with the boots and the newspaper looks absurd. Through Watson’s eyes it’s business as usual. And Watson’s eyes are more important here than in any of the other stories because Holmes deputises him to go to Dartmoor and report every detail to him by letter. Holmes doesn’t believe in family curses and supernatural beasts but Watson’s finding it hard to stay sceptical when living in such a remote and desolate place. That’s one of the two things that makes this book the supreme moment of Holmes’ career; almost all of the stories have the trappings and mood of gothic horror but turn out to be devious criminal enterprises, yet this one has its cake and eats it. There’s a real glow-in-the-dark hound and a real family secret causing all of this.
By Tat Wood