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East Bay Book Club Message Board › Interesting Critique of the Hound of the Baskerville by Author John Fowles

Interesting Critique of the Hound of the Baskerville by Author John Fowles

Pam N.
user 8845125
Oakland, CA
Post #: 8
John Fowles, author of The Collector, The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Magus, calls The Hound of the Baskervilles a " delightful Gothick folly that is also now a national monument." He says Conan Doyle is a "fallible writer of fiction...[and] like all novelists, a dealer in plausible hypotheses, a confidence trickster." While Conan Doyle's "recipe" worked well at the popular level, Fowles felt to do Conan Doyle justice, he should not only be adulated, but also critiqued. Fowles wanted, therefore, to give "another con-man's view of his technique - both where it worked and where it didn't."

On the positive side, Doyle was a genius at solving the problem of dialogue, which provides realism but can take away from plot development. Without dialogue and descriptive background, a plot could be summarized on a single page but that would not be much of a story. Doyle solves this problem in three main ways. First, he carefully includes only the parts of a conversation, including key aspects of the characters, that move the story forward. Secondly, he uses "two vividly characterized and temperamentally opposed mouthpieces" rather than one center 'I' narrator. Interestingly enough (Sue!), Fowles points out that this is a rule also used in music-hall routines and TV comedy shows (and movie scripts). One character (Watson) is the surrogate of the audience, and the other (Holmes) delivers the punchline against the "punchbag" and the rest of the audience as well, who fail to see it coming. Watson's role is not only as Holmes' foil, but also as Doyle's method for feeding a false trail to the reader and so create the main source of suspense and mystery for the story. For example, Holmes has already grasped at the beginning of the story that the problem of the missing boots means that this is no supernatural hound and that whoever has control of the hound must live near Baskerville Hall, but we are only given Watson's lack of understanding about the boots and find out Holmes' reasoning at the end of the story. Thirdly, Doyle uses dialogue for its effect of making the environment "intensely immediate." While the descriptions of the countryside are evocative, it is the felt sense of the darkness and creepiness of the landscape, as delivered through the character's (Watson's) descriptions, that is most vivid to the reader.

On the negative side, Fowles criticizes Doyle's tendency toward the "strip cartoon" as a template for his novel because it creates caricature, which is "properly the weapon of humour or satire." Fowles argues below that Doyle nonetheless also fails the test of good satire. This element of caricature is why Watson and Holmes have been so often parodied, both as archetypes and for professional comedy. Watson is a "partly comic figure" and Holmes is not only "too good to be true" but also is too pure a caricature to be considered "clever" by literary standards - there is no depth to him.

Fowles brings in the voice of professor/critic Jacques Barzun, who stated that the snobbishness against detective and crime fiction is a misunderstanding of the novel vs. the tale. "[T]he novel proper is 'a narrative that professes to illuminate life by pretending to be history'; the tale 'is a narrative too, but comic; not in the sense of laughter-provoking, but in the sense of high make-believe, indifferent to direct portraiture'." Doyle belongs with the tale-tellers (such as Poe) and not in the novelist category. A good tale-teller must fulfill several specific qualities: "it is a marvellous invention because it is ingenious, full of suspense and concentrated wisdom, because it flatters the eye and the mind by its circumstantiality, liberates the spirit by its "disdain of realism", and appeases the heart by its love of reason."

Fowles then analyzes, by Barzun's definition of a tale-teller, whether Doyle passes the test and says "no" (blasphemy!). He points out authors who have met these standards better, even within detective mysteries. Raymond Chandler, for example, presents realistic portrayals of the men and women and their societies - they are "'convincingly' real", he says, as we read the story...Doyle doesn't pass the test in his portrayal of the people in the story (ultimately their motives and their behaviors are unbelievable within the context of that society at that time).

On the circumstantiality requirement, while Doyle had been to Dartmoor, he uses wholly made-up details that are evidently false according to Fowles, who had been to Dartmoor. Doyle's portrayal of the Grimpen Mire, for example, is "Romantic-Urban nonsense." Bogs are more irritating than lethal and anyone who lives there knows that they are highly visible bright green spots from which you would have to take a flying leap from the edge in order to drown. Doyle also misplaces whole towns in the wrong districts! Fowles cites other misrepresentations and states that Doyle countered complaints about these by saying, "I have never been nervous about details." However, Fowles states, "signs of ignorance in the creator sort ill with the omniscience granted the created." Fowles also finds his description of women to be unbelievable. "[N]either Laura Lyons nor Mrs. Stapleton manages to rise above the Late Victorian stereotype of the compromised 'lady". The least successful (and here I would totally agree) is the character of the villain. "Stapleton is too much of a 'prim-faced' pale shadow besides his outlandish murder weapon". Fowles says, "I think I know why Conan Doyle sent Stapleton to a silent death in the Grimpen Mire; he was not a man who could have explained himself convincingly."

On the side of ingenuity, "There is a marked shortage of pure detection and a great deal too much of Watson's stupidity and trailing of red herring; too much is engineered (and sacrificed) to the end of a spine-chilling denouement." On the end of "wisdom and reason", Fowles says it may be too much to require wisdom of a book of entertainment. However, he points out that other Holmes stories do a much better job of this than the Hound does. He compares the Hound to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and also to Poe stories. The richness of the material - the legend of the hound and its obvious spiritual meaning regarding evil, animals and nature, the fact that the wolf was only exterminated in English in 1750 and people had such a fear of them in the countryside, especially in those areas where visibility could be severely limited by the fog - could have been exploited by Doyle to say something more true and profound about human nature and the human condition, however lightly.

Fowles ends by saying that the very thing that makes the story work - its velocity and quick-moving narrative through dialogue - also makes it difficult to create the required aspects of more "profound" satire. This is the "innate flaw" in the detective tale genre. He says, "However fantastic and far-reaching the first half of a detective 'mystery', the second half is bound to drop (and only too often, flop) towards a neat and plausible everyday solution."

Ultimately, he says, "In Conan Doyle's case we are left finally with super
Group Organizer
Union City, CA
Post #: 18
Thanks for posting this, Pam. As discussed, there is a striking difference between literary fiction and detective fiction. It's very hard to have a story that balances plot, character, and themes and please readers of both genres. :-)
Charlie K.
user 10225405
Oakland, CA
Post #: 15
Finally left with super . . . what? Powers? duper bloopers? natural hangovers?

I am a great admirer of John Fowles, but I don't understand his statement that there are two narrative voices in this novel. I hear only one, Watson's.

I think he's right about the unsatisfying quality of Holmes's personage, but not about the other characters. They seem true to their Victorian time period conventions to me.

I first read the words, "Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!" when I was maybe 11 years old and I've never forgotten that thrill. I think the book deserves praise as a great mystery just for that moment.

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