A new edition of the world's best loved detective story, edited by a leading Yorkshire academic, reveals a less than elementary relationship with Sherlock Holmes. Martin Hickes reports.
EVEN Holmes would have been bemused.
Seventy-five years after the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the erstwhile detective's illustrious creator, a new edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles suggests Holmes's best-loved case may actually have been more of a journey into the psyche of its author rather than a simple whodunit.
Dr Francis O'Gorman from the University of Leeds has just completed a fully annotated version of the Hound, a book first published 105 years ago, which is allegedly Tony Blair's favourite detective novel, and loved by millions across the world.
And while Conan Doyle's interest in spiritualism – he was after all the man who resolutely backed the infamous photographs of the Cottingley fairies – has been well-documented elsewhere, the leading English literature academic, believes it reflects his own inner debates about the supernatural more so than has previously been realised.
"The Hound of the Baskervilles is secure in the popular imagination of the English speaking world and ranks arguably as the most famous detective novel in the language," says Dr O'Gorman.
"Since its first publication in The Strand magazine in 1901, it has not been out of print since and is loved the world over.
"At the height of his career, neither intolerant nor wholly a believer, Conan Doyle was sufficiently immersed in a search for reliable facts about 'the other side' and some now argue The Hound of the Baskervilles, written from the midst of this process, is an emblem of these beliefs."
Critics have thought it deeply ironic for a man taking a step towards spiritualism to have created the apparently ruthlessly empirical Holmes.
But Dr O'Gorman believes the Hound, often overlooked by those who dismiss it as nothing more than a quick read, highlights not only Conan Doyle's own developing spiritualism – as a friend of Houdini, he became convinced the American magician possessed supernatural powers – but the whole issue of the other world which was being debated by the public at large.
"Although it is not often considered as such, the novel is a great collection of ideas," adds Dr O'Gorman. "Spiritualism is certainly one of its underground themes and it was of such passionate importance to Conan Doyle.
"His involvement in spiritualism became such that he wrote a novel on the subject, The Land of Mist, and The Coming of the Fairies in which he championed the validity of the world-famous Cottingley fairy photographs – one of the reasons why his short stories were banned in 1920s Russia for alleged occultism.
"We may regard it as strange today, but he was seriously and thoughtfully immersed in its possibilities.
"It is a novel that demands serious attention, even though we have got into the habit of thinking of detective fiction as quick-reading entertainment." Critics have been quick to point out that the plot of the famous story, which tells the tale of a West Country landed gentry family haunted throughout history by an alleged demonic hound, is riddled with holes, but, says Dr O'Gorman that doesn't take away from its importance as a novel.
"Readers will be familiar with the fact that Doyle was actually a bit careless in his writing of the Sherlock Holmes stories," he says. "There are many discrepancies with regards to his habits and changed facts – but that didn't mean that he wasn't absorbed with the serious ideas in the course of them.
"I first read the Hound when I was a child and I am delighted to have been involved in spending at least some of my professional life editing it. In my view, while being very much loved, it's one of the most significant contributions not just to popular literature but also the major literary canon of the early part of the 20th century – I hope it continues to appeal to the imagination of readers today, as it has done the world over."
Francis O'Gorman has written widely on the Victorian period and is best known as an international authority on the work of John Ruskin, the Victorian art and social critic. His annotated version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, published by Broadview, priced 5.99, is available through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop on 0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk