The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes • The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
Breaking With Tradition • 1900–1945
Detective fiction comes of age
1841 US writer Edgar Allan Poe’s hero detective in The Murders in the Rue Morgue applies observation, deduction, and intuition to solve a murder.
1852—53 Inspector Bucket investigates a murder in Bleak House, by the English writer Charles Dickens, sifting through a variety of suspects.
1868 English author Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is published, arguably the first full-length detective novel in English.
1920 English writer Agatha Christie publishes her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, marking the start of what is often called the “Golden Age” of detective fiction.
The sleuth, who uses acute powers of observation and deduction to solve near-impossible puzzles and catch wrongdoers, appears in earlier texts from several cultures. However, detective fiction as a distinct genre emerged only in the 19th century, with the stories of US author Edgar Allan Poe featuring C Auguste Dupin, and reached its zenith in inter-war Britain. At its heart was the detective: cerebral, often at the expense of social skills; usually accompanied by an assistant (who is often also the narrator); and possessed of an ability to identify and decipher clues that baffle the police. Sherlock Holmes — created by Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle (1859—1930) — epitomized this modern detective.
Conan Doyle trained as a doctor in Scotland and pursued his medical career even after writing had brought him acclaim. His true interest was writing historical fiction, but he found far more success with his detective stories, many of which were serialized in The Strand Magazine. The Hound of the Baskervilles was the third full-length novel to feature Holmes.
The story centres on a strange crime on Dartmoor: Sir Charles Baskerville has apparently been terrified to death on his own estate by a ghostly hound. Foul play is suspected, and Holmes investigates. The main story, and a subplot involving an escaped criminal on the moor — are told by Dr Watson, Holmes’s friend and ally and the book’s narrator.
Like most other works of early detective fiction, The Hound of the Baskervilles features a dastardly crime (a murder), a closed group of suspects, an inspired sleuth who arrives to carry out an investigation, and a solution that readers may arrive at themselves through logical deduction. The appeal of the novel lies as much in its plot — the triumph of reason over evil and superstition — as in its eerie, Gothic atmosphere.
See also: Bleak House • The Moonstone • The Big Sleep