The Hound of the Baskervilles | Study Guide

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Hound of the Baskervilles | Chapter 4 : Sir Henry Baskerville | Summary

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Summary

The next morning Dr. Mortimer and Sir Henry Baskerville arrive at Baker Street. Sir Henry reveals that he has received a written warning at his hotel, although nobody could have known where he is staying.

Sherlock Holmes's examination of the note reveals that the warning was created with letters cut from the previous day's Times and addressed in coarse block letters. Since the Times is rarely read by uneducated people yet the coarse letters suggest a lack of education, he theorizes that the warning was likely written by a sophisticated person who wants to remain anonymous. When asked how he came up with the theory, Holmes explains that as an avid reader of the Times he recognized the familiar typeface, and since the warning was delivered that morning, the logical assumption is that it was cut from the previous day's paper.

Although everyone is duly impressed by Sherlock Holmes's seemingly airtight argument, Dr. Mortimer remains skeptical, critiquing his theory as pure guesswork. Holmes defends his method, clarifying that he is weighing probabilities, picking the most likely one.

Sir Henry also reveals that one of his brand-new boots is missing after he left them outside his hotel room to be varnished. Yet despite all the mysterious events, he is determined to take possession of Baskerville Hall.

As soon as Sir Henry and Dr. Mortimer have left, Holmes and Watson follow them to determine if someone is following them and who it might be. They notice a cab with a bearded man inside. The cab races away when the man notices Holmes following him. Holmes hires Cartwright, a messenger boy, to search the hotels in Charing Cross where the letter was postmarked to find the specific copy of the Times that was used for the warning note.

Analysis

This chapter offers a uniquely detailed example of Sherlock Holmes's power of reasoning. Although his conclusions seem like sheer guesswork to the uninitiated, Holmes rejects any suggestion that the supernatural might be involved in the case at hand or that guesswork might be responsible for his conclusions. Holmes's deductions all rely on the process of elimination that weighs probabilities against each other and chooses the one most likely, given prior knowledge of circumstances and facts. To Holmes observable facts are the beginning and end of all analysis, which eventually will lead to indisputable knowledge. And yet he relies on his own intuition and sensory perception to an extent that suggests uncanny abilities. After all his conclusion that the letters are from a specific article in the Times originates in a seemingly instinctive recognition of the typeface.

As the case becomes more mysterious, Holmes's powers of deduction lead to more questions than answers, which in turn leads to a buildup of suspense. Who has written the warning to Sir Henry? Should the letter be interpreted as a warning or as a threat? Who has taken the boot and why? Who is the bearded man? Is he the person behind all this? And is the beard even real?

This last question introduces the theme of disguised or mistaken identity that runs through the entire novel and provides several opportunities for false analysis, misguided assumptions, and wrong conclusions with dramatic consequences. The theme is quite typical of detective fiction, and Sir Henry's comment that he inadvertently wandered into a dime novel is at once Arthur Conan Doyle's astute assessment of his own novel and at the same time an instance of irony adding comic relief at a time of great suspense. Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were pulp fiction in the truest sense of the word. They often first appeared serialized in magazines such as the Strand, attracting an audience that preferred popular rather than serious literature.

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