It is eminently a consoling narration. How far do you agree with this estimation of the Hounds of the Baskervilles? Could the same claim be advanced in relation to the suspicions of Mr. Whicher?

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Alfie Collins

‘It is eminently a consoling narration.’ How far do you agree with this estimation of the Hounds of the Baskervilles? Could the same claim be advanced in relation to the suspicions of Mr. Whicher? 


Both books have varying degrees of reassuring closure; however, the fact that brutal murders have occurred is a pervasive dampener. An intriguing dichotomy between the inhumane, on the one hand, and the comeuppance on the other, is a fact often overlooked in murder stories; wherein the reader ignores the atrocities of murder and only experiences the exultations of revelation and justice. However, not even the revelation of the murderess in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008), is an entirely happy affair: Whicher is unable to prove her as guilty, despite his instincts, and resultantly has a breakdown, prior to Constance’s eventual confession. This is the reason why The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) is more consoling, and is the essential difference between fact and fiction: a fictional character can be given unlimited powers of deduction; Whicher, however, is bounded by his own actuality. 

The murders themselves are the least consoling aspects of the stories. Kate Summerscale describes how Saville Kent’s neck was ‘cut to the bone by some sharp instrument, left to right; it completely divided all the membranes, blood vessels, nerve vessels, and air tube’, and how afterwards, some sharp object such as a razor or knife was thrust into the young boy’s chest. Later, Summercale elaborates, saying, ‘the child was thrust down the servant’s lavatory, as if it were excrement.’ This grisly and deliberately visceral detail hardly makes for a consoling narration. Indeed, Summercale also provides two novelistic images that are far from consoling. She mentions how Constance ‘cut off her hair and threw it, with her discarded dress and petticoats, into the vault and the privy’ – this is exactly what she does with Saville’s body, she treats object and human as one. Summerscale also mentions how Saville’s ‘sleeping self was still indented on the sheets and pillow of the cot’. These two images are both poetical and powerful, the first of which is intended to highlight Constance’s callousness, the second to add tones of lamentation for young Saville. These novelistic touches make for a narration which is less consoling than that of a simple description of events, this idea is mirrored by Marilyn Stasio, who, in her article on the New York times book review, commented that Summerscale used ‘novelistic devices to make her factual material read with the urgency of a work of fiction.’ The description of murder in The Hound of the Baskervilles is rather less graphically portrayed, with Charles Baskerville dying of a heart attack upon seeing the beast. However, the death of Hugo makes for a narration lacking in solace. Conan Doyle describes how ‘standing over Hugo and plucking at its throat, there stood a foul thing, a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye had rested on’, he later adds that the beast ‘tore the throat out of Hugo Baskerville’. However, despite the violent imagery of this murder, it must be noted that it was a description confined to folk-lore, and derived from a 17th century manuscript. In this sense, the murder in The Suspicions of Mr.Whicher is rather less consoling than those of The Hound of the Baskervilles, despite the wickedness of all the murders.

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Vicious murders imply vicious murderers. However, Stapleton and Constance are not merely rancorous, they are also disconcertingly indistinct. Shakespeare once wrote that ‘there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face’; and this is a very telling point in the case of both murderers. Stapleton is described as ‘a small, slim, clean-shaven, prim-faced man, flaxen-haired and lean-jawed, between thirty and forty years of age’. This description makes him seem like an unnoticeable man, bereft of malevolence. Watson, ironically, even shows concern for Stapleton, given the lurking dangers of Selden, saying ‘the latter was not a very strong man’ ...

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