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’ – he is made out to be un-threatening, the reality is rather different. However, later in the novel, Watson picks up on something unsavoury about his character, saying, ‘he seems a quiet, meek-mannered man enough, but I dare say that there was a lurking devil in his eyes’. Sir Henry also asks Watson, ‘Did he strike you as being crazy?’ This, as well as his occupation as a naturalist makes for an un-consoling character. This is because his role as a naturalist creates a false association with the Enlightenment. Constance shares many similar traits to Stapleton. She is described as having ‘an entire absence of anything like vivacity in her air or countenance', and as having a ‘broad, full uninteresting face’. In both instances the murderer/murderess has no notably malevolent characteristics, and this only adds to their malevolence. This discord between character and appearance is the opposite in the case of Selden, the Notting Hill murderer, who is described as having ‘an evil yellow face, a terrible animal face’. This contrast is intended to enhance the evil of Stapleton, whereby the danger lies in not having a visual clue to his character. Stapleton is also frequently described with the negative allusions created by zoomorphism. Whilst he is ‘as helpless as a butterfly in one of his own nets’, he is also as vicious as ‘a leanjawed pike’. Francis O’Gorman aptly summated this phenomena with the description of, ‘a leakage between the world of man and animals’. The ability in fiction to use such imagery enables the writer to create a narration which is less consoling than that of non-fiction, and this is often true when comparing The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.
The method of murder makes Stapleton less consoling than Constance. Constance acted, although calmly, in a moment of passion - she did not plan extensively on how to kill Saville; conversely, Stapleton looked after a hound, and composedly devised a way to get rid of the Baskervilles. He also, it is later revealed, had a ‘career of crime’ – this is much unlike Constance, who merely committed one dire deed. Constance’s character, however, is not depicted as being evil, she may have committed an evil crime, but nothing about her persona indicates a malevolent disposition. This is a major difference between the two, Stapleton commits murders due to his nature, whilst Constance acts due to the way in which ‘Mr. and Mrs. Kent were besotted with their new children’, at the disadvantage of the other children. In essence, Stapleton is depicted as a character of greater evil. It is also the intelligence of Stapleton which makes him less consoling than Constance, because it makes him more dangerous. His decoys, such as the suggestion that the sound of the hound ‘might be the calling of a strange bird’, indicate his cunning. His intelligence is even compared to that of Holmes, as is indicated when he claims ‘you may be interested to know that you have been driving Sherlock Holmes’. There are other un-consoling, intriguing parallels between Holmes and Stapleton, such as the tendency to use other human beings as though they lacked full human status. Stapleton used Laura Lyons and Beryl for his own whims; whilst Holmes used Henry by jeopardising his life, and indeed, used Watson to some extent, by failing to inform him of his progress with the case.
Moreover, the recurring theme of atavism is a further aspect which goes against the premise of the title. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, the reader is presented with a number of atavistic characters, including Mortimer, who despite being a man of science, is taken in by the theory of the supernatural hound. His is introduced as having produced works such as ‘Is Disease a Reversion’, ‘Some freaks of Atavism’, ‘Do we Progress’; these works are actually questions that could be asked about Mortimer; reflecting the anxieties brought about by the ‘fin de siecle’. Mortimer’s job as a scientist actually reduces his credibility because of his disassociation with the rationality that such a job at such a time in human history would indicate. Holmes asks of Mortimer, ‘you mean that the thing is supernatural’, upon Mortimer’s reply of ‘I did not positively say so’, Holmes replies ‘no but you evidently think so’. Mortimer also ignores patient confidentiality, where it is revealed that he disclosed information about the weakness of Sir Charles’ heart. It is also made known that he withheld evidence about the existence of footprints, for fear of being seen as a believer in the supernatural. Other throw-backs include Frankland, who uses the law for his own personal gratification: ‘he fights for the mere pleasure of fighting and is equally ready to take up either side of the equation’ – the way that Frankland uses a sophisticated organism like the legal system in an inappropriate way presents the reader with a throw-back, and is thus not consoling. There is however, some consolation in the light relief which he provides: W. W. Robson, editor of the Oxford University Press edition of Hound, argued that, ‘Old Frankland, as Watson says, is there for comic relief, the only comedy in the book, apart from Holmes’s witty badinage.’(1) However, Robert Moss argued the opposite, noting how, ‘Frankland is estranged from his daughter, Mrs. Laura Lyons, whose parlous financial straits are largely Frankland’s responsibility’ (1). Another reason for the lack of consolation is the fact that the reader is confronted with a host of negatively drawn characters beyond the villain himself. In The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Mr.Kent uses the law in a similar manner, ‘banning the villagers from fishing the river near his house, and prosecuting one for taking an apple from the orchard.’ In both texts, the regressive characters make for narrations that are not eminently consoling.
However, in both stories, the nature of the detectives makes the narrations more reassuring. Jack Whicher is described as ‘the doyen of the metropolitan force’ and the ‘prince of detectives’. His notable intellect is encapsulated by the fact that he is described as having ‘a reserved and thoughtful air, as if he were engaged in deep arithmetical calculations’; the description indicates that his everyday actions are infused with thought, since thought is merely a part of his countenance. A parallel can be drawn to when Sherlock Holmes is eating dinner at the Baskerville Hall, ‘and his eyes were continually fixed on it (the picture) during supper’- here, eating takes a secondary role to the task of analysing the picture. Whicher had the noteworthy status of being one of the ‘original eight Scotland Yard officers’, and one of the ‘surreptitious all-seeing Gods of London’. The idea of having the ability to ‘see all’ is an idea that can be linked to when Holmes observes the light flashing on the lens of Frankland’s telescope – here the observer is being observed upon; and thus, in both stories, the detectives show remarkably consoling powers of observation. The artistry of Whicher’s occupation is made précis in his action of ‘giving a little touch on the back of his (the thief’s) hand’, in order for the thief to mistake Whicher for his accomplice and de-clench his hand, thus enabling Whicher to take the diamond. The innovation of the act is augmented by Charley Field’s referral to it as ‘one of the most beautiful things that was ever done perhaps. Beautiful. Beau-ti-ful’. Summerscale’s anecdotal style and use of a series of vignettes enhances the depiction of Whicher’s skill.
This abundant aptitude from Whicher is certainly very consoling, yet it is not enough to enable him to convict Constance, who in the end confesses to a clergyman. Not only is Whicher unable to prove the guilt of Constance, he suffers a ‘congestion of the brain’. The reader is made to mourn the way in which ‘Whicher had retired from the department humiliated and disowned’ and how ‘he had become almost forgotten’. He is far from the genius of Holmes. Whilst Holmes experiences minor set-backs, such as his inability to trace cut sheets from ‘The Times’, Whicher is faced with the ultimate set-back of not being able to prove Constance guilty. There is not just a disparity between Holmes and Whicher, there is also a disparity between Holmes and all the other characters within The Hound of the Baskervilles; this serves to augment his brilliance. When Holmes says to Watson, ‘that is what I wanted you to think’, we are made acutely aware of their differences. This again occurs in the scene where Watson remarks, ‘I am reckoned fleet of foot, but he outpaced me as much as I outpaced the little professional’, here we see the power dynamic between Holmes and Watson, and indeed between Holmes and the professional law enforcement agent. Similarly, there is a contrast between Selden’s ‘short, squat’ appearance and that of Holmes as a ‘much taller man’, this imagery is supposed to show Holmes as a more developed individual. Throughout the novel, there are many uses of canine imagery, for example, when Selden is described as a ‘wiry bulldog of a man’; there are also phrases such as ‘dogged us’, ‘dogging us’, and ‘if I could run him to earth’. However, Holmes is depicted as the opposite of this, and is described as ‘catlike’, thus making him appear superior to the other characters in the novel, and also making the reader aware of Holmes cat-like personal cleanliness. The one instance is which Holmes is paralleled to the canine is when he held a paper within a few inches of his eyes and became ‘conscious of a faint smell of the scent known as white jessamine’. However, in this instance, the positive aspect of the canine sense of smell is presented in Holmes, rather than the negative aspects which are augmented within the other characters. Indeed, he is oft depicted through the positive use of zoomorphism, whilst the other characters are frequently depicted through the negative use of zoomorphism. Both detectives are consoling with respect to their association with advancement and rationality; Holmes however, is successful, and this is the primary difference.
The ‘triumph of rationality’ is a consoling idea, but it only exists in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In the novel, the supernatural is denied. This is made abundantly clear in Holmes’ ironic statement, ‘we’ve laid the family ghost once and for all’. Any ideas of the supernatural are thrown away, much like the cigarette that Holmes ‘(yawned and) tossed in the fire’, upon hearing the story of a hellish hound. Holmes continually does away with paranormal ideas, for example, when he remarks, ‘but surely, if your supernatural theory be correct, it could work the young man evil in London as easily as in Devonshire’. Throughout the novel, seemingly odd and inexplicable events have a logical basis. A specific instance is when Holmes ascertains the teeth marks of a ‘curly haired spaniel’ on Mortimer’s walking stick. This could imply psychic abilities, were it not for the fact that Holmes’ sees the ‘dog himself on our very doorstep’. Ultimately, it is Holmes’ discovery of phosphorous on the hound’s mouth which explains the conflagration emanating from the Hound’s jaws. Conversely, in the Suspicions of Mr.Whicher, the detective fails to prove the murderess as guilty, and instead, a confession in necessary to reveal her transgression – because of this, ‘God had triumphed where man – and science, and detection – had failed’. The Victorian ideals of rationality are done away with, and the supernatural prevails.
To conclude, it is the very human nature of Whicher, and thus, his inability to prove Constance guilty which inevitably makes The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher a narrative lacking in consolation. Conversely, it is Holmes’ God-like rationality, and thus his ability to prove Stapleton as guilty which makes for a relatively consoling narration in the The Hound of the Baskervilles. Essentially, we are forced to compare the short-comings of the real world, and of real people, against the greater possibilities of Conan Doyle’s fictional world.
Word Count (with quotes) = 2628
Word Count (without quotes) = 2051
The Hound of the Baskervilles (Oxford), with editions from Edward Gorman