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Fifty shades of black

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IN THIS dark season, give yourself a cosy little fright with The Hound Of The Baskervilles

For a few months each year, the stray dogs in our neighbourhood go bonkers. They savage our garden slippers. They piddle on our trees. They howl all night. And they breed relentlessly, so we know it will all be much worse next year.

When the downpours and November darkness spread gloom over the evening and the snarls and yelps start up beyond the fence, that’s the perfect time to give oneself a cosy little fright. Every year in this season I snuggle up to the one canine I adore, The Hound of the Baskervilles .

My copy of this slim novella is included in a fat volume titled The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes , a facsimile of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories as they appeared serially in The Strand . They are laid out in two columns and half-a-dozen typefaces and evocatively illustrated by Sidney Paget. Every second page has a drawing. Unfortunately, my particular copy has a binding error. There are 32 pages missing just after Dr. Mortimer whispers, “Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

When I hit the missing pages I switch to A Treasury of Sherlock Holmes and then switch back again to the illustrated volume. It would be easier just to read the whole tale in A Treasury , which has respectable gilt lettering and a ribbon bookmark sewn in. But who could pass up those pictures in The Original ? The story opens with a full-page drawing of Sir Hugo Baskerville galloping across the moor in a three-cornered hat and a state of fury, chasing an escaped girl. A huge hound follows close behind, and an aged shepherd witnesses the chase from a distance. Almost everything is black —the horse, the hat, the moor, the night. Blackest of all is the hound.

For those who were brought up by wolves and missed this thrilling tale, family legend has it that Sir Hugo Baskerville was a proper English sinner and was mauled to death by a hound from hell. Several generations later, young Henry Baskerville comes to the family manor he has inherited after his uncle’s sudden death. There are rumours of a hound on the moor and of a curse that will dog the young heir.

Throw in an escaped convict and two beautiful women, and it is a story to be read breathlessly, all at once. It is when we read it again that we fully realise the writer’s power to evoke solemnity, heaviness, foreboding, dread, and terror. The writer draws the many shades of darkness as brilliantly as the artist does.

It’s not all fright. I enjoy snapping up those crumbs Holmes often drops from his plate, his offhand mention of other cases. The “little affair of the Vatican cameos” probably had more pomp than pith, but the “analogous incidents in Grodno, in Little Russia”, and “the Anderson murders in North Carolina” sound deliciously gruesome. I know Watson won’t be telling those stories, but I can’t help drooling over the idea.

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