Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong, by Pierre Bayard
First I must thank Arnie Perlstein, fellow member of Eighteenth Century Worlds, for bringing to my attention this essay, subtitled Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles, by Pierre Bayard (no relation to Louis Bayard.) I became all the more interested that the plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles is eerily similar to the – true – story that is the basis for my third novel. Had Conan Doyle heard of it? I have no idea.
Here is an excerpt of Pierre Bayard’s book:
Fictional characters are not, as often believed,beings of paper, but living creatures, who lead an autonomous life within the text and go as far as commit murder without the author’s knowledge.
Failing to understand that, Conan Doyle let Sherlock Holmes err in his most famous investigation, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and wrongly accused anunfortunate animal, thus allowing it the true culprit to escape justice. This book sets the record straight.
Bayard begins with a very pedestrian exposition of the plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles. As a Conan Doyle enthusiast, I found this a bit irritating. Now I understand Bayard’s reasons: he needed to strip the novel of its wonderful atmosphere, its poetry. Bayard undoes Conan Doyle’s work, he de-writes the novel. Why? To expose the workings of the plot, the shoddiness of Holmes’s deductions and the improbability of the supposed solution to the mystery. And why would a writer of Conan Doyle’s caliber make his detective commit such a gross blunder?
Bayard explains that Conan Doyle had come to hate his most famous character. His publisher was pressuring him in writing always more Holmes stories, to the detriment of Conan Doyle’s other, and preferred literary endeavors. Conan Doyle was so dismayed by the importance Holmes had taken in his life and work that he “killed” his most famous character in The Adventure of the Final Problem. Holmes fans were outraged and demanded that the author bring the detective back to life.
Conan Doyle, under the pressure of his readers and publisher, reluctantly relented, and thus wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles. According to Bayard, he unconsciously made his protagonist fail miserably in his investigation. Bayard, after demonstrating the absurdity of Holmes’s conclusions, explains to propose his own “correct” solution to the mystery (sorry, no spoilers here, so I won’t tell you what it is.)
I agree that Holmes’s solution doesn’t pass the test of rational analysis. I had long had misgivings about it, and Bayard perfectly underlines the flaws of the Holmesian reasoning. Where I disagree with the author is when he writes that Conan Doyle subconsciously set up Holmes to fail. Bayard is a psychoanalyst by trade and I believe he shows some professional bias here. No, in my opinion, this was a deliberate move on the part of Conan Doyle. The writer’s animosity for his character was perfectly conscious and acknowledged, and so was this thorough debunking of Holmes’s supposed superior abilities.
Further, while I agree that Holmes’s solution is incorrect, I find Bayard’s equally far-fetched and unconvincing. Yet until yesterday I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt so. And then suddenly it hit me: one needs, as is so often the case, to go back to Jane Austen’s novels. The Hound of the Baskervilles, just like Emma, is a mystery without a murder, a comedy, or rather a tragedy of errors.
Contrary to Bayard, I believe that there is not one single murder in this story. Only people running away from the past, or in search of an elusive future. This is, by the way, the mirror image of the story in my third novel: a series of murders that were not recognized as such.
Conan Doyle, frustrated by his readers’ infatuation with Holmes, had some fun at the expense of the detective and his admirers. Certainly, as Bayard points out, characters are not only beings of paper, they can, and will run away from the novelist. But in this novel Conan Doyle, though forced to deal again with a character he wanted to destroy, masterfully reestablishes the balance in favor of the writer. Quite an achievement, Sir Arthur!
It remains that Bayard, though I disagree with his conclusions, provides us with a wonderfully stimulating book. A great read.