Sunday, November 8, 2009

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES: Conan Doyle's Own Murder Mystery?

This was originally posted at one of my other blogs, on March 9, 2008. I'm rather fond of it though, and beg leave to reprise it.

The Hound of the Baskervilles Pictures, Images and Photos

A masterful Sherlock Holmes parody/pastiche (I'm never sure which is the right word) the other day by my friend Anexplorer sent me back to my all-time favorite of the Holmes works: the novel THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, originally published in serial form in STRAND Magazine from August 1901 through April 1902. The plot turns on how an outcast member of a Devonshire family named Baskerville uses a legend of a death omen to try to eliminate the two lives that stand between him and a considerable estate.

When the novel was published in book form, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the following dedication:

MY DEAR ROBINSON: It was your account of a west country legend which first suggested the idea of this little tale to my mind. For this, and for the help which you gave me in its evolution, all thanks.

Robinson, it transpires, was a journalist friend of Doyle's: Bertram Fletcher Robinson, whom Doyle first met in early 1901. In the course of their friendship, Robinson is said to have told Doyle legends from his own Devonshire boyhood, including several from the complex of tales featuring Black Shuck, a giant ghostly black dog. There is some evidence to suggest that Robinson acted as Doyle's secretary during the composition of the novel. He almost certainly introduced Doyle to a driver named Harry Baskerville, whose family name was used in the novel as that of the doomed family haunted by a demonic hound.

Robinson died in 1907 at the age of thirty-six. At the time it was reported that he died of typhoid. And there the story ended.

Or did it?

The first hints that have led to speculation that Robinson may have been murdered, at Doyle's behest, surfaced in 1959. An enterprising reporter had traced the driver, Harry Baskerville, who was then in his eighties. Baskerville apparently proudly showed off an autographed copy of the novel--inscribed with apologies for the use of the Baskerville name--and told the reporter rather carelessly that Doyle had not written the novel at all; that he had stolen it from one Robinson had written on the same theme.

Still, the matter more or less lay for another thirty years, until a researcher named Rodger Garrick-Steele began an eleven-year investigation of the relationship between Robinson and Doyle. In the year 2000, Garrick-Steele voiced his suspicions that Robinson's death was not a natural one, and with several people who found his arguments persuasive, began a campaign to get Robinson's body exhumed for autopsy. It was covered at the time by CNN.

Garrick-Steele's argument goes something like this: by 1907, Robinson had begun to resent that Doyle's plagiarism, as he allegedly saw it, had become so popular, a resentment heightened by the fact that Doyle was carrying on an affair with Robinson's wife, Gladys. When Robinson threatened Doyle with exposure and legal action, Doyle persuaded Gladys to poison Robinson with the potent painkiller/sedative laudanum. Doyle, a medical doctor as well as a writer, knew that the symptoms of laudanum poisoning were very similar to those of typhoid.

If--a very big if--this were true, the plan went awry almost the moment Robinson died. In 1907 England, it's said, the law required victims of typhoid to be cremated. Robinson was not cremated; he was buried at St. Andrew's church in the town of Ipplepen. Moreover, his wife Gladys was later to claim that he died, not of typhoid, but of food poisoning following a visit to Paris.

Okay, you may ask: Fairweather, where do you come into the story?

I'm a devoted watcher of a BBC/LivingTV show called MOST HAUNTED, in which a team of mediums, parapsychologists and true believers investigate allegedly haunted sites. During their 2005 season the team went to the Old Church House Inn in Devonshire, which has some connection to the story of Bertram Fletcher Robinson. The show's medium, David Wells, corroborated Garrick-Steele's account of Robinson's grudge against Doyle and his death.

I frankly rolled in the floor over that one; this is after all the same medium who, during a visit to a pub at Haworth in Yorkshire, repeated the vile canard that Branwell Bronte, not his sister Emily, actually wrote WUTHERING HEIGHTS. (I don't believe that one either.) I was intrigued enough, though, to ask my friend Sharon(I didn't have a puter then) to do some research. It's for real--at least the suggestion that Robinson was murdered at Doyle's behest.

I've done some research of my own since then. It doesn't appear very likely to me at all, particularly in the supposition of an affair with Gladys Robinson. In 1907, following a conventional year of mourning for his late wife Louise, Doyle remarried--to a woman with whom he had been platonically involved for the last ten years of Louise's life. He and Jean, his second wife, were a deeply devoted couple for the remaining years of his life; when, after his son Kingsley died in World War I, Doyle became an avid if gullible researcher in spiritualism, Jean worked with him, exhibiting mediumistic abilities herself. Surely, if Robinson had had something to say from beyond the grave, he would have done so. Not to mention that there seems, from what I can find, no evidence before Harry Baskerville's 1959 bombshell of such rumors.

As of January 2008, the Church of England had refused to allow the exhumation of Robinson's body.

What do you all think?

For that matter, what would Sherlock Holmes think?


  1. OOH .. this is delicious fun ... a REAL murder mystery, involving a real mystery writer. I won't bore you with my usual cascade of detail questions, although a few DO come to mind. My real question is, if Doyle murdered Robinson -- or it was done at his behest -- then how does one explain the rest of Doyle's body of work, and where is the evidence of Robinson's supposed novel? Even if HOUND is heads above the rest of his works -- and I don't know about that -- that wouldn't quite do it. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is heads above the rest of Austen's works, too. Sometimes authors just get lucky, and sometimes people just like to brag. <3

    Anyway, a fun little treat. Too bad rewards can't be posted in the comments section here. Another inducement to stay at blogstream, fair. ;)

  2. I think there is a major financial market in perpetuating who really wrote the Brontes, Austin, Shakespeare, and Doyle among others. It keeps researchers, writers, publishers, and hangers on of the TV scandal persuasion in business. May they all continue to earn money for our entertainment. I think Doyle, Austin, Bronte, and Shakespeare's reputations are safe.

  3. Absolutely fascinating, Fairweather. If Holmes was still around it would be interesting to have open an investigation. I love a mystery!

    Have you also heard of 'Sherlock Holmes was Wrong: Re-opening the Case of the "Hound of the Baskervilles"' a book by French professor of literature, psychoanalyst, and author Pierre Bayard.

    By re-examining all the clues, and carefully interpreting them in the context in which Doyle's book was conceived and written, Bayard clears the hound of all wrong-doing and argues that the actual murderer got away with the crime completely unsuspected by Holmes -- not to mention by the numerous readers of the story over the past century and even, in a sense, by the author himself.

    I haven't read the book, but I'm tempted.

  4. I honestly had no clue that you had a blog here Fair. what a great blog Lit and Music in one spot. Kind of like being at an online Borders store. very nice. I shall return.

  5. Can't speak for the others, but some of Jane Austen's handwritten manuscripts are preserved, including an alternative ending for Persuasion, thus probably removing all doubt in her case, at least. Shakespeare's problem was that he wrote in Bacon grease, which has since faded and become illegible, and providing a basis for all kinds of rumors involving Christopher Marlowe, among others. But Marlowe died in a bar fight, forcing Joseph Fiennes to finish up what he had begun, and putting a definite crimp in his relationship with Viola the Apple Paltrow. The Brontes are on their own. ;)

  6. Agreed, Moon--I have to say, in point of fact, that as far as writing goes, Doyle did much better in the short story form; not to mention that with the whole middle of HOUND being Watson's adventures and not Holmes's, it gets a bit tedious.

    I agree too about writers. Cantankerous lot. (And I think Jane was most comfortable with P&P--sounds more like something she could have observed firsthand.);)

  7. I think so, too, Jamie. I get seriously irritable at the suggestion Branwell wrote WH though--Oh well. At least nobody has gone mad trying to prove his authorship, like that poor woman who tried to prove Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays--

  8. Wow, Barry--that does sound interesting! Definitely will have to look for that one--(BTW, the Hound reminds me of a story from France about a killer animal known as La Bete de Gevaudan--about which I started to write over Halloween and never got around to it--maybe eventually!

  9. I was thinking the same thing, Scratchy! It's really way more fun to have all the books & music in one place!

  10. Thanks for clearing that up, Moon! ;) ROFLMAO!!!

  11. Cool stuff Fair, and I L-O-V-E the house at the top of your green blog. Very nice stuff.


  12. Thank you, S! I found that house and used it over at Fair, you may recall, as Mr. Le Fanu's dream house. I fell in love with that little porch up there to the left that can only be accessed, it looks like, from inside--and thought what a great reading nook that would make! So it was my first choice for a Red Mud Inn--once I figured out how to post it.