Perhaps the most widely beloved Sherlock Holmes novella, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) holds a unique position in literary history. Its marriage of the gothic and detective fiction makes for a superbly enticing and atmospheric tale, despite even Holmes’s substantive absence for a significant portion. The eponymous hound’s glowing eyes and midnight yowling continue to haunt us. It is, in short, a difficult novel to follow up. In James Lovegrove’s latest pastiche Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons, he attempts precisely this.
Lovegrove is a familiar name to Holmes enthusiasts: author of multiple pastiches, most recently The Manifestations of Sherlock Holmes (2020), he often expands Conan Doyle’s world with a twist whether adding a Lovecraftian flair or taking up London bombings. Beast of the Stapletons, however, adheres to the familiar narrative structure and character of the original stories. The novel returns to the treacherous moors surrounding Baskerville Hall. Set both after The Hound of the Baskervilles, which takes place in 1889, and Holmes’s three-year disappearance after his encounter with Professor Moriarty. When Sir Henry Baskervilles’s wife Audrey is gruesomely killed – found exsanguinated on the moor – Holmes is called upon to solve her murder and protect Henry’s son. Accompanied by Henry’s friend Benjamin Grier, Holmes must investigate the possibility of Hound villain Jack Stapleton’s posthumous revenge. Though sometimes clunky in its inclusivity (Grier is an African-American corporal), it nevertheless offers clever deductions and thrilling voyages peppered with danger and eco-horror. Traversing between Dartmoor, London, and finally culminating abroad, Beast of the Stapletons at once picks up where The Hound of the Baskervilles concludes and imagines a sprawling continuation.
As a sequel to Hound, it inevitably begs comparison. Though Lovegrove novel fashions itself after the highlights of Hound – the dastardly entomologist and strange ecologies, the nightmarish stalking, threats to inheritance and bloodlines, and the rural inhabitants of the lonely moorland – Beast of the Stapletons cannot measure up to its namesake. In a parallel to Hound, Watson remains in London for a significant portion of the novel, relaying the narrative second-hand from Holmes. Although this is not necessarily a fault in itself, within the context of the novel it puts to question Watson’s role as narrator and, more importantly, steadfast companion. Lovegrove’s rendering of Watson as indelibly shaken from the events of Hound falls short; it is hard to imagine Watson’s greatest fear to be the folkloric hound in the years after the loss of both his wife and Holmes (albeit temporarily). His refusal to accompany Holmes to Dartmoor is thus as much a disappointment to the reader, for whom the friendship is central to the stories’ appeal, as it is to Holmes himself.
Holmes and Watson’s separation furthermore puts the detective in a significant role as narrator. While he concedes to romanticise the story in Watson’s style, the reader experience is somewhat dulled by Watson’s absence. As with the original stories, Holmes’s narration pales in comparison to his biographer’s. The joy of reading Sherlock Holmes stories is to watch him from afar and, like Watson, revel in the dramatic reveal of his deductions, all of which is diminished when we are allowed into his thought processes. Although Watson returns to Holmes’s side, the length of his absence in the first half of the novel is marked. The question of brevity is a pronounced one in Holmes pastiches. Conan Doyle’s longest Holmes works are generally considered novellas and, of course, his most celebrated stories are the short pieces first published in The Strand Magazine. With Lovegrove’s novel more than double Hound’s length, waiting for Watson to accompany Holmes requires considerable reading.
In spite of its shortcomings, however, Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons is a suitable pastiche for those itching to read more of the great detective and return to the strange goings-on at Baskerville Hall.
Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons is published by Titan Books.
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