The Footprints of a Gigantic Hound


Fred Shapiro’s magisterial Yale Book of Quotations cites 39 quotations from Arthur Conan Doyle, but surprisingly, only one comes from The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902): “They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!

Shapiro does include the most famous Holmes saying of all, the famously spurious “Elementary, my dear Watson!” It is absent from Doyle’s stories, but (Shapiro notes) The New York Times printed it on April 30, 1911. (It was used in later Holmesian stories by other hands, and turned up in the soundtracks of various films.*)

The genuine quotations are from 20 different Holmes stories: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive” (A Study in Scarlet); “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” (The Sign of the Four); “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” (Silver Blaze); and three dozen more. But I have always regarded The Hound of the Baskervilles as the most memorable story of the entire canon, replete with phrases that have stuck in my memory since I read it as a teenager:

  • “I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous.”
  • “Early eighteenth century, unless it is a forgery.”
  • “And even as they looked the thing tore the throat out of Hugo Baskerville.”
  • “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”
  • “As you value your life or your reason keep away from the moor.”
  • “No one could find his way into the Grimpen Mire to-night.”

When Doyle produced this remarkable classic of horror and mystery, he was already sick of writing about his greatest creation. He had tried to kill Holmes off in a plunge over the Reichenbach Falls, only to find that the public wouldn’t allow it; he tried asking too high a price for new Holmes stories, only to find that publishers would pay it. The Hound of the Baskervilles was originally planned as just a horror story; Sherlock Holmes was inserted into it as an afterthought (he soon took over). The serialization in The Strand Magazine (1901-02) was so successful that eventually Holmes’s return from the dead had to be arranged.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born here in Edinburgh, and earned his M.D. at my university’s medical school, and worked at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary as clerk to Dr. Joseph Bell, the real-life model for the great fictional detective. Edinburgh remembers Doyle in various ways: There’s a statue of Sherlock Holmes in Picardy Place, where Doyle was born, and a pub called the Conan Doyle in nearby York Place.

There is also a Conan Doyle Medical Center, just a short walk from my home. It’s a modern office building constructed around a pleasant courtyard, named for Doyle because its site is adjacent to Liberton Bank House, where Doyle lived for some time when young. The increasingly erratic behavior of his alcoholic father made it sensible for him to be sent across town to live with a family friend, the educational reformer and feminist activist Mary Burton. He attended Newington Academy, a mile up the hill.

Liberton Bank House has now been remodeled and turned into a schoolhouse (Mary Burton would have approved). After a recent visit to the medical center to get my fall flu vaccination shot, I wandered over to take a closer look at where Doyle had once lived. (As I remarked here when I was living in Providence three years ago and sought out houses where horror writer H.P. Lovecraft had lived, I find it curiously moving just to be in places once frequented by notable writers and thinkers; I don’t know why. My first apartment when I moved to Edinburgh in 2007 overlooked, to my awe and amazement, the garden in Heriot Row where Robert Louis Stevenson had played as a little boy. This really is a city of literary history.)

Over the low garden wall of the house, in the gathering dusk, I took a photo of the remains of a massive sycamore tree that Doyle must have known as a boy (it had become unsafe about 10 years ago and had to be removed). To honor his memory the developers of the site had it carved, so a dark shape now brooded over the stump. It was a statue of a gigantic hound!

* My sources on “Elementary, my dear Watson” were: They Never Said It by Paul F. Boller, Jr. and John George (1989), Page 47; Nice Guys Finish Seventh by Ralph Keyes (1992), Page 7; Clichés by Betty Kirkpatrick (1996), Page 51; and The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro (2006), Page 215.

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