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Journal of Narrative Theory 35.1 (2005) 60-87

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Degeneration, Fin-de-Siècle Gothic, and the Science of Detection:

Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles and the Emergence of the Modern Detective Story

He who rejects with scorn the belief that his own canines, and their occasional great development in other men, are due to our early progenitors having been provided with these formidable weapons, will probably reveal by sneering the line of his descent. For though he no longer intends, nor has the power, to use these teeth as weapons, he will unconsciously retract his 'snarling muscles' . . . so as to expose them ready for action, like a dog prepared to fight.
—Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871)
Science is a match that man has just got alight. [. . .] It is a curious sensation, now that the preliminary splutter is over and the flame burns up clear, to see his hands lit and just a glimpse of himself and the patch he stands on visible, and around him, in place of all that human comfort and beauty he anticipated—darkness still.
—H. G. Wells, "The Rediscovery of the Unique" (1891)
"But now we have to prove the connection between the man and the beast.
"—Holmes to Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) [End Page 60]
Reading Gothic fiction is an atavistic experience.
—Valdine Clemens, The Return of the Repressed (1999)

When Sherlock Holmes was introduced to the world in A Study in Scarlet (1887) exulting over his discovery of an infallible test for bloodstains, the myth of the scientific detective was born. "[Y]ou have brought detection as near an exact science as it ever will be brought in this world" (36), an admiring Watson tells the Great Detective. "Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science," Holmes informs Watson in the opening pages of the second Holmes story, The Sign of the Four (1890), "and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner" (5). (This from a man who, only moments earlier, had injected himself with a seven-per-cent solution of cocaine!) Yet readers, critics and even police detectives have taken Holmes at his word as the foremost practitioner of the science of detection. This view of Holmes and of the detective story in general is nowhere more emphatically expressed than in the aptly titled 1963 essay on The Hound of the Baskervilles, "Sherlock Holmes and the Ritual of Reason," by James and John M. Kissane. The novel, they assert, "almost uniquely presents [. . .] the hero-detective acting specifically as the champion of empirical science, facing its crucial challenge, the challenge of the seemingly supernatural. Hence, in solving this case Holmes does more than expose crime and defeat a criminal, he expunges heroically a family curse and demonstrates reassuringly the sufficiency of reason" (356; italics added). For the Kissanes, the novel is "a classic embodiment of the abstract form of the detective story" (353), and a "fable" that

dramatize[s] a struggle of scientific reason against superstition and irrationality. It is common to regard the detective story as having been born of nineteenth-century "scientism"; The Hound of the Baskervilles is the example of the genre in which the implications of that origin are given their most vivid and their richest artistic realization.

The orthodoxy that Holmes is the embodiment of the Victorian belief in "the ability of reason to reduce even the most baffling mystery to a common-place" (Kissane & Kissane 357) has proved as perdurable as the [End Page 61] Great Detective's popularity. "The project of the Sherlock Holmes stories," says Catherine Belsey,

is to dispel magic and mystery, to make everything explicit, accountable, subject to scientific analysis. [. . .] The stories are a plea for science not only in the sphere conventionally associated with detection (footprints, traces of hair or cloth, cigarette ends), where they have been deservedly influential in forensic...