Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bertram Fletcher Robinson: A Footnote to The Hound of the Baskervilles by Brian W. Pugh & Paul R. Spiring


MX Publishing Ltd., 2008. ISBN 9781904312406. 236 pages.

A professor I assist with research recently asked me if I could find more about Bertram Fletcher Robinson's contribution to the writing of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Alistair Duncan kindly directed me to this book. Since it wasn't available locally I decided that I needed a copy and, hurrah!, I received it for Christmas from my mother.

Pugh and Spiring have written an amazingly detailed accounting of BFR's life down to the rosters of sports teams. This book is interesting to me because of the complete picture it gives of the life of an educated Englishman. Some of the sports and education terminology can be a bit confusing to someone who didn't grow up in the same environment but the context made it possible to appreciate events recounted and the life and contributions of this interesting man.

Of course the main reason I made a Christmas request for this book is Robinson's connection with Arthur Conan Doyle (hereafter ACD) and his influence on The Hound of the Baskervilles and it did not disappoint in that area.

BFR and ACD were both in South Africa during the Second Boer War, ACD as a 'senior civil surgeon' and BFR as a correspondent for The Times. On 11 July 1900 ACD and BFR both departed South Africa on the steamship Briton. ACD wrote in his autobiography that it was on this trip that he cemented his friendship with BFR.

Two events important to Holmesians occured on this voyage. First, BFR asked Conan Doyle
..if it had occurred to him realized how easy it would be to implicate someone a man in a murder crime if you could obtain a finger-print of his in wax for reproduction in blood on a wall or some other obvious place near the scene of the crime.

Doyle offered Robinson fifty pounds for the idea which he subsequently used in The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.

BFR also told ACD of a story set in Dartmoor that he intended to write and ACD was so taken with the idea that he asked if they could write it together. The authors point out that it isn't likely that the story idea had any resemblance to The Hound of the Baskervilles. BFR did go on to write two Dartmoor-based stories of his own.

Back in England, BFR dined with his friend and ex-editor Max Pemberton and the subject of phantom dogs came up. BFR described how people on the outskirts of Dartmoor swore that there was a huge retriever, coal black and with eyes that shone like fire. BFR described the discussion to Doyle and suggested that they write the story together.

ACD later wrote to his mother from Cromer where he was playing golf with BFR that Fletcher Robinson came here with me and we are going to do a small book together 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' -- a real creeper. As originally conceived, the book was not a Sherlock Holmes story but ACD later decided tha the story needed a powerful central figure and he had one at hand, Sherlock Holmes. Incorporating Holmes in the story also allowed ACD to get a higher rate per word than the publisher would be willing to pay without Holmes.

As it turned out, BFR did not actually write the story with ACD. The role he acknowledged was that of assistant plot producer. In a letter to BFR dictated by ACD to his secretary, ACD wrote:
It was your suggestion of a west county 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.

The authors also examine the controversy surrounding BFR's contribution with several publications (The Bookman in particular) asserting that The Hound of the Baskervilles was written entirely by BFR, that the character of Holmes is so unlike the Holmes of earlier stories that ACD couldn't have written it. It seems unlikely that ACD stole the story from BFR as the two continued to have a cordial relationship.

The Hound of the Baskervilles has gone on to become the most well-known and popular Holmes story and marked the return of Sherlock Holmes, though the story is set before Holmes' supposed death. It would not have come about without BFR's contribution and for this and the fingerprint in wax idea, Holmsians are indebted to Bertram Fletcher Robinson.

I am pleased to have added this book to my modest reference library.