Chapter I: Mr. Sherlock Holmes
Watson walks into Holmes's breakfast-room, where Sherlock Holmes is having breakfast. Watson examines a walking stick which a visitor, James Mortimer, had left behind the night before, after finding nobody there to receive him. Mortimer's name is engraved into the stick.
Though his back is turned to Watson, Holmes sees his friend through the reflection in his coffee-pot. He surprises Watson by addressing him, and then asks him to deduce the character of James Mortimer from his stick.
Based on the stick, Watson believes that Dr. Mortimer is an elderly, well-respected doctor who lives in the country. He further deduces that Mortimer has received this stick as a gift from a hunting club.
Holmes initially compliments Watson's detective skills, but then clarifies that he is only complimenting the way that Watson has stimulated his own thought process. Holmes examines the stick himself, and concludes that Mortimer received the stick as a gift from a hospital, rather than from a hunting club. He deduces that Mortimer was a student at this hospital, not a physician, and that he must therefore be young, not old. Further, he believes that Mortimer has withdrawn from a town hospital to begin his own practice in the country. He adds that Mortimer must be absent-minded, amiable, unambitious and a dog owner.
Astonished, Watson looks in his Medical Dictionary for public information about Mortimer. The book confirms that Mortimer is a young man who studied as Charing Cross Hospital. Holmes begins to explain how he deduced that Mortimer owned a dog, but sees a dog from his window and realizes that Dr. Mortimer has now returned to pay them a visit.
Dr. Mortimer enters, and Watson describes him as a tall, thin man with bad posture, and dressed in a messy manner. Relieved that he left the stick there and did not lose it, Dr. Mortimer reveals that he received it not on the occasion of leaving Charing Cross, but for his wedding.
First, Dr. Mortimer notes that he had heard of Holmes through his reputation for solving difficult problems. Strangely, Dr. Mortimer then compliments the shape of Holmes's skull, and tells him that it would be an "ornament to any anthropological museum" (143). He explains that he studies skull shapes.
Holmes asks why Dr. Mortimer has called on him, and Mortimer tells him that he has a most serious and extraordinary problem.
Chapter II: The Curse of the Baskervilles
Dr. Mortimer explains that he has brought a manuscript, but Holmes has already observed it in his pocket, and surmises aloud that it is from the early eighteenth century. Confirming that observation, Dr. Mortimer explains that the manuscript was given to him by Sir Charles Baskerville, a close friend who had died three months earlier. Dr. Mortimer lives in Devonshire, which is out in the moor of England, and near the Baskerville estate.
To best explain his purpose, Dr. Mortimer first reads the document, which details a legend about the Baskerville family. The writer of the story identifies himself as a Baskerville, and explains that this legend has been passed down in his family over several generations. During the Great Rebellion (around the mid-1600s), the Baskerville estate was owned by Hugo Baskerville, a "wild, profane, and godless man" (146). When one young woman refused to return his advances, he trapped her an upper chamber of his house. She escaped one night while Hugo was entertaining friends, and Hugo declared that he would give his body and soul to "the Powers of Evil" if he could find her (147). One man suggested that they set the hounds after her, and Hugo took his advice before chasing her out into the moor on his black mare.
Thirteen men followed Hugo, who was ahead of them. They encountered a shepherd who was "crazed with fear" - he had seen the maiden, but had also seen a "hound of hell" in fast pursuit of Hugo (148). Eventually, the men encountered Hugo's mare, alone and frothing at the mouth. Frightened, they persevered until they came across a trench, next to which the hounds were whimpering. In the trench, three of the men found the maiden, dead "of fear and of fatigue", and Hugo, dwarfed by a "great, black beast, shaped like a hound" (148). The giant hound tore Baskerville's throat out, at which point the men fled. One of the men died that night, while the other two remained "broken men" for the rest of their days (149).
The writer concludes his story by insisting that the hound has plagued the Baskerville family even since, and warns his sons to never cross the moor at night.
After finishing the letter, Dr. Mortimer is surprised to see Holmes yawn; he thinks the tale is only interesting to a "collector of fairytales" (149). Dr. Mortimer then gives Holmes a newspaper clipping detailing Sir Charles Baskerville's recent death.
The newspaper story first describes Sir Charles Baskerville. At the time a probable candidate for the upcoming election, Baskerville had earned his fortune from South African speculation, and lived childless in the countryside, where he was involved in much philanthropy. The story then explains the circumstances of his death. When Sir Charles did not return from his usual nightly walk down an alley of trees behind Baskerville Hall, his servant Barrymore investigated to find his body. The mystery was increased because there were no signs of violence on his body, and because his footprints suggested he had been walking on his tip-toes. One witness, a gypsy horse-dealer named Murphy, had heard cries but admitted he was drunk. Authorities concluded that Sir Charles had died from cardiac exhaustion, ruling out any suggestions of mystical stories. Finally, the article identifies his next of kin as his nephew, Mr. Henry Baskerville, who is supposedly in America.
More interested now, Holmes asks Dr. Mortimer for details not included in the article. Though he considers himself a man of science, Dr. Mortimer admits he has some strange suspicions. He considered Sir Charles a close friend, since they were two of the few intellectuals living out on the moor. The only other men of note are Stapleton and Mr. Frankland.
In the days before the man's death, Dr. Mortimer noticed that Sir Charles was growing anxious over the legends of the hound. One night, after seeing a black shape cross their paths, Sir Charles admitted his fears, and Dr. Mortimer convinced him to escape to London. He died the night before he planned to leave. Finally, Dr. Mortimer adds that upon investigating the scene of Sir Charles's death, he found the footprints of a gigantic hound. He did not reveal this information to the press.
Readers of this time would have been quite familiar with the Holmes and Watson dynamic - Holmes is always able to outdo Watson with his genius, though the latter constantly works to impress his mentor. Therefore, the novel's opening would be immediately enjoyable for Doyle's readers. In the first chapter, Holmes seems to be testing Watson. There are several reasons why this is important. First, Watson is a smart, medical man capable of sound reasoning, an admirable thinker. The fact that his abilities are nevertheless dwarfed by Holmes's method is confirmation that Holmes possesses a unique, unmatchable genius.
And yet Watson is a crucial part of the dynamic, since he is the storyteller. It is notable that nearly all of Sherlock Holmes's tales are told by Watson, not just in Hound but in Doyle's ouvre overall. Watson's first-person addresses are useful for several reasons. First, they allow him to parcel out the information, so that the reader can try to piece together evidence himself, to get ahead of the case. Because Watson is usually behind Holmes, he is able to replicate that experience for the reader. So when Holmes reveals his own line of reasoning, usually after Watson's attempts, the reader gets to enjoy the solution more personally.
And yet Holmes's line of reasoning usually employs details that Watson does not record. The implication is clear: detective work is performed first and foremost by looking. Holmes's approach touches on an underlying belief of the work: that humans leave traces and evidence, wherever they go. The object in the first chapter, the walking stick, tells a story because the human who owns it has left traces on it. History is always able to be pieced together from physical evidence. Again, the detective succeeds not because he knows something we do not, but because he knows how to look.
Further, from a storytelling perspective, Holmes's narration would undoubtedly be too tedious to record. Because he is capable of holding many possibilities in his head at once, many of which he considers only in order to disprove, his storytelling would lack the narrative thrust of Watson's. Therefore, Watson serves an economic function in the narrative: he observes just enough detail for the reader to understand the intricacies of a case, but he does not observe everything that Holmes does.
In this case, Holmes is shown to be fallible when he cannot deduce every detail about Dr. Mortimer's life from his walking stick. For example, he is surprised to hear that Mortimer received the stick as a gift for his wedding. Such fallibility in the first chapter is important towards making Holmes's powers believable. In other words, he does not have a telepathic gift. This is important because the world depicted in the detective story is always able to be explained through the intellect, rather than through divine or supernatural causes. There is no need for religious belief, a fact which plays directly into the Baskerville case.
Much about the case is intriguing for the reader, though, because it does imply a supernatural quality. Even though the characters have not yet traveled to the moor, it is painted in evocative strokes here, as it often was in English literature, as a dark, gloomy place where spirits might wander. There is an immediate atmosphere established, which is part of what makes this novel so popular amongst the Holmes stories.
For Holmes, such atmosphere is irrelevant, however, compared to the evidence. What is initially puzzling is that the evidence - the manuscript, a newspaper clipping, and Mortimer's own observations - together suggests an occult mystery because the clues do not connect to any rational explanation. The legend has even managed to convince a man of science, Dr. Mortimer, that an evil hound might be lurking the moor. Therefore, there is a contrast between science and occult beliefs. While men of intelligence want to believe in science, they understandably turn to superstition when they cannot explain something. So before he even gets involved in the case's particulars, Holmes faces a bigger question: is science capable of explaining even that which appears to defy explanation?