Death By Dog – Michelle Crowther

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the hugely popular story written by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle of a savage, black beast that rapaciously haunts Dartmoor. It was serialised in the Strand Magazine between August 1901 and April 1902.

In the opening chapters of the book we learn about the death of Sir Charles Baskerville seemingly at the hands (or should I say paws) of a monstrous hell-hound.

As we now eagerly await the next episode of a favourite television drama or detective series, imagine the anticipation of Conan-Doyle’s readers as they waited for each monthly instalment.  From the start, the question on everyone’s lips was “Did the dog do it?”

Well, let’s look at the evidence:

The Hound is described by Dr Watson as “not a pure bloodhound and it was not a pure mastiff but it appeared to be a combination of the two.”

Blood hounds or ‘slough dogs’ as they were known in Scotland can detect human scent over huge distances, and it is from ‘slough dog’ that the word ‘sleuth’ comes.  However they are not generally an aggressive breed so Conan-Doyle knew that he needed something a little scarier if he was to convince his readers. Like Frankenstein, he needed to create a monster.

The mastiff certainly fitted the image of ‘bad-ass dog’ in the early 1900s. With a huge body and broad skull, the mastiff, descended from the molossus, a fighting dog used by the Greeks and the Romans, was popularly described, sometimes undeservedly, as ‘ferocious’.

In fact a certain ferocity was encouraged by some owners, and their size made them the obvious choice as guard dogs. In The Adventures of the Copper Beeches, another Sherlock Holmes mystery, published ten years earlier, a giant mastiff, Carlo, is deliberately kept hungry and let out to prowl the grounds at night. When Mr Rucastle, the owner of the house, is attacked by the dog, Dr Watson shoots it dead with a revolver.  Conan-Doyle had already established the idea of the dangerous dog in this earlier story. His readers knew the power of the sinister mutt!

This type of story would have been familiar to the reading public as newspapers were littered with them. In The Standard, Feb 12th 1898, it was reported that Alfred Ladd was bitten playing quoits at the Great Western Tavern by “A ferocious dog, which had a most unenviable reputation, and during its career it had bitten and attacked scores of people. The dog was kept as a “sort of “chucker out”. Whenever there was an unruly customer in the house who refused to be quiet or go out when asked, the defendant brought in the dog, which very soon turned the person out.” The owner had warned Ladd “of the ferocity of the dog, and told him that if it got hold of him it would pull half his leg off.”

Indeed despite the British newspaper magnate Alfred Harmsworth’s assertion that “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news,” the newspapers of the time seemed happy to print these colourful and lurid stories of dangerous dogs, fuelling the popular imagination that big, black dog equals bad thing.

In Cockermouth an elderly woman was attacked by a large mastiff, which “flew at her throat and seized her. The woman’s arms were torn and bitten in the struggle and her clothes reduced to rags. She managed to escape from the house on her hands and knees, and when assistance came she fainted.” (The Weekly Standard and Express, 23rd February 1895)

Similarly Edith Archer, aged 13, of Huddersfield, was bitten by a dog, which “rushed out and seized the girl by the right leg, biting the skin through to the shin bone. Blood flowed and the girl’s stocking became practically saturated with it.” (Huddersfield Chronicle 18th March 1898)

It is not impossible to believe dogs are dangerous, for we know in certain cases it is true and in a pre-burglar alarm era, a certain aggression would have been prized, but spectral, luminous dogs charging across boggy mires seems a stretch of the imagination? What was Conan-Doyle thinking?

Tales of spectral black dogs were common in country folk lore and a belief that animal “familiars” – usually black cats or dogs carried out the work of the Devil had been prevalent for many centuries but it was while visiting Bertram Fletcher Robinson, the sportsman, journalist and author, that Conan-Doyle became aware of the legend of Richard Cabell, an evil country squire and the phantom hounds that appeared baying on the moor after his death. It is believed that this story was the inspiration for the novel.

Other possible inspirations are the supernatural dog of Devon folklore called the Yeth and the legend of the hound of Clyro Court, owned by Thomas Mynors Baskerville.

However Conan-Doyle wasn’t the first writer to use fierce dogs in fiction. Malba, a magnificent mastiff “sprang like a panther on the red-haired wretch and fixing him by the throat, bore him to the ground” in the “Strange stories of dogs” published in the Up-to-date Boys journal and novelettes, 4th May 1900. Indeed the mastiff was already stereo-typed as the bad-boy of the dog world.

So, the question you are probably asking is, did the dog do it?  Ah, well, that would be telling.  You have to read the book to find out and if you want to live the experience, play the Hound of the Biskervilles murder mystery game.  However expect a twist. You didn’t think I’d really keep the same ending, did you?



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Flexible and fun!

We contacted Red-Herring-Games for a party for a special occasion. Why going to restaurants to eat is the preferred activity to mark milestones is beyond me and my friends.   The choice of mystery was obvious, looking at the options from New Zealand on the web Red Herring stuck out from the international options.  A quick look at the site and games showed subtlety as well a range of choices.  The numbers you could have for each evening was important,  Red Herring had scaling options a good range of scenarios but most importantly were Jo and team being flexible, responsive and helpful.

Rachel McWilliam, Arts Development Officer, Lincs Inspire

Thank you Red Herring Games for the marvellous 'Murder!  Cargo Connections?' event that you organised for us as part of Museums at Night at the Fishing Heritage Centre in Grimsby. The whole evening went so well and was brilliant fun.  I know from all the feedback that our visitors had a fantastic time. It was really good working with you and I have no doubt that we will do again in the not too distant future.  

A. Nonymous (council employee)

I would like to thank you and your colleague for helping contribute towards our successful conference last month.  Everyone really seemed to enjoy the evening and it was rewarding that so many delegates were able to participate in addition to the main "Actors".  Our conference evaluation froms included the following comments:
  • "Enjoyed the evening entertainment!"
  • The evening entertainment was great and the confusion made it great fun!"
With thanks and best wishes.

Sarah Spencer (Cleethorpes Chronicle)

I had no idea what to expect before purchasing a ticket for Old, New, Borrowed, Blue, which was being staged at a nearby hotel, and feared it might involve taking part in some way. However thankfully for me no acting was necessary, just some amateur sleuthing. "Wedding guests" of which I was one, were called upon to move from room to room in the hotel in groups, questioning a number of possible murderers with the aim of solving the mystery of the dead bridegroom. The interviewees were really fun characters and gave us all some good laughs. Of course they all had motives and it was a case of identifying the shiftiest. The wedding theme was particularly good, as it fitted well with the venue, the buffet that was part of the evening (with a wedding cake in the middle) and the fact that everyone had been able to dress up to fit in without going to the trouble of fancy dress. I didn't think I had enough "evidence" to actually accuse anyone but later regretted not even writing down my first guess as it wouldn't have been too far off the mark. The evening was great fun and everyone seemed to enjoy it and take part. I would definitely recommend Old, New, Borrowed, Blue as good for getting even reluctant or first-time mystery party-goers involved.  

Alan Young (Personal Touch Mortgages)

What a cracking nights entertainment! We don't get out much nowadays with 2 kids and this was exactly what we were looking for in a good night out. Lots of fun with tongue firmly in cheek and everyone kept guessing whodunnit right to the very end. Would definitely attend another!!!!!  


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