Clicking my way through TV’s vast wasteland (300 channels and nothing to watch) on a recent evening, I met an old friend.
Basil Rathbone and I go way back. He was always the definitive Sherlock Holmes for me, brisk and urbane, his private demons under wraps, at least until the case was closed. And here he was again, just when I had despaired of finding distraction, giving the Hound of the Baskervilles a run for his money in glorious black and white.
The Hound is a particular favorite of mine. The movie is a classic, Rathbone’s first performance in his most famous role. I like the film because it’s full of great English character actors like Nigel Bruce and great spooky chases through the foggy English dark. But mostly, I like the film because it reminds me of the book, and the book reminds me of a brief interval of pure, unexpected happiness.
In the autumn of his sixth-grade year, my son was assigned to read The Hound of the Baskervilles. Settling in to do his homework, he pulled the book from his backpack and plunged into chapter one. Half an hour later, he pronounced it hopeless. It’s impossible, he said. I don’t get it. I’ll never get it.
I skimmed a few pages. Not a big Conan Doyle fan myself, I could see how this would be rough going for an 11-year-old, even a good reader. I flirted with the idea of calling his teacher and letting her know that while I was all for setting the bar high, this book was simply too hard.
Miraculously, I resisted the temptation. I poured us each a stiff ginger ale and pulled out chairs at the kitchen table. And so began the journey that would take us to the moors of Devonshire and other unknown territories. In the space of a few weeks, we would uncover the secrets of the Baskervilles, hone deductive reasoning skills, and strengthen the tie that binds.
It wasn’t a slam dunk. There were some testy moments at the start, bitter grumbling about boredom and wasted time. But gradually, my son’s middle-school cool began to thaw. We stumbled forward in this shared enterprise, a halting rapport replacing the daily conflict of wills that was our usual m.o.
As the fall afternoons drew in, we sat at the table and decoded Arthur Conan Doyle. We took turns reading chapters aloud and created outrageous accents for different characters and rolled our eyes at plot twists and convoluted sentence structure. We whittled down the list of likely suspects. Sometimes, we actually laughed out loud, together.
For a little while, we seemed to shed our familiar roles and all their attendant baggage. We were no longer the sixth grader and the part-time journalist, the mother and the pre-teen child, the tutor and the pupil. In our elite book club of two, we were comrades, fellow travelers whose opinions merited equal attention and mutual respect.
We forged ahead, the story racing towards its dramatic climax. Where first we had plodded, now we galloped, the prose no longer daunting, the confusing roster of people and places now vivid in our imaginations. When we finished the final chapter, it was with a sense of exhilaration and regret. I wondered if we would ever meet again this closely.
On the eve of adolescence, we had been granted a short reprieve, a handful of skirmish-free days when we each caught a glimpse of what might be. Though we would go on to the inevitable battles over curfews, cars and grades, the memory of our time with the Hound never left me. Watching Basil Rathbone race across the moors, I’m transported once again—not to Baskerville Hall, but to a kitchen table in Winnetka, Ill., and the mysterious realm of the human heart.