Five to Try: Mysteries on Audio

I love listening to audiobooks. While most of what I read and review here are print copies, I love to listen to audiobooks while I am out and about – particularly when taking a walk or on a lengthy drive.

Of course, not every book that ends up on audio however is suited to the format. In some cases that’s because a particular clue requires you to see a clue written down to understand it properly. One example of this would be in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles where there is a reproduction of a physical clue that you don’t experience if you are listening. That’s not to forget that sometimes there are maps and floor plans that you may miss out on. In other cases a good story can be spoiled by a flat or unsympathetic reading where the narrator and the source material just don’t work well together.

When done right however an audiobook presentation can be a powerful experience. There have been some books I have struggled with in print but which I suddenly found myself connecting to when read by the right sort of narrator. Christian Rodska’s reading of Lindsey Davis’ The Silver Pigs is a great case in point – I had tried repeatedly over the years to start that book in print only to breeze through it when heard with his performance really bringing out the humor in the material wonderfully (sadly I quickly realized that he only narrates a handful of the subsequent titles).

Perhaps the most striking mystery audiobook I have listened to was the reading of Kanae Minato’s Confessions. The book, which is composed of a number of different characters’ accounts of the circumstances concerning the horrific murder of a toddler, works so well on audio because of the choice to have different actors read the chapters and because of the unusual second-person narration style. It’s a very dark but highly engaging listening experience.

I would also champion the Stephen Fry recordings of the complete Sherlock Holmes canon for Audible. There are many recordings of these stories but what sets these apart for me are the thoughtful introductions to each book from Fry in which he reflects on his own experiences. His enthusiasm as a lifelong Sherlockian really comes through in these and his voice is a wonderful match for the source material.

For today’s post though I have decided to focus on audiobook adaptations of vintage stories of mystery and suspense from around the time of the golden age of detection. In each case I think not only is it a good audiobook production but that the material being adapted is worth your time as well.

As always, I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below if there are any titles or narrators you particularly enjoy…

Mystery at Olympia cover

Mystery at Olympia by John Rhode

Narrated by Gordon Griffin

Griffin is a superb audiobook narrator who you will often hear on recordings of British Library Crime Classics but I rate his four Dr. Priestley novels as his most essential work. The reason is that his precise delivery not only suits the style and tone of Rhode’s writing but it works brilliantly for the armchair detective.

All four of the Rhode audiobooks are done well but Mystery at Olympia is my favorite of these novels. It concerns the murder of a man at a booth where the Comet Motor Company are demonstrating their ‘exciting’ new transmission system (the excitement, I am sorry to say, is purely Rhode’s but Griffin delivers those passages with enough gusto to help them pass quickly).

The death appears natural but when the man’s housekeeper is poisoned and a further attempt on his life is identified, Inspector Hanslet becomes convinced that there has been foul play.

Griffin reads it wonderfully, not only doing a fine job with Priestley but also with Inspector Hanslet who is a very different sort of detective. It’s a great introduction to Priestley for those encountering him for the first time and I can only hope that if the new reprints are ever turned into audiobooks that whoever does so engages Griffin to do those too.

Read my review of the book here

Enter a Murderer cover

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh

Read by James Saxon

I was not a fan of the first Inspector Alleyn mystery, A Man Lay Dead, finding it a tough read to like. One of the reasons for that was I struggled to get much of a sense of her detective. That changed when I made the choice to switch to the audiobook recording for this second novel.

The story itself, which takes place in a theatrical setting, is particularly suited to audio because so many of its characters have larger than life personalities. From the booming voice of theatrical impresario Jacob Saint to the breathy, confident Stephanie Vaughan, the narrator James Saxon has a lot to work with and he makes the most of the rather stylized dialogue.

His best work though is with Alleyn himself who he voices in a somewhat sarcastic tone. Suddenly I found myself connecting with the character and noticing that much of his sarcasm is directed at himself. It’s a highly entertaining listen that I think brings the work to life wonderfully. My only regret is that he is not used for all of the series, though he does narrate a substantial portion of them.

Read my review of the book here

The Case of the Curious Bride cover

The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner

Read by Alexander Cendese

As much as I enjoy reading Perry Mason on the page, I absolutely love listening to Alexander Cendese performing these stories. His Perry is powerful and commanding and he absolutely brings that character to life as a sort of legal brawler, perfectly matching the tone of the earliest Perry Mason stories.

It is hard to pick a favorite from these stories given that most offer some points of interest (the weakest of the stories I have read so far is The Case of the Lucky Legs). In the end I opted for this one because it has been a while since I reviewed it and it is more of a detective story than the others.

The story involves Perry being hired by a woman who is seeking legal advice on behalf of a friend. She asks about the time needed for a person to be considered dead, the laws on bigamy and whether a body would need to be found. She soon flees his office under questioning but before long Perry finds himself involved in a murder case.

While it gets off to a bit of a slow start, this book soon begins to take some unpredictable twists and turns. The whodunnit aspect is not too difficult to resolve – the bigger challenge will be working out just how Perry will get his client out of jeopardy. If you’re looking for a Mason story to start with, this is a pretty good one to try.

Read my review of the book here

Henrietta Who? cover

Henrietta Who? by Catherine Aird

Narrated by Robin Bailey

So I stated above that the works I would select would be from the Golden Age of Detection. Well, obviously I lied though I think that spiritually this novel feels like it belongs to that period of detective fiction.

The novel begins with a postman discovering the body of Mrs. Jenkins in the road in the early hours of the morning. It appears to have been a tragic hit and run but the post-mortem reveals two strange details that raise further questions. The first is why she was hit by cars traveling in two different directions. The other is that the woman has never given birth, a matter that proves deeply confusing to her adult daughter Henrietta who has come to identify the body.

The puzzle element of this novel is fascinating but what makes it truly compelling is the emotional component as Inspector Sloan tries to find the truth of Henrietta’s identity. Robin Bailey navigates all this well, giving those moments an appropriate emotional tone and emphasizing the detective’s sense of humanity making this a compelling listen.

Read my review of the book here

Death of Anton by Alan Melville

Narrated by David Thorpe

One of the peculiarities of the British Library Crime Classic range is that because the books have a separate US publisher there will often be a bit of a delay between the UK and US releases. This was not an inconsiderable period in the case of Death of Anton which was all the more frustrating because all the bloggers in the UK were raving about how much fun it was. When I realized that the Soundings Audio release was available months before the paperback I quickly resolved to pick that up instead. Happily it is a release that works really well in that format.

The story, which is as much a work of comedy as it is detection, concerns the death of a tiger tamer at the circus. Inspector Minto who happens to be enjoying the circus as a guest soon becomes convinced that this is not the innocent accident it appears but something more sinister and begins an investigation. Adding to the fun is the fact that his brother, a priest, has learned the identity of the killer in confession but cannot reveal that information to him, much to Minto’s frustration.

The story is colorful and amusing throughout. While some comedic mysteries can struggle to sustain the sense of fun (I think, for instance, of the same author’s Quick Curtain), this continues to blend the comedy and detection right up to the conclusion. Neither the solution to the mystery nor Minto’s detection skills are likely to wow readers but it does make for a charming and consistently amusing read with Thorpe handling those comedic elements and the sometimes larger-than-life characters and situations quite wonderfully.

Read my review of the book here

So, there are my five picks for interesting GAD (and GAD-like) books you could try on audio. What are some of your favorite audiobook readings of mystery novels?

A Study in Crimson by Robert J. Harris

Originally published in 2020
Sherlock Holmes 1942 #1

London, 1942.

A killer going by the name of “Crimson Jack” is stalking the wartime streets of London, murdering women on the exact dates of the infamous Jack the Ripper killings of 1888. Has the Ripper somehow returned from the grave? Is the self-styled Crimson Jack a descendant of the original Jack—or merely a madman obsessed with those notorious killings?

In desperation Scotland Yard turn to Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest detective. Surely he is the one man who can sift fact from legend to track down Crimson Jack before he completes his tally of death. As Holmes and the faithful Watson tread the blacked out streets of London, death waits just around the corner.

I have previously revealed the role that the animated movie The Great Mouse Detective played in my becoming a mystery fan. It was not just an entertaining adventure in itself, it also introduced me to some of the story beats and ideas of mystery storytelling and specifically to the character of Holmes. It did this well enough that when I happened upon one of the Rathbone Holmes movies a few years later I couldn’t resist watching with the series quickly becoming appointment viewing for me whenever they were repeated on weekends or during school holidays.

For me, at least during my early childhood, Holmes was not a Victorian gentleman who travelled by hansom cab but someone pitching into Britain’s war effort, matching his wits against the Nazis. I loved those movies because of, not in spite of, the setting and pulpy style and I determined I would watch them all. In those pre-internet days I had little idea just how many there were so whenever I spotted a new one listed as showing in the Radio Times it was particularly exciting. Not that it stopped me rewatching those ones I had already seen.

Little wonder then that when I discovered A Study in Crimson, the first novel to my knowledge that specifically features that wartime Holmes incarnation, I set everything else aside and immediately started reading…

The novel opens with a short adventure in which Holmes and Watson are summoned to a scientific research installation to investigate the disappearance of a scientist from within her locked bedroom. This is actually one of two short impossible crimes within the novel and I was entertained but neither case is substantial enough on their own to justify fans of that form seeking it out. Both cases do serve an important role in demonstrating Holmes’ gifts are methods before we delve deeper into the central mystery.

That case concerns the murder of several young women in the streets of London. The first two murders occurred on the anniversaries of the corresponding murders committed by Jack the Ripper and there are some other similarities in the crimes that seems to suggest that there may be a copycat. That is particularly worrying given, as Holmes points out in the quote above, it seems to suggest that further murders will follow on the anniversaries of the subsequent murders.

The idea of taking Holmes and having him come face-to-face with the Ripper, or someone deliberately emulating him, is not exactly unprecedented. I remember playing a PC game called The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes in the mid-90s which featured a murder that Lestrade wants to attribute to the Ripper (spoiler: it isn’t) and there have been plenty of other stories such as Big Finish’s Holmes and the Ripper or the movies A Study in Terror and Murder by Decree. Still, while it may have some familiar elements, I think there is enough novelty introduced here with the time gap between the original crimes and those being investigated that it avoids feeling derivative.

One of the reasons that I think this works is that the period setting contributes to the sense of fear surrounding the killer being at large. This was the era of the blackout meaning those who cannot help but be out at night will feel all the more at risk. This also helps build a sense of tension later in the book as our heroes attempt to patrol the streets in the dark in the hopes of preventing subsequent murders.

I think this is just one example of how the novel uses its historical setting well, drawing on elements of the period such as radio broadcasts, American GIs and air raid patrols to create a strong sense of place and time. It was this sort of material I most hoped to find in this book so I was happy to see that Harris made effective use of it and made the setting important to the story.

Harris’ Holmes similarly feels like a pretty solid evocation of the Rathbone portrayal of Holmes. He has the familiar moments of prickliness and brilliance but there are some moments of patriotism and advocacy of his principles that make him feel like that more conspicuously heroic version from the movie series. Similarly the language this Holmes uses reminds us that he is a mid-twentieth century man rather than a Victorian (or Edwardian) one.

Watson on the other hand has been presented with some slight differences from the Nigel Bruce portrayals in those movies. Harris’ Watson is still a little old-fashioned and formal in some social interactions but he never appears to be foolish or an overtly comedic creation which is, I feel, to be welcomed. He is however the warmth and the heart of the novel – something I feel he has in common with the Bruce portrayal of the character.

Several other familiar characters from the Holmes universe make their appearances with different degrees of attention. These include Mycroft, Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, all of whom struck me as not dissimilar from their traditional roles. I was far more interested in learning about the members of the Baker Street Irregulars, particularly their leader Wiggins who remains in London. This once again tied nicely into the novel’s historical setting but I also appreciated hearing how he felt about Holmes and the enormous sense of respect he feels for his hero.

These elements, combined with the novel’s setting, go a great way toward evoking that sense of the original movie series. This story offers some lighter moments, including a sort of awkward romance for Watson, as well as a solid hook in the idea of the copycat Ripper killer. As much as I enjoyed those elements however and the sense of nostalgia I felt, I did think that the novel was a little disappointing in the way it presents the investigative portion of the novel itself.

I know from my own readings (and re-readings) of the Doyle canon that Holmes’ stories often feel like they would be better labelled as adventures than mysteries. This is not much different. While there are some clues dotted around as to what has been happening, I feel much of the crucial work happens when we are not following Holmes and that we learn about some elements after the fact which can be unsatisfying at times.

I would also add that I found the solution to be a little disappointing, in part because the case ends up feeling quite simple with limited suspects and surprisingly few clues. While there are a few interesting applications of logic to make some deductions, the case felt over a little too quickly and seemed to be begging for another twist for its resolution. That being said, I was not unhappy with the pulpiness of the resolution which did at least seem to fit the general tone Harris was clearly aiming for.

In spite of those disappointments, I still enjoyed much of what this book had to offer. The central concept of writing more stories for this incarnation of Holmes is a great one and based on the evidence here and Harris’ confident handling of the character, I think it could easily sustain a series and I would certainly be interested in checking out any subsequent installments.

The Verdict: An entertaining, if rather light, read with a solid handle on its version of Holmes and the era he lives in.

Sherlock Holmes: Beyond the Elementary by James Krasner

Audiobook Details

Originally published in 2021
This work is exclusively available through Audible to its members

The Blurb

Every hero works to soothe the fears of the people during their period in history. Heroes are not only brave, but they’re also able to navigate the convoluted corridors of society, and to see through the respectable pretense of others to detect the evil that lies within.

So, who better to take on the foggy, crime-ridden streets and strict social mores of Victorian London than the iconic literary detective Sherlock Holmes?

In Sherlock Holmes: Beyond the Elementary, you’ll investigate the history behind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s whip-smart, charismatic detective. James Krasner, a scholar of British Victorian literature, will play the role of “Watson” as he offers a clearer picture of the imaginative influence Sherlock Holmes has maintained over readers from the 19th century through today. While you examine the secrets of novels like A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles and stories like “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem,” you’ll deepen your appreciation of these enduring works. You’ll also gain insights into Holmes’s continued relevance to the social problems we face in our own world.

What does the relationship between Holmes and Watson tell us about friendship? Is Sherlock Holmes just a “thinking machine”? How do these adventures lay bare gender dynamics in surprising ways?

The answers are far from elementary.

The Verdict

An interesting and well-paced exploration of Holmes and the themes found in the canon. Ideally designed for those who have read all the stories and want to dig a little deeper.

In this series we’ll talk about the history behind Sherlock Holmes and we’ll talk about how his adventures take us right into the heart, and sometimes the seedy underbelly, of Victorian England.

My Thoughts

Several years ago I blogged about The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction, a lecture series from The Teaching Company’s Great Courses range that discussed the history and breadth of the mystery and suspense genres. I credited that series for encouraging me to explore the genre more widely and bringing a number of authors and sub-genres of crime fiction to my attention.

In recent years in addition to their broader video and audio courses, The Teaching Company have partnered with Audible to create shorter lecture series specifically designed for the audio format. These are often on more tightly defined topics (such as the life of Prince Albert or the history of holiday celebrations) and recently became part of the Audible Plus library that are available to subscribers (edit: this may only be true of the US Audible service – see comments below) without using up any credits. This new short course is one of those Audible Originals, discussing the Sherlock Holmes stories in depth.

The first thing to emphasize is that Sherlock Holmes: Beyond the Elementary is not designed for newcomers to the Holmes stories. Krasner discusses key plot developments of a number of stories including often identifying the villains or the manner in which they are caught. Instead it is designed for those who have read the stories and are keen to dig a little deeper with each installment teasing out and discussing certain themes that run throughout the stories.

For example, the first lecture discusses the importance of the city of London and the way it is depicted within the stories. Krasner discusses this in terms of the growth of the city in the nineteenth century and the anxiety about aspects of city life that is reflected in a number of stories. This was one of the most interesting installments for me as it focuses on how these stories were being received specifically in the period in which they were first published.

Other topics include the characters of Watson and Holmes, the construction of mystery stories, the role of women and the supernatural in the stories. There are also lectures on the relationship between Doyle and his creation and how the character has been depicted on stage and screen. The material is well-structured and varied enough that there is not much repetition between the various sections. I include a full list of the lecture titles at the end of this post.

I found Krasner’s material most engaging when he goes beyond the Doyle stories to discuss how they align with themes being developed in other stories written during the period. This places the material in a slightly different context to the way I have usually encountered it in terms of the development of the mystery genre and I enjoyed getting to consider it from that slightly different perspective.

Krasner is clearly a fan of the character, something he establishes in his introduction where he talks about dressing up as Holmes on several occasions during his childhood, but he discusses the Holmes phenomenon with enough distance to be able to make some occasionally surprising comparisons such as with Twilight, Star Trek and the Harry Potter series, particularly in relation to the development of its fan culture.

One difference between these Audible Originals and the original Great Courses releases is that the lack of visuals allows the presenter to speak directly from a script. This means that there are no hesitations or stumbles but it can also mean that in spite of the lecture label, that it feels more like a reading than a spontaneous performance. I feel that is the case with this release, though Krasner speaks clearly and I found him easy to listen to.

One slight disappointment for me was that the lectures focus pretty exclusively on the books’ and the character’s reception in the anglophone world. This is unfortunate as I believe that one of the things which most defines Holmes is his global fanbase. It is a shame that this means there is no discussion of the appeal of these stories to that global audience or of adaptations like Miss Sherlock. I do appreciate though that obviously with a limited running time a line has to be drawn somewhere and obviously these have more limited audiences than the likes of Downey Jr’s or Benedict Cumberbatch’s takes on Sherlock.

Overall I found this an enjoyable and engaging listen and if you have an Audible subscription I certainly think that it is worth the listen if you are someone who has read all the stories and wants to start to dig a little deeper. And if someone from The Teaching Company or Audible happens to read this, I’d be very interested to see a similar series developed on the works of Agatha Christie.

Lecture Titles Listing

Lecture 1: The Victorian City
Lecture 2: My Dear Watson
Lecture 3: Sherlock Holmes: Man or Machine?
Lecture 4: How to Write a Mystery Story
Lecture 5: Doctors and Detectives
Lecture 6: Nice Work If You Can Get It
Lecture 7: Women and Sherlock Holmes
Lecture 8: The Supernatural and Sherlock Holmes
Lecture 9: The Final Problem: Sherlock Holmes and Popular Culture
Lecture 10: Adaptations of Sherlock Holmes

Old Crimes, New Scenes edited by Michael Tangeman and Charles Exley

Collection published in 2018.

By the late nineteenth century, Japanese readers had access to translations of many of Europe and America’s best mystery writers. The popularity of the genre led to Japanese writers earnestly translating their stories into Japanese, often modifying stories according to the Japanese author’s taste. The popularity of mysteries was ensured in Japan, and the enduring century-plus has seen remarkable examples of Japanese literary innovation.

This volume highlights the longevity and variety of Japan’s creative responses to the mystery genre. Some of the works are innovative because they were written by authors (or, in one case, a poet) who did not normally write mysteries. Others are innovative for their variations on standard elements of detective fiction, or for using mystery tropes to interrogate social norms or gender roles in an effort to explain the meaning of the text in its time. Several works play on technological innovations as keys to the mystery. Some of the works are meta-fictive explorations of the mystery, using detective fiction to investigate detective fiction.

Scholars, students and mystery readers alike will find this volume full of surprises.

When I was looking around for books to write about for the Japanese Literature Challenge I found inspiration in a few places. I obviously had some works that have been sat in my TBR pile for a while that benefitted from getting a little push up towards the top but I also found myself seeking out some fresh titles too. Yes, unsurprisingly this project which I undertook to reduce that backlog of books only ended up increasing it. Who could have guessed?

One of the books I stumbled onto when I was searching Amazon was this title which is a collection of Japanese short mystery stories. From the blurb I knew that the editors had picked a wide selection of authors, several of whom were not typically considered mystery writers, to show the history and diversity of the genre but to my immense frustration I couldn’t find a single review or even a simple listing of the contents. As interested as I was, I simply couldn’t justify the money at the time.

Obviously I have a copy now so what changed? Well, I happened to discover a podcast interview with the editors (linked below) in which they gave more information about the collection. This didn’t stretch to a listing of its contents but they did describe several stories in enough detail that I could be confident that there would at least be some material there that would interest me. As it happened that day was also my birthday and in a particular piece of serendipitous timing, a couple of minutes after I was done listening a gift card showed up. The next day, so did this book…

On the next page of this review I will not only provide a listing of all of the stories and a brief description of each, I will also offer some specific thoughts on them. Before I do that though let me share some thoughts about this as a collection as a whole.

The story quality is generally excellent, including several different styles of mystery fiction which brings a pleasing sense of variety. Readers should be aware though that some varities of mystery are not represented – perhaps most notably impossible crime stories – but I think given the limitations of 360 pages the editors did a fine job selecting works that show some of the breadth of the genre within Japan.

Particular highlights for me included On the Street, a clever story that I compared to an episode of Columbo in my notes and Yokomizo’s A Detective Story which is a very clever and playful work exploring the idea of a story within a story. Only a couple of stories disappointed – Stakeout, not because it is bad but because I enjoyed other stories I have read by Matsumoto far more and so this fell a little short of expectations. Also I struggled to get into Pitfall which is a script. I think here it is just a question of format – I struggled to imagine the action and suspect if I saw it performed I might well have enjoyed it more.

Each story is given a very short introduction in which the editors provide some information about the author and explain the reasons for their selection. This was useful background and helped give a strong sense of what the editors were looking to do with this project.

Overall then I have to declare that this was a very happy find and one I couldn’t wait to share with you all (particularly given it comes from a small academic press). I really appreciate the opportunity to try out so many different authors for the first time and the only negative here is that in a several cases there are no other works available yet in English translation. Let’s hope that changes as collections like this show that we have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of what is available in translation.

The Verdict: An excellent collection of works written over a span of more than a hundred years. I appreciated the editors’ focus on expanding the scope of the genre by finding authors who haven’t been widely translated before and nearly all of the stories have a strong point of interest.

Highly recommended.

Please click below for comments on the individual stories.

CLICK HERE FOR COMMENTS ON EACH STORY

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Movie Adaptation (1959)

Movie Details

Originally released in 1959
Screenplay by Peter Bryan based on The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Directed by Terence Fisher

Key Cast

Peter Cushing is probably most known to audiences today for his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars film but he was also a frequent performer in the Hammer Horror film series where he played roles such as Van Helsing and Baron Frankenstein. This was his first appearance as Holmes but he would revisit the part a decade later, including this same story, as part of a BBC television series.

Christopher Lee was one of the most prolific and well-known faces in cinema, often portraying villains such as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. Like Cushing, he was also highly associated with the Hammer Horror films. A few years after this film he performed in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, another Terence Fisher production, this time as Holmes himself and would play the role again twice in the early 90s.

The Verdict

This atmospheric adaptation highlights the horror of the premise quite effectively. Cushing is very good as Holmes, though he is even better in the later television adaptation.


My Thoughts

The 1959 film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles is interesting in several respects. It was the first Sherlock Holmes film to be made in color and while it shows some signs of its budgetary limitations, the location filming adds a sense of scale that benefits the tale. It is also the first appearance of Peter Cushing as the Great Detective – a part he would reprise a decade later for a television series which included a feature-length adaptation of the same story. This means that we have the rather unusual situation of having two takes by the same actor on the same story and can observe some differences between them.

The film opens with a rather lusty and quite lengthy rendition of the Baskerville family legend. While the period details don’t exactly scream English Civil War to me, the general beats of the tale are there – a young woman is chased across the moor by the brutish Sir Hugo Baskerville who, moments after stabbing her, is savagely torn to pieces by a giant, devilish hound. While rather overblown (and overacted), this sequence serves two purposes – firstly to emphasize that this is a Hammer film and that the horror and action of the story will be emphasised, and secondly it limits the length of the consultation scene in which Dr. Mortimer will explain the matter to Holmes by showing us what happened rather than telling us in conversation.

From this point we switch to the consultation in which we get our first sense of Holmes and how Cushing will play him. He is certainly cold and rather imperious in these scenes which suits the tone of the production (he is a little warmer and more humorous in the television version) and there is a sense of a great energy that I consider an important part of the character. This is particularly obvious in later sequences in the film in which we see him actively examining a location as he moves quickly across the space. Perhaps most striking however is just how closely he resembles the Paget illustrations, especially in the prominence of his cheekbones and the deepness of the eyes.

While the consultation and the scenes that follow in London are certainly considerably abridged from the novel, the story does follow the basic structure. Dr. Mortimer explains why he fears for the life of the last of the Baskervilles and entreats Holmes to advise Sir Henry on whether he should go to the Hall. They visit him in his hotel, witness some signs that further emphasize the danger he is in (including a rather ridiculous animal-based assassination attempt that thankfully is quite brief), and make arrangements for Watson to stay with him for his protection while Holmes has to stay in London.

The great problem of The Hound of the Baskervilles as a Holmes vehicle is, of course, that the Great Detective is hardly in it. That is one reason why the actor playing Sir Henry was billed above Sherlock Holmes in several of the earlier film adaptations. This version keeps that structure which makes the casting of Watson and Sir Henry Baskerville all the more important as they will have to carry the mid-section of the film.

André Morell plays Watson and offers a good counterbalance to Cushing. He is not as warm as some other versions of the character but he comes over as dependable and competent, if not blessed with Holmes’ deductive genius. While he will have some clumsy misadventures during his time on the moors, they come about because of his desire to protect others rather than because he is an inherently bumbling type and he retains his dignity throughout.

Christopher Lee portrayed Sir Henry and it is rather interesting to see him in a role that is rather more heroic than he normally got to play. Indeed, as he notes in an interview that is included on the Twilight Time blu ray I watched, this represents one of the very few films in his career where he played, against type, a romantic lead. It’s a rather solid performance although that romantic subplot is rather rushed (though that clearly is not his fault) and he plays very nicely off both Cushing and Morell.

The film does a good job of capturing the scale of the moor and making it a threatening location, both in terms of suggesting that it is being stalked by a giant spectral hound but also by emphasizing its marshiness. This is most clearly shown in a sequence in which Watson falls in while trying to protect a woman. This not only creates a moment of peril, it also establishes the dangers of the crossing the mire which is an important point for later in the story.

It should be said that while the film does keep many of the plot beats of the original story there are a number of changes made, some small and some bigger. Some of these struck me as a little silly – the aforementioned assassination attempt at the hotel and a sequence involving a mine shaft are clearly there just to add visual peril as well as some suggestion of some satanic rites being performed on a body – but I feel the simplification of the villain’s role and plan is a pity. That character feels much flatter than in most of the other versions of this story I have seen as a result, making them seem less impressive as an adversary.

While this adaptation may not be as faithful as I might like, I should say that it is more faithful than I expected. The film captures a lot of the elements that I like about the story and works hard to evoke an atmosphere of dread, often with success. Most of the roles are cast well and I think Cushing proves to be a very impressive Holmes, though I personally prefer his subsequent TV portrayal where he gets to show some lighter, warmer sides to the character along with the sometimes stern and aloof characterization we see here.

It may not be the perfect adaptation of this novel but it is an entertaining one and worth a look if you are already a fan of the story.

Sherlock Holmes and Chinese Junk Affair by Roy Templeman

Originally published in 1998

In Sherlock Holmes and The Chinese Junk Affair, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are called upon once again to save Queen and Country. 

Upon receiving a card from Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, the duo are debriefed by the Prime Minister on an astounding fact: a man named Rodger Hardy claims to be able to transport matter from one place to another through electricity, in what he calls transposition.

As the threat of Hardy selling his discovery to other countries weighs on the Prime Minister, he enlists Holmes to find out whether such a feat is possible, and whether or not Britain has anything to worry about.

Can Sherlock solve what seems to be an unsolvable mystery in time, and help Britain?

This book also contains Sherlock Holmes and the Tick Tock Man and Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room.

I had not expected to be writing about any of the many, many Holmes pastiches until I had completed rereading the original canon but a recent review of this title by Tomcat on Beneath the Stains of Time caught my eye. In that review Tomcat praised some of the ideas in the stories but suggests that the Holmesian elements hold those stories back.

As you will see in the thoughts that follow I have a lot of sympathy with that view. Indeed I think it is telling that the story I enjoyed most, Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room, is the one that reads least like Doyle in terms of the narration yet because of its question of motive and resolution it manages to feel closest in spirit. Each of the other two stories would have benefitted from being shorter and more tightly focused on finding the solution to their central problems.

Thoughts on the three stories contained follow:

Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Junk Affair

A British government minister visits a friend from university who shows him that he is having a full-sized ocean-going wooden junk constructed in his home’s underground ballroom. The ship is much larger than any of the exits making it impossible to move the vessel once it is finished so the minister is puzzled why he is undertaking this strange project. He agrees to come back regularly to check on the progress.

On the day that the junk is completed, the minister visits to check its progress, dines with his friend and then they return to the ballroom only to find it has vanished. A short while later it is seen nearby on the river. The friend tells him that he has a method for transmitting matter that could revolutionize warfare. He is willing to sell it to Britain for a fee though he will keep the method secret until war comes, fearing that the technology could devastate a peacetime economy.

The minister is sent by the British government to consult with Sherlock Holmes to seek his opinion on whether the technology is real or if it represents some sort of trick.

One way that any pastiche will differ from the original works is that almost all are presented as historical pieces. While there are certainly some that incorporate elements of the supernatural or crossover with other literary universes, many works attempt to fit into our understanding of our own history. That means that when someone claims to have made a device that can transport a sailing vessel miles in a matter of seconds, we can dismiss the possibility that it really works. In other words, we can approach this story with certainty that the friend is performing some sort of confidence trick. The question is how the trick is worked.

The most impressive part of the story is the clarity of its central idea and of the circumstances in which the trick is worked. The image of the junk in the ballroom is a really striking one. Similarly, the passages in which the minister explains the situation are really very effective and do a good job of reassuring the reader that we are not looking at a secret door, false floor or removable ceiling.

Holmes’ explanation is clever and credible and the sequence in which he demonstrates how the trick was worked has a similar visual appeal. I was also struck by how satisfying the ending is in terms of its resolution. In other words, the basic structure of the plot is really quite solid.

So, why am I not in love with it? I think the problems begin with the lengthy investigation, most of which takes place in Watson’s absence. While that is practical in terms of streamlining the account, it leads to the investigation feeling strikingly sedentary. Holmes, it seems, does not really work out how it was done so much as figure out who he should ask to explain it. This is rather disappointing as it seems to diminish rather than reinforce his genius as a detective.

I was also rather disappointed in the presentation of its Chinese characters given at a few points in the story where Watson describes them as sounding like young children and moving like monkeys. While I recognize that these are intended to pastiche the attitudes found in Doyle’s own work, they are completely unnecessary to the story and so feel more like incidental affectation than an attempt to provide serious commentary or criticism of those attitudes.

Still, the case is the most intriguing of the three and a pretty solid example of an impossibility.

Sherlock Holmes and the Tick Tock Man

In which Holmes and Watson take a walking holiday, attend a church service and hear the story of the village’s German watchmaker who was found dead with a head wound. The old man supposedly was going to leave a small fortune to establish almshouses but when his home was searched no money could be found leading some to suspect that the watchmaker was robbed. That the watchmaker’s pet raven had escaped the home and would not return, repeatedly screaming a German word seems to confirm that idea for many of the village’s inhabitants.

This story is decidedly in the adventure mode, offering surprisingly little for Holmes to actually do. There is really just one clue that stands out and that can really only be interpreted in one way. We are left to follow Holmes as he connects those dots but given how elementary those connections are, I don’t think readers will feel particularly impressed.

Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room

The final story is also its shortest. Holmes receives a visit from a Viscount who recently returned from India with trophies including a collection of Japanese armor. He decides to house his collection in a building on his estate but is dismayed to find that a piece is stolen. This prompts him to establish an elaborate series of defences around the building including trip-wire activated shotguns, man traps and a flock of geese. Having once owned geese myself I can confirm that they are pretty loud and aggressive, making for excellent watchdogs. In spite of these precautions two further pieces are stolen raising the question of how this was done.

As setups go this is really rather interesting, particularly when the reader considers that the value of the armor is a fraction of that of pieces found within the main home itself. So far, so good.

Unlike the other two cases, here we get a small selection of suspects to consider. Holmes sets out to figure out how the trick was worked and why – two questions that are really equally important.

Unfortunately they are not equally interesting. The solution to why the crime was done is really rather good, being both clued pretty effectively and resolved in a way that feels authentic to many of the resolutions in other Holmes stories. The question of how it was managed however is rather underwhelming though it is explained quite logically.

Earlier I described the first case as the most intriguing of the three and I would obviously stand by that assessment but I will say that in spite of that I probably found this the most enjoyable of the three as a story. Its brevity is a big plus with little space feeling wasted and while its solution is a little too simple, I appreciated the question of the thief’s motives.

The Verdict: A mediocre collection of stories featuring Holmes but little of his genius. The idea behind The Chinese Junk Affair, the most original of the three plots, is clever but it unfolds much too slowly.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Originally Published in 1902
Sherlock Holmes #5
Preceded by The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Followed by The Return of Sherlock Holmes

The country doctor had come to 221B Baker Street, the famous lodgings of Sherlock Holmes, with an eerie tale—the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles, the devil-beast that haunted the lonely moors around the Baskervilles’ ancestral home. The tale warned the descendants of that ancient family never to venture out on the moor. But Sir Charles Baskerville was now dead—and the footprints of a giant hound have been found near his body. Would the new heir of the Baskervilles meet the same dreadful fate?

Sherlock Holmes and his faithful friend, Dr. Watson, are faced with their most terrifying case in this wonderful classic of masterful detection and bone-chilling suspense.

The Hound of the Baskervilles begins with Holmes receiving a visit from Dr. James Mortimer. He has come to consult him on the strange circumstances surrounding the death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville who had been found dead on the grounds surrounding his home on Dartmoor.

The direct cause of death was a heart attack but Mortimer notes that his friend’s face seemed to be frozen in an expression of terror. Near the body the enormous footprint of a hound was found, leading some to speculate that he may have been killed by the demonic beast said to have been responsible for the premature death of many of Sir Charles’ ancestors.

Sir Charles’ heir has recently arrived in London and intends to take up the property but has received a warning urging him not to visit the moors. Holmes agrees to meet with him and, upon learning of some strange occurrences surrounding him, he decides he will send Watson with Sir Henry to Dartmoor to protect him and to try and uncover the truth of what is going on.

If Sherlock Holmes is, for many people, The Detective then The Hound of the Baskervilles must surely be The Detective Novel. It is a work that has enjoyed a tremendous reach thanks to countless adaptations and the clear influence it has had over many subsequent works in the genre. The only comparable titles I can think of in the genre would be Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None.

I have previously shared my opinion that Holmes is a character that really doesn’t suit long form fiction as well as the short story. Both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four have points of interest but I feel each has a structural problem. For those unfamiliar with those books, at the midpoint of each Holmes identifies a crucial figure and the remainder of the books becomes a historical tale explaining the background to the events we have witnessed.

What this means in practice is that only the first half of each book is a mystery – the remainder is explanation. The case, it seems, concludes long before the novel does. Given how energetic and driven the Holmes chapters are, the sudden switch to a slower historical storytelling feels very jarring and only emphasizes how little tension or sense of discovery there is in the second half of each book.

The Hound of the Baskervilles has quite a different structure and it is all the better for it. Rather than try to sustain Holmes’ bursts of energy throughout an entire novel, Doyle opts to keep him in the background for much of the more routine parts of the investigation and has Watson take the lead.

The decision to split up Holmes and Watson is to the benefit of both characters. Watson, able to act with more freedom and less scrutiny than usual in these stories, is given a chance to interview each of the characters involved at a more leisurely pace, share his own ideas about the case, and even have a memorable late night adventure of his own on the moors.

Holmes is then able to swoop back into the story at a critical point close to the end of the book and take over the investigation. At that point we have been so eagerly anticipating his direct involvement in the case that it makes that moment feel even more important and exciting. As he reenters the story very late in the proceedings, Doyle is able to naturally sustain Holmes’ incredible energy to build a pacy, action-driven and pretty satisfying conclusion.

The Hound of the Baskervilles not only fixes the principal problems with its two predecessors, it also retains one of the elements that was most successful in them. Each of the preceding novels contained horrific elements whether that was the gory message written on a wall in blood in A Study in Scarlet or Sholto’s terrible sense of fear in The Sign of Four. This novel also evokes a sense of fear but incorporates a stronger sense of the supernatural, particularly in those passages that describe the hound itself. Where previous stories have seen Holmes explain the inexplicable, here he has to rationalize what appears diabolical.

The most obvious horror element is the hound itself. Doyle does a lot well, including giving an intriguing origin for the beast and tying it to the victim’s own family history. Throw in the desolate landscape of the moors and you have something that I think really strikes the imagination. While part of the reason that this story gets adapted so often is the plotting, this story also features some really strong visual storytelling and plenty of elements that evoke a sense of atmosphere.

While I think this is a significant improvement on the two novels that went before it, I do have to point to some elements that I do not find entirely successful. The first of these is a crucial issue with the villain’s plans. Doyle himself clearly recognizes this – he actually has Holmes point it out and describe the problem – but then he flubs the opportunity to actually answer this, simply dismissing it as something they would have addressed later.

Is it unrealistic that someone may enact a plan without having every element thought through? Perhaps not. But I find it difficult to accept that someone would accept the degree of risk their plan entails with no certainty of the benefit. While I am no fan of the detective not having all the answers, surely someone could have provided one after the fact. It just feels very untidy.

Similarly there is an issue that Watson identifies at the end that Holmes tries to answer through conjecture. While the explanation Holmes posits would fit the facts, I feel it is a bit of a stretch to fit in with the other things we know about the villain’s personality.

My final issue with the book is that there is a moment where everyone seems to show a pretty breathtaking lack of humanity (ROT13: Gur qvfpbirel gung n qrnq obql vf abg Onfxreivyyr ohg gur pbaivpg). While this would certainly fit with the character of Holmes himself, I was surprised that others did not seem to be affected in any way by what has happened – particularly Watson.

Now others may suggest that this, like many of the Holmes stories, is more adventure than detective story. There is at least a grain of truth to this, particularly in the middle section of the book. In these chapters we do learn a few important points that seem to point to the guilty party but there are quite a few red herrings too.

I feel however that this is one of those cases where many of Holmes’ observations are grounded in solid, logical thought. Sure, the villain’s identity feels obvious from the start but Holmes’ reasons for dismissing the supernatural explanation and for forming his ideas about what was happening could be easily replicated by the reader being based on the application of some simple ideas and logic.

Though not perfect, The Hound of the Baskervilles feels like a much more cohesive story than either of the two previous novels. When I reviewed each of them I counselled that those new to Holmes would be best served to skip over those novels and return to them after reading the short stories. Clearly I am not advising the same here.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is not only one of the most famous Holmes stories, it is one of his more entertaining ones too.

The Verdict: While I have issues with some loose plotting, this atmospheric story has some wonderful imagery.

Sherlock Holmes Magazine

The cover for the first issue.

This week has been a frustrating one as I have been stuck at home waiting for the results of a COVID test (I feel fine – it’s a contact tracing thing). Thankfully the much-awaited first issue of Sherlock Holmes Magazine showed up when I needed it most, serving as an excellent form of diversion.

I first saw news of the publication on Twitter and had been intrigued enough to add myself to the preorders list. While I admit to not being as devoted a Sherlockian as my father (who had files full of various fanzines and publications in his office when I was growing up), I have enough interest in the Great Detective that I thought it could be interesting. That interest only grew when I saw that the magazine would not only cover the canon but the many derivative works and adaptations that have been done over the years.

For those who are curious, the magazine is glossy and heavily illustrated. It is larger than the typical US magazine, clocking in at about 12 inches by 8.25. It feels like it could sit very comfortably on any newsagents’ shelf, although being self-published and having a very limited print run, it unfortunately lacks that store shelf visibility.

The magazine contains some short snippets of news at the front but the bulk of the pages are devoted to feature articles. Some focus on the various adaptations such as the feature on the tenth anniversary of Sherlock or the fun article defending Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Watson. I found most of these to be interesting, particularly the piece discussing the history of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I hope that future issues may see similar features for some more obscure adapted or inspired works.

There are also several articles that focus on Doyle’s texts themselves such as an article about Moriarty or the fascinating one discussing how the stories came to be banned in Switzerland. I found these to be just as engaging and felt I learned something from each of them, particularly the latter. I suspect that the biggest challenge for the magazine will be creating new book-focused material that hits that sweet spot between being accessible to a wider audience and providing something of interest to devoted Sherlockians but based on this first issue I have confidence that they are up to the task.

Finally there are a couple of pieces that are quirkier and harder to categorize. The one that stands out most is the article about the Holmes tartan. This is beautifully illustrated but was probably the least interesting of the articles to me. Others may feel differently though and while the content was not particularly tailored to my own interests, I did appreciate it as a change of pace. I prefered the Holmes in Lockdown piece, discussing the Don’t Go Into The Cellar plays performed on the web during lockdown. These were completely new to me and felt surprisingly timely (I had assumed that much of the content would have been written prior to the COVID breakout).

Overall, given that this was a first issue I was very impressed. A few sections – particularly the Letters to the Editor pages – feel like works in progress (they probably would benefit from comments in response) but my overall impression has been very positive. This is a far more polished product than I had expected I would receive and as a result I feel very happy and keen to get subsequent issues. This publication seems have a lot of promise.

I think there are only two issues I have with the publication. The first is that I would love to see a reviews section focusing on new Sherlockian material or, failing that, at least an article specifically laying out what new things are on the horizon. Perhaps that will come with future issues.

The other is that there is a whole page advert at the end of this issue advertising how to subscribe but following the link takes you to a page that says subscriptions are still not available. I hope that gets updated soon: I would love to be able to sign up and support the venture going forwards.

While the first issue’s limited print run sold out very quickly, the producers have recently announced they have done a second printing and stock is available once again. If you are interested in finding out more and maybe reading a copy for yourself, check out their website for further details.

The Sherlock Holmes Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

Originally published 2015

The Sherlock Holmes Book, the latest in DK’s award-winning Big Ideas Simply Explained series, tackles the most “elementary” of subjects — the world of Sherlock Holmes, as told by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Sherlock Holmes Book is packed with witty illustrations, clear graphics, and memorable quotes that make it the perfect Sherlock Holmes guide, covering every case of the world’s greatest detective, from A Study in Scarlet to The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, placing the stories in a wider context. Stories include at-a-glance flowcharts that show how Holmes reaches his conclusions through deductive reasoning, and character guides provide handy reference for readers and an invaluable resource for fans of the Sherlock Holmes films and TV series.

The Sherlock Holmes Book holds a magnifying glass to the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective.

Dorling Kindersley’s Big Ideas, Simply Explained series is intended to provide broad and accessible introductions to a range of different topics. Other volumes had tackled topics like Politics, Philosophy and the works of Shakespeare, breaking down ideas to make them easily accessible and identifying key themes and developments.

The books are typically large format hardcovers (though there is a paperback version of this title), have a common layout and feature attractive graphics, charts and easy-to-read information boxes. While they can be read cover-to-cover, they are equally well suited to being dipped into as a more casual, coffee-table sort of read.

The Sherlock Holmes Book sticks pretty close to this formula. Its opening chapters provide biographies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the key characters in the series – Sherlock Holmes, Watson and Professor Moriarty. These are done well, offering some analysis into their characters and reference some of the real life figures that were sources of inspiration for them.

Following this we get to the meat of the book – a story-by-story exploration of the chronological canon of Holmes novels and short stories. Every one of the original stories is outlined and discussed with diagrams illustrating key deductions, plot points and relationships. In addition there are often sections that will explore a key reference or theme in more detail such as opium use, phrenology or myths about hell hounds.

At this point I probably should address the book’s ideal audience. The material here, while interesting and entertaining, is perhaps best pitched at the more casual Holmes fan rather than the complete newcomer or the aficionado. The inclusion of the solutions means that the entries should be read after reading the respective story and while I found some points of interest, the most seasoned Holmes enthusiasts will likely already know most of the material here.

In my own case I intend to make use of the book to browse in instances where I need to quickly refresh myself on a solution, make sure I am thinking of a correct title or to check a character name or identity. While I also own the ebook version, I much prefer to use the physical edition which is much easier to browse and more attractively laid out. The pricing is currently quite different however so if you are interested be sure to take a look at the sample pages to see which version suits you best (the physical edition can be sampled here).

The final fifth of the book discusses the enduring popularity and legacy of the character as well as his appearances in other forms, media and continuation novels. These cover many of the major releases through 2015 (it ends with Mr. Holmes) and unexpectedly for me this was the part of the book that offered me the most new information. There were several productions I was completely unaware of and I found myself making a list of other adaptations, reworkings and continuations to seek out.

Overall I am happy I picked up copies of this handsome book though I did so at a heavy discount. I enjoyed dipping into various entries and while I was aware of much of the information here already, I know this would have been enormously useful to me when I first began to delve deeper into the world of Sherlock Holmes. Whether it will have much value for you depends on how well you already know the canon and your interest in delving a little deeper into the background to the creation of those stories. For those with a stronger interest they might be better to look to some of the more scholarly works and journal articles about the series.

The Verdict: An attractive coffee table volume best dipped into after reading a particular story.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

This collection was originally published in 1893. It contains stories published in The Strand between 1892 and 1893.
Sherlock Holmes #4
Preceded by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Followed by The Hound of the Baskervilles

In The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective’s notoriety as the arch-despoiler of the schemes concocted by the criminal underworld at last gets the better of him.

Though Holmes and his faithful sidekick Dr Watson solve what will become some of their most bizarre and extraordinary cases – the disappearance of the race horse Silver Blaze, the horrific circumstances of the Greek Interpreter and the curious mystery of the Musgrave Ritual among them – a criminal mastermind is plotting the downfall of the great detective.

Half-devil, half-genius, Professor Moriarty leads Holmes and Watson on a grisly cat-and-mouse chase through London and across Europe, culminating in a frightful struggle which will turn the legendary Reichenbach Falls into a water double-grave . . .

Note: some editions, including the first, exclude The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. If purchasing separately make sure that the story is either in your copy of Memoirs or His Last Bow if you wish to collect the whole Holmes canon.

Today I continue my series of posts in which I revisit stories from the classic Holmes canon. This time it is the turn of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes – a volume that contains several of Holmes’ most famous cases.

The Adventure of Silver Blaze remains one of the most iconic Holmes short stories which I think reflects its relative simplicity. It is a good story with a simple but cunning solution.

The Final Problem is similarly quite superbly atmospheric and contains some thrilling action moments. Not to mention it introduces us to Moriarty – one of the most significant characters in the Holmes canon.

Not every story thread proves successful. Stories like The Adventure of the Cardboard Box feel rather silly and some repeat themes and ideas. Still, even when Conan Doyle’s plotting fails to thrill, he is always highly readable and gives us some truly great moments here.

The Verdict: Though the stories may not be as famous as those in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, there are several that struck me as among Conan Doyle’s best.

Story by story notes follow after the break.

Continue reading “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle”