Category: Golden Age Article

Audio Drama Review: The Master of Blackstone Grange

Big Finish’s latest Sherlock Holmes release features a three-hour Sherlock Holmes adventure and a one-hour Christmas special.

In the titular Master of Blackstone Grange, Holmes is bored by the lack of a challenge now that Professor Moriarty is gone. However, Watson’s barber is distraught because of some strange problem he’s having with his wife. Watson sees this as a case that can get Holmes out of his doldrums. While Holmes is initially interested, that interest wanes when Moriarty’s henchman, Colonel Sebastian Moran is released from prison. This leaves Holmes unavailable when their client heads to the home of the country’s newest multi-millionaire, Honest Jim Sheedy. However, the barber has plenty of company as all the country’s great men are coming together at Blackstone Grange. But why?

The plot of this story borrows a lot from other Doyle work. The story pays homage to both The Valley of Fear and Hound of the Baskervilles. Yet, this doesn’t stop the story from having its own original plot and mystery but helps to set up the story and give it a sense of authenticity.

The performances are solid as usual. Nicholas Briggs is a very good audio Holmes, able to adjust his performance to capture different aspects and eras in Holmes life. Here, he manages to play mostly to Holmes’ melancholy and do so quite skillfully. Richard Earl is the consummate Watson, and in this story, we get to see a little of the widowed Watson. The rest of the cast is very competent, but Harry Peacock deserves special praise for his performance as one of the villains, Honest Jim Sheedy. Peacock is able to play Sheedy alternately as charming and menacing in ways that are equally convincing.

In The Fleet Street Transparency, Sherlock Holmes gets a mystery at Christmastime of a columnist who complains about his columns being edited before they appear in the paper. He doesn’t want to take the case at first but relents out of curiosity when a thug is hired to threaten him into doing it.

This is not a great Holmes story but it is pretty good. The solution doesn’t tax Holmes’ brainpower much, but it has a unique ending. What does make it worth listening to is the general authenticity of the script. There are moments that feel positively like it’s out of canon. A couple moments take you out of that, such as Holmes and Watson passing judgment on their client’s political views. However, it maintains authenticity far more often than not. Briggs and Earl turn in another solid performance. The story is sure to be a fun Christmas listen.

Both stories feature superb music by Jamie Robertson which captures both the feel of the era and the respective seasons.

Overall, this is another solid box set from Big Finish.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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Book Review: Tracer of Lost Persons

So lost, I'm fading

photo credit: Greyframe So lost, I’m fading viaphotopin (license)

Tracer of Lost Persons by Robert W. Chambers is a 1906 book that was oft-sighted in the show’s introduction as a bit of a masterwork of detective fiction in the introduction to the 1937-55 radio series Mister Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons and as a basis for the series.

The book does provide some basic foundation for the character in the radio series. Its hero is Mister Keen and he does run a bureau that finds lost persons. The character exudes the type of warmth and kindness that defined Mister Keen in his early years.

However, there are many differences. Unlike in the radio series, Mister Keen does have a first name in the book(Westrel.) Mister Keen does charge fees in the book, although those are occasionally foregone. Like his radio counterpart, he has become quite wealthy through his efforts.

The cases Mister Keen takes in books are different. According to Jim Cox’s book on Mister Keen, the radio version of Mister Keen began by taking on cases of legitimately lost persons from his earliest days before moving on to investigating cold-blooded killings in his later years. While there are indications Mr. Keen does take more typical missing person cases, all of the cases in this book involve helping his clients finding love.

The book is a braided novel, telling connected stories about Mister Keen’s investigations. Truth be told, at least two of these cases don’t involve a search for an actual missing person, but rather a male client presents his ideal woman and expects Mister Keen to find her. In the first story, the client does so without telling Mister Keen what he’s doing and in the final story, the client does so explicitly.

Keen is resourceful and a retired Egyptologist (because it was convenient for the plot) who cracks ciphers when he gets into actual mysteries.

The plots are light and occasionally take turns for the absurd. For example, one story ends with a body that’s been in suspended animation for thousands of years being revived so she can be Keen’s client’s wife. In another story, a female doctor dedicates her life to the study of a disease where only one person has been diagnosed with it, which turns into a plot point because the disease is actually a hoax.

Yet, this is some forgivable as Tracer of Lost Persons doesn’t take itself all that seriously. It’s a light and fluffy read featuring a kindly investigator with the romantic soul who plays Cupid. It’s the type of book you want to read if you’re in a mood to not think much. It’s an interesting curiosity that features a few fun moments and provides a little insight into the origin of one of radio’s longest-running characters.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Tracer of Lost Persons is in the public domain and can be read for free at Project Gutenberg.

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Audio Drama Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Death and the Life

(Note: This Review was originally posted July 2015) but is being reposted. Big Finish is having a sale. The download version can be purchased for 0.99 (in your local currency). You can access the sale by clicking here and using the password “redballoons” before 5/1/2018.

The Death and the Life is another one-man play starring Roger Llewellyn and written by David Stuart Davies adapted by Big Finish Productions. The story is a mix of fact and fiction. It centers upon Arthur Conan Doyle’s efforts to rid himself of his most famous creation once and for all with the writing of “The Final Problem,” which failed.

The play imagines Holmes and his fellow characters reacting to Doyle’s actions and scheming. Doyle’s disinterest is reflected in a hilarious scene where Holmes describes a madcap adventure to a snoring Watson. The story is bolstered by the use of Doyle’s journals and letters. Another great scene is the one which Holmes learns he’s a fictional character from his arch-rival, who is none too pleased he was created by Doyle as a single-use plot device.

With its light comedy and heavy symbolism, The Life and the Death is a story about a literary creation whose popularity transcended the writer who created him. The play is helped by another strong performance from Roger Llewellyn who manages to perfectly portray all the characters and angles of this deep and well-written play. Overall, this is another story that is a wonderful listen for fans of Sherlock Holmes.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Last Act

Note: This review was previously posted in July 2015 but is being reposted. Big Finish is having a sale. The download version can be purchased for 0.99 (in your local currency). You can access the sale by clicking here and using the password “redballoons” before 5/1/2018.

The Last Act brings Roger Llewellyn’s long-running Sherlock Holmes one-man play to audio. The story finds a somber Holmes reflecting on his life and career after Watson’s funeral. It’s a heartbreaking performance as Holmes reflects on his friend and his career. “You never appreciate the best things, the best people, until they’re gone.”

Not every moment is somber. There are humorous moments as Holmes reflects on one of his friend’s oddities or on Lestrade’s unremarkable career that saw him never rise above Inspector.

The play covers a variety of ground. From “The Abbey Grange” to “The Speckled Band,” “The Final Problem,” “The Empty House,” and The Hound of the Baskervilles and many more, Holmes offers his reflections on his cases and it’s a Tour de Force performance.

I enjoyed the second half far less as it offered insights into Holmes’ dark secrets, including his little-discussed childhood. On one hand, this explained Holmes being merciful in one particular case. On the other, there’s a certain modern conceit that tries to explain everything anyone does as a result of childhood trauma. This can be seen in superhero fiction where so many characters’ origins are being rewritten to include trauma. It becomes monotonous in fiction when no one ever does anything good, noble, or heroic unless a parent was killed or was abusive, or some other trauma occurred to explain it.

I also didn’t like the way Holmes’ drug use was addressed. In the books, Watson claims to have weaned him off cocaine. However, the play insists Holmes’ use continued unknown to Watson and it leads the play to a dour place. While some would argue this is more realistic than the books (which removed the cocaine habit as it became socially unacceptable) and it might be clever to undermine audience expectations by moving from downbeat to depressing, but I wasn’t pleasantly surprised by the turn.

Still, the play is well-written even if I have issues with the tone, Llewellyn’s performance as Holmes (and twelve other characters) is pitch-perfect and thoroughly engaging. He captures Holmes as a man trying to come to terms with the greatest loss in his life as a lifetime of emotional restraint begins to ebb away. I only wish the play had a more satisfactory conclusion.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: The Maltese Falcon

The Hollywood Theater of the Ear released its own adaptation of the classic Dashiell Hammett novel The Maltese Falcon in 2008. The production sticks closely to the book and contains moments not included in the 1941 movie. The Maltese Falcon tells the story of Sam Spade (Michael Masden), a private detective whose partner is murdered and who finds himself caught in a web of intrigue involving a mystery woman (Sandra Oh) and a group of dangerous men seeking the priceless Maltese Falcon.

The acting is superb with Masden doing a good job portraying all the facets of Sam Spade. Edward Hermann’s take on Casper Gutman was also nearly as good as Sidney Greenstreet’s. I also liked the idea of portraying Joel Cairo as an Egyptian. That gives a reasonable explanation for the character’s name.

The one off-putting part of the production was it’s decision to include all of the third-person narration in the story and have the actors read the narration about their characters’ actions. It was odd, as if the production was trying to straddle the line between being an audio drama and being an audiobook. Either using a third person narrator or showing narration through sound effects would have made a better listening experience.

Still, this was a fun listen that captures the heart of a classic detective story.

 

Rating: 4 out of 5

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