The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio The great ones are back in action.

22Aug/150

Audio Drama Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Final Problem / The Empty House


The second series of Big Finish's Sherlock Holmes range kicks off with the adaptation of the two Sherlock Holmes stories. "The Final Problem," where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempts to kill Holmes off,  and "The Empty House," where Holmes returns.

As writer/star Nicholas Briggs admits, these are not traditional adaptations.  In the previous adaptation, a bonus talking book of "The Speckled Band" was released with a word-for-word reading of that story. This is similar but this production dispenses with "He said." Otherwise this is a  straightforward, almost word-for-word adaptation of Doyle's stories with most of it told through Watson's narration or Holmes narrating to Watson what has happened previously. As such, the strength of these adaptations rest on the strength of the underlying story.

However, Big Finish does add some nice touches. There's an emotional core in these stories that Richard Earl, as Watson, does a superb job of capturing. Briggs turns in a solid performance as Holmes, playing the character perfectly as written, even when he's being smug in "The Empty House."  And one of the most interesting and subtle things they do in "The Final Problem"is tell the narration as Watson writing this down, and we hear the pen crossing the paper and the sound of pen will change and become more pronounced at certain emotional points. It's a simple bit of sound design, but it's  clever and adds something interesting to the production.

These are solid, dramatic readings with a good soundscape added in. However, given the wealth of material and the countless adaptations of these stories, the appeal of this release is limited and this would be the last time Big Finish used the format for Sherlock Holmes.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.00

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25Jul/150

Audio Drama Review: The Death and the Life


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 as 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" and 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 own journals and letters. Another great scene is the one which Holmes learns he's a fictional character from his arch-rival who is not too pleased that he's been 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 very deep and well-written play. Overall, this is another story that's a wonderful listen for fans of Sherlock Holmes.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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4Jul/151

Audio Drama Review: The Last Act

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 an emotional and occasionally 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 will reflect 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" and "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 some childhood trauma to provide motivation. This can be seen in superhero fiction where so many characters' origins are being rewritten reflect that sort of trauma. It becomes somewhat 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 into 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, 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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16Nov/140

Video Theater 058: The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Wontner stars in this adaptation of The Valley of Fear. 

Release Date: February, 1935

9Aug/140

The Top 12 Sherlock Holmes Stories, Part Three

We continue our countdown of the top 12 Sherlock Holmes stories. (See: Part One  and Part Two.)

3) The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902): It’s no wonder that Sherlock Holmes' third novel  is  the most often adapted Sherlock Holmes story. It’s rich with atmosphere with its setting on the moor. It also has some genuinely scary moments with the menace of the titular hound as well as some great elements that add suspense such as the escaped convict. If the story suffers at all, it’s from the fact that Sherlock Holmes is off stage for much of the story. But this really gives Watson a chance to shine as both an observer and a man of action.

2) The Adventure The Red Headed League (1890) This is a good concept that comes with a built in moral. A man gets paid a fantastic salary by the Red Headed League for copying pages from the encyclopedia because he has an amazing head of red hair. However, the Red Headed League disappears as quickly as it appeared sending the confused shopkeeper to Holmes.

There are two things that are really fascinating about this story. The first is the idea of a superior intelligence preying on people’s greed and stupidity to victimize another person. This would be revisited (albeit without as much success) in "The Stockbroker’s Clerk" and "The Three Garidebs." The second thing is just seeing how Holmes puts this whole case together. It’s one of his finest pieces of deduction as Holmes faces a worthy and underrated foe.

1) The Sign of Four (1890): This is one of the best mystery novels of all time. The Sign of Four has so much working for it. It’s a book that was decades ahead of its time. The Penguins Classic edition of this book is only 160 pages. However, it’s tightly written and manages to work so much in. You have a great puzzle mystery, combined with creepy and memorable characters, a fast-paced quick moving story, and even a good action and chase scene. It includes a flashback to the past that reveals what happened in backstory but unlike in A Study in Scarlet, the flashback section is interesting and doesn’t drag on forever.

This story works on so many levels, particularly when you consider how dry and one dimensional detective fiction was for decades after that. While the Sign of Four is often overshadowed by The Hound of the Baskervilles,  from my point of view,  The Sign of Four is the better novel. The Sign of Four was decades ahead of its time. Decades after The Sign of Four, most mystery novels were rather one dimensional puzzle mysteries but The Sign of Four showcases everything a good mystery novel can be and that it was written in the 19th century is a testimony to Doyle's genius.

That concludes my list. I'd love to hear about yours. Please share about your favorite Holmes stories in the comments.

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2Aug/140

Top 12 Sherlock Holmes Stories, Part Two

We continue our countdown of the top 12 Sherlock Holmes stories. (See: Part One.)

7) The Scandal in Bohemia (1891)

A case that Holmes was mastered in. It’s a clever and satisfying story about Holmes attempt to obtain incriminating leters and a photograph that could compromise the King of Bohemia and his upcoming wedding. The story plays off of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” but takes the story in a different direction. The result is a very bold short story, particularly as a choice to lead off the first Sherlock Holmes short story collection.

6) The Adventure of the Six Napoleons (1904)

This is a story that illustrates what sets Sherlock Holmes apart from the Scotland Yard. It’s not just that he finds the right answers.  It's that he asks the right questions. When a series of burglaries occur involving busts of Napoleon, Scotland Yard concludes that its the work of a monomaniac and sets about finding him but Holmes sees the puzzle of why he’s smashing the busts to be an open question and that leads to a different investigation. Also, I really like the tribute Inspector Lestrade pays to Holmes at the end of the story. It says a lot about Holmes and how his relationship has develop with Scotland Yard over the prior two decades.

5) The Speckled Band (1892)

This was actually Doyle’s favorite of his stories and there’s plenty of iconic moments. The mystery and the solution to it are the stuff of nightmares. It’s a story with a lot of suspense and a thrilling conclusion. I also love Dr. Grimesby Roylott’s take on Holmes, “Holmes the meddler. Holmes the busybody. Holmes the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office.” It’s a classic scene of a man trying in vain to deflect Sherlock Holmes with invective and antics. Roylott makes for a fantastic villain and that makes this a particularly enjoyable read.

4) The Silver Blaze (1892)

Sherlock Holmes’ search for a missing race horse seems seems a simple enough problem at first with a mysterious stranger having been seen in the area on the night the horse disappeared, and its trainer was killed. The solution is far different than we imagined and is extremely clever. This is a wonderfully constructed mystery and was the only Holmes story cited by Father Brown creator G.K. Chesterton in his essay on how to write detective fiction. This is also a story where Holmes solves the case  with a nice dramatic flourish, withholding the solution to Watson, the owner, and Inspector Gregory until the day of the big race.

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26Jul/140

The Top 12 Sherlock Holmes Stories, Part One

The Sherlock Holmes stories are remarkable. While there have been some innovators in the detective genre in past 90 years or so that have added new wrinkles and and twists to the genre, Doyle’s work stands up as must-read for serious mystery fans.

There were countless genius detectives solving crimes, but none are loved or revered like Sherlock Holmes. While there were a few stories that didn’t work and some people read struggle with the Victorian setting, the Sherlock Holmes canon of fifty-six short stories and four novels has stood the test of time remarkably well. Which of them are the best?

Over the next three weeks, I’ll post my list of the top twelve Sherlock Holmes’ stories:

12) The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (1892):

This is one of the definitive holiday detective stories. This murderless mystery is a great puzzle that begins simply enough after a man lost his hat and a Christmas goose.  It really starts with what seems like an incident that seems like it should be beneath the notice of the great Sherlock Holmes but is really a fascinating puzzle. Doyle shows that while some mysteries involve sensational or salacious details, it’s not always necessary. I also love how the ending is both consistent with Holmes’ character and appropriate for the spirit of the Season.

11) The Devil’s Foot (1910):

The story tells of Holmes and Watson visiting Cornwall for a rest. However, Holmes  is pulled into investigating a mysterious death and insanity that afflicted a family. It is a haunting and chilling story that manages to merge the right elements of horror and the detective story. Great atmosphere throughout and a satisfying resolution makes this a winning story.

10) The Empty House (1903)

Sherlock Holmes was a character not even his creator could kill off. The “Empty House” is a wonderful story that tells us what really happened when Holmes faced Moriarty in, "The Final Problem" and then sets Holmes against the deadly Colonel Sebastian Moran. This was a great story to welcome Sherlock Holmes back to literary life.

9) The Adventure of the Naval Treaty (1893):

A truly engaging mystery. It manages to have major stakes with British national security, while also present a more personal problem for a young diplomat for whom the disappearance of this treaty has cast a shadow over his career. The story is engaging with some great clues, a great conclusion, and Holmes wrapping it all up with a theatrical flourish.

8) The Problem of Thor Bridge (1922)

This story of a seemingly sweet and benevolent governess facing a charge for murder is one of the best of the later Sherlock Holmes stories. The "Problem of Thor Bridge"  is engaging and the solution is classic. While many 1920s Holmes stories are disliked by fans and critics alike, this one is a true gem.

Continued Next week...

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23Mar/140

Video Theater 050: The Sign of Four

Arthur Wontner stars in this adaption of Sherlock Holmes' greatest case.

Release Date: May 1932

8Mar/141

Book Review: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes


"The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes"  is  the very last Sherlock Holmes short story collection, published in 1927. It is a proverbial mixed bag. There are some stories in the book that are essential reading for Holmes fans ("The Problem at Thor Bridge" and "The Sussex Vampire"), and then there are some of the weakest stories in the Canon ("The Lion's Mane", "The Blanched Soldier", and "The Veiled Lodger"), and then others that range between average to fairly good.

"The Problem at Thor Bridge" is simply one of Holmes' best cases. There's so much in the story and the solution is classic. The same thing goes for "The Sussex Vampire" which presents Holmes a problem that's evocative of the supernatural but with a surprising natural solution that is pretty emotional in its own right.

Most of the worst stories came towards the end of the book. Both "The Blanched Soldier" and "The Lion's Mane" were attempts to tell Holmes' adventures from Holmes own perspective. While "The Blanched Soldier" was slightly better of the two, both stories were somewhat dry and uninteresting tales that it was hard to care about. The biggest failing of  "The Veiled Lodger"s is that Holmes really does nothing. He describes a mystery and then has one of the perpetrators tell him what happened. While Holmes did say something very wise in response to that, it wasn't really a detective story.

Looking at the rest of the stories:

"The Mazarin Stone": Told in third person, I actually thought it was a pretty fun story showing Holmes cleverness. It was a similar story to the Dying Detective, but I liked this story better.

"The Creeping Man": This is a bizarre story and I know some people really don't like it because it's almost into the realm of speculative fiction, but I thought it was carried off fine and is a classic mix of horror and the detective genre, though good luck trying to guess as to what's happening.

"The Three Garidebs": This is once again a story that calls to mind previous adventures. In it, a man with an unusual last name stands to make a fortune just for his last name, but he brings in Holmes to discern the truth of the business. This story is not as good as "The Red Headed League" but is actually better than "The Stockbroker's Clerk."

"The Illustrious Client": This isn't a whodunit but a challenge for Holmes to stop the marriage of a naive woman to a scoundrel. This is a very well-executed story where Holmes is put to the test.

"The Three Gables": This story of a bereaved mother receiving mysterious offers to buy her house is a very good and enjoyable story.

"The Retired Colourman": This is actually a pretty enjoyable story though Holmes doesn't seem as warm towards Watson in a few places. The solution is a good change of pace, if perhaps a bit melodramatic.

"Shoscombe Old Place": The last Holmes story by Doyle and its solid. Its clearly not at the high quality of Doyle's prime but Holmes gets a pretty engaging case with a clever and unexpected solution revolving around a race horse and the odd behavior of the lady of the manor.

Overall, this is a must for mystery fans even if Doyle is clearly past his prime as a writer in this one.

Let me add that this Oxford edition I read really was splendid and added to the reading experience. The explanatory notes section was helpful to me reading this as an American in the 21st century, as so many phrases that I'd have just glossed over or imagined what they meant. There's also a copious amount of introductory information that provides some great background on the book and is a great resource if you can get a hold of it.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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24Feb/140

Book Review: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

This book is the proverbial mixed bag. There are some stories in the book that are essential reading for Holmes fans (The Problem at Thor Bridge and the Sussex Vampire), and then there are some of the weakest stories in the Canon (The Lion's Mane, the Blanched Soldier, and the Veiled Lodger), and then others that range between average to fairly good.

"The Problem at Thor Bridge" is simply one of Holmes best cases. There's so much in the story and the solution is classic. The same thing goes for the Sussex Vampire which presents Holmes a problem that's evocative of the supernatural but with a surprising natural solution that is pretty emotional in its own right.

Most of the worst stories came towards the end of the book. Both "The Blanched Soldier" and "The Lion's Mane"  were attempts to tell Holmes' adventures from Holmes own perspective. While "The Blanched Soldier" was slightly better of the two, both stories were somewhat dry and uninteresting tales that it was hard to care about. "The Veiled Lodgers" biggest failing is that Holmes really does nothing. He describes a mystery and then has one of the perpetrators tell him what happened. While Holmes did say something very wise in response to that, it wasn't really a detective story.

Looking at the rest of the series:

"The Mazarin Stone": Told in third person, I actually thought it was a pretty fun story showing Holmes cleverness. It was a similar story to the Dying Detective, but I liked this story better.

"The Creeping Man": This is a bizarre story and I know some people really don't like it because it's almost into the realm of speculative fiction, but I thought it was carried off fine and is a classic mix of horror and the detective genre, though good luck trying to guess as to what's happening.

"The Three Garidebs": This is once again a story that calls to mind previous adventures. In it, a man with an unusual last name stands to make a fortune just for having his last name, but he brings in Holmes to discern the truth of the business. This story is not as good as "The Red Headed League" but is actually better than "The Stockbroker's Clerk."

"The Illustrious Client": This isn't a whodunit but a challenge for Holmes to stop the marriage of a naive woman to a scoundrel. This is a very well-executed story where Holmes is put to the test against a clever adversary who is a master at manipulating the sympathy of women.

"The Three Gables": This story of a bereaved mother receiving mysterious offers to buy her house is a very good and enjoyable story with a satisfying solution.

"The Retired Colourman": This is actually a pretty enjoyable story though Holmes doesn't seem as warm towards Watson in a few places. The solution is a good change of pace, if perhaps a bit melodramatic.

"Shoscombe Old Place": The last Holmes story by Doyle and its solid. Its clearly not at the high quality of Doyle's prime but Holmes gets a pretty engaging case with a clever and unexpected solution revolving around a race horse and the odd behavior of the lady of the manor.

Overall, this is a must for mystery fans even if Doyle is clearly past his prime as a writer in this one.

Let me add that this Oxford edition I read really was splendid and added to the reading experience. The explanatory notes section was helpful to me reading this as an American in the 21st century, as it gave meaning to so many phrases that I'd have just glossed over or imagined what they meant otherwise. There's also a copious amount of introductory information that provides some great background on the book and is a great resource if you can get a hold of it.

Rating 4.0 out of 5.0

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