The Plot: When one of the Maugham family meets an untimely death, it seems almost impossible to work out who the murderer might be, until a distant relative of the family comes to light. With the arrival of Hans Gerber, the case becomes even more confusing, and Holmes must use every ounce of his skill to unravel this dastardly plot.
reification (noun): to consider or make (an abstract idea or concept) real or concrete
Without wishing to sound too heretical (can one be only a ‘little bit’ heretical?), nowadays I sometimes prefer pastiches or adaptations of Sherlock Holmes to the real thing. This is to take nothing away from the singular achievements of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but perhaps because I am so familiar with those stories, I sometimes find myself particularly impressed with new works that take the characters and themes and successfully manage to make something new. The stories about Holmes and Watson published by other hands now greatly outnumber the sixty canonical tales by Doyle, though many of them are utter drivel, showing scant regard for the qualities of the original and bringing nothing of their own to the subject. But when they get it right it can be a really great joy and amongst these I would certainly include the half-dozen new cases John Dickson Carr concocted in collaboration (after a fashion) with Adrian Conan Doyle and BBC radio’s ‘Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ by Bert Coules, both based on passing references in the original stories. The radio productions offer particularly good value in terms of continuity given that Clive Merrison has played the great detective on radio in adaptations of all sixty original stories, with Andrew Sachs as Watson also proving excellent support. In their own way I also love the parallel universe version of the stories to be found in the Universal Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce series, not to mention the glittering Sherlock reboot created for television by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Which brings us to …
When people think in general terms of the Holmes and Watson world, the conception is usually tied to the Victorian era (even though of course many of the stories were written much later) and focus on the more Gothic tales, especially the Hound of the Baskervilles and The Speckled Band and of course the presence of that evil genius, Doctor Moriarty, even though he only appears in one story; then by association they often link the immortal detecting duo with the two other best known characters from the period – Jack the Ripper and Dracula. All of this is well in evidence in the new series of audio production from Big Finish starring Nicholas Briggs as Holmes and Richard Earl as Watson. They have already released an audio version of Brian Clemens’ Holmes and the Ripper as well The Speckled Band (both of which you can purchase for download or on CD from here) and have just released The Final Problem, featuring Holmes’ great nemesis, and which Puzzledoctor reviewed glowingly over at his In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel blog.; adaptations of Hound and an encounter with Dracula (from David Stuart Davies;’ novel, ‘The Tangled Skein’) are due for release over the next couple of months. This audio play though is an original, written by steampunk author George Mann.
I truly wanted to like this release – I’m a great fan of Big Finish in general and especially their Jago & Litefoot Victorian mystery series, which would seem to make this a perfect fit. But this two-hour play is a real disappointment – the plot is really quite slight, the dialogue largely undistinguished and made up of the usual blood and thunder utterances associated with the genre (‘The plot thicken’ etc), and I ended up wishing that they had cheated a bit in the presentation because the ‘big twist’ is unfortunately incredibly easy to spot. Richard Earl makes for a splendid Watson but I remain unconvinced by Briggs’ slightly stiff and mannered interpretation of Holmes. The rest of the cast is fine, but is given far too little to do – there are in fact surprisingly few scenes in this play, and most of them go on for far too long, especially the meandering prologue that gets things off to a really slow start. Though it is clear that the team making these plays, mainly driven by actor-writer-producer-director Nick Briggs, are making a real effort to be faithful to Doyle, this first attempt at a true original for audio pretty much fails on every count – the characters are thin, the dialogue commonplace, the situations are ones we have seen too many times before (Holmes is in a bad mood and so resorting to drug abuse, the case revolves around a family fighting over a large inheritance etc.) and, much as it pains me to say it, the denouement is truly risible. I look forward to posting much more positive reviews of some of Mann’s novels here in the new year, but I’m afraid this play is a real disappointment and to me a truly wasted opportunity.
Not everyone thinks this though – if you want a much more positive appraisal of this release, look no further than Chris Swanson’s excellent review over at Whatculture!