THE ORDEALS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Jonathan Barnes

Barnes-OrdealsThis collection of four new audio adventures follows the threads of a single case across 40 years in the career of Conan Doyle’s consulting detective. Following on from the conspicuous success of The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner, Jonathan Barnes is again the writer and Nicholas Briggs and Richard Earl star as Holmes and Watson.

I offer this review for Tuesday’s Overlooked AV Media meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog


The Plot: Four decades. Four cases. One solution. From the plains of Afghanistan to the alleyways of Victorian London, from the dark heart of the English countryside to the ruin of Europe after the Great War, join Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson in a quartet of astonishing new investigations which span their lifelong friendship – and beyond…

“I am a consulting detective. I am the first of my kind”

1. The Guttering Candle
web The Guttering CandleIt is on 25 July 1880 that Inspector Lestrade makes his first acquaintance with Holmes over the dead body of a naked man with teeth filed to sharp points found in Bermondsey – and it is not exactly love at first sight! In a nice touch, Lestrade is given his own ‘Watson’ in the shape of constable Wherry, who admires the Inspector’s methods but Holmes changes that, much to Lestrade initial irritation, setting up an amusing contest to see who will solve the case first. Holmes tries on a disguise that fools both of them (but not us) but also, in a great scene, sees him getting handbagged by a lady annoyed at being deceived by the great detective! Holmes and Watson have not yet met as the latter is still an army doctor in Afghanistan and this story follows their parallel adventures. The doctor gets kidnapped by the followers of a local sect and has to look after a British man hiding out in a cave surrounded by strange blue flowers. On his deathbed, he asks Watson to deliver a mysterious package back home. Holmes and Watson solve their respective ‘cases’ but don’t get all the answers. This sets up a continuing storyline for the quartet of adventures but also does something very smart – reminding us that Holmes and Watson are only always at their best when working together rather than singly.

“I too have heard the siren call of exile and seclusion”

web Adventure of the Gamekeeper's Folly2. The Adventure of the Gamekeeper’s Folly
It is 1895 and Watson is once again a bachelor and living at 221b Baker Street. Holmes has returned from his reported death at Reichenbach Falls and is now at the height of his success and fame. James Hinderclay, a gamekeeper from Norfolk, comes to discuss his once missing daughter who has now suddenly returned, some fifteen years after her disappearance, but who seems troubled and who has struck an unlikely friendship with the author of scandalous books banned for immorality who has turned up at the village. When they arrive at his home, Watson realises that the exotic blue flowers growing nearby are the same as those he found in Afghanistan – and he also realises that he has met the young woman before in another link to his pre-Holmes days. This story is more overtly melodramatic than the first but very much in the Doyle style none the less and ends with a grand dramatic flourish for what turns out to have been one of the great detective’s great failures.

“I have some confidence that the puzzle shall prove simpler than you imagine. Watson and I have proved adept at cutting all manner of Gordian knots”

web Adventure of the Bermondsey Cutthroats3. The Adventure of the Bermondsey Cutthroats
It is October 1903 and we return to the scene of the crime of our first case, nearly twenty-five years later. We realise that this is to be a highly intense, even horror-tinged story from a prologue in which a Shelley-quoting murderer calmly slits the throat of an innocent woman. Thsi is by far the nastiest of the four adventures, with a body count in the dozens by the time it’s over. Michael Cochrane’s vaguely sinister Winchester Bartley-Gower makes a return from the first case, as does a character with teeth filed to sharp points. Watson is married once again but as  his wife is away he drops by Baker Street unexpectedly only to find his old friend’s behaviour very hard to fathom. Bartley-Gower has been getting a series of death threats but Holmes won’t help – why? Wherry and Lestrade then arrive to report that there have been seven slayings, their only link being Holmes himself … it’s not long before Scotland’s Yard’s finest are trapped in a burning building and Watson is drugged, strung up and shot. We later learn that it was the outcome of this case that led to Holmes’ ‘retirement’ to the Sussex downs – is this the end? And what is Holmes really doing in his retirement?

“Total disclosure, those are my terms, sir. You may accept them or you may depart”

web The Sowers of Despair4. The Sowers of Despair
The best is definitely saved for last in this rip-snorting finale that begins in a particularly sombre fashion but then perks up considerably. Holmes narrates his own story in his old age, as he had done on two previous occasions, and here does so in Watson’s memory … We are in December 1919 and Holmes comes up to London from Sussex to visit his old friend after a long break. Holmes has seen something in a newspaper that soon sees them travelling across the new boundaries of post-Europe by train, meeting up with an old enemy from The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner and being framed for murder – but this is just the beginning! Before long they are on the run in a Ruritarian country not far from what was Bohemia and uncover a monstrous plot engineered by a well-hidden villain who presence finally knits together the four stories very satisfactorily before a fine climax that celebrates in good fashion the immortality of Doyle’s great creations. And don’t miss out on the coda after the end music finishes playing – some may not care for it but I thought it worked a treat.

“It’s wonderful to see you Holmes. Won’t you come in?”

These four pastiches are beautifully produced and benefit from the usual sonic expertise from Big Finish with terrific music and sound design by Howard Carter, who comes up with some amazing effects as well as new arrangements for Jamie Robertson’s memorable theme music. The box spans that entire period covered by the sixty canonical stories (4 novels, 56 short stories) that were originally set between 1880 (The Musgrave Ritual) and 1914 (His Last Bow), pushing just a little at the outer edges and the idea to traverse the lives of Holmes and Watson is an inspired one that pays off beautifully. I hope Big Finish and Jonathan Barnes release many, many more of these as it’s one of their very best efforts, which is high praise coming as it did at the end of 2013, a vintage year for them by any standards.

To order this production, either on CD or as a download, visit the Big Finish website at: www.bigfinish.com/ranges/Sherlock-Holmes

Jonathan Barnes’ blog can be found at: Pantisocracy

Director: Ken Bentley
Producer: Nicholas Briggs
Script: Jonathan Barnes
Music: Howard Carter (theme music by Jamie Robertson)
Sound Design: Martin Montague
Running time: 65-75 minutes each + extras
Cast: Nicholas Briggs (Sherlock Holmes), Richard Earl (Dr Watson), John Banks (Inspector Lestrade), Derek Carlyle (Wherry), Blake Ritson (Christopher Thrale), Michael Cochrane (Winchester Bartley-Gower), Eve Karpf (The Gracious Adelina/Mrs Chaunt Maclise/Mrs Hope), Amy Ewbank (Eliza Hinderclay/Judy), Ken Bones (Jim Hinderclay), Caroline Keiff (Tess Dorno), Tracey Childs (Mrs Edgar Curbishley), Marek Oravec (Griesser), Andrew Fettes (Tlitzlmann Blench)

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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26 Responses to THE ORDEALS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Jonathan Barnes

  1. Sergio – Oh, I can see why you rated this highly. What an interesting way to tie those cases together.Sometimes pastiches really work well and this one clearly did. Sounds both clever and well done. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Kelly says:

    I hate to be a curmudgeon, but I’ve never been able to get into non-canonical Holmes stories.

    • Yeah, but this one is really good! But does this mean you don’t like most of the Rathbone and Burce films, the wonderful Billy Wilder film Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the current BBC Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman? You shouldn’t deny yourself all these riches Kelly :)

      • Pearl says:

        I used to be a purist, shaking my head during movie versions of classics saying “that’s not the way it was!…“. But, somewhere along the line, I relaxed, thus increasing my viewing riches ;) .

        I love Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock. Such a brilliant and fun series! If Kelly’s still listening, I echo Sergio’s plea to give it (and his other recommendations) a go. Having said that, CBS’ “Elementary” does nothing for me (but then I’ve only watched it once or twice). Btw, did you know that Dr. Watson’s “blog” (as frequently discussed in “Sherlock”) has been on-line since the beginning? It’s a hoot!

        Still enjoying your take on things, and the genuine dialogue which follows; you have a great group here.

        • Thank you Pearl. I have ended up thoroughly enjoyong Elementary now that I have seen the whole of the first season, but mostly as a light alternative to the BBC version, which I much prefer though I don’t mean to damn with fain praise – I think it’s fun and clever and a weekly show is very different from three ninety-minute specials every year (or so). Are those blogs part of the show? Do you know, I hadn’t realised – is this the ‘official’ one? http://www.johnwatsonblog.co.uk/

          • Pearl says:

            That’s the one! And if you scroll down to the bottom-center of the page, you’ll see a link which says “more information”, taking you to BBC’s Sherlock page, with links to other playful sites, such as “The Science of Deduction” which was where Sherlock raced to record his findings to the mysterious foe in “The Game”. I’m just tickled by the cleverness of it all! Being about a month behind you, the season finale just aired this past Sunday here in the US. {sigh} Another long wait… Perhaps during that time I’ll give “Elementary” an honest chance.

          • Thanks for that – I shall have to take a closer look, clarly!

  3. Colin says:

    Sounds like one of the more interesting pastiches. I have a few novels, some of which work OK and some don’t at all. I hope to give these audio tales a go, but not just at the moment as I splurged a bit in the Network sale and bought the complete sets of both Thriller and Tales of the Unexpected.

  4. This looks brilliant. I love listening to something while I clean my house. Will look for it.

  5. Yvette says:

    Never heard of these before, Sergio. Interesting. I’m definitely going to check into them. Sherlock Holmes lives on and on and on – doesn’t he?

    • If you like audio I think this will really appeal Yvette – they are superbly produced and combine very faithful renderings of the originals with more unusual original works such as these – all worthwhile in my view!

  6. TracyK says:

    These stories do sound very good, although I haven’t even read the original books and stories yet. I just don’t get on well with audio as a medium. Don’t know why.

    • I know a lot of people who aren’t big on audio TracyK, so I understand, though these are proper radio plays with large cast and terrific production values in terms of music and effects – really like being at the movies with your eyes closed!

  7. Sergio, I haven’t heard of these either. The four stories sound good. Your review is nudging me to finally give in to audio, especially adventures and mysteries; perhaps, sometime this year.

  8. Ela says:

    I think maybe that because there are so many Holmes short stories I don’t feel short-changed by Doyle’s writing, and thus feel additional, pseudo-authentic Holmes stories aren’t really necessary. That said, I’ve been watching and enjoying ‘Elementary’ and so shouldn’t be prejudiced against Holmes pastiches (but like Tracy I’m not hugely fond of audio)!

    • I was never a big fan of audio until I started commuting to work and had long stretches on the train without a seat and didn;t really have enough room to even hold a paperback up to my nose. For me there is a big difference between ‘talking books’, which I don’t listen to, and full-cast radio productions like this one with detailed sound design and music – frankly they are often much better than TV for me! You can download trailers, excerpts and full plays from the Big Finish from their SoundCloud.

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