Read by Derek Jacobi
Series: Sherlock Holmes #3
Publisher: BBC Audio
Time: 11 hours 7 minutes (unabridged)
Format: Audible Download – Short Story Collection
Scandal, treachery and crime are rife in Old London Town. A king blackmailed by his mistress, dark dealings in opium dens, stolen jewels, a missing bride – these are cases so fiendishly complex that only Sherlock Holmes would dare to investigate.
For anyone new to Sherlock Holmes this is really the place to start. Doyle finally hits his stride with this collection of short stories. It’s a format that suits both the characters and the mysteries far better than the slightly drawn-out novels (with the exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is ace) and has the blessed relief of absolutely no obscenely long and involved story within a stories. It’s also, from memory, the most solid of the short story collections as a whole – Memoirs containing a couple of duds and later collections a little bit lackluster in comparison – even so, it’s a mixed bag. On second reading (or rather listening) there were stories I liked rather less than on my first read, but none that I actively dislike.
The Adventure of the Red Headed League, despite Doyle apparently regarding is as one of his best, is probably the one that comes closest. It’s one I never particularly took to on first reading either; the solution being to obvious, the ‘mystery’ too farfetched, and the apparently highly intelligent villain too completely unsubtle in his agenda. But then I do have to give Doyle some leeway for not living in an age where people were so exposed to these sort of scams on an everyday basis (what person using the internet hasn’t been told they could earn ‘$500 an hour’ by signing up to some obviously dodgy service?).
A Scandal in Bohemia is also one I don’t have much time for. Maybe I should; it’s the one with ‘the woman’, Irene Adler in and she famously outwits him but… well he isn’t that hard to outwit here. His plan to get her to reveal where the photograph he’s been asked to retrieve is is brilliantly simple, but it’s also very obvious and kind of stupid. It’s pure dumb luck – and stupidity on Irene’s part – that the plan works in the first place, and her ‘outwitting’ him consists of realising what Holmes was doing (which wasn’t subtle) and making a contingency plan while Holmes sits about wasting time not acting on his information. Holmes isn’t meant to be sympathetic for most of this story, I realise, and it’s meant to show him underestimating female intelligence, so far so successful, no problems there – but it would have been nice to give him a decent female adversary rather than simply rely on him acting stupid for the plot to work. Even in a story about Holmes overcoming his sexism there’s a lot of pretty implicit sexism. Irene is ‘the woman’ because she’s different from ‘other’ women. Yawn, move on. At least there isn’t any sexual tension there.
It doesn’t help greatly that this story is followed by another story which concludes with the quote ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatcheth a delusion from a woman‘ and the decision not to tell a young woman the truth about the mystery she asked him to solve – thus letting her evil stepfather’s plan to pocket her inheritance succeed. But then Holmes is a flawed character who makes flawed decisions and I can’t get too angry with a writer for portraying a complex character rather than going for a boring one with a flawless moral compass. I might not like Holmes’ decision at the end but it’s a solid story and it’s not out of character.
In fact I enjoyed all the stories, just at different levels. None of the three mentioned above are ‘bad’, I just find them less compelling or slightly more problematic than others. Certainly none had me wanting to check how much longer I had to sit through until the end – which happened frequently during A Study in Scarlet. And there are some real highlights in this collection too, particularly ‘The Five Orange Pips’ and ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band‘, neither of which I want to say much about for fear of spoilers, except that they both have a wonderful sense of atmosphere and impending danger and that the stakes feel high.
Not that Holmes always deals with high stake cases, one of the best things about the Holmes stories is the sheer variety. Mundane mysteries (The Blue Carbuncle) through to actual crime (The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet) and up on to murder (The Boscombe Valley Mystery), he deals with them all with varying success. Often a story will start out as one thing and then morph seamlessly into something much more sinister. And despite his almost superhuman deductive reasoning Holmes can, and does, make mistakes and, refreshingly, the stories don’t always have a pleasant outcome. Sometimes, as in The Redheaded League or Scandal, the solution – or part of it – is not that hard for a modern audience used to detective fiction to reach, but it’s enjoyable to see how Holmes gets all the details sorted so quickly and explains it to Watson, and there are other stories where the revelation is genuinely surprising.
Reading this collection, unlike the earlier novels, it is not remotely hard to see why the public took to Holmes the way they did. Even for someone bought up on Agatha Christie murder mysteries (Poirot, not Marple) Holmes offered something genuinely new and refreshing when I first picked this book up – a complex, active lead, solid foundation of friendship between him and the narrator (why does Poirot stand Hastings? Why does Hastings stand Poirot? It’ the biggest bloody mystery of the whole series), and a variety in both plots and outcomes.
Jacobi’s Holmes is really growing on me. He’s gentler and much less sharp or impatient than I imagined; a very stark contrast to the recent Downey Junior and Cumberbatch film and TV versions, but I like it. He’s still arrogant but it’s more a sort of quiet pride than the frantic, insufferable showy-offness of the others. Part of that is of course due to those adaptations stressing certain elements of the original more than others but part is that the same lines, read in a different way, can take on a completely different tone. Jacobi manages to make Holmes explanations sound patient and Holmes seems almost genuinely puzzled other people don’t see these things rather than deliberately patronising and dismissive. If I was to be very critical than perhaps his Holmes is a tiny bit too nice, but it’s closer to the text than either of these very popular adaptations (I actually do quite like both but am not enamoured with either) and at least I can see a reason beyond ‘force of personality’ or ‘masochism’ as to why Watson enjoys his company. Women; again some are iffy and others are absolutely fine, not going to go nitpicking there. It’s not ‘perfect’, but it’s damned good.