My entertainment this holiday season was more or less split into two parts. It was a time to sit down with two of my favourite British cultural icons, Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter. Let me review the first here; I’ll get to Harry later.
First up, I treated myself to the Series 1 Blu-ray of Sherlock, the recent BBC series created by Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat and fellow Who writer Mark Gatiss. The buzz was intense because of the names involved and fortunately it more than lives up to the hype. Taking perhaps more risks than most other adaptations, the series transposes the characters to modern-day London…but the riskier the road, the greater the reward, or so some say. Plenty of people are enjoying Sherlock and I’m one of them. In a lot of ways it’s more faithful to the Conan Doyle stories than some actual period pieces. Not the least of these ways is the fact that Watson remains to a large degree our main point of view character; we see the stories through his eyes more often than not, and he allows us to find the human connection next to a rather unpredictable and seemingly psychotic detective. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman plays John Watson. They can add their names with pride to the long list of those who have portrayed the pair onscreen — and more than that they can elevate them to the level of those who have been the best. January sees the premiere of a further three 90-minute episodes to make Series 2. Don’t miss out.
The Rediscovered Railyway Mysteries, and Other Stories by John Taylor (Read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
A search for some Sherlock Holmes audiobooks turned up this interesting set. John Taylor apparently wrote some Holmesian radio plays for the BBC and has recently returned with some audio-only short stories…read by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch, star of the above-mentioned Sherlock. I obviously couldn’t resist checking them out and found them quite satisfying. Curiously the opening story, “An Inscrutable Masquerade”, has almost nothing to do with the ostensible theme of trains but takes place entirely in the Baker Street apartments. “The Conundrum of Coach 13” involves gold bullion, a locked railway carriage, and Cumberbatch’s rather admirable American accent. “The Trinity Vicarge Larceny” again loses the overall train of thought, but features a very strange set of clues that give off a strong atmosphere of Conan Doyle at his best. The last story, “The 10.59 Assassin”, is probably the best of the four and the murderer is the one you least expect. While none of the stories would be mistaken for a lost adventure the way they and other pastiches claim, they are fun if you’re a fan and nitpickers will find little to complain about. It’s also fun to hear the voice of a current Sherlock Holmes pretending to be Watson, and Benedict Cumberbatch (I will never get tired of typing or saying that name) does a very good job of making you forget that fact.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
A few people seem to have given into Holmes mania this past month, and this movie is probably the reason why. 2009’s Sherlock Holmes gets a sequel that is at least as good as the original, though not necessarily better. I admit this version of Holmes and Watson is not my favourite, but I was probably a bit harsh in my initial review, which was written before a couple more viewings convinced me of what it really was: a fun action adventure that happened to have Sherlock Holmes in it. The plot may be a bit convoluted, but it breaks out in a run and slows down for breath at the appropriate moments, making sure we’re never utterly bored and never utterly lost. Professor Moriarty, a shadowy presence (get it?) in the first film, steps out into the light and reveals himself as Jared Harris who I knew from his guest role on the TV show Fringe. He doesn’t disappoint but gives a grand and show-stealing performance as the infamous Napoleon of Crime. Which is saying something given how many writers can’t resist casting him as the main villain, making it easy for it to fall into hoary cliche. Not this time. And it all builds to a wonderfully suspenseful sequence that is this adaptation’s version of the Reichenbach Falls episode — which manages to elicit a surprised gasp from even this lifelong Holmesian.
The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
The press releases proclaim this as the first “officially” authorized Sherlock Holmes story since the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but ignoring the fudged reality that the stories have been in the public domain for quite some time I was still looking forward to this novel. While I can’t say I’ve read many pastiches, I think I’ve read enough to distinguish a good one from a bad one. Pastiches can never hope to quite match the original, but that doesn’t stop authors from trying. And this is perhaps the most successful I’ve ever read. True, it begins with a rather cliched promise that what we are about to read is an account sealed up by Watson because the world was not yet prepared for such a scandal, but when we remember the Victorian Era’s culture it becomes not only easier to accept, but in fact very easy. This also allows there to be a more modern taste of subject matter (the final solution is certainly something Conan Doyle would never publish) without violating the period setting. But the true triumph of the novel is the way Horowitz captures Watson’s voice almost perfectly, and this lends it a background air of sadness which sometimes comes to the foreground. While the plot may be set in the earlier days of the partnership (or at least before Reichenbach) Watson tells us that he is writing the account in his final days — and the sadness comes not just from the passage that muses on Sherlock Holmes’ death after retirement, but that this will be the last time his faithful chronicler puts pen to paper.
All of these recent adaptations come highly recommended, whether you’ve followed Holmes and Watson’s adventures for ages or if you’re just a casual mystery fan. I enjoyed myself so much that I’m going to be returning to the original stories for a thorough re-read, hopefully later this year. If you get to 221B Baker Street before me, tell the boys I said hello and that I’m on my way.