"Our lives are drawing towards eventide and old faces and old scenes are gone forever. And yet, as I lean back in my chair and close my eyes, for a while the past rises up to obscure the present and I see before me the yellow fogs of Baker Street and I hear once more the voice of the best and wisest man whom I have ever known: 'Come, Watson, the game's afoot.'"- Dr. John H. Watson (John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Red Widow," from The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, 1954)
The 1930-and 40s are generally considered to be the glory years of the detective story, but what's often overlooked is that the genre prospered around the same time as radio dramas experienced their golden age and detective stories thrived as much on the airwaves as they did on the printed page – reaching an audience of millions of listeners.
During that time, there was a wide variety of crime shows to be found across the radio dial. Radio shows such as Suspense, Murder by Experts, Cabin B-13 and The Inner Sanctum offered episodic, standalone stories, but there was also a whole slew of recognizable sleuths who got their own regular program. These shows included The Adventures of Ellery Queen, Philo Vance, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, Casey, Crime Photographer and The Adventures of Sam Spade.
You probably noticed I omitted one very well-known and recognizable name from that short overview, but rest assured, I had not forgotten about the immortal Sherlock Holmes and the indispensable Dr. Watson. Who could forget about them?
The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was one of the popular radio shows of the day, which ran from 1939 to 1947, starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson – cementing a place for itself in the Holmes fandom. But enthusiasts of classic mysteries also remember the show, because the series was co-written by Anthony Boucher and Denis Green. Both men collaborated on another popular show, The Casebook of Gregory Hood, and Boucher himself was a very respected as both a mystery novelist and reviewer.
During the late 1980s-and early 90s, the series experienced a brief resurgence when a whole slew episodes were released on cassette tape and these eventually numbered twenty-six volumes in total. However, the object of interest of this blog-post is the book spawned by this project, The Lost Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1989), which consists of about a dozen short stories adapted from the original radio-plays by Boucher and Green.
Ken Greenwald is the author of the book and the introduction goes over how this collection of short stories came into being, which stretched all the way back to when he was ten years old, "tucked safely in bed with the lights out," listening to the show on a small radio next to his bed and these childhood memories came back in the late 1980s – when, as one of the archivists for a radio museum, he "learned of a long run of missing Sherlock Holmes radio shows from 1945." This lead to the episodes being released and his colleagues came to him with the suggestion of writing a book based on radio-plays, which was grateful task and the end result is a charming homage to the work of Boucher, Green, Rathbone and Bruce.
As Greenwald stresses, The Lost Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is not a close imitation of the writing by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but instead tried "to be true to the writings of Green and Boucher" and utilize as much of their material as possible – which seems to have succeeded at. He also emphasizes that he adapted these stories with the original (voice) actors in mind and asks the reader to "think of Rathbone and Bruce in the roles of the great detective and his companion."
So now that we got that out of the way, lets take these stories down from the top and I'll try to keep it as brief as possible. I'm painfully aware that the size reviews of short story collection tend to resemble a bloated canal corpse.
The opening story, "The Adventure of the Second Generation," takes place after Sherlock Holmes retired to the countryside and dedicated all of his attention to tending his bees, but an extended visit from his old friend, Dr. Watson, coincided with a plea for help from the daughter of Irene Adler – who finds herself in the clutches of a blackmailer. She is being blackmailed by Holmes' awful neighbor, Mr. Litton-Stanley, who has "some rather indiscreet letters" in his possession and expects a small fortune for their return, but Holmes and Watson encounter a snag when they try to retrieve them. There's also a nifty twist towards the ending that I actually foresaw. A charming little story.
The second story, "The Adventure of the April Fool's Adventure," occurred not long after the first meeting between Holmes and Watson, which makes the latter slightly uncomfortable when a friend, James Murphy, draws him in a conspiracy with the objective of pulling a prank on the promising detective. Lady Ann is going to call on Holmes and ask him to help her find the famous Elfenstone Emerald. Apparently, the stone was lifted from her wall safe and the joke is that all of the planted clues identify Holmes as the thief, but, after they all had a laugh at his expense, the stone vanishes for real – and he has to figure out who used the prank as a cover for the theft. You can probably guess the hiding place for the stone, but the real surprise is the secret identity of the thief.
I'm afraid I didn’t care for the third story, "The Case of the Amateur Mendicants," in which Watson is called upon by a woman, "dressed in rags and tatters," who, in a surprisingly cultured voice, assures she came on "a matter of life and death." So he allows her to bring him to a luxuriously furnished basement, strangely filled with dirty looking beggars, where he's shown a dead man with a broken neck. However, the people there are opposed to his presence and he quickly takes his leave, but, alongside Holmes, returns to that basement and uncovers a dark conspiracy that could endanger the whole of England. A story with an interesting premise, but I was impressed with the resolution of the plot.
Luckily, the fourth entry, "The Adventure of the Out-of-Date Murder," turned out to be one of my favorite stories from this collection. Holmes has been overworking himself and Watson senses "an attack of nerves and total breakdown approaching," which makes him decide to pull his friend out of his private laboratory for a holiday in Eastbourne. Both men decide to meet up with an old acquaintance, Professor Whitnell, who recently garnered fame with the discovery of a network of underground caverns – saturated with "a heavy deposit of lime" that have "the property of rapidly mummifying any flesh," human or animal, "deposited in them." What they find in them pertains to several men who went missing in the area over the past two-or three hundred years. I love archeological mysteries and this story should have been adapted for the Jeremy Brett TV-series.
The next story, "The Case of the Demon Barber," has a theatrical background and concerns a well-known actor, Mark Humphries, who is playing the lead role in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, but now fears the personality of Sweeney Todd has taken possession of his subconscious. Several times, he has woken up to find that his boots were caked with mud and his razorblade stained with blood. A good and tantalizing premise, but the attraction of the plot is mainly derived from using the tale of Sweeney Todd as a template and Holmes taking over the role from Humphries – after he apparently committed suicide in his dressing room.
In "Murder Beyond the Mountains," Holmes finally tells Watson about one of his many adventures in Tibet, which read like one of Glyn Carr's mountaineering mysteries as perceived by Robert van Gulik.
Holmes is braving the harsh conditions of the Tibetan mountains, as Olaf Sigerson, in the hope of getting permission at the monastery of Puncha-Pushpah to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa, but his traveling party and equipment gets obliterated in an avalanche – wandering delirious in the white, desolate mountains of Tibet. Luckily, he's saved by an American missionary, Miss Farley, who travels with him to the monastery and they're joined by a Russian envoy, Borodin. All of them seek permission to enter the forbidden city, but the Chinese emissary, Wah-tzun, refuses to give permission. So, before long, Holmes has to investigate the murder of the emissary, which is a relatively simple affair. The main strength here definitely lies in the backdrop of the story.
The following story, "The Case of the Uneasy Easy Chair," provides the collection with its first or three (borderline) impossible crime stories, which is brought to Holmes and Watson by a young woman, Miss Harriet Irvin. Her father, Sir Edward Irvin, was stabbed to death in his study and "the only entrance to the study through an anteroom," but that room was occupied by his secretary, Robert Binyon, who "swore that no one had entered or left the study." The problem is that Sir Edward was strongly opposed to the blossoming love between his daughter and secretary, which provided the young man with both a motive and opportunity. So the police arrested him on suspicion of murder. Well, the how-aspect of the crime is easily solved, but whodunit-angle had a small surprise that showed even Holmes was prone to misjudging a situation.
Initially, I really wanted to like the next story, "The Case of the Baconian Cipher," but ended up not caring for it. Holmes is engaged in a discussion with a French colleague and friendly rival, Francois la Villard, who asserts that "the English criminal is a very dull dog" and in order to prove him wrong Holmes introduces him to The Agony Column – which is "liable to contain anything from a lover’s frantic appeal" to "a ransom note." Immediately, they find a coded message that could be a call for help and this lead them to a house where a wheel chair bound man might be in mortal danger. But the only interesting aspect of the plot is Mycroft Holmes' off-page cameo and how this affected the events in the story.
The next story, "The Case of the Headless Monk," is a very atmospheric, Carrian tale that offered a borderline impossible crime to Holmes and Watson. A restless Holmes and Watson are bound to their rooms in Baker Street by a thick, impenetrable mist that drowned the city of London for the better part of a week, but rescue came when they received a visit from Mortimer Harley – a specialist in the supernatural. Harley has been presented with a rare opportunity to investigate one of Cornwall's legendary ghosts, the Headless Monk of Trevenice Chapel, which has recently become very active again. The specialist of the supernatural wants to know whether the phenomena is genuine or driven by human agency, in which case it's a problem for someone like Holmes.
Holmes and Watson gratefully accept this unusual invitation to escape from foggy London and accompany him to Cornwall, but they are unable to prevent a deadly stabbing in the disused and closely watched chapel. However, the explanation for the semi-impossible circumstances of the murder will be considered a cheat by many readers, but, technically, the witness did not lie. I still kind of liked the story. But, yes, I recognize that these type of plots have been done better and far more competent than this. So keep that mind when you read it for yourself.
The plot of "The Case of the Camberwell Poisoners" began as a classic tontine-scheme: Edmund Lovelace comes to Baker Street to ask Holmes if wants to save four lives. Lovelace lives with four cousins in an old house in Camberwall, which was left to them by their grandfather, but the place and a sizable fortune came to them under the sole condition that they "live together and maintain the family unit" – everything will eventually go to the last surviving cousin. The problem arose with his cousin Gerald, administrator of the estate, who was found to be in possession of cyanide-filled syringe, but upon their arrival in Camberwall it becomes apparent that the story was going to be one of human interest. One with a rather obvious explanation. But not too bad of a story.
The next story, "The Adventure of the Iron Box," is a fine and fun yarn, which is definitely one of the highlights from this collection. An old friend, Sir Walter Dunbar, invites Dr. Watson to spend the New Year's Eve at Dunbar Castle in Scotland. Of course, Holmes accompanies him there. Sir Walter has a very special reason for inviting his friend and personal chronicler of Europe's most celebrated detective. The late father of the current lair of the castle, Sir Thomas Dunbar, returned severely wounded from the battle of Waterloo and left his unborn child an iron box filled with gold, but there was a condition attached to this legacy: the box was to be given to his son on New Year's Eve before his twenty-first birthday.
There is, however, one snag that Sir Thomas did not foresee on his deathbed: his son was born on February 29th, which made him a "leapling" and therefore had to wait for over eight decades before to finally come into his inheritance. Unfortunately, Holmes has to play the specter at the feast and informs everyone that, due to a technicality, 1900 is not going to be a leap year. So the old Lord has to wait another four years. As to be expected, this casts a shadow over the proceedings and leads to the unsettling discovery that Sir Walter has disappeared. It's a very Ellery Queen-ish story (c.f. "The Mad Tea Party" from The Adventures of Ellery Queen, 1933) and another example of a plot that would have lent itself perfectly for a television adaptation.
The next story, "The Case of the Girl with the Gazelle," is the last of the three locked room stories from this collection, which has the ominous presence of Moriarty hanging over the case of a stolen painting. In the opening of the story, the reader is informed that illustrious Napoleon of Crime has particular love for the paintings of Jean Baptiste Greuze and his hand is clearly at work when an authority on the work of that famous painter vanishes from his hotel room in London – which puts Holmes and Watson on the trail of recently purchased work by Greuze. Sir Henry Davenant paid a small fortune for the titular painting and has safely stored away in a small, steel-walled strong room equipped with a combination-and time lock, but, somehow, someone managed to switch the real painting for a fake.
The explanation for the theft from the secured strong room is almost disappointingly simple, but it is very workable and its simplicity nearly fooled Holmes. As a result, this nearly ended in a tie between Holmes and Moriarty, but I think round should go to Holmes – because he prevented the theft of the painting. All in all, a pretty nice and fun little story.
Finally, "The Adventure of the Notorious Canary Trainer" began as a messy story as Holmes and Watson, during a holiday, are confronted with a young woman who's being stalked by a man she is trying to escape from, but this man turns out to be attached to the Foreign Office and knows Mycroft Holmes. A second plot-strand involves Wilson, the notorious canary trainer, who Holmes had sent to prison in 1895, but he escaped and since then he has apparently assumed the identity of a Mr. Wilson. However, when he notices Holmes he confesses to a murder at the inn and commits suicide in front of Holmes and Watson, but nobody is aware anyone had died at the inn. Let alone murdered. Here the plot begins to become a bit clearer and the suicide of Wilson proves to be a cleverly disguised story. So a decent story to round out this collection.
I should also note that Watson meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in this story and Holmes reveals he has collaborated with Dr. John Thorndyke in R. Austin Freeman's The Red Thumbmark (1907), which was a nice touch and nod.
So, all in all, a nice and pleasant collection of short stories, which may not be overflowing with stone-cold classics, but a fun bundle of stories nonetheless and that's coming from someone who usually hates (Holmesian) pastiches. I'm often annoyed at the liberties some writers take with someone else's creation, but this was an obvious labor of love and that makes every minor inconsistency in the characters or canon somewhat easier to forgive. Anyhow, recommended to everyone who loves Sherlock Holmes and Basil Rathbone's interpretation of the famous detective.
Well, I completely failed to keep this review as short as possible. Oh well. I just hope this blog-post was not too much of a mess and I'll try to keep somewhat shorter for the next post.