Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review - "The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes"

The wait for Big Finish’s The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes has been grueling. Announced in April 2012, after the release of their last Sherlock Holmes audio, The Perfidious Mariner, fans of Big Finish and the great detective have been anxiously waiting. Writer Jonathon Barnes had said that this collection of four one-hour adventures would be an epic Sherlock Holmes adventure. Was this hype warranted? The answer: yes.

The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes was certainly one epic adventure spanning four decades, each representing a period in the great detective’s career. Though at first seemingly unrelated, the four adventures are in fact deeply intertwined, proving to be on Holmes’ most complex and remarkable mysteries. Though the four cases presented in this collection are connected, I will examine each one in turn as they can be viewed as separate entities. 

The first story presented in this collection is “The Guttering Candle.” Set in 1880, one year before Holmes met Dr. Watson, the audio actually presents us with two important events, which sets the ball in motion for the rest of the collection. Holmes (Nicholas Briggs), still a youthful and inexperienced detective makes the acquaintance of Inspector Lestrade for the first time as he embarks on a murder case. An unidentified man has been found on the banks of the Thames, and with the police at a loss, Holmes steps in to investigate. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Dr. Watson (Richard Earl) has been kidnapped and taken to a secluded cave where he meets a wounded man named Christopher Thrale. Thrale requests Watson’s medical assistance, but his wounds prove too substantial and he passes away. But before his death, Thrale asks Watson to take a seemingly innocuous package to London. Little does the good doctor know what terrible repercussions this shall have.

In my opinion, “The Guttering Candle” was probably the strongest story of the collection. It at once drew me into the story, presenting the listener with some excellent Sherlockian deductions and story-telling. The plot, though not the most complex of the collection, was engaging and very interesting, and it successfully established all of the plot threads which would become important to the story in its subsequent installments. Nicholas Briggs did an excellent job as a young Sherlock Holmes, still narcissistic with an air of vainglorious self-importance.  

The next installment is "The Adventure of the Gamekeeper's Folly," which is probably the most Doyle-esque story of the collection. Holmes is contacted by Jim Hinderclay (Ken Bones), a gamekeeper in a remote English village. Hinderclay has been distraught for years after his daughter vanished, travelling to London. Holmes believes that he has been charged with finding Hinderclay's long lost daughter, but the gamekeeper tells him otherwise - he wants to know the reason for her mysterious return from the city.

"The Gamekeeper's Folly" was again an excellent installment, this time set when the detective was at the height of his powers in 1895. The story is very mysterious, and as with the previous adventure drew me straight away. It is important to note that the connections between the stories become evident after listening to this adventure, yet the outcome of the problem was incredibly surprising and the first of many plot twists which Jonathon Barnes introduces in the stories. 

The third story entitled "The Adventure of the Bermondsey Cutthroats" is probably the collection's weakest. This is due to the fact that there is not much mystery to be had, and the events of the story play out much more like a thriller. Holmes and Watson are charged by Scotland Yard to investigate a rash of murders. Seven people have been brutally killed in seven days, each one of them having a connection to Holmes' work. When Watson nearly falls victim to the killers, Holmes will stop at nothing to bring them to book. 

As I noted above, this episode does not feature any whodunit aspects, so Holmes' detective work is severely limited. Nonetheless, "The Bermondsey Cutthroats" is a taught and suspenseful thriller, which even managed to deliver a shiver or two down the spine of this reviewer. It was as engrossing as its previous installments, but Sherlockian purists beware - a beloved canon figure does not emerge alive following the events of this episode, something which left a rather bad taste in my mouth.

Things were rectified by "The Sowers of Despair," the concluding story in the collection which tied up all the loose ends and established a clear link between the preceding three stories. Set in 1919, Holmes and Watson are involved in government business this time around as they discover something evil may be afoot in a newly established European country. Their suspicions are soon confirmed as the duo face an evil the likes of which they have never encountered before. 

"The Sowers of Despair" brilliantly wrapped up all of the plot threads which had so tantalized listeners. It delivered on a number of fronts, being both a nicely executed mystery and thriller. My only complaint would be how this final story delved a bit too deeply into the realm of science fiction - something for which even Arthur Conan Doyle was not entirely innocent. 

In all, The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes was an absolute pleasure to listen to. Never did a suspect that these four stories would craft such a tremendous story-arc with hints and clues presented all the while. Jonathon Barnes' assertion that The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes was an epic Sherlock Holmes story rung true. I give the collection 4.5 out of 5 stars, making it one of Big Finish's finest Sherlockian offerings. 

Notes: As an aside, this was my first foray into downloading from Big Finish's website. With the price of buying the collection of CD being too expensive and the likelihood of it appearing on iTunes in the near future, I sought out a way to download the collection from Big Finish's website. I am happy to report that this went rather well, making the chances of me downloading from their website in the future very high.

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