Here’s a quiz to test how much you know about the great consulting Detective and all things associated with him and his creator. Click the image below to make a start.
In a sappingly hot Indian Summer in central London, Dr John Watson is sent – by a relative he hardly remembers – a mysterious tin box which has no key, and no apparent means by which it can be opened. Watson and his companion Sherlock Holmes have become temporarily estranged, not because of any particular antipathy, but more because the investigations which have brought them so memorably together have dwindled to a big fat zero.
But then, in the space of a few hours, Watson shows his mysterious box to his house-mate, and the door of 221B Baker Street opens to admit two very different visitors. One is a young Roman Catholic novice priest from Cambridge who is worried about the disappearance of a young woman he has an interest in, and the second is a voluptuous conjuror’s assistant with a very intriguing tale to tell. The conjuror’s assistant, Madam Ilaria Borelli is married to one stage magician, Dario ‘The Great’ Borelli, but is the former lover of his bitter rival, Santo Colangelo. Are the two showmen trying to kill each other for the love of Ilaria? Have they doctored each other’s stage apparatus to bring about disastrous conclusions to their separate performances?
As for the missing young woman, Odile ‘Dilly’ Wyndham, she is only ‘missing’ because she has a pied-à-terre, unknown to her parents, where she can flirt with her admirers to her heart’s content, and it transpires that the thoughts of the young priest-in-waiting are not wholly as pure as the waft of incense. Was he responsible for the doll found on Jesus Lock footbridge, dressed to look like Dilly, but with its arm wrenched off?
As an aside, this tale has Holmes and Watson as younger men, perhaps in their thirties. MacBird includes all the standard tropes – Watson’s bemused geniality and stiff upper lip, Holmes’s mood swings and reliance on cocaine when life becomes too dull, and even the stern but maternal presence of Mrs Hudson.
Much of the action takes place in Cambridge, and it is there that the murder which occupies much of the book is committed. MacBird does a fine job of keeping the two strands of the plot – the warring conjurors, and the love life of Dilly Wyndham – running together side-by-side, and she shows us some magic of her own by bringing them together by the end . Watson’s mysterious box? It does get opened eventually, and what it reveals is rather moving. Fans of the great detective will not be disappointed by The Three Locks – it has enough twists and surprises to satisfy even the sternest Holmesian.
Is ‘pastiche’ the right word for this book? Maybe ‘re-imagining’, or ‘tribute’ might be kinder. Whichever word we use, the central problem facing modern writers of Sherlock Holmes stories is that of length. Even the four full length canonical novels – A Study In Scarlet, The Sign of The Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear – are very short compared to modern books. The bulk of the Holmes canon are the short stories, which spark and fizz brilliantly for a few thousand words, and then are gone. Yes, short story writing is an art in itself (which very few have mastered) but maintaining pace and narrative drive for four hundred or more pages is a different challenge. A writer of a Holmes and Watson homage has to spin out every gesture, comment and impression which, in the originals, crackle and then are gone in a moment. I haven’t read the previous three MacBird Holmes novels, but The Three Locks works as well as most other novels in the genre, and certainly better than some. It is published by Collins Crime Club and is out on 1st April. If you click on the image below, it will take you to Bonnie MacBird’s website, and a very entertaining set of annotations linked to the novel.
The first, Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper, by ‘Ellery Queen’ was published in 1967. This was a novelisation of the screenplay of ‘A Study in Terror’, co-produced by Sir Nigel Films Limited, a company formed by the Estate to exploit Conan Doyle’s works on screen. The book added a framing story wherein Ellery Queen reads a manuscript (written by Dr Watson) which sets out the action shown in the film. Queen then applies his own detective skills to ascertain whether Holmes correctly identified the Ripper. The Ripper section of the book was the work of pulp writer Paul Fairman, and the Ellery Queen part by presumably ‘Ellery Queen’ himself. An early line of Dr Watson’s narrative reads:
“It was a crisp morning in the fall of the year 1888″:
A warning for American writers attempting this sort of thing.
I haven’t written one of my The Postman Delivers features for a while – because he hasn’t! I don’t know about other reviewers, but while my Kindle is pretty much bursting at the seams, print copies have been like hens’ teeth since The Great Lockdown began back in March.
But today a real book arrived, reassuringly solid, with a beautifully designed cover and actual pages to turn. The Mary Russell series, written by Laurie R. King, is apparently a big seller in the States, but although this is the sixteenth, the books have passed me by up until today.
It is 1925, and we are in the exotic and sun-soaked French Riviera and amateur detective Mary Russell is teamed up with the man himself, none other than Sherlock Holmes who must be fairly elderly by now!
What the pair get up to is, for now, a mystery, but I have bumped it to the top of my (mostly digital) TBR pile and when I have discovered what is going on, you will be the first to know.
Riviera Gold is published by Allison & Busby, and is out now.
The final five in my personal list of the best twenty five British TV detectives all have one thing in common, and it is that they were dominated by bravura performances from the lead characters. Of course the other twenty actors, Helen Mirren, George Baker, Rupert Davies et al were good – maybe even excellent – but these five were in a different league.
A big man, playing an outsize role – that was Robbie Coltrane’s portrayal of Eddie ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, the criminal psychologist whose astonishing powers of analysis gave him the nickname Cracker. Fitz smoked too much, drank too much, gambled way, way too much; in so many ways, especially for his long suffering wife (Barbara Flynn) and the police officers who employed him (Christopher Eccleston and Geraldine Somerville), the overweight and overbearing Scotsman simply was too much. Cracker was no Sunday evening show to snuggle up with; it was brutal, bleak and frequently uncomfortable viewing, featuring some genuinely disturbed and disturbing criminals, perhaps none more so than the truly frightful Albie Kinsella (Robert Carlyle). There were three series between 1993 and 1995, with two specials in 1996 and 2006. The series was set in Manchester, but the initial writing by Jimmy McGovern, and the inclusion of such actors as Ricky Tomlinson somehow gave the shows a Liverpool mood. This was never more evident than the episodes featuring the murderous Kinsella, who claimed that much of his rage was fuelled by the injustices which followed the Hillsborough disaster. There were moments of bitter humour, particularly in the exchanges between Fitz and some of the more unreconstructed coppers:
Jimmy Beck: Shall I tell you why I can’t stand lesbians?
Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald: Please.
Jimmy Beck: Queers are OK, as long as I don’t turn my back on you, you’re OK. Two queers doing it, that’s two women going spare. But two lesbians doing it, that’s two men going short.
Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald: You can tell he reads The Guardian can’t you?
Fictional detectives can be many things. Some are brutal, some are happily married with stable families, many are embittered, doing a difficult job despite personal heartbreak Few, however, have been poets. One such was Adam Dalgliesh. His creator, PD James not only made him a published and widely respected poet, but also gave him the highest police rank of all my chosen coppers – by the end of the novels he had risen to the rank of Commander in London’s Metropolitan Police. Of the fourteen Dalgliesh novels ten were filmed for ITV, each starring Roy Marsden ans the cerebral detective. Two other novels, Death In Holy Orders and The Murder Room were commissioned by the BBC with Martin Shaw playing Dalgliesh. Marsden was perfect as the slightly old fashioned gentleman detective who, rather like Lord Peter Wimsey, was of independent means, thanks to his wealthy family. Tall, always beautifully dressed and with a studied elegance almost out of keeping with the often brutal deaths he had to investigate, he was a compelling screen presence. Dalgliesh does have romantic relationships with women, but they are usually on his own terms, and characterised by his reluctance to commit himself fully. Althouh the TV adapatations were not always resolutely faithful to the novels, they still retained the original elegance and sense that we were engaging with something rather more profound that a crime fiction potboiler. The series began with Death Of An Expert Witness in 1983 and concluded with A Certain Justice in 1998.
Another suave and quietly spoken detective graced our screens across eight series between 2002 and 2015. Foyle’s War had the benefit of being almost exclusively written by its creator Anthony Horowitz, and the continuity of tone and atmosphere was almost tangible. Michael Kitchen played Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, a policeman operating on the south coast of England during WWII. He is a Great War veteran, a widower, and has a son serving as a pilot in the RAF. Wartime England was not a tranquil oasis of plucky folk all pulling together, keeping calm and ‘carrying on’. Regular criminals rejoiced in the police losing manpower to the armed services and relished the blackout regulations. A new breed of villain emerged – men and women who sought to exploit the stringent austerity regulations imposed by the wartime government. Sometimes Foyle finds these are relatively petty spivs, ‘Wholesale Suppliers’ like Private Walker of Dad’s Army, but on other occasions they are much higher up the food chain – factory bosses or high ranked civil servants. With the rather dour and troubled Sergeant Milner (Anthony Howell) at his side, and ferried everywhere by Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) with her ‘jolly hockey sticks’ charm, Foyle is frequently underestimated by the criminals he pursues, and often viwed with suspicion by his superiors, who suspect him of being a member of ‘the awkward squad’. The final two series saw the end of the war, and Foyle working for MI5, but Kitchen’s impeccable and understated screen presence never faltered. He had a superbly quizzical facial tic, something like a sideways grimace; when he produced that, we always knew that he knew he was being told lies, and it was only a matter of time before he upset the official apple-cart, and had the real crooks under lock and key.
I haven’t made it the basis of my long-deferred PhD thesis, so there is no peer-reviewed data, but there can be no fictional detective with as many stage and screen – and radio – impersonations as Sherlock Holmes. In my lifetime I can name Rathbone, Cushing, Wilmer, Hobbs, Merrison, Gielgud, Plummer, McKellen – and that’s without mentioning the times he was played for laughs, or modernised beyond the pale. Each of these gentlemen brought something different to the role, but for me the late Jeremy Brett will never be bettered. His untimely death in 1994 ended a series which began a decade earlier, but with forty two canonical stories completed his legacy is beyong compare. Why was he so good? Where to start! Purely physically, Brett had the dry and sometimes sardonic voice, the crisp and mannered delivery and the piercing stare. The raised eyebrow, the steepled fingertips and the eyes half-closed in contemplation were, of course, totally studied and practiced, but how effective they were. Brett was rarely called upon to demonstrate Holme’s skill as a pugilist, but nonetheless his movements gave the impression of a man of intense vitality and energy stored like a coiled spring. The wonderful production values did the series no harm at all, neither did the fact that several ‘A’ list actors graced the show with their presence, in particular Colin Jeavons as Lestrade, Eric Porter as Moriarty and Charles Gray as brother Mycroft. Watson? I think that such was Brett’s dominance that it didn’t matter too much who played Watson, and although David Burke and Edward Hardwicke put in perfectly adequate performances, neither would come to be mentioned in the same sense that we look back on Rathbone and Bruce, or Cushing and Stock. Jeremy Brett’s personal life was complex in the extreme, and his deteriorating health became a great challenge as the series reached its premature end. Perhaps it was this personal distress which made viewers of a different and more complex Holmes – a troubled man whose inner conflicts were hidden beneath the icy exterior.
And so to number one, the nonpareil. Some of my choices – or their positions in the ‘chart’ – will not have met with universal agreement, but that is fine. This, and any other ‘best of’ feature is never going to be based on irrefutable data, or numbers, or scientific evaluation. It’s all about emotional impact, memory, and whichever heart-strings are tugged. I was pointed in the direction of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels when I was an earnest young teacher at a posh preparatory school back in the mid 1970s. Last Bus To Woodstock was still relatively hot off the press and – thank God for public libraries – I followed the progress of the quirky Oxford copper into the 1980s. When TV finally caught up with the reading public, and commissioned The Dead of Jericho, broadcast in January 1987, it was a revelation. In my mind’s eye I saw Morse as being a rather younger version of his creator, but here was a revelation. John Thaw was already a TV star, but gone was the brash violence, snarling cockney slang and horribly flared trousers of The Sweeney. Instead, we were shown a private, circumspect and conflicted man. Sometimes uncomfortable in company, but bolstered professionally – and sometimes personally – by the down-to-earth solidity of Sergeant Robbie Lewis, Morse was a genuine one-off. Apparently from a humble background, his intellect encompassed rattling through The Times crossword, a love of the divine music of Mozart and Wagner and a ‘cleverness’ which made him a constant irritant to Chief Superintendent Strange, memorably played by James Grout. This will be controversial, but I contend that John Thaw took the character of Colin Dexter’s Morse and shifted it from being simply memorable, to being immortal. A screen version better than the original book? I can already hear cries of ‘heretic!’, ‘burn him!’. Sorry, but I will approach my funeral pyre with my head held high. Thaw’s Morse will live for ever in my memory, whether cruising around the streets of Oxford in his blissful red Jaguar, or hunkered down over a decent pint trying to explain something to the slightly dim Lewis (beautifully imagined by Kevin Whately) or – most memorably, alone in his house with a glass of single malt in his hand, pondering the imponderable with, perhaps, Siegfried’s funeral music from Götterdämmerung playing in the background. Nothing will ever cap this for me and, for what it’s worth I can still hum every bar of Barrington Pheloung’s wonderful theme music to what was the best detective series ever broadcast on British television.
This look at how music features as a soundtrack to many crime fiction novels will ignore works which simply have song titles or lyrics as chapter headings, or books which mention various popular songs merely as a device to establish the authenticity of the era in which the action takes place. Also, we will largely leave alone the police procedurals of the maverick Detective Inspector type where the cop in question wears his musical taste not perhaps on his sleeve but certainly on the pages of the narrative. Much to the distaste of most of his colleagues, Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne has a penchant for country music, particularly the lonesome heartbreak of Hank Williams, while his Yorkshire counterpart Alan Banks veers in the more sophisticated direction of niche blues and jazz. Neither of these performs music, however, except perhaps humming along to something on the car music player.
While everyone is familiar with dear old Endeavour Morse, particularly in his John Thaw personification, glumly consoling himself with his precious recordings of Mozart and Wagner, he squeezes in as a performer of music only because of the TV adaptations. In the novel The Dead of Jericho (1981) he meets the soon-to-be-murdered Anne Scott at a party, but the TV version has them both as members of an Oxford choir.
Colin Dexter’s stories of the wonderful curmudgeon are among the widest read in the last quarter of the 20th century, but less well known are the Vienna-set novels of Frank Tallis featuring policeman Oskar Rheinhardt and his young pyschiatrist friend Dr Max Liebermann. The younger man often plays piano for Rheinhardt melodic baritone as they seek solace from the stresses and strains of catching murderers.
Not only are the pair devotees of their sublime fellow townsman Schubert, but Death And The Maiden (2011) actually features a walk-on part by none other than Gustave Mahler, as Liebermann and Rheinhardt track down the killer of a diva from The State Opera. Among other police officers and investigators who can do rather more than knock out a tune we must include James Patterson’s prolific profiler Alex Cross who, when the mood takes him, plays a mean jazz piano. The violin offers our own Sherlock Holmes a more healthy alternative stimulus to one, two or even three pipes of his favourite tobacco, or a syringe full of his opiate of choice. In A Study In Scarlet we learn:
In the next movement we will hear of the embittered intelligence operative who not only plays a mean Fender Stratocaster, but also owns a jazz/blues club in London.