Will the real Sherlock Holmes please stand up?
The craze for all things Sherlock Holmes continues. Commissioning editors of every stripe seemingly can’t get enough of lamp-lit fog and frock coats. When Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman aren’t dressing the tales in modern trousers, there’s the second Guy Ritchie film in the offing and, lest we forget, Anthony Horowitz’s new Holmes novel, The House of Silk, is out in a matter of days. And now radio is muscling in on the action.
Well, almost. The Rivals (sadly nothing to do with the Sheridan play), a new four-part series on Radio 4, features Holmes in absentia. Instead, it focuses on other cranky Victorian/Edwardian sleuths cruelly denied much spotlight thanks to Sherlock’s pipe-smoking antics. The mastermind gluing these also-rans together is none other than Inspector Lestrade, the dolt of the Holmes stories who is forever twirling his forelock while the dots are joined around him; a perfect foil, then, to ritzier names. And there are plenty of them. As Lestrade laments in the first episode: ‘Always Holmes, always him. What about the others?’
The first rival last week was Auguste Dupin, the creation of Edgar Allan Poe, a suitable heavyweight to open the series and gateway to a ripsnorter of a tale, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. By inspired confection, we caught Inspector Lestrade in his early years, an apprentice hack rather than a crime-buster, loafing around Paris looking for a place to stay and stumbling upon Dupin as a landlord. Lestrade thus finds an excuse to audit genius, watching Dupin use his enviable powers of ‘deductive thought’ to solve the famously bizarre case involving shaving, old ladies, decapitated heads, a chimney and an orangutan. The similarities in technique between Holmes and Dupin, plus the snootily dismissive tone and fruity accent, added further layers of interest for anoraks of the genre. Throughout Lestrade worked as the Watson figure, a foil to the mercurial wonderworks of his companion, and making sure the shadowy potential of the first-person voice wasn’t lost in a generalized morass of invention.
Wednesday’s second episode dramatized a story slightly later in the canon of crime fiction, Jacque Futrelle’s ‘The Problem of Cell 13’ featuring the felicitously named Professor SFX Van Dusen. The premise of the story was enthralling simple: the Prof voluntarily submits to being locked in a cell and challenged to escape. He does so by some capering of the first order, with shoe polish alchemized into ink, a judicious use of nitric acid, notes delivered on the back of rats and other such schoolboy roguery. The combination of the great story with the added ornament of Lestrade’s involvement made for a blissful half hour, both clever and finicky yet sauced with a good deal of gaudy entertainment.
As with the Holmes stories, the enjoyment rests in the atmosphere conjured rather than the structural complexity of each work, brought about through a tasteful rejigging of historical detail to conform to the chronology of Lestrade. Thus the first episode bristled with the spooky bric-a-brac of late Victoriana: the tick of grandfather clocks, the tinkle of whisky glasses, talk of pigeon pie and eerily tuneful church bells. The streets of Paris were evoked by chirpy snatches of music and the exotic intrigue of the tales stressed at every opportunity. This was no piffling fistfight, but ‘something altogether irreconcilable with our common notions of human action’. The second followed in tone, relishing the chug of the steam train, the atmospherics of coaches crunching gravel and horses neighing portentously. The premise of the series is exquisite, ditto the execution thus far. Definitely worth iPlayering if you have a spare half hour. Next week’s episode dramatizes ‘Murder by Proxy’ by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin.Tagged in: Auguste Dupin, bbc, radio 4, sherlock holmes, the rivals, tv&radio
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