In one of my earliest posts, my Hercule Poirot Top Five, I mentioned that I didn’t count Sherlock Holmes among the classic detectives – a nonsense statement in hindsight, but I thought it was way past time I visited the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so, just to be awkward, I thought I’d start at the (sort of) end, rather than the beginning.
I know this is supposed to be a spoiler free review but I can’t avoid discussing the ending of The Final Problem. It’s only a short story anyway, so if I don’t mention the important bit at the end, there’s not much to talk about. But on the off-chance you don’t know what happens at the Reichenbach Falls, look away now.
The reason that I thought I’d look at this story is that I’ve just received my copy of the Big Finish Productions version of the story – a two disc performance with The Empty House on the second disc. As this claims to be a faithful adaptation, I thought I’d do a comparison. So, in the blue corner – the short story itself. In the red corner – the audio. In the green corner (this is a triangle) the TV production starring Jeremy Brett.
The Short Story
The story appears as the final story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. As you may well know, the Holmes short stories are narrated by Watson – as such you get insight into Watson’s thoughts. What is perhaps missing here is an insight into Watson’s feelings, but this is due to the nature of the piece he is writing. In the opening sequence, he writes that he is only detailing this case to correct falsehoods being put about by Moriarty’s brother in the national press – and as such, a primarily factual account is what would be produced. The story opens with Holmes appearing in Watson’s house (Watson is married at this point) after being pursued by some of Moriarty’s gang of villains. After relating a meeting with “The Napoleon of Crime”, Holmes drags Watson to Europe to hide out while the trial of Moriarty and his gang takes place. Needless to say, Moriarty escapes the law and pursues Holmes to Switzerland and, after Watson is lured away, they have their final confrontation at the Falls.
It’s well known that Doyle was fed up with Holmes, but it is notable that his death is ambiguous. One fact in this story is re-written years later in the sequel, The Empty House, but that concerns Baker Street being burnt, rather than the set-up of Holmes’ “death”. Doyle clearly leaves the door open for Holmes to return. You may incapacitate the golden goose, but you don’t kill it completely…
I have to say it though… as enjoyable as this story is, it’s not a detective story, it’s a story about a detective. This is the thing that I’ve found with my infrequent dips into the canon of Holmes. There isn’t a hint of mystery in the events herein – that’s its only failing in my eyes, but going into it knowing this, I did enjoy the story a lot.
Nicholas Briggs stars as Holmes with Richard Earl as Watson. No, that’s the wrong way round. Earl stars as Watson, with Briggs as Holmes. The only other cast member (as befits the story) is Alan Cox (Watson in Young Sherlock Holmes) as Moriarty. In the interviews at the end of the CD, Briggs, who also adapted it, says that all he basically did was cross out the “he said” phrases from the story, so it’s basically narrated by Watson with the scenes featuring two characters being performed as dialogue.
So what is the point of such a version – not a dramatisation per se, but more than just a reading. Well, the thing that it added for me was Watson’s emotion. He is basically reading out what he is writing (note the scratching of the pen in the background at times) but this is someone who has lost his friend and, against his will, is being made to write about it. Earl is superb as Watson, carrying the bulk of the dialogue, but this is a real performance that I felt enhanced the story beyond simple narration. Briggs’ Holmes is one of the few performances that I’ve seen where I could actually believe that he and Watson are friends. He’s a much more human Holmes, without sacrificing any of Holmes’ arrogance. You can see why Watson would be so upset at losing this friend. This isn’t always the case as… well, we’ll come to that in minute. Cox as Moriarty is rather wonderful, very understated but dangerous all the same. It is a shame that he only appears in one scene, but as I said, this is a faithful adaptation. This is a superb audio which takes the original story and enhances it by the quality of the performances. I will admit it, the ending brought a tear to my eye.
The TV Series
I don’t like Jeremy Brett’s performance – I know that’s sacrilege but never mind. He emphasises all of Holmes’ unpleasant traits and goodness only knows why Watson is his friend. David Burke’s Watson is a pretty traditional performance, although he’s not the idiot that Watson is sometimes portrayed as. He does what he can with the material but due to that fact that the majority of it is played out in the past – only the very beginning and end are in the present, the emotion isn’t there. Eric Porter has the role of Moriarty but… basically he plays him as the Hooded Claw from The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. Oh dear.
As for the adaptation, it’s less that faithful. After an introduction of several fairly badly filmed attempts on Holmes’ life, the first third is taken up with Holmes relating how he stopped Moriarty’s plan to steal the Mona Lisa. Then it becomes faithful to the story (although it adds an odd line saying that Moriarty was behind The Red-Headed League) before the conclusion at the Falls.
Putting aside Watson spotting someone who is clearly Moriarty (still wearing his top hat and cape!) climbing up towards where he left Holmes, but still leaving Holmes alone, we come to the confrontation, and as this is TV, you basically have to show it. I presume that the fight at the Falls is Watson assuming what happened – the fight is pretty poor, mostly wrestling and face pulling, but the fall (where we see BOTH protagonists go over the edge) is well shot, although points off for the bodies landing on the ground, rather than in the water. We then cut to Watson finishing off the story straight to camera, which is also odd.
So, opinions of this? Too much bad outweighing the good, I’m afraid.
Well, of the three, I’d have to go for the Big Finish Audio, closely followed by the story itself.
I was impressed with the quality of the writing of the story, so in the future, I will be dipping in and out, pretty much at random, for some quick reviews of the stories – primarily the later ones, as these are the ones that I haven’t read before. I’ve never read the stories thoroughly, due to the fact that they never seemed to be actual mysteries which are, obviously, what I’m looking for. But it does seem to be a little churlish to ignore the character who is seen as the archetypal detective. So, I’ll finish with a request – what are the very best Sherlock Holmes short stories?