It has been four months since the Titanic sank in April 1912. J. Bruce Ismay, the former director of the White Star Line and a survivor of the disaster is haunted by his guilt. Everyone points the finger of blame at him for taking a place in a lifeboat leaving the ship, including one Doctor John Watson, whose wife was a victim of the tragedy.
But darker forces are also haunting Ismay. He has been seeing glimpses of a spectral woman, soaking wet and covered in seaweed. And people around him are beginning to die – their bodies found in a puddle of salt-water with seaweed draped over them as well. Ismay’s only hope is an estranged ex-colleague of John Watson, who now lives in Surrey tending his bee-hives. A certain Mr Sherlock Holmes.
For a while, Big Finish Productions have been producing audio dramatisations of Sherlock Holmes adventures, both classic and original. So how does this latest story, written by novelist Jonathan Barnes, measure up?
But let’s address the elephant in the room first – the Titanic. It seems at the moment, everywhere you turn, there is something commemorating the sinking of the Titanic. From worthy documentaries, to a money-grabbing re-release of a certain film, to events such as a film-screening in a swimming-pool, with the audience in period dress watching it from lifeboats – seriously, check out the picture here, it’s all over the place. And most of it is pretty disrespectful, to me at least, to the people who died in the tragedy. For some reason, the deaths of 1514 people has become more romantic than tragic, and that seems wrong to me.
I decided to get this based on the quality of the previous Big Finish Holmes stories – and the fact that while it was designed to commemorate the disaster, it was clear from the interviews that I had heard beforehand, the issue of doing it appropriately was one that was taken seriously. And I was pleased to discover that this is the case. Indeed, it takes one popular myth – namely that Ismay forced his way into a lifeboat – and tries to tell a different side to the story.
But it’s not just about the Titanic. Barnes is well-versed in Holmesian lore as well. This is set before The Last Bow – indeed, there is a link to that story – and it seems that Holmes and Watson have not spoken for some years. Holmes is given a reason (albeit a nebulous one) for his retirement and as the story begins, we see the first meeting of the former friends in a long time. Both of the characters have real depth to them. Richard Earl is always outstanding as Watson, but I think that this is the best performance yet from Nicholas Briggs as Holmes. As I described it in my review of The Final Problem, this is a version of Holmes that makes me see why people actually like him – he has a humanity to him that is often lost in other performances. There is a lovely touch throughout the play in how Holmes addresses Watson… but that counts as a spoiler, but do listen out for it, as well as the nature of how the story is being told.
The other actors also excel themselves, in particular the wonderful Michael Maloney as Ismay, and they are abetted by some excellent writing that could have come from the pen of Doyle himself. It just feels right.
Plotwise, it races along. It’s only in hindsight that you realise that it’s actually quite slight, with some slightly bonkers science involved in the method of murder. But the atmosphere masks any plot shortcomings wonderfully and it keeps your attention throughout.
If I had to quibble, there is a very odd last scene, which is a nod to another story, but it does give an alternative motive to the murderer, which is a shame, as the earlier one was much more effective. I understand why the scene is there, but for the non-Holmes completist, it’s worth pointing out that the ending isn’t a cliff-hanger for the next audio story – just listen to the extras on the disc, they explain everything.
Anyway, highly recommended – it’s available on the Big Finish website, along with their other Holmes stories. More reviews of them will be forthcoming.