What fictional character has been portrayed most often in film? Tarzan? James Bond? Adam Sandler? Sherlock Holmes, the great 18th century fictional detective holds that title by a landslide. More than 75 different actors have portrayed Holmes, in well over 200 movies.
Holmes was the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an author of novels, short stories and poetry from Scotland. Born in 1859, Conan Doyle led a very interesting life. He was many things including a student of medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where some of his fellow classmates included Robert Louis Stevenson and James Barrie. He served as a ship’s physician on the West African coast and practiced medicine in Plymouth. His talent for storytelling, which was nurtured by his mother, began to surface as he began to write as a sideline to his doctoring. After a near death experience he left the medical practice entirely to write full time. A more complete (but still brief) biography can be found here and here. Although a very prolific writer, with many novels including historical books, mysteries, war stories and even other literary heroes like Professor Challenger, Conan Doyle will always be remembered chiefly for Sherlock Holmes.
That would probably not make Conan Doyle very happy. He is famous for his disenchantment and dislike for the Holmes character, with many legends saying he hated Holmes. He has been credited as saying the felt the Holmes stories to be commercial trash, taking time away from his more important works. He tried to kill Holmes off at one point, only to have to acquiesce to a demanding public and resurrect him for further adventures. Most of the Holmes stories were published in a British magazine called The Strand, and the great detectives adventure’s were a smash success both in Europe and America. Conan Doyle wrote 60 Holmes stories in all, 56 short stories and four novels. The first, in which Holmes and Dr. John Watson meet and have their first adventure, was published in 1887 and called A Study in Scarlet. In 1893 the short story The Final Problem, in which Holmes dies going over Reichenbach Falls with his mortal enemy, Professor Moriarty, appeared in The Strand. Legend has it 20,000 angry subscribers canceled their subscriptions as a result. After his return Conan Doyle continued his Holmes work until the final story of The Retired Colourman in 1926. Conan Doyle died in 1930.
I’ve got a great number of the Holmes mysteries on audiobook, and lately I’ve been listening to them while working in the studio. Like in the movies, the Holmes stories have been published in countless editions and compilations. The novels, A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear often appear separate but are also found in various compilations, often abridged. The complete original 60 Conan Doyle stories can be found in print in the four novels and five collections: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately for the audiobook listener it’s not that easy. Collections like A Treasury of Sherlock Holmes and The Sherlock Holmes Collection seem to throw the stories in with no rhyme or reason, often even repeating the same story amid different volumes of the same collection. In 2004, a company called “One Voice Recordings” produced The Sherlock Holmes Collection on audiobook, with narrator David Ian Davies. Davies does an excellent job with Holmes and Watson as well as the other characters. You would think recordings produced in 2004 would be of good quality, but some sound like very old radio broadcasts… tinny and hollow (not Ian Davie’s readings, they are quite well produced, but others), with many obvious dubs where the character voices change dramatically in mid narrative. The audio seems to speed up and slow down here and there as well. Very distracting. Someone need to produce a complete, chronological Sherlock Holmes collection on audiobook, with good quality recordings.
That aside, the Conan Doyle stories hold up remarkably well for many being over 100 years old. The mysteries are not dated and many could still be imagined to happen in some form or fashion today. So inventive and innovative was Conan Doyle’s Holmes that he, along with Edgar Allen Poe‘s character Dupin, changed crime literature forever. It’s a treat to listen to the stories, and they are mostly short and easy therefore to stop and pick up again later.
It’s easy for me to believe Conan Doyle detested Holmes and felt he was a chain around his neck, as there are many indications in his stories that he wanted to end the tales. In the very first story he wrote he married off Watson at the end, and portrayed Holmes as an egotistical jerk looking mainly to make money with his skills. Later Holmes would become more the selfless hero, but in the beginning he was selfish and seeking fame and fortune. Clearly Conan Doyle did not mean there to be continuing adventures. Even after he killed Holmes off and brought him back, there were lot of signs he did not want to continue with the character. He wrote several stories where Holmes had left London and was retired in the country raising bees… trying to put him to pasture. He also tried to distance himself in the novel The Valley of Fear, where a great deal of the story doesn’t concern Holmes at all, but is more in the line of his historical type stories, much to the chagrin of his readers. While still worth reading (or listening to), these later stories don’t have the same exciting grip as the ones where Holmes and Watson languish in 221B Baker Street, solving the puzzles of the world from armchairs amid clouds of tobacco, occasionally sallying forth to catch the scoundrels and villains of London red-handed by gaslight.
Sadly I cannot recommend any specific audiobooks of Holmes’ adventure, as I have not found any with the production values and organization worth recommending. I DO recommend the stories, however. Timeless and enjoyable.
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