The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes by Jonathan Barnes

Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes, The coverOnce upon a time, Sherlock Holmes made a dreadful mistake. It caused him to retreat from almost all human contact, spending years of his life keeping bees on the Sussex Downs. The mistake (as referred to in the previous audio adventure, The Adventure Of The Perfidious Mariner) cost a number of lives and Holmes never forgave himself for it. But what exactly was that mistake? And are the repercussions of it actually over?

Four linked audio plays from different  eras in Holmes’ life – from before he meets Watson to after His Last Bow. Starring Nicholas Briggs as Holmes and Richard Earl as Watson and written by Jonathan Barnes, this is one of the most ambitious Sherlock Holmes stories that I’ve ever read/heard. But does it work?

Big Finish have produced a number of Sherlock Holmes audio plays staring Briggs and Earl to date. Some based on the actual canon –  The Final Problem/The Empty House and The Hound Of The Baskervilles; some intended to fit into the canon – The Reification of Hans Gerber and The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner; and some that are a little bit more out there – Holmes and the Ripper and The Tangled Skein (Holmes vs Dracula).

Guttering Candle, The coverThis fits into the second category – intended to be a faithful addition to the canon. Indeed, Jonathan Barnes has taken the opportunity to fill in a couple of gaps – the first meeting between Holmes and Lestrade, for example – and to clarify a few issues – apart from the story of Holmes’ retirement, there’s also the matter of the number of Watson’s wives that is cleared up.

But that sort of thing probably turns up in a load of pastiches and fan fiction – what about the stories?

Adventure of the Gamekeeper's Folly, The cover

In order, The Guttering Candle deals with Holmes’ first meeting with Lestrade (John Banks) as he investigates the mysterious death of a man found at the riverside while John Watson relates an experience in Afghanistan, meeting a dying British man guarded by a tribe of native Afghans. The next tale, The Adventure of the Gamekeeper’s Folly, is set soon after Holmes’ return. The gamekeeper of an estate in Norfolk asks for Holmes’ help in the mysterious re-appearance of his daughter. Holmes decides that while the case intrigues him, it does not require his immediate attention… In The Adventure of the Bermondsey Cutthroats, set late in Holmes’ London career, a sequence of apparently random throat slashings lead directly to Holmes himself. And in The Sowers of Despair, set after His Last Bow, an elderly Holmes and Watson head to eastern Europe in pursuit of Mrs Edgar Curbishley, their nemesis from The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner, only to find there is far more lurking in the shadows. And all the while, a mysterious blue flower reappears…

Well, I’m no expert on Holmes – hence the infrequent Sherlockian shorts – but these feel like Conan Doyle to me. They’re gripping, thrilling tales and the links between the tales are extremely well done and are full of surprises. The twists in the final disc, in particular, are very well done, although it is at this point that some listeners may feel that it is perhaps a little too fantastic. Didn’t bother me though, because it was so well done.

Adventure of the Bermondsey Cutthroats, The cover

The performances are outs

tanding as ever. Nicholas Briggs is a driven but likeable Holmes and Richard Earl a loyal and intelligent Watson. I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the things that impresses me about this pairing is that you can see why Holmes and Watson are loyal friends – not something that I’ve particularly sensed from other pairings. The leads do a good job of aging their voices from play to play – there are, after all, nearly forty years between discs 1 and 4. The supporting cast are superb too. Special mentions need to be made of Tracey Childs, reprising her villainy as Mrs Edgar Curbishley, and… for the person playing the villain of the piece, who I won’t spoil, but is a world away from the character that I am most familiar with them playing, and is totally chilling in the role.

Sowers of Despair, The cover

One caveat – knowing the events of The Perfidious Mariner, also by Jonathan Barnes, adds more depth to the story. In fact I listened to it between the third and fourth instalments and it fits in perfectly.

Big Finish produce a variety of audio plays in a variety of ranges which are always never less than entertaining. But this Sherlock Holmes set is one of the finest things that they have produced. Highly Recommended and let’s hope there are more coming soon.

I bought this myself – you can get their plays a little cheaper from if you pre-order, but that’s a bit late now for this one. It’s still worth every penny though.


  1. Terrific review Steve – you beat me to it by a matter of days as I’m posting mine on Tuesday but I couldn’t agree more – Barnes, Briggs, Earl and Big Finish all deserve a rousing cheer and let’s hope there will be lots more. I particularly likes the dovetailing with Mariner and the answer to why he retired to Sussex and his bees …


    • I actually listened to Mariner again between parts 3 and 4. Apart from the lack of blue flowers, it fits there perfectly.

      Forgot to mention the bizarre epilogue after the music on part 4 – not sure how that’s going to be followed up on? Dorian Gray perhaps?


  2. Aaaand I’ve been beaten to the punch again.

    I’d say these stories are very much like Conan Doyle… that is, the Conan Doyle who came up with Professor Challenger and the lost world and the poison belt and that fun stuff. This was cheerfully outlandish, especially that last episode. The blue flower in particular was a deliciously silly plot element. In a good way – I’m glad I pre-ordered this one.

    I might do a full review of the series, but to be honest, with you and Sergio doing them so close together already, I don’t think it’s a top priority…


    • The fantastic element is noticeably absent from the Holmes stories though, so it was slightly odd something that had chosen to try and fit so well into the canon decided to use it. Not that it bothered me, as I said, but I can see how it could bother some.

      And the more reviews the merrier. The better the reaction, the quicker we get more…


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