The Sound of Sherlock: Stephen Fry Voices the Master Sleuth7 min read

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This content was originally published by SIMON CALLOW on 17 May 2017 | 11:00 am.
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Twelve scenes from Holmes’s career.

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Sidney Paget/Culture Club, via Getty Images

SHERLOCK HOLMES
By Arthur Conan Doyle
Read by Stephen Fry
63 hours. Audible Studios

If any fictional character can be said to be immortal, it is Sherlock Holmes. Surviving his own author’s attempts to kill him, he has caught the imagination of each new generation, which has either faithfully continued to read his exploits in the original (sales have never flagged since the first novel, “A Study in Scarlet,” appeared in 1887) or updated him (the BBC’s “Sherlock” a notably successful version of this, but Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce did the same thing in 1942) or reinvented him, most entertainingly, perhaps, as Dr. Gregory House, in the eponymous series in which, for many seasons, Hugh Laurie played an irascible, drug-addicted surgeon of preternatural analytical penetration, solving apparently hopeless medical dilemmas. Almost from the beginning, too, other writers, eager to feed our insatiable appetite for his adventures, have written Sherlock Holmes stories set in the Victorian period, but engaging in unexpected encounters: In Nicholas Meyer’s spirited “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” Holmes, wrestling with the effects of his cocaine habit, seeks out Sigmund Freud; in Billy Wilder’s underrated “Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” he runs up against Queen Victoria. He also sometimes pops up in other people’s plays: I fondly recall a version of “The Cherry Orchard” in which Holmes was called in to investigate the drowning of Mme. Ranevskaya’s son (it turned out that the governess, Carlotta Ivanovna, was in fact the son, who never did drown).

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The reasons for Holmes’s enduring fascination are easy to understand. He restores logic to an unruly, disturbingly incomprehensible world. Initial chaos — the crime — appears to be without meaning. The great detective, inhumanly brilliant, makes sense of things again. As W. H. Auden remarked in his famous essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” “Holmes is the exceptional individual who is in a state of grace because he is a genius in whom scientific curiosity is raised to the status of a heroic passion.” We come to him like frightened children, in search of explanations. He will never fail us. At least in the realm of crime — though not in the territory of the human heart — he sheds light where there has previously only been darkness. He is clever Daddy, who leaves us reassured, able to sleep at night. But he is by no means perfect. Conan Doyle’s coup de maître, as Watson might say, is to make his hero a flawed man, prone to deep melancholia, liable to escape into cocaine- or opium-induced oblivion. He has the soul of an artist, as demonstrated in his violin playing: He is prepared to please Watson by knocking off some Mendelssohn or Wagner, but when left to himself, he “scrapes carelessly” at the fiddle thrown across his knee. Sometimes, Watson tells us, the chords were sonorous and melancholy, sometimes fantastic and cheery: obviously an avant-gardist at work. Holmes’s behavior, tut-tuts Watson, is bohemian: His papers are piled up higgledy-piggledy all over his rooms, he is entirely disorganized domestically, he is given to long bouts of brooding silence. Nothing that is not germane to his work as a consulting detective is allowed to clutter up his mind. He is indifferent to literature, knows little of history, and cosmology has no part in his intellectual framework. This, too, has endeared Holmes to his readers: The genius is vulnerable, his mental prowess bought at a cost. No doubt some doughty psycho-biographer has decreed that the great detective was bipolar, or autistic, or had Asperger’s syndrome.

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But does his vivid outline of a character really qualify Holmes, as Stephen Fry suggests in one of his forewords to this huge spoken omnium-gatherum of the stories and novels, as “one of the most rounded characters ever to have been realized”? He should, Fry proposes, be admitted into the pantheon of supreme literary figures, rubbing shoulders with Falstaff or Hamlet or Don Quixote. But these great personages seem to have an anarchic life of their own, constantly taking us by surprise and bursting out of the parameters of the works in which they find themselves. Whereas the pleasure of reading the Holmes stories is that they are entirely predictable: Holmes is presented with a problem, which, by one means or another, he solves. We, the readers, pit ourselves against his cleverness: Will we be able to get the solution before he does? No, of course we won’t, because Conan Doyle is pulling the strings to make sure that we don’t. He is a master storyteller, no question about that. We hang on his every word. And he very shrewdly pairs his master detective with a genial duffer as a sidekick and gives him a dastardly opponent in the fiendish master criminal, “the Napoleon of crime,” Prof. James Moriarty. All hugely entertaining, but nothing in the books can penetrate our subconscious, because they are the product of a controlling mind. This is by no means to question the pleasure they give, simply to doubt their greatness, a claim Fry frequently makes for them. He verges on the hyperbolic, telling us, for example, that Holmes’s death upset the reading public more than any other death in literature; scarcely more than Little Nell’s, I think, which almost literally brought the nation to a standstill. But despite the odd extravagance, these spoken forewords of Fry’s constitute one of the set’s major pleasures, illuminated by informed enthusiasm and personal revelation: In one he rather touchingly recounts how his first encounter with Holmes, at a very early age, changed his life, leading him on to truancy, expulsion from school and, finally, briefly, prison.

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The pairing of Fry and Holmes is a bit of a marriage made in heaven, in fact. In Britain, he is himself almost as much of a national treasure as Holmes: a public figure whose every utterance is avidly reported and disseminated throughout the Twittersphere, his bipolarity, his obsessions with technology, his amatory affairs, all reported on constantly, the contents of his richly stocked mind on permanent display in TV documentaries, his books lining the shelves. One of his outstanding ancillary skills is reading out loud. He is the marathon man of audiobooks: When he recorded the first of the Harry Potter novels for BBC radio, all other programs on the biggest channel, Radio 4, were suspended, the day being given over entirely to Fry’s Rowling. The nation could hope for no one better to sit at its bedside, soothingly and wittily lulling it into purring contentment. In the Holmes books, he reads just under a thousand pages in his wonderfully even and infallibly intelligent voice, touching the characters in deftly — the books field a very large number of well-educated middle-aged men, and it must have been difficult to differentiate one from another. Otherwise, he finds a variety of accents and tones for the many foreigners Holmes encounters; his American accents are lightly done, without attempting, for example, a Utah accent in “A Study in Scarlet.”

Inevitably the poverty of some of the dialogue is exposed in reading it out loud, as are the merely serviceable descriptive passages. Fry’s triumph is in striking and maintaining exactly the right tone for the narrations, all, with a handful of exceptions, in the comfortable, slightly pompous voice of Dr. James Watson, Boswell to the great man’s Johnson. Fry’s Holmes is sharp-witted and mercurial, though not especially idiosyncratic: quite right, as he is merely being reported by dear old Watson. But Fry’s skill in phrasing and articulation over the whole 60-plus hours is beyond praise. How he relishes a sentence like “The conversation, which had roamed in a desultory, spasmodic fashion from golf clubs to the causes of the change in the obliquity of the ecliptic, came round at last to the question of atavism and hereditary aptitudes.” Every consonant in place, every phrase perfectly shaped and filled with sense. There are other complete recorded Holmeses (as it happens, the current collection omits the last book of all, presumably on copyright grounds), but none that sustains the course so buoyantly, and none with the added pleasure of the reader’s pithy commentary on each book.

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