Title: The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes’ Rival Detectives
Lucy Coleman is a journalist who is supposed to write an article about the great Sherlock Holmes. Hoping that somebody who worked together with him several times can share some insight she seeks out Inspector Lestrade. But Inspector Lestrade is sick of Sherlock Holmes (and not only because he is described as rat-faced in these stories). Why is everybody talking about him when there were so many other detectives who solved cases that were just as impressive or even more so than those of Holmes? It doesn’t take Lucy long to persuade Lestrade to tell her about these Rivals.
The framing of these stories is a bit odd: Lestrade doesn’t only tell the stories, he was involved in some of them. Sometimes only as a bystander who happens to be near the plot and sometimes replacing the character who was the assistant in the original stories. The actual work is still done by Dupin, van Dusen & Co.
The Murders on the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe
A brutal double-murder in a locked room. How could it have happened? And who would have the motive to murder an unassuming mother and her daughter? Not that detective Dupin is looking for a motive…he has a very unique idea about who the killer might be…(oh come on. Is there anybody left who doesn’t know what’s going on?)
I am not 100% sure if I’ve read that story before. I think I did but my dislike for Poe might also stem from any of his other works I had to read at some point. I did know the twist but that might as well be because so many mysteries make references to it. In any case, listening to the story did not change my opinion on it. It’s stupid. I’ll take any of the weaker Holmes stories over The Murders on the Rue Morgue any day.
The Problem of Cell 13 by Jacques Futrelle
S. F. X. van Dusen makes a bet: in just one week he will escape from a prison cell that is considered inescapable. The director of the prison is, of course, convinced that this is impossible.
But surprisingly it is not! All van Dusen needs is a friend who is in on his plan and willing to help. Well, and he has to hope that the wardens agree to fulfill his strange requests. But then it’s easy…well as long as the cell has the right architectural features. Which honestly makes it a lot less impressive. It’s also all very theoretical: there is no actual crime, nothing is really at stake, it’s just a story to show off how clever van Dusen is.
Murder By Proxy by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin
Jonathan’s uncle Tilley is hell-bent on stopping him from marrying Julia, the woman he loves. He can’t take away Jonathan’s inheritance since it’s entailed but he can refuse to support Jonathan as long as he lives.
When Tilley is murdered and Jonathan is the only one with an opportunity, his desperate brother calls on Paul Beck to save Jonathan from the gallows.
Unlike the previous stories, this is very much a classic mystery: an evil uncle, an upright young man who gets caught up in a horrible crime…and it needs a genius detective to discover the ingenious method the true killer used. It’s nothing new but Paul Beck (with his love for gardening) is a nice character. Though I might be slightly biased because in the audio play he is voiced by Anton Lesser, whom I love since Endeavour. A great show by the way and you should all watch it. There was a tiger, once.
Mystery of Redstone Manor by Catherine Louisa Pirkis
Loveday Brooke only wanted to visit St. Paul’s cathedral before she returns home to America but when she finds a dying man there she is drawn into a web of secrets and spies. Fortunately, Loveday is no damsel in distress and knows exactly what to do (even if she has to make it up as she goes along).
On the one hand, it’s very cool to have a female main character who really does things instead of fainting at the first vague sign of danger. But on the other, she has more in common with someone like Richard Hannay than with Sherlock Holmes and I’m just not that much into spy-stories. So my only basis for comparison is the movie The 39 Steps and unlike that Mystery of Redstone Manor does not make me wonder if the writer has ever met a woman so that’s definitely a plus.
The Problem of the Superfluous Finger by Jacques Futrelle
A woman storms into a physician’s practice and demands he should amputate part of her perfectly healthy finger. When he refuses she takes drastic measures. Only a genius like van Dusen can discover the reasoning behind her actions.
Because everyone else is an idiot. Including the bad guys who could have easily gotten away with it if they had had more than one brain cell between them. But as it is van Dusen only appears clever because everyone else is an idiot.
The Clue of the Silver Spoons by Robert Barr
Sophia Gibb asks Eugène Valmont for help. She has hosted a number of dinner parties, always with the same guests. Every time an item from one of the guests was stolen: a watch, some letters or money. The thief could only have been one of the guests but she trusts all of them. So who committed these thefts? And why?
The mystery is nice and has everything I want from that kind of story but Valmont got on my nerves approximately two seconds after he appeared for the first time. I have occasionally complained that many of Holmes’ rivals are just devices who move the plot forward at the right time but have no characteristics of any kind.
Valmont has characteristics: he likes food. Like really. Not any food, good food. He will literally not shut up about food. We first meet him in a restaurant where he eats and talks about eating. When Sophia Gibb asks for his help he immediately mentions the cook she employs who is apparently pretty famous…that’s not really a good characterisation.
The Intangible Clue by Anna Katherine Green
Lady Violet investigates the brutal murder of an old woman. The woman lived alone, the houses beside her own are empty so no neighbor could have seen or heard anything. The murder left nothing behind. So how should she solve this case?
This is the first story where the whole set-up of the framing-device goes badly wrong. Because at the beginning of The Intangible Clue, Lestrade announces that Holmes could solve a case where the only clue where five orange pips but that he never solved a case where there were no clues at all.
The no clues Lady Violet has are: footprints in the dust, a teakettle and an eyewitness who conveniently turns up. The way she reads these clues is still clever and impressive but not cleverer than anything Holmes does.
Apart from that (spoiler. Highlight to show) there is a strange scene at the end where they imply that Violet murdered her own husband. I don’t think that it is part of the original stories (but I only glanced over them) and I don’t see the point of it.
The Game Played in the Dark by Ernest Bramah
Max Carrados works on a case involving missing compromising letters which could derail an upcoming royal wedding. But in the middle of that investigation, he is asked to investigate the theft of valuable coins, and events take a surprising turn.
Max Carrados is a blind detective. And having a disabled main character in a story from that era does make for interesting reading. But it feels like Carrados has to ‘make up’ for his blindness by being even more of a genius than all the other genius Victorian detectives. Not only can he distinguish smells and sounds in an instant, he also makes his deductions in record-speed, and never worries about anything.
Many of Holmes’s contemporaries are dull because they have no character. Carrados is boring because he’s an absolute superhuman.
The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah
A train-crash leaves more than 30 people dead. The cause seems to be a human error: the train-driver swears the signal light was green, the signalman swears it was red. While trying to figure out who is lying Carrados soon discovers that much more sinister forces are at play.
In my review for Foreign Bodies I mentioned that I know I have to expect problematic content in old stories but that I also wonder why modern editors can’t take some care when selecting stories for new anthologies. And this is again the case here. The bad guy in this story objects to the actions of the British Empire in India…but since we can’t have a criminal with actually reasonable motives he’s actually just in it for the money because really all these Indians shouldn’t complain…or something.
And because that isn’t enough the audio play adds some Fenians that weren’t even part of the original story. The only reason for this is too add some more problematic elements to the story…
A Snapshot by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin
When old Carmondy is murdered the culprit seems to be clear. After all, he has done everything to stop his niece Margaret from marrying Gore even though he and Margaret love each other. Carmondy even threatens to expose a dark secret from Gore’s past. But as it turns out he wasn’t the only one with a motive.
Once again, I want to question the choices of the person who put together this anthology. Though this time it’s not because of any offensive contents but rather because the basic premise ‘evil uncle keeping young lovers apart and then gets murdered’ is exactly the same as the other Bodkin-story. (Or was he simply not a very original writer?)
Beck remains a character who walks the line between ‘dull plot-device’ and ‘quirky for the sake of quirkiness’ and behind the somewhat unoriginal plot, the story gets much darker than one would expect. There’s an allusion to sexual abuse (which might not have been in the original) and a proper look at the darker parts of the British Empire (looking at the author, this could well have been in the original but since the Beck stories aren’t available online I can’t confirm that). Overall, I enjoyed this one as well, even though this time Beck wasn’t played by Anton Lesser.
Seven-Seven-Seven City by Julius Chambers
Thanks to faulty telephone-wiring Edith overhears a couple planning to murder the woman’s husband. She has to stop them. But how, when she doesn’t know their names or where and when they are planning to strike?
Well, as it turns out there are convenient trains and church bells in the background that help Edith with locating the place the call came from (she won’t be the last detective that is helped by such coincidences but – considering the story was originally published in 1903 – she might well have been the first). Apart from the novelty of a phone-based mystery the story also offers also a surprising twist and a nice Miss Marple-like sleuth. Nothing outstanding but interesting.
The Moabite Cypher by R Austen Freeman
Lestrade is supposed to protect Pastor Wayne Kaplan, an American preacher who claims to have healing powers and who has received death-threats. Things take a surprising turn when he runs into Dr. Thorndyke – and then both of them into a dying thief who has a mysterious letter in his possession.
Well…despite the addition of the pastor this is still the same story about which I already talked and about which my thoughts haven’t changed.
In the end, I wasn’t too fond of this collection. For once because of the choice of stories: it turns out I’m not overwhelmed by either van Dusen or Max Carrados and they featured in two stories each. But I also think ‘bitter Lestrade screaming about detectives that were so much better than Holmes’ doesn’t work too well. It starts out OK, with him only pointing out that others also did great work but that everybody only talks about Holmes. But with time it turns into ‘actually Holmes sucked, he is only famous because of Watson, all other detectives were better and also Holmes and Watson were always mean to me’.
I don’t think that’s a particularly clever marketing strategy for a collection that has Sherlock Holmes in quite huge letters on the cover and which is probably aimed at people like me – people who like Holmes but are also curious about the other detectives of that time.