Review of AUDIOBOOK Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Audio Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle, narrated by Stephen Fry #Brainfluffaudiobookreview #SherlockHolmesaudiobookreview


After firing up my Kindle Fire and looking for new audiobooks, this one caught my attention – I’m so very glad it did. It has represented marvellous value as for the cost of only a single credit, I have had the pleasure of nearly seventy-two hours of Fry’s narration.

BLURB: Ever since he made his first appearance in A Study In Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes has enthralled and delighted millions of fans throughout the world. Now Audible is proud to present Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection, read by Stephen Fry. A lifelong fan of Doyle’s detective fiction, Fry has narrated the complete works of Sherlock Holmes – four novels and five collections of short stories. And, exclusively for Audible, Stephen has written and narrated nine insightful, intimate and deeply personal introductions to each title.

It has been a joy. I found it fascinating to listen to the variety of methods Conan Doyle used to structure his novels and his stories. Some of them were slightly derivative of other work he’d produced earlier in his career, but given the span of years he was writing Holmes’ adventures, I was impressed at how rarely this occurred. The other striking aspect of this collection was just how much I found myself disliking Holmes. He’s cold, arrogant and condescending to a degree that even occasionally annoys dear old Watson – in fact, thoroughly unpleasant. Each time I revisited this collection, within a handful of minutes I’d remember all over again just how much I loathed him. But there’s dear old Watson, who is the beating heart of all these stories. It is his humanity, kindness and acceptance of people’s quirks that sings off the page and drew me into the stories.

Conan Doyle’s writing style is also very easy to listen to – his ability to draw a quick description of a character and their surroundings, as well as his pacing and story structure are mostly impressively good. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Fry is narrating these – the range of voices and accents is impressive, without at any stage feeling forced or OTT. I also enjoyed his forewords and what he had to say about the body of work, as ever insightful and informative. And the reason it has taken quite so long for me to get to the end is that I have stretched it out, by interspersing each folder with one or more other books. But all good things must come to an end, and I have finally reached the last story in the last folder…

Any niggles, then? The one distasteful aspect of this collection, which I must point out, is the racism, xenophobia and chauvinism running throughout. I managed mostly to roll my eyes at the dismissive descriptions of any woman over the age of forty and the way all the younger females were objectified according to their looks and attractiveness. While it graunched, I was able to mostly shrug it off – I still recall similar attitudes being prevalent in the 1960s and 70s.

However, the racism inherent throughout did leave a bad taste in my mouth. There are some truly horrible descriptions, to the extent that one story in particular was skipped. It was striking that many of the more brutal antagonists were foreigners, spoken of with breathtaking condescension. I was intrigued to note that those stories published in the runup to WWI had a particularly strong vein of xenophobia running through them towards other Europeans. No one was truly trustworthy unless they were English and of a certain class – and male, of course. I’m aware they are a product of their time, but I would warn you that if this sort of depiction is a major issue for you, then this probably won’t be a collection you could listen to with any real pleasure. I would have scored this collection a ten but for this aspect, which did dent my enjoyment at times.

24 responses »

    • That was what struck me – he has written a great deal that I hadn’t heard and some of the stories are hauntingly sad and many are excellent:). Glad you are also enjoying this gem, Katherine.

    • Doyle was a product of his time and the increasing tension in Europe that finally erupted into WWI didn’t come from nowhere. As a historian, I found it fascinating, but I am aware that some listeners might be shocked by it – hence the warning.

    • I’m aware it was a product of the time and over the years I have read a lot of classic books, so understand the dynamic and mostly accept it. But I’m aware a lot of the visitors to my blog are not accustomed to such a blatent display of attitudes that our society regards as no longer acceptable, so felt it was important that I post that warning. And, as I’ve mentioned, a couple of the stories made for particularly grim listening.

  1. Reading authors from Conan Doyle’s era (and the following decades) does indeed clash with our modern sensibilities, and even trying to keep in mind that they were the product of their times does not help. Not much anyway… 🙄 I was intrigued by your comment about Holmes’ arrogance and overall unpleasantness: the general perception of this character almost never takes that into account because he’s depicted as the infallible “hero”, and it made me wonder at what now I see as accuracy in Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal in the recent tv series.

    • Oh yes – Benedict Cumberbatch absolutely nailed Holmes in the TV series – he is every bit as arrogant and patronising as BC in the books. Poor old Watson spends a lot of time proving just how clever he is during the ‘reveal’ but as we are no longer impressed or surprised at this aspect, Holmes comes across as unbearably smug.

    • Thank you, Anne. I think listening puts a slightly different complexion on it. You are unable to skim in quite the same way you can when you are reading it to yourself. But I still love this collection – and can see myself wanting to go back and listen again – especially to the novels…

  2. My husband is a big fan of mysteries, and I think this is a collection (despite its flaws) that my husband would greatly enjoy. I don’t expect people of the past to live up to our standards. That tends to allow me to read through things that would upset me in contemporary books.

    • Oh, absolutely, Deb – I completely agree. I did need to flag it up, though. As I do have an audience of younger readers, I felt I needed to warn them that there are issues they could find offensive.

  3. Hmmm. You know, I don’t remember feeling any of this when I read as a kid, but of course I was a kid reading them, without a critical eyeball on m’head. Do you think stories like this could help provide teaching moments with today’s kids about propoganda, cultural sensitivity, and the like? I know it bugs the crap out of me when Disney remakes movies to pretend like those stories never had those racism elements. Good can still come out of old evil.

    • And I’m aware that if I’d been reading this, I would have probably filtered a lot of that material out. It was hearing it read aloud that brought it home to me…

      And it hadn’t occurred to me to use these stories as examples for our youngsters – but you’re absolutely right. When they’re old enough to process what they are hearing, I think they would be a marvellous teaching tool! Especially as there is often a cracking story wrapping around these unpleasant attitudes…

  4. I can relate to your trouble in these stories reception: on one hand, we “all” love Sherlock Holmes, and we understand the times were different back then, so it’s pointless to try and apply modern sensibilities, but at the same time, our modern society still suffers from the same problems. I guess if we had truly gotten over them, it would be easier to read those classics with the lens all “this is how it’s used be, but it’s now all in the past”.

    • And that is the problem. The fact that he can baldly state nasty prejudiced statements about different ethnicities, pandering to the lowest populist opinions of the time. And dismiss women so easily – I’d love to be in a position to laugh that one off! But I look around and see the same ignorant, toxic views sloshing around and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth…

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