I grew up on Golden Age Radio, I love to learn about a great many things, and I enjoy a wide variety of genres. Me, bored? Never!
I grew up on Sherlock Holmes. I have raided these stories countless times over my life, and I've compared them endlessly to the pastiches, knock-offs, parodies, and various screen and radio adaptations. This is no small feat, considering that perhaps only Dracula rivals the Great Detective in sheer amounts of spin-off material. As a result, I am going to be unabashedly biased here and just say this straight out:
You will not find a better audio version of these works anywhere, and the only competition this collection has is the print equivalent. For a single credit? This is more than a bargain; it's a steal.
This is Holmes and Watson, in their original forms, as products of their time and place, unabashedly Victorian and ahead of their time right from the outset, regardless of how many religious groups or racist cults they anger in the process. There is nothing remotely politically correct about them, and in the case of Holmes himself, it would be completely against his abrasive character to be toned down. The result is that you get some screwball historical curiosity mixed in with the otherwise astounding adventures within this collection.
For those well-versed with the classic canon, I did notice that "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" is posted later, within His Last Bow, rather than within The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Look up Memoirs on Wiki for the story behind that, but suffice to say, it does mark this collection as an American edition. Seems wrong for something so British, but hey, if this is the worst thing I can say about this collection, that makes me a very happy fanboy. My hardcover leatherbound collection has the same issue, so I kind of expected it. Note to self: fix that someday.
As narrator... I could not ask for better than the great Simon Vance, save for maybe a resurrection of TV's Jeremy Brett. Even then, it's a toss-up. Vance is one of my favorite Audible narrators, and I've had his voice along for more modern Holmes short story collections. As both Holmes and Watson, he is perfect. He also does an amazing job juggling the other characters and their myriad accents throughout the stories, bringing the tales of the Great Detective to uncanny life. If it were possible for him to play Holmes' violin during the recording, I half expect he'd try it. As it is, I can almost hear it anyway, such is the quality.
Collections like this will always affirm for me that no matter who tries to modernize them to make them somehow "more relevant," the truly great stories and characters, especially of this caliber, are beyond reproach and beyond improvement.
When AudioGo first announced this round of new recordings a couple of years ago, I was manic to have them. I own copies of the original Simon Vance recordings from my pre-Audible days, which are phenomenal, but being the Bond fan that I am, I'm always curious to see what others can bring to the table. Then I found out these new recordings weren't available outside of the UK, and my heart sank. I prayed Audible would bring them to me.
At last, my prayers have been answered, and wouldn't you know, I had to hunt for them. Instead of referring to them by their official series name of "007 Reloaded," they're called "celebrity performances." Well, by any other name, it means my 2 credits a month are dedicated for the next few months (barring Star Wars releases), and not being independently wealthy, I can't afford to spring for them all at once as I'd like to do. Curses, foiled again.
Be that as it may, I have begun the series, and I'm over the moon impressed with this new performance by Dan Stevens. He impressed me with his work on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and his work here is every bit as nuanced and incredible. I almost wish he could do the rest of them too, but the point is to have a variety of talent for this series, so I'm looking forward to riding that wave. As many times as I've gone through the original novels, I'm still not as familiar with them as I am the films, and this provides the perfect excuse for me to dive in again and live with them for a while.
For those new to the original Fleming novels, this is a great introduction to the series. You almost have to forget what you've seen on screen and take Bond in his original cold war context, but thanks to the recent Daniel Craig films coming closer to Fleming's work, the in-road to the classic version has never been friendlier. It might take some getting used to Bond using a Beretta instead of the Walther PPK, or driving a Bentley instead of the Aston Martin, but the core of everything that is Bond starts here and evolves into what we've come to know and love throughout the series. Fleming's incredible detail brings these stories to life at every level, from Bond's scoping the room for signs of intrusion and tampering, to food and drink, to the gambling tables, to the torture sequences, and beyond. It's visceral in a way that can only come happen thanks to practical, real world experience. That's what separates Bond from his world of knock-offs and wanna-be copycats. Setting the standard of all that's come before and all that will come to be in the action/spy genre, regardless of medium, there's only one name you need to know. The name's Bond. James Bond.
Picking up in the wake of events from the more mediocre Diamonds Are Forever, Fleming's next one in the series turns out to be one of the most heralded. It's certainly the one that really got James Bond's name out there to American audiences (thanks, JFK). But is the hype around this one worthy?
Simply put, yes. From Russia With Love brings us ever closer to the style fans associate with both Fleming and Bond. Even though we're still a few years away from the big screen version, Bond is finally developing the personality that Sean Connery would later refine and make his own. Interestingly, Bond is overshadowed whenever Karim Bey is in the story. Bey is the largest personality in the book, and Fleming had a lot of fun writing him. What's more, this is the first time we really get to spend some time with the villains without Bond being there. Bond doesn't really get any character time until chapter 11, leaving room for Fleming to show us how things are done behind closed doors at SMERSH, creating characters that would be translated more or less accurately for the film later on. The only major difference is that the film has these characters defecting from SMERSH to operate with SPECTRE, an organization that doesn't feature in the books until Thunderball.
Roger Moore once quipped that Bond was the worst secret agent because everyone knew everything about him. This may be the book that inadvertently set that stereotype into motion. This time SMERSH is out for vengeance, seeking to murder both 007 and his reputation. The setup is a bit hard to swallow, and Fleming knew it too, which is why Bond questions it right from the start. But the story is told with such enthusiasm, you really don't care once things are set into motion. That enthusiasm changes everything. After Diamonds, it's like Fleming found a renewed interest in Bond. Or it could just be that better villains make for better stories.
Toby Stephens' narration is superb, except for the offending "oh-oh-seven" pronunciation. This still bothers me, and probably always will when both Fleming and the popular culture say "double-oh seven." Even so, I'm learning to accept this is just how it's going to be. A British woman explained it to me like this: I'm an American, so I get no say, regardless of how Fleming did it, and as a Brit, whatever she says is automatically correct. Seriously, how do you argue against that?