From our vantage point over a century on, it may seem like we should pity the poor British crime writer fools who had the misfortune to be hawking their wares in the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods. After all, probably 99.9% of today's public, if polled, could name but one fictional detective from that period, that being of course Sherlock Holmes. And yet, as one of the little factoid extras included in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes Set One points out, not only were there numerous contemporaries of Holmes during that period, some of them actually outsold the Holmes stories in such publications as The Strand.
I personally first became aware of a whole subculture of Holmesiana and related detectives when I was a kid in junior high and the Scholastic Book Club offered a compilation of Titanic victim Jacques Futrelle's The Thinking Machine stories (Machine's super sleuth Van Dusen evidently shows up himself in the second season of Rivals, which hopefully will make it to DVD soon). Suddenly I realized there were at least a few other fictional creations who could give Holmes a run for his detecting money. What I never really realized until I waded through this set of 13 episodes is how many there really were, and how different they could be. While Futrelle took the Holmes trope of deductive reasoning to heretofore unexplored heights, some of the characters portrayed throughout this anthology series take a completely different tack on how to solve crimes. And, in an interesting twist or two, some of these characters are actually criminals themselves.
There's a huge gamut of types and methodologies displayed throughout this series. We have Holmes-esque detectives who utilize their superior brainpower, despite, like Holmes' penchant for drug use, being somehow handicapped, like in the case of the blind Max Carrados (Robert Stephens). Another supposedly physically handicapped figure, the hunchback Simon Carne (Roy Dotrice), may in fact not be exactly what he seems, something I'll dance around, spoiler wise, by simply saying he's quite adept with makeup and various dialects. In fact Carne turns out to be as much charlatan as detective. That same dichotomy surrounds Horace Dorrington (Peter Vaughan), a private dick not above stretching the truth if it means walking away with a larger client fee in his pocket (one of the Dorrington episodes features the first screen appearance by Jeromy Irons). Plying the occult themes that Doyle also loved (and loved to debunk) is "ghost hunter" Carnacki (Donald Pleasence), who investigates hauntings and the like. We also have one of the first female detectives, Scotland Yard tag along Lady Molly (Elvi Hale).
In the more traditional mold are characters like Jonathan Pryde (Ronald Hines), whose naval expertise comes into play in a case involving stolen plans for a new torpedo, and forensic physician Dr. Thorndyke (John Neville), who has a positively Sherlockian ability to ferret out clues that the bumbling police completely miss.
These are for the most part not overly complex mysteries in the Christie, or even the Doyle, mode. In fact in several of them, the villain is either revealed outright or is so easy to spot only the most dunderheaded police captain would fail to identify him (or her). What is the real drawing card here is the amazing variety of characters and their approaches toward solving (and sometimes committing) crimes. While someone like Pryde exhibits all the finest stiff upper lip-dom that defines the British ("sangfroid" the evil Russian bad guy in this episode calls it), a character like Carne exposes a sort of sly, if shifty-eyed, undercurrent to the veddy, veddy proper English way of doing things. There is in fact a sort of subversive subtext to several of these outings, where the British class system is pilloried, if subtly, and the upper class snootiness toward everybody from Indian immigrants (and servants) to lower class shopkeepers is more than apparent.
For what was probably not a hugely budgeted television series, this has relatively opulent sets and costumes, with some nice location footage in and around London to augment the set bound pieces that form the bulk of the series. There are some pretty bad elements occasionally, as in the absolutely ludicrous blue screen "train station" (and I use the term extremely loosely) segment that starts out the Carne episode. The Carnacki episode also devolves into one of the most patently absurd disguises you have ever witnessed, a sort of bus and truck Equus gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Overall, though, this is a fascinating little sidebar to the main event which was, and probably always will be, Sherlock Holmes. While none of these authors or their creations quite attained the immortality that Arthur Conan Doyle did with his conflicted sleuth, this series proves that sometimes even the "second string" can provide some considerable entertainment.