Anyone who watched anything on PBS in the 1970s will receive an immediate jolt of nostalgia for the Thames title screen that prefaces every episode of “Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.” You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?
I was not, however, familiar with this particular public-television series from 1971-1973, probably because it would hold zero appeal to anyone still in diapers, as it stars no giant birds or trash-can monsters. For the mystery-loving adult in me, however, that’s another story.
Acorn Media’s second-season, four-disc set of “Rivals” contains all 13 episodes of the British anthology series, which showcases a revolving door of Victorian-era detectives “ one per hour-long program “ who were not the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There are plenty, including Eugene Valmont, Mr. Horrocks and Inspector Lipinzki, and just because none of them enjoy the same household recognition or cultural impact of Holmes doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of your time.
In fact, “Rivals” boasts two adventures of the one literary crimebuster who comes closest to matching Holmes in cleverness: Jacques Futrelle’s Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, aka The Thinking Machine. Futrelle’s “The Problem of Cell 13″ is one of my all-time favorite short stories “ so rich in twists that every time I read it, I’m baffled anew “ so it was an utter joy to see it adapted here, with Douglas Wilmer taking the role. In it, Van Dusen accepts the challenge of escaping from a seemingly inescapable prison.
In the other Van Dusen tale depicted for the series, “The Superfluous Finger,” many are baffled as to a woman’s request that a doctor amputate her perfectly fine digit. As with “Cell 13,” the solution is quite cunning, and likely not one the viewer can solve beforehand (pun not intended).
For a saucier affair, sample “Anonymous Letters,” in which Dagobert Trostler investigates a blackmail scheme involving some erotically-charged correspondence. You’ll even get an eyeful of nudity in this one “ a bit of a surprise, given its air date.
Certainly, some episodes will tickle your proverbial fancy more than others, but there’s a delightful consistency to the whole, even with so many creative players at work. Befitting of drawing-room mysteries from the UK, the show is buttoned-up and extended-pinkie-proper, but that’s a treat for those who tire of serial-killer thrillers and long for the days of a well-crafted whodunit, when story mattered above all else. “Rod Lott