Conan Doyle vs Christie: Sherlock loses out in battle of BBC murder-mystery adaptations

December brought not just gifts but two literary adaptations, with And Then There Were None triumphing with chilling suspense, repression and realistically tragic brutality – whereas Sherlock diluted its formidable power by venturing too far into the realms of fantasy.

For two dramas screened over the festive period it was fitting that they should both focus on characters haunted, Dickens-style, by ghosts of the past.

Oh-so-dearly-awaited Sherlock returned in The Abominable Bride, with a time-twisting plot that made Dallas’ Bobby Ewing reappearing in the shower seem like a smart, credible plot development.

Where the series originally struck gold was by bowing to, rather than overriding, the unimprovably brilliant source material. The addition of unintrusive adaptations to modernise – combined with the steely-yet-charismatic brilliance of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance – let Holmes shine as he should: enigmatic, with a “cold, precise but admirably balanced mind”.

The prospect of a Victorian-set episode, edging closer to the original Conan Doyle works, was therefore an enticing one, and rewinding to the era thankfully, and tellingly, changed little about Holmes’ delivery but gave Freeman the chance to give us a more refined, genteel Watson.

The plot included aristocrat Sir Eustace Carmichael, who was convinced to his terror that the apparition of the apparently deceased Emelia Ricoletti was tormenting him from beyond the grave. It gave rise to one of the high points of the episode, when Holmes mulled that the only ghosts in this world are “those we make for ourselves”.

But with the confusing reintroduction of Holmes and Watson, a storyline unnervingly a little more Scooby Doo than Conan Doyle, and Watson impertinently quizzing Holmes on his romantic history in dialogue straight of a teen drama (“you must have had…you know… experiences”) it was hard to know quite what to think.

To quote Holmes himself, from The Adventure of the Illustrious Client: “I am accustomed to have mystery at one end of my cases, but to have it at both ends is too confusing.”

But by the end of the sublime Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None, the truth of the matter was all too apparent to the viewer, if not perhaps to whoever would stumble on the carnage that gradually eliminated every character who took the trip to Soldier Island.

Each and every one was escaping a deathly secret, with Aidan Turner’s battle-scarred character also almost managing to escape his clothes in a couple of hit-the-pause-button moments. Combined with the character’s brooding presence gave Cumberbatch’s deserved heartthrob status a serious run for its money.

Sarah Phelps, who adapted the Agatha Christie work, said she was shocked at how “brutal, remorseless and stark” the novel was.

The dramatisation was suitably bleak, with the austere accommodation and quietly malevolent island landscape proving the perfect backdrop as the truth of each character revealed itself and death count rose steadily, stealthily and horrifyingly.

Included in the brilliant cast was Miranda Richardson, whose seemingly righteous character Emily Brent described convention as “what keeps us together in the face of impending chaos”. However, Christie proved here that it can instead be the very undoing of many as they fail to conform.

As Holmes said, in another fleeting highlight of the latest Sherlock, we all have a past, with ghosts “the shadows that define our every sunny day”. Effectively illustrating this point, however, was just one area where the unnecessarily fantastical outing by the detective was well and truly outsmarted by its Christie counterpart.