The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio The great ones are back in action.

30May/150

Book Review: The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon is rightly considered one of the landmark books in detective fiction. The tale was also immortalized on the screen in one of the greatest films of all time.

The book works so well because of its characters. Joel Cairo, Wilmer, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy are incredibly rich and fascinating characters who would be copied and recreated by lesser writers. Spade himself is perhaps the most fascinating character of them all.

As a person, he has many detestable qualities. At times, he’s coldly sociopathic, he uses people, and his own moral code is far more questionable than Philip Marlowe's is. Yet, this allows the reader to wonder where exactly Spade stands. That question is probably the most intriguing mystery in the book.

The language of the book is fascinating. Hammett uses so many rich, active words. For example, Spade doesn’t light a cigarette. He ignites it or he sets it on fire.

Probably one of the big differences (although relatively minor) between the movie and the novel is the movie doesn’t include Guttman’s daughter. It’s understandable why the film didn’t include her as there would have been issues with the production code and it also would have overcrowded the film. However, she does serve two purposes in the book. We do get a clearer picture of Spade’s humane side, as well as an idea of how ruthless Guttman could be.

The book does deal with some adult themes, but in a tasteful way, as was required by the times.

Overall, the book is a classic and worth reading as an example of great writing and characterization, even if you don’t care for the type of protagonist Spade represents or the type of protagonists that the book has inspired.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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16May/150

Book Review: The Case of the Courteous Killer

In 1958, Dragnet had been with America for nearly a decade, with 318 Radio performances coupled with more than 200 TV episodes, and a movie. It’s in this atmosphere that Richard Deming wrote his tie-in Dragnet novel, the Case of the Courteous Killer.

It begins with an unassuming man holding up couples in lover’s lane, eventually killing a man who thought the unassuming robber would be easy to handle in the first of a series of murders. Joe Friday and Frank Smith are called in to locate and apprehend the suspect.

Adapting television shows to novels is tricky business, but the late Mr. Deming does a superb job capturing the spirit of the 1950s TV show while producing a story that was more gripping and involved than half hour television would allow.

Deming nails the voices of Joe Friday and Frank Smith. Friday was particularly important as the story is told in typical Dragnet first person. There were a couple moments I didn't quite buy, though. For example, I found the idea Joe Friday watched the Boston Blackie TV show to be a little unbelievable. There are also funny moments with Frank Smith providing comic relief as he talks about his brother-in-law and various goings on. Truly, I could imagine this on TV as I read it.

The mystery was far beyond typical Dragnet cases, which were resolved in half an hour, but it was in that same matter of fact style. There are many twists as this criminal changes methods, the police stumble upon an almost unbelievable coincidence that's too strange for Dragnet's genre, and the courteous killer twice attempts to exact some not-so-courteous revenge on Joe Friday.

The story lost a bit of momentum and dragged in the last little bit with some repetitive moments before finishing up strong at the end.

Still, if you love 1950s Dragnet, or are a fan of clean early police procedural, this is a really good and engaging read.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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11Apr/150

Book Review: Tears of the Giraffe

Tears of the Giraffe is the second installment of the No. 1 Ladies Detective series in which Mma Precious Ramotswe runs her No. 1 Detective Agency in Bostwana.

At the end of the first book,  mechanic Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni proposed to Ma Ramotswe, and the story dwells quite a bit on their engagement and giving us a slightly broader view of J.L.B. Matekoni. While at the detective agency, she takes the seemingly impossible task of solving the nine year old mystery of the disappearance of a young American man for his distraught and now widowed mother.

There's really so much to love about this book  "Tears of the Giraffe" really is a relaxing cozy mystery and in Ma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, writer Alexander McCall Smith creates two wonderful characters. Maketoni really comes into focus as a kind and compassionate man who helps out at the local orphan farm and even takes in two foster children (without telling Ma Ramotswe.)

The book's greatest success is in making readers who come from different cultures understand how these characters think and relate to them. It's done so beautifully and naturally and in a way that doesn't feel like the writer's wagging a finger and saying, "This is how everyone should think!" but rather you feel like you're seeing how they think.  They're interesting characters with a very different spin on the world than readers in the U.K. or in America, but it doesn't feel forced. One thing I found fascinating was when Ma Ramostwe thought poorly of a college professor who didn't hire  servants. While in America, we might think hiring servants is lazy or putting on airs, she thought that by hiring others to work for you, you weer helping to support the community.

The mystery itself has a great emotional core.  Ma Ramotswe's goal is to bring some peace and closure to this woman.  The mystery doesn't require any sort of great deduction, but it does require Ma Ramotswe's intuition and craftiness to solve the case.

While talking about positives, I should also praise audiobook narrator Lisette Lecat who does fantastic job reading the books. Her typical reading voice is a somewhat posh British voice but she manages to give each of the characters a life of their own. Her reading of the American widow was superb. I was blown by how natural her American accent sounded.

This entry was more focused than the first book.  In the original, Smith had Ma Ramotswe stop and have flashbacks that were almost essays and there were multiple cases running throughout the book. Here the book manages to focus mostly on Ma Ramostwe's and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's engagement and the related plots of the adoption of the children and Maketoni's jealous maid who wants to be rid of Ma Ramotswe for her own reasons.

The story does suffer a little when a second case is added to the mix. A butcher shows up asking for the Agency to investigate his wayward wife. While it leads to some interesting discussions, the case isn't all that interesting and slows down the book's momentum. The resolution occurs off-page and we're only told about it later. The story served as a first case for Mma Makutsi, Ma Ramotswe's secretary who is promoted to "assistant detective" in this book. While I didn't like the case, I concede it does open the door for more plot twists and stories in the future.

Overall, this is a delightful read and also an excellent audiobook. Smith masters what books can do at their best: transport you to another place and even into other minds.  This book is fun and thoughtful and a great read for fans of cozier mysteries.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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21Mar/150

Book Review: Playback


While the second to last Philip Marlowe novel was the longest, the last was the shortest, coming in at about 170 pages in its most recent reprint.

In it, Marlowe is hired by an attorney to follow a woman with very little explantion. He follows her to Esmerelda, a fictionalized version of LaJolla.

There Marlowe encounters blackmail and a corpse that disappears from the balcony of the woman he was hired to follow.

All things considered, this is a book that I wish Raymond Chandler hadn’t bothered to right. The beginning is promising, but 2/3 through the story begins to collapse.

Chandler, at his finest wrote involved and complex tales of mystery. There was always more than meets the eye to a Chandler mystery. Here, there is far less. I literally said out loud, "That's it!" and tossed the book aside until my determination to finish books I start compelled me to read on.

Chandler's characters are also far flatter than in previous works. You won't find any characters who approach the level of those in other novels. There's no one like General Sternwood, Moose Malloy, Bill Chess, or Terry Lennox in this entire novel.

While the dialogue isn't as good as in other books, there's still a few decent lines in this one and that's one saving grace.

And then there are the other issues of Marlowe's encounters with two different women. Thankfully, there's nothing shown, which is the most artful thing about this portion of the book. The writing by Chandler is just embarrassing.  The dialogue is awful, and the set up is clumsy.   The relationship with Linda Loring in The Long Goodbye is elevated to some high exalted status of her being an old flame, when she just came over for an evening before leaving town.

Worse than that, Marlowe admits that sleeping with one of the women was unethical as an Investigator and then it does it anyway and it's not like there's some psychological reason for it or an internal struggle that Marlowe's better nature loses, there's no reason at all given.  At the end of the book, it appears that all that remains of the ethical core of Marlowe from The Big Sleep is an eccentric aversion to taking money for getting himself beaten up and inconvenienced.

The book is sad because it shows how much of a toll alcoholism and depression took on a great author. It's one of the worst books written about a classic detective by his actual creator. It's the one Marlowe book that's never been made into a movie and hopefully never will be. It's a forgettable or at least I hope it is as I'll certainly be doing my best to forget it.

Rating: 1.75 out of 5.00

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21Feb/150

Book Review: The Jade Ogre

In this 1992 Will Murray novel, the legendary adventure Doc Savage faces a deadly challenge when he battles the Jade Ogre, a strange being whose decapitated arms fly on their own and deal a horrible green death to the Ogre's enemies.

The Jade Ogre is unusual in that Murray adapted the idea from a story original Doc Savage writer Lester Dent had written about a private detective, so this story has a bit of a mystery element in it and some detective tropes that play a role such as Doc explaining the solution to his aides at the end. However, the mystery is much more a matter of how rather than who as Murray provides more than enough clues to figure out who is behind the Jade Ogre. Also this makes more sense understanding it was based on a serialized story as it does have a very strong serialized feel.

In addition to the mystery, the book delivered the usual things we expect from Doc Savage with plenty of action, adventure, gadgets, and some great interaction between Doc's assistants. Here, as in the other more recent books, the number of supporting players is kept down to a minimum with Ham, Monk, and Pat Savage appearing. Murray is even more careful about overusing assistants as for most of the book, only two are "on stage" at once with Pat and Ham together early and Monk and Ham late. This allows enough interaction between the Bronze Man's two most beloved assistants (Monk and Ham) without their carping on each other becoming monotonous.

As always, Murray achieves a great period feel and this book succeeds in transporting readers back to the 1930s.

The story has one major plot hole and that comes from the whodunit plot. We learn that when Doc gives the solution that several others had figured out who the guilty party was. This leads the question of why everyone followed a crazed murder blindly into a trap.

Beyond that, there are more things that could be nitpicked, but at the end of the day, this isn't great literature, it's Doc Savage. And this book lives up to the high standards set by other installments in this series. So if you have a love of 1930s Pulp fiction in your soul, this book is for you.

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31Jan/152

Book Review: The Long Goodbye


The Long Goodbye (1953) finds Marlowe living in a borrowed house in Los Angeles when he meets a down and out drunk and former war hero named Terry Lennox. Marlowe strikes up a friendship with the man and one morning Marlowe is awakened to find Lennox asking to be driven to Mexico. Marlowe does this and the finds out Lennox’s wealthy wife was murdered with Lennox the prime suspect. Lennox writes out a confession and kills himself in Mexico. The cops, organized crime, and the dead woman’s father want Marlowe to forget the case, yet Marlowe feels an obligation to Lennox.

To begin with, The Long Goodbye is the longest of all Chandler novels. The same publisher did the most recent reprint of the Marlowe books, and the first five novels range from 231-292 pages. This book weighs in at 379 pages.  At this point in his career, Chandler had come to realize what people looked to Marlowe books for: the characters and the dialogue, and Marlowe telling people off. So Chandler gave us this in spades.

He gives ample time to develop the Marlowe-Lennox relationship at the start of the book and there are great Chandler characters spread throughout the book including author Roger Wade, who I can see as a self-insertion character by Chandler particularly after listening to the BBC Radio 4 play about Chandler and Hitchcock attempting to collaborate on Strangers on a Train. The book is full of rich characterization, settings, and dialogue.

The downside of the Long Goodbye is that in the midst of all that, Chandler loses the story several times. It’s hard to remember a detective novel where the detective took so little interest in solving the central mystery of the book. Marlowe literally goes weeks without doing anything and there are moments in the story where I wonder if we’re ever going to get back to the Terry Lennox case. It’s hard to care about the solution to a story when the main character doesn’t seem to.

In addition, this is a much more cynical and jaded Marlowe than prior books with his remarks that organized crime is just a cost of civilization in one of the later chapters. Marlowe seems at times to be almost exaggerated at a few times even explaining he was trying to be mysterious at one point.

I also feel the relationship between Marlowe and Linda Loring or the attempt thereof was weak and far less interesting than the flirting with romance in prior novels.

Overall, this is a still a good read and is better than The Little Sister and The High Window with so many interesting characters and settings, and some great dialogue. Still, it feels less organic and its pacing issues place it below the very best Marlowe novels in the series. For my part, I think the 1970s BBC radio adaptation with Ed Bishop is probably the best way to experience the story as it manages to preserve the heart of the story while leaving a lot of extraneous elements on the cutting room floor.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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20Dec/140

Book Review: Hang by the Neck


I picked up a copy of Hang by the Neck out of curiosity as I’d listened to the Crime and Peter Chambers golden age radio program and was curious what the books were like.

The answer is very much the same, only with a more complex plot.

In the book, Pete is hired by Johnny the Mick to go pick up a suitcase from Johnny’s apartment. However, Pete finds the body of a beautiful woman and then the police come up and haul Johnny and Pete off to jail. Chambers released only to come home and find the body of Johnny the Mick hanging from his window.

The police conclude that Johnny murdered the girl and committed suicide but Pete knows Johnny the Mick well enough to not buy the explanation.

What follows is Chambers’ questioning and conversing with a wide variety of shady characters to get to the truth. The suspects are pretty much stock characters for a hard boiled detective novel: the seductive performer, the charming model, the shady night club owner. The one exception to this is an ex-boxer turned painter which was a nice touch. There’s also a great speech from a cop about what private investigators are for and what they ought stick to investigating. Though later events in the book make the speech more than a tad ironic.

Radio programs were known for taking massive liberities when bringing detectives not named Sherlock Holmes to the microphone, so I was surprised to find that the characters in the book spoke exactly like the radio program with some very stylized dialogue. However, reading it, there were points were the style could be a tad wearying with a few too many pages filled with rapid fire one-liners between Chambers and someone he was questioning.

Rating the book is hard. Overall, Hang By Your Neck is average or perhaps a bit above average hard boiled detective novel. However, it doesn’t approach greatness and is by no means essential for fans of the genre. Certainly Peter Chambers isn’t in the class of Philip Marlowe, Archie Goodwin, or Nick Charles. However, if you want to read a 1950s Detective novels to pass the time, this isn’t a bad choice.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

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29Nov/140

Book Review: Murder in the Ballpark


I'm sure Robert Goldsborough is a nice man and he's nobly tried to carry on the Nero Wolfe stories. I bare him no animus.

That said, this is the worst mystery novel I've read in my life. It's a bad novel as a Nero Wolfe book, and it's a horrible mystery.

It begins on the cover. The cover trim is nice (only one of two good things I can say about the book), but the picture looks like a cheap public domain picture and I'm not sure what era it's from.

This was important, as I was thrown by the timing of the novel. Goldsborough previous run of Wolfe novels updated Wolfe to the late 1980s and early '90s. His most recent, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Mysteries was set in the 1920s when Archie first met Nero Wolfe. This one was set in the 1950s for some reason.

However, since that wasn't clear from the get go, I didn't think at the time that it was odd for Archie to be asking for and receiving an info dump from Saul Panzer. However, given that this is the 1950s Archie Goodwin, the same one who has read  both the Gazette and Times every day, having Saul suddenly give all the back story on a prominent State Senator for Archie's benefit was inexplicable.

Archie and Saul are in the park and they see the selfsame Senator murdered in the state and make a bee-line for the exit. The fact that they were at the stadium to see the murder doesn't serve any purpose for the plot, and nearly all the information that Saul Panzer dumped in Chapter 1 for some reason is later repeated by other characters throughout the book meaning the entire first Chapter was completely pointless.

From Chapters 2-26, there are key two points to address:

First of all, Archie Goodwin as written by Rex Stout is one of the most fun to read narrators in any language. Unfortunately, Goldsborough appears to have completely lost that in this book. All the rough edges and the humor that makes Archie so fun to read is gone leading to a very flat narrative that lacks personality.

This brings me to the second big complaint with the bulk of this book, it is boring. The questioning is repetitive and irrelevant, the dialogue is dull, the the characters are uninteresting and shallow, the settings aren't interesting. The progress of the case is mostly uninteresting. There were two exceptions to this. There was a so-so scene with Archie, Saul, and some gangsters that's okay. The sister of a veteran who committed suicide is a decent character though histrionics in the last act kind of weaken her power. But other than that, it's a tedious tale.

We get to see totally unnecessary details. For example, Archie wants to talk to a suspect who is a candidate to replace the State Senator and so instead of making an appointment or arranging to see her when she's not busy, Archie goes down to a long press conference about a proposed state highway that goes on for four pages.

Worst of all, nothing in the interaction between the long-standing characters sizzles. Two visits by Cramer are dull beyond belief, and there are no good moments for Archie or Wolfe.

Chapter 27 stands out as the one entertaining chapter in the book where Goldsborough did something Stout never did. He showed us in detail how Archie managed to gather all the suspects for the denouement and how he manages to get everyone including the murderer there. It was a fun chapter as Archie plays everyone. If the rest of the book where this good, this would have been a five star book.

Unfortunately, the final showdown doesn't go well and that is a shame because in the three prior Goldsborough books I'd read, he usually finished the book strong with a good final scene for Wolfe. In this case, the drama is minor and the interruptions Wolfe allows really detract from the scene particularly after Wolfe threatens to (but doesn't) eject the offending parties.

The solution has two problems. First, it's far fetched particularly given that the murder weapon was a high powered rifle where the bullet traveled to its target in about a third of as second.

Not only that, but it basically means that most of the line of inquiry in the book was a waste of our time. The nature of the solution and the whole story behind the murder made it the type of story that Rex Stout might have told, but it would have been in a novella rather than a novel. The effort to stretch this story out for more tan 220 pages led to it being padded beyond reason.

I also have to comment that Goldsborough's Wolfe was weaker than in other stories, particularly his very stilted dialogue at the end of the book. This is a shame because Goldsborough has usually had a decent grasp of Wolfe, but not so in this story.

Rating: Flummery

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8Nov/142

Book Review: Trouble Is My Business


Trouble is My Business collects four Philip Marlowe novellas written by Raymond Chandler. The stories were originally published in magazines such as the Black Mask with other detective heroes but were rewritten with Marlowe as the hero after the character became popular. However, other than that, the stories remained essentially the same. While Chandler thought he could improve on his Black Mask stories, he found that trying to do so destroyed them, so essentially we had the stories in their original form.

The titular story for the collection, "Trouble Is My Business" is pretty much a typical hard boiled private eye story and the one that felt most like several elements had already been incorporated in other Marlowe novels. A rich man hires Marlowe to prevent his son from marrying a designing woman and a series of violent incidents follow.

"Finger Man" is a much more intriguing story. Marlowe is the only witness against a mob boss' henchman and at the same time, an old friend asks Marlowe to help watch him as he goes to do some high stakes gambling and before you know it Marlowe finds himself framed for murder.

"Goldfish" finds Marlowe following a clue from an old policewoman in search of missing pearls and a pardoned criminal who keeps Goldfish. This is a great story that takes Marlowe out of LA for once and with some great hard boiled characters thrown in.

"Red Wind" is a Marlowe story that's been oft adapted to radio and television with both of the Golden Age Philip Marlowe radio series taking a turn at it, as well as for the 1980s Philip Marlowe TV series and the 1990s Series, "Fallen Angels." While out at a bar, Marlowe stumbles on a murder and then finds a woman who, though innocent in the crime, has nonetheless been caught up in a web of blackmail and deceit through no fault of her own. This is nearly a perfect hard boiled story. More than any other story or even novel, it highlight Marlowe as the knight in tarnished armor with his sense of honor guiding his actions through a very sketchy situation. It also is a great hardboiled story with some great characters and solid action. Given that this is only a short story, Red Wind delivers a lot.

Overall, this is a great collection of hard boiled fiction that really stands the test of time with each short story topping itself in quality.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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18Oct/140

Book Review: The Little Sister

The Little Sister shows some features of some of the best Marlowe stories, but the fifth book in this series just doesn't stand up to its predecessors.

In The Little Sister it starts simply enough when a bored Marlowe is hired by the little sister of a man who moved to LA from Manhattan, Kansas and has stopped writing.

As is usual, Marlowe plunges into a case that gets him into the midst of a shady underworld, of Hollywood, and of course puts him on the bad side of police.

The story is worth reading once and has some classic Marlowe moments. Towards the end of the book, a couple of cops who've had to put up with Marlowe playing fast and loose with murders and bodies tell Marlowe off and it's a beautiful moment when the characters come to life.

It is a rare moment in this story. In 250 pages, I lost track of how many bodies were dropped and who killed them all. So many characters come and go, we really get no impression of them. There's no character in this book I really connected with in the same way I did with characters in, "Lady in the Lake," and "The Big Sleep."

Another thing that hurts the book is the focus. In the first four novels, Marlowe's scorn is directed at big city crime, crooked Los Angeles (and nearby communities) police forces. Marlowe's bile is justified because he knows of what he speaks. In the Little Sister, he uses a combination of a dirty mind and experience with two kids from Manhattan, Kansas as the basis for all sorts of psychological deductions about what a small town is like. It feels less like Marlowe's making street wise observations on life and more like he's expressing poorly informed prejudices.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a bad book, but it doesn't measure up to Chandler's other works.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

 

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