Category: Book Review

Book Review: The Court of Last Resort


The Court of Last Resort tells the story of how Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner established a team of experts who investigated cases of people sent to prison where evidence indicates justice wasn’t done and some of the cases where their investigations helped correct the injustice.

The story begins after Gardner helped to address the case of a wrongful conviction in California. He then formed his team of men who didn’t need either fame or money and the project began as a regular column in the magazine Argosy. 

The secret of the Court of Last Resort’s success was that while the column and the organization of experts were known as the Court of Last Resort, Gardner believed the real court was the average citizen. Through the articles in Argosy, pressure was brought to bare on politicians and parole boards to take a look at the case of individuals that society had forgotten.

The first 70% of the book is dedicated to examining the various cases the court took on, but it’s more than just a rehearsal of cases. Gardner goes into some detail on the challenges this group faced, ranging from the rather mundane (how to make this work in a magazine), to how and why they faced opposition and occasionally  support from local officials.

Gardner is a skilled writer and manages to keep a sensible tone, and a great ability to empathize with his subjects including those who weren’t fans of the Court of Last Resort, and see things from his perspective. He avoids broad-brush allegations of corruption or prejudice, only calling those out when the evidence warrants it. Otherwise to help the readers understand why things go wrong due to challenges faced by everyone from the cops on the beat to prosecutors and prison wardens. He eschewed turning human beings to caricatures.

The book then takes a turn. As Gardner has discussed different problems in criminal law, he turns to prescribing solutions for the last thirty percent of the book. To be fair, he remains honest, even-handed, and examines issues from a variety of perspectives. The problem for modern readers is that this portion of the book is a sixty-eight year-old public policy treatise.

Unless you’re an expert on the minutiae of modern criminal procedure, it can be hard to figure out which, if any, of Gardner’s proposals were ever implemented. Several, I knew for sure, haven’t been. If you think he makes a good case for a particular reform, you may think America made a mistake by not following his advice. While some of his ideas are interesting, I wasn’t expecting this to turn into a policy reform book, so I could probably have done without that section.

Still, the cases that are chronicled are pretty interesting and Gardner is an entertaining writer to read. It’s also fun to learn of the Perry Mason writer’s real passion for justice. Overall, this may be a book you’ll enjoy.if you found the Court of Last Resort TV interesting or you’re a fan of Gardner or of the history of real-life efforts to clear the wrongfully convicted.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Book Review: The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe

The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe is an anthology of parodies, pastiches, and a few other things that are hard to categorize, all inspired by Rex Stout’s greatest literary creation. I’m going to give a detailed look at everything in the book.

“Red Orchids” by French Author Thomas Narcejac finds Wolfe out from the Brownstone to investigate a case with the promise of a rare, red orchid. This translation by Narcejac does a fair job capturing the Wolfe-Archie relationship, but there’s too much emphasis on Wolfe firing Archie, which wasn’t nearly as much of a thing in the novels. It’s not a bad read at all.

Next, we get an excerpt from Marion Mainwaring’s book Murder by Pastiche. The book contains several pastiches of detective characters solving mysteries. Here we get a flavor for how the Wolfe pastiche works and the author does a great job capturing both Archie and Wolfe. It was well-written and made me want to read the whole book.

I should not like “Archie Hunters” as much as I do as it’s a bit ham-fisted. It involves a parody of Mike Hammer meeting up with Nero Wolfe. Writer Jon L. Breen states he was not a fan of Mike Hammer. This is hardly a necessary statement when he named the parody Mack Himmler. In addition, Breen (through Wolfe) gives us the moral of the story. I think makes it work is the degree to which Mr. Breen commits to it. While he’s having Wolfe make a broadly political (not partisan) point, it’s so in keeping with Wolfe’s voice and something I could actually imagine Wolfe saying.

“The Frightened Man” is a pastiche that uses different character names but is inspired by Wolfe. It’s a solid entry, though a bit short for my tastes.

As to the first Chapter of Murder in E Minor by Robert Goldsborough, I’ve had my issues with Goldsborough’s Wolfe books, but this is the one is good. It does a solid job capturing the feel of Stout’s work. The first chapter is well-written and I wouldn’t mind reading the book again.

“The Purloined Platypus” finds Wolfe and Archie solving the mystery of a museum theft in the present day. It’s a good story, but the mystery is more okay, and the author is fine but not brilliant at capturing the voices and transferring the main characters to the 21st Century. However, I’m a bit prejudiced as its hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of Archie taking pictures with his phone and finding information on the Internet.

“The House on 35th Street” and “The Sidekick Case” are two of the parodies that were run by the Saturday Review. Both are short, but I think this is a case where brevity is the soul of wit. “The House on 35th Street” pokes fun at the conventions of Stout novels, while “The Sidekick Paper” takes on bad word usage in a way that you could believe Wolfe actually would.

“The Case of the Disposable Jalopy” is a parody with Wolfe and Archie in a futuristic world where both have aged (contrary to Stout’s general practice.) Archie no longer has his photographic memory and Wolfe’s mental powers have gone downhill. In addition, due to automation, most jobs have been eliminated with people living on a negative income tax and Fritz forced to buy lower class food on a budget. This is very much a sort of a Saturday Night Live sort of take on Nero Wolfe (from when Saturday Night Live was actually funny) and it’s a solid piece of humor. It’s committed to its premise, and the humor is far more hit than miss, although one of the jokes feels a bit tasteless. Overall, it’s a fairly solid parody.

 “As Dark as Christmas Gets” finds a Nero Wolfe fan who believes Nero Wolfe is real and hopes to gain his favor. Leo Haig is brought in to solve the mystery of a Cornell Woolrich manuscript that disappeared at the Christmas Party. This was a good story with some intelligent dialogue and fairly drawn characters. Haig’s Archie Goodwin character Chip is more vulgar than Archie, but not so much it got in my way of enjoying this short.

Next up is, “Who’s Afraid of Nero Wolfe” and the lead detective Claudius Lyon is the answer to the question. Lyon, like Haig, believes Wolfe is real, but is afraid of getting sued by him, so his detective work is strictly amateur which also avoids the requirement of a license. This is a fun story about a search for a missing poetry contest winner from several years back. It revolves around word play and as far as a mystery goes, it works. I enjoyed all the little twists that Loren Estleman took on the Nero Wolfe world, starting with Lyon being located in Flatbush.

In “Julius Katz and the Case of the Exploding Wine” writer David Zeltserman takes a few of the ideas from the Wolfe story and adds a whole lot to it. Katz has an Archie, but Archie in this case is an AI in a tie clip that advises Katz who is a wine-drinking gambler with a fifth degree black belt. However, like Wolfe, Katz is lazy and needs prodded to go to work. I enjoyed this and all of the twists and turns. There were characters who had very definitive counterparts in the Wolfe stories (ex: Detective Cramer), but others you have to guess at.

“The Possibly Last Case of Tiberius Dingo” is an original short story for this collection that finds a Wolfe-like detective in a state of semi-retirement but tempted to take on one final case. The writer isn’t as immersed in the Wolfe canon as other contributors and it shows but not too much. The story is still an entertaining read with some clever twists. I found the ending uncomfortable, but other than that, this was fine.

The book has a section entitled potpourri, which is a bunch of miscellaneous bits and bobs about Wolfe.

“The Woman Who Read Nero Wolfe” is a delightful short about an intelligent 500 pound circus woman who takes to reading Nero Wolfe and then has to solve the murder of a young woman she’d taken under her wing. Pithy, fun, and has a superb twist. 

“Sam Buried Caesar” is from a series of short stories about a police inspector who named his children after famous detectives. This is the story of ten-year-old Nero Wolfe and the detective agency he founded with his friend and assistant Artie. This originally appeared in Ellery Queen Magazine and a story like this poses a unique challenge because it’s got to be true to being a story about kids, without boring the adults. This story nails it and was just a lot of fun to read.

The book includes Chapter 24 from Rasputin’s Revenge. Writer John Lescroat posited that Nero Wolfe was the illegitimate son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler and born under the name Auguste Lupa. This chapter appears to be from the end of the mystery where Holmes, Watson, and Lupa are talking. This is fine and features interesting interactions. 

Joseph Goodrich adapted a couple of Nero Wolfe stories to the stage and the first scene of Might as Well Be Dead is included. This is probably as close to seeing the play as most of us are going to get as these haven’t been widely distributed or performed. The play appears to have some good ideas like having Archie as an on the on-stage narrator and really seems to condense the initial client interview from the book so the action can get moving. Other choices I’m less sure of, but they might make sense in the context of the full play. Its hard to evaluate it based on one scene.

The final short story by Robert Lopestri is amusing tale of two grandparents telling their granddaughter what it was like to live next to Nero Wolfe and why they eventually decided to move away. It’s an amusing and clever take.

While I have criticisms of many pieces in this book, I liked them all. If you’re a Wolfe fan, this book is for you. Taken together, the book is a fantastic tribute to Nero Wolfe and shows a bit of how Rex Stout’s work has been inspiring authors with the amazing characters and world he created.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

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Graphic Novel Review: Dick Tracy: Dead or Alive

Dick Tracy made a big arrest and got fired for it. However, the City by the Lake desperately needs cleaning up, so the City by the Lake calls him and he gets to work, and it’s not too long before he’s framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and hunted by dishonest cops, and needs new allies to clear his name and bust the rackets.

Dick Tracy: Dead or Alive can be a bit jarring. Dick Tracy looks and acts like he always did. Only in a city that despite its retro designs, is chocked full of modern technology. Of course, this may come off as less surprising to fans of the strip which has had to find a way to keep current while maintaining the timeless qualities of Tracy. This book doesn’t do a pretty decent job of it.

The book does a decent job re-imagining some Dick Tracy characters  without going too far or making them unrecognizable. When Tracy is on the run, he’s given his watch, which is introduced as a specially designed device that gets around spying technology.’

If I had a complaint about changes, it’d be with Tess Trueheart. Tess has always been a tough character to do and an easy one to turn into a two dimensional damsel in distress trope. However, this book turns into a more modern trope, that’s just as two dimensional.

The art is fun and very fitting for a Dick Tracy book. The story’s not a masterpiece. But at just over 100 pages, it’s a breezy, fun read that manages to capture the Spirit of Dick Tracy and provide a lot of great, two-fisted action and a few surprises along the way.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Book Review: Before Midnight

Editor’s Note: A version of this review originally appeared 9 years ago.

How annoying can a client or set of clients get? Nero Wolfe finds out in Before Midnight.

After the death of a hotshot advertising executive, his firm hires Wolfe not to find the killer, but to locate the dead man’s wallet which contained the answers to a verse-guessing contest with $800,000 in prizes at stake.

The story plodded along. While some of the suspects were interesting, I couldn’t consider most of them as likely suspects for either the murder or taking the wallet. The focus was on the contestants, four of whom came from out of town. To go to a place you don’t know, commit a homicide, and evade detection by the police is a tough task, and nothing made me believe any of these out-of-towners would do it.

What held the story together was watching Wolfe’s clients from the advertising firm of LBA, who represented the most annoying and foolish clients Wolfe ever had the misfortune of taking on. There was a pleasure of seeing these guys in action that wasn’t unlike watching a trainwreck. Wolfe had been about his leisurely pace of crime solving for 20 years, LBA was in a mode of “hurry up and do something,” even setting a deadline for Wolfe.

Their battles with each other and Wolfe continue for most of the book. Toward the end, just when we’re expecting Wolfe to spend a few chapters and several glasses of beer unraveling the mystery, we’re thrown for a loop with a plot twist that leaves Wolfe reeling, embarrassed, and determined to get a daring soul who committed a murder right in Wolfe’s office.

The twist makes up for the weakness of the book, which was a letdown after the pure brilliance of Murder by the Book. Still with a twist ending and some classically annoying clients, I’ll give it a:

Rating: Satisfactory (4 stars)

Book Review: Dick Tracy: Dailies and Sundays: 1931-33

Dick Tracy is the legendary detective created by Chester Gould whose comic strip adventures continue until this day. Dick Tracy first hit newspapers in 1931 and this book collects his first strips from October 1931 to May 1933.

This collection is notable for what you won’t find: any of Tracy’s garish rogues gallery. No Flattop, Mumbles, or Pruneface. The most prominent villain is Big Boy, but in here he’s a regular mob boss. The colorful villains would come much later for Tracy. This book features Tracy taking on thieves, kidnappers, and racketeers that were typical 1930s villains.

The book opens with the father of Tracy’s fiancée being murdered. Tracy joins the police force in order to catch the killer. The most unrealistic part of this entire collection is when Tracy is so quickly graduated and placed in a leadership position on the force with no explanation. Three months later, he slacks off because of personal problems with Tess and is demoted to uniform duty and complains about how he was demoted despite all he’d done in the three months on the force. 

Once you get past that silliness, the book is good. The crimes aren’t outlandish and Tracy’s methods are pretty solid for a 1930s newspaper strip, featuring some real detective work. The book also did go for some “ripped from the headlines” cases. For example just after the Lindbergh kidnapping, Tracy had to solve a similar baby kidnapping case.

Other than introducing Tracy and Tess Trueheart, the book’s important contribution is introducing Junior, the homeless, seeming orphan who Tracy adopts, or perhaps it may be he adopts Tracy.  He becomes part of the action on several occasions and you can see why he’s often viewed as a precursor of teenage sidekicks like Robin, the Boy Wonder and Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes.

The art in the book starts off looking a bit primitive but as Gould continues to draw, it becomes a lot more polished. The book is mostly in black and white with the exception of the earliest Sunday strips. These strips didn’t follow the daily strip plot, opting instead for a separate mystery or  sometimes just a one-off gag strip. They continued until May 1932.

The book also includes an interview with Gould by his successor on the Tracy comic strip, Max Allan Collins. 

Overall, while the book doesn’t capture Tracy at the peak, it does manage to capture Tracy’s beginnings and also help readers understand how Tracy became so popular in the first place with fun and exciting stories, detective work, and a broad-based appeal to multiple members of the family with character drama and a kid sidekick. Worth a read for both Tracy diehards and those who are curious about the beginnings of this iconic character.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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