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

23Aug/140

Audio Review: BBC Crimes: The Saint Overboard & The Saint Plays with Fire

In late Summer 1995, the BBC brough the Saint back to radio in a series of three radio plays starring Paul Rhys as Simon Templar: The Saint.

The first two of these plays are collected in a single audio release, “The Saint Overboard” and “The Saint Plays With Fire.”

“The Saint Overboard” has the Saint teaming up with a female insurance investigator who is trying to catch the culprit behind the looting of sunken vessels. She has a suspect but has to find out where he’s hidden the loot.

“The Saint Plays with Fire” on the surface level is about an arson and murder investigation but it has strong political overtones in a story that was originally written right before the outbreak of World War II.

Of the two, “The Saint Overboard” is the weaker story. It’s not a bad tale, but it does drag a bit in the middle and some of the side characters were a little tedious. The Saint also plays much more of an anti-hero in the story.

“The Saint Plays With a Fire” is a much more solid play. It’s a good mystery and the pre-war setting is pretty intriguing.

Overall, Paul Rhys is decent as the Saint. He’s definitely not going to make anyone forget George Sanders, Roger Moore, or Vincent Price, but he does a good job. He’s certainly not Val Kilmer and he’s a cut above Hugh Sinclair who replaced Sanders as the on-screen Saint in the 1940s.

The rest of the cast turns in exactly the type of solid performance you’d expect from the BBC. While it’s not a must-hear for fans of Leslie Charteris’ most famous creation, it’s still a well-done adaptation.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

This production is available from audible.com.

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16Aug/140

Book Review: Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories

This book collects all the short stories starring Agatha Christie’s famous elderly spinster detective Miss Marple.

The most important thing to know about them is that in three out of four short stories, nothing is really at stake. There is no murderer to be caught or punished because the murderer has already been caught and punished. In the majority of the stories, Miss Marple is sitting around in a group of friends who are telling each other about murder cases they’ve encountered for which they know the solution and are challenging their friends to solve it.

The format of these stories hearkens back to the armchair detectives of the 1910s and 1920s such as Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner. While the stories don’t have much suspense, the puzzles are interesting and Christie gives Miss Marple’s friends enough characterization to keep them interesting while also working a nice dose of charm and humor into the discussion of the case.

In many of the early armchair stories, Miss Marple is somewhat reminiscent of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown in his earliest stories. She sits back and leaves most of the conversation to the younger people only to contribute the actual solution at the end. In many ways, she seems like anyone'stereotypical grandmother or elderly aunt, though perhaps more honest as Miss Marple not only admits to gossiping but defends the practice. However, she has an amazing mind that has taken in all she has experienced while living in a small village and used it as a frame of reference for understanding human behavior, including the criminal crime.

Of course, there are some stories that deviate from the armchair format and and are more traditional detective stories. I enjoyed these more. My favorite was, “The Case of the Perfect Maid” which has Miss Marple investigating a case of a maid whose career is in trouble after leaving the employee of two strange sisters under a cloud of suspicion. I also found “Sanctuary,” which has Miss Marple assisting in the investigation of man who died in a church to be very enjoyable.

Overall, while I’m not a huge fan of pure puzzle mysteries, I found myself thoroughly entertained by this volume. It’s a testament to the genius of Agatha Christie that these stories are so entertaining. Also for 20 Miss Marple short stories, the book is very economically priced either in paperback or as an ebook.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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19Jul/140

Graphic Novel Review: Johnny Dollar


Yours Truly Johnny Dollar was a radio series than ran from 1949-62 with a total of six actors playing the role of the man with the action packed expense account. This short graphic novel succeeds in bringing Johnny Dollar to a visual medium. The story is set in 1957 (based on a gravestone seen in the story.) Artist Eric Thierault doesn't, however, draw Dollar as Bob Bailey (the best beloved of the Dollar actors who played the role from 1955-60) but rather in a way that  most would imagine Johnny Dollar looking based on the series.

The story itself features Johnny investigating a troubled production of Macbeth that his company has insured. The only somewhat odd thing about the story is Johnny pretending to be a potential investor rather than an investigator, which was not a usual tactic for Johnny Dollar in that era, though certainly it wasn't unprecedented for Johnny Dollar to go undercover.

What makes the "Brief Candle Matter" work for me is that it plays out like a radio episode. The dialogue, plot, and solution to the crime could very well have been told on the radio show. The black and white artwork gives it a 1950s feel. The story made me think of what a Johnny Dollar television show would have been like.

Compared to radio programs of this era, this stands up as an above average story. It doesn't hit the dramatic high notes of the best Dollar stories like "the Rasmussen Matter" or many of the great five parters, "the Brief Candle Matter" is definitely an accessible and engaging read for people who may never have even listened to the radio show. While its out of print, this is definitely worthy buying used when it's available on Amazon or checking ebay and online comic shops for.

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12Jul/140

Book Review: Nothing to Hide


Nothing to Hide begins with Roland March investigating a murder where the victim was beheaded and skinned. An FBI Agent gives him the name of the victim but then he sees the supposed victim at the same spot where his partner is gunned down, Marsh knows he's on to something bigger.

On Administrative leave while the police investigates his shooting of the man who killed his partner, March continues a quiet investigation into a dark world of ex-CIA men, and drug and gun running, where no one is quite what they seem and no one can be trusted.

The book is a major departure from previous books with its emphasis on clandestine intelligence and Mexican gun running, it reads more like a spy novel at points rather than a police procedural.

Unlike in previous books where Marsh's personal life with supporting characters is a subplot, here it feels more like background or characterization. The book spends less time on his current relationships and more time on his past when he was a Marine lieutenant who encountered a mysterious man who offered him an entirely different path.

From a character standpoint, this is a fascinating story. The flashbacks tie into the main storyline. It also gives us a picture of who Roland March is and why he does what he does. This is an important question. March's beloved Captain is forced out by politics and replaced by his old boss, a woman whose leadership style is to make a cult of personality around her. His administrative leave is drug out by the Internal Affairs division despite evidence that he did nothing wrong. I found myself wandering whether March would ride off into the sunset to spend more time with his oft-traveling wife.

By the end of the book, I realized that wasn't going to happen and this book revealed why. Nothing to Hide paints a portrait of a man whose dedication to justice sometimes borders on fanaticism. He walks a fine line between tenacity and vigilante madness. Arguably he goes slightly over the line in this book before coming back.

March is the type of guy that George Orwell had mind when he said, "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." Nothing to Hide is a book that left me admiring Roland March and slightly scared for him at the same time.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.0

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14Jun/140

Book Review: Family Affair

This is the very last Wolfe novel written by Rex Stout. The book begins with a literal bang as a favorite waiter of Wolfe's comes seeking Wolfe's advice in the middle of the night. Archie puts him up in the South Room for safety, only for the man to be blown up by a bomb that rocks Archie and Wolfe's world.

This case is personal for Wolfe who is determined to catch the killer himself. It's an unprecedented case where we get a whiff of Watergate, Wolfe turns down a one hundred thousand dollar fee, and ends up going to jail all leading up to a conclusion that was shocking at the time and still is if you don't search the Internet too much before reading.

Written while Stout was 85, the book was clearly intended to bring the series to an end. I lost count of the number of times Archie said something happened for the first time. In one scene, Archie gives one person a thousand to one odds on something and he ends up being wrong. Cramer shows a softer side even while Wolfe abandons all pretense of anything but perfunctory cooperation with the police.

This is a book that you should ideally read at the end of the other Stout books, or at least after reading a couple dozen. You can't appreciate how deeply ingrained the rules that get broken in this book are unless you understand the world these characters inhabit.

Family Affair doesn't give us new insights into Wolfe's past but it does tell us a lot about what matters most to him and his closest associates: honor. There is an honor in being the greatest detective in the world and someone people can turn to, and there's honor in working for him and woe to the person who puts that at risk.

The book is a perfect finale and it leaves me a little bit hesitant to pick up Robert Goldsborough's Wolfe novels, because I can't imagine anything doing a good enough job to follow up this story.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

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You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

31May/140

Book Review: The Saint v. Scotland Yard

The Saint, a character who remained popular for decades and has been portrayed by everyone from George Sanders and Vincent Price to Roger Moore and Val Kilmer, got his start in literature.

The Saint v. Scotland Yard  is a book published in 1932 and it collects three novellas, each featuring the Saint working outside or even against Scotland Yard, near the start of the character’s literary career . . “The Inland Revenue” sees Simon trying to shut down a blackmailer. “The Million Pound Day” pits the Saint against a ruthless gang of kidnappers who have a plan to force the printing of a million pounds in fake Italian currency. The final story, “The Melancholy Journey of Mr Teal” finds the Saint trying to steal a jewel thief’s loot before the thief's caught by Scotland Yard.

Overall, the stories are decent for the period. They’re much more adventures than they are mysteries. The cases are well-written and fun to read.

Those who know the Saint from golden age mediums like radio or the Sanders movies may not recognize much about this early version. While the Saint’s billed as the “Robin Hood” of modern crime, the Saint robs from the rich but seems more self-centered. Of course, as this was the 1930s, many people resented the rich and believed the police were corrupt or incompetent, so there was some catharsis in his antics for the common man of the day.

The brilliance of Charteris is that despite the Saint’s less than sterling conduct, he makes it really hard not to like him. The Robin Hood analogy seems inapt. The Saint in this book is really reminiscent of a romantic pirate. The Saint is a swashbuckler who laughs in the face of danger and death, and writes poetry in perilous situations. He and his girlfriend Pat are pure adrenaline junkies who get their kicks out of exposing themselves to danger which is kind of fun for people who live more tame lives.

While the Saint is no paragon in this book, he doesn’t hurt innocent people. Indeed, the book works because whoever the Saint crosses, we have a sense that they somehow deserve it.

The only other negative to this book are some unfortunate racial language which may make the book less accessible to some readers. Overall though, this was a decent early Saint novella collection.

Book Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0

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10May/140

Book Review: The Mother Hunt

A wealthy young widow has a baby left on her doorstep with the claim that the Baby was her late husband's child born out of wedlock. She hires Wolfe to find out who the mother is.

The task is impossible but as usual, Wolfe comes up with a plan thanks to the unusual buttons on the baby's outfit. However, when the buttons traced to its source, a nurse who'd cared for the baby-the nurse is murdered.

Wolfe and Archie find themselves in a tight spot with the cops as they try to find the mother, but are invariably forced to find the killer as well.

This was a well-done story with great characters and a twisting and turning plot that drives Wolfe from the Brownstone under the tightest spot of his career as far as the police are concerned.

The relationship between Archie and the widow is played very well and honestly I could have seen it going places. I think there's a good case to be made that this story was where the Corpus should have ended maybe with wedding bells and respectability for Archie at last.

If not, the book marks the end of the greatest era of Wolfe stories. From 1946-63, Stout produced his best work. With A Right to Die, the tone of the rest of the books would change dramatically.

Overall, this was a wonderful Nero Wolfe novel and earns a:

Rating: Very Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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19Apr/140

Book Review: Fit to Kill

It's the 1ate 1950s and Shayne's reporter friend Tim Rourke is on vacation in a Latin American country with a corrupt government when he meets a beautiful blonde claiming to have hot information.

Shayne is at the airport to meet Rourke, who acts out of character. Then Rourke is kidnapped while the girl disappears and Shayne is left with a lot of questions and a typewriter.

The story is okay, it's not as good as the other two Shayne mysteries I've read, but Halliday provides your expected dose of mayhem, danger, and beautiful blondes.

This one suffered for having Shayne out of the picture for the first 30 percent of the book. Rourke isn't a fun point of view character. Plus in the middle of the book, Rourke gets kind of drunk and those scenes read like   poor imitation of Craig Rice's Mr. Malone. The solution is all a bit unsurprising and it wasn't well set up.

Overall, Mike Shayne is still good and it's not a bad read, but Halliday had produced far better books than this one.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

The copy I read plus another Michael Shayne mystery are available on request with the first donation received of $50 or more for listeners in the US or Canada.  See details here.

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29Mar/140

Book Review: Death of a Doxy

In Death of a Doxy (1966), Archie agrees to a favor for Orrie Cather and reclaim an item from the house of a young woman. Instead, Archie finds the woman dead and smells a set up. Archie extricates himself, but Orrie, a long time associate of Wolfe’s, is charged with murder.

In a conclave with Wolfe, based on the strong conviction of Saul Panzer, the private detective decide Orrie is innocent and set out to prove it. The murdered woman was having an affair with a powerful man and the first but not last task is to find this man.

Death of a Doxy is a solidly written story. The character of Julie Jaquette, a successful nightclub singer who does an impromptu song and dance for Wolfe, which is, without a doubt the greatest moment of the book. Jacquet showed that Stout’s ability to write memorable characters was still very much intact.

The book is a bit darker and cynical than many early Wolfe mysteries of the 1950s particularly with how the killer was disposed of.

The book also introduces Avery Ballou, a character who’d play a minor role in several of the later Wolfe novels, as well as provide some foreshadowing of events that would occur in the final Wolfe novel.

Overall, I rate the book: Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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8Mar/141

Book Review: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes


"The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes"  is  the very last Sherlock Holmes short story collection, published in 1927. It is a proverbial mixed bag. There are some stories in the book that are essential reading for Holmes fans ("The Problem at Thor Bridge" and "The Sussex Vampire"), and then there are some of the weakest stories in the Canon ("The Lion's Mane", "The Blanched Soldier", and "The Veiled Lodger"), and then others that range between average to fairly good.

"The Problem at Thor Bridge" is simply one of Holmes' best cases. There's so much in the story and the solution is classic. The same thing goes for "The Sussex Vampire" which presents Holmes a problem that's evocative of the supernatural but with a surprising natural solution that is pretty emotional in its own right.

Most of the worst stories came towards the end of the book. Both "The Blanched Soldier" and "The Lion's Mane" were attempts to tell Holmes' adventures from Holmes own perspective. While "The Blanched Soldier" was slightly better of the two, both stories were somewhat dry and uninteresting tales that it was hard to care about. The biggest failing of  "The Veiled Lodger"s is that Holmes really does nothing. He describes a mystery and then has one of the perpetrators tell him what happened. While Holmes did say something very wise in response to that, it wasn't really a detective story.

Looking at the rest of the stories:

"The Mazarin Stone": Told in third person, I actually thought it was a pretty fun story showing Holmes cleverness. It was a similar story to the Dying Detective, but I liked this story better.

"The Creeping Man": This is a bizarre story and I know some people really don't like it because it's almost into the realm of speculative fiction, but I thought it was carried off fine and is a classic mix of horror and the detective genre, though good luck trying to guess as to what's happening.

"The Three Garidebs": This is once again a story that calls to mind previous adventures. In it, a man with an unusual last name stands to make a fortune just for his last name, but he brings in Holmes to discern the truth of the business. This story is not as good as "The Red Headed League" but is actually better than "The Stockbroker's Clerk."

"The Illustrious Client": This isn't a whodunit but a challenge for Holmes to stop the marriage of a naive woman to a scoundrel. This is a very well-executed story where Holmes is put to the test.

"The Three Gables": This story of a bereaved mother receiving mysterious offers to buy her house is a very good and enjoyable story.

"The Retired Colourman": This is actually a pretty enjoyable story though Holmes doesn't seem as warm towards Watson in a few places. The solution is a good change of pace, if perhaps a bit melodramatic.

"Shoscombe Old Place": The last Holmes story by Doyle and its solid. Its clearly not at the high quality of Doyle's prime but Holmes gets a pretty engaging case with a clever and unexpected solution revolving around a race horse and the odd behavior of the lady of the manor.

Overall, this is a must for mystery fans even if Doyle is clearly past his prime as a writer in this one.

Let me add that this Oxford edition I read really was splendid and added to the reading experience. The explanatory notes section was helpful to me reading this as an American in the 21st century, as so many phrases that I'd have just glossed over or imagined what they meant. There's also a copious amount of introductory information that provides some great background on the book and is a great resource if you can get a hold of it.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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