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

19Oct/132

Book Review: Back on Murder

For Roland March, it's pretty simple, either he's going back (to being homicide detective) or he's going out (as in completely out of the Houston PD) March made headlines seven years before when he solved a sensational murder, but the high expectations caused by the publicity of the case combined with a personal tragedy led to a decline in his work where he's on one dead end assignment after another, most regularly working a sting where police capture stupid wanted felons lured into the open with the promise of winning a free car contest.

March makes some keen observations at scene of the murder of an inner city drug dealer. March believes that the murder is tied into a nationally covered disappearance of a teenage girl. He goes against orders to look into the angle and gets yanked off the case and on to the task force looking into the disappearance, another dead end. Can March somehow parlay his hunches, uncover the secrets of a group of crooked cops, and stay alive so that the get his career and life back on track.

The book is remarkably well-written and has high quality throughout most of it. March is a fantastic character with his own set of inner demons. March's narration varies from hard boiled wry cop sarcasm to poignancy, to vivid and powerful word images that paint as clear a picture of 21st Century Houston as Raymond Chandler's Marlowe's stories did of 1940s Los Angeles. The character does change as the story goes on. He becomes more of a team player. At the beginning of the book, his focus is really on him: The quest to get back into Homicide. As his focus shifts to the case at hand, actually getting his man leads to real cooperation.

The mystery is a clever tangled web of intrigue that intersects with crooked cops, with honest efforts to help other, and an old rival of March's that won't go away. Really, everything ties together in the end and the clues are solidly laid out.

The last quarter, and the last sixth of the book in particular do suffer a bit of a slowdown with more fizzle than sizzle. Bertrand made the dubious decision to fill in a bunch of back story details towards the end of the book as we were closing in on the killers and a hurricane kills not one by two birds for our hero. These are minor issues given how good the rest of the book was.

The book is from a Christian company, but has little Christian material. March is a moral man but not a believer. The best Christians get from the book is a murder mystery that doesn't make a Christian look like a psycho. The book is a clean read as far as profanity goes and doesn't go for overly graphic

Overall, I enjoyed the book immensely and will be watching for the next book in the series.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

Note: The Kindle version of this book is available for free.

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5Oct/130

Book Review: Champagne for One

In Champagne for One, while attending a dinner party held for unwed mother at the home of a prominent socialite, Archie witnesses the death of one of the mother's attending the party, one who had been known to be carrying vile of poison. Archie had been made aware of this and was watching the girl and swore she didn't put anything in her glass, making it a murder.

Wolfe ends up hired by one of the attendees to protect him from exposure as the father of the dead woman's child by exposing the murderer first. The mystery itself actually quite satisfied. There are plenty of secrets to be uncovered and a lot of layers to make this mystery.

Socially, it's interesting because it was written on the cusp of the sexual revolution. Archie is at one point scandalized by a woman who has had two children out of wedlock and at another things a 31-year old man who expects to marry a virgin an old fogey before his time.

Overall, this a good solid story, not one of my favorites but still easily merits a rating of:

Satisfactory

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

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22Sep/130

Book Review: Murder by Proxy (Brett Halliday)

Note: I picked up several Michael Shayne novels as a give away for our listener support campaign.  Shayne was popular in other medias including radio version starring Wally Maher and Jeff Chandler,  film version with Lloyd Nolan and Hugh Beaumont, and a television version featuring Richard Denning. I decided to give the books a whirl while flying from San Francisco to St. Louis so that I'd know of what I speak when we begin doing Michael Shayne on our program. Below is my review.

A gorgeous woman checks into a Miami hotel room and then vanishes. Her husband arrives five days later for a surprise visit and finds her missing and is outraged the hotel didn't do anything about it until now. He turns to Michael Shayne to find her.

Murder by Proxy (1962) is a short engaging book that does what its supposed to. It's been out of print for years and no one's likely to bring it back, nor unlike a Philip Marlowe book is anyone going to be told to read it. Social commentary is limited. What were left with a good solid hard boiled mystery novel that uses just the right of description to paints meaningful and evocative word pictures that powerfully tell oft the  missing "stacked" woman.

The mystery is cleverly written and is a true puzzle on both a physical and psychological level. The obvious explanation adopted by the police is that the woman simply stepped out, but she seemed to really be in love with her husband. The husband may have had some motive for killing her, but why would he step out on such a beautiful wife plus Shayne thought his concern for his wife is sincere. The puzzle and the chase are satisfying with just enough red herrings along the way.

While not a classic, this is good solid mystery mystery writing at its finest.

Note: We have a small supply of Michael Shayne novels available through our listener support page

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7Sep/130

Book Review: Prisoner’s Base

In Prisoner's Base, a missing heiress shows up at Wolfe's house asking for help while giving no details including her name. She wants Wolfe to hide her, but Wolfe isn't in to taking boarders except for an extravagant $10,000 a month fee. He has Archie throw the woman out and gives her a head start before Wolfe accepts a commission from her attorney to locate her. The heiress leaves and the next day, news of her murder hits.

Archie leaves the Brownstone takes a leave of absence and sets out to solve the case himself as he feels responsible for the woman's death. He quickly finds himself in hot water with the police. While initially remains disinterested, when Lt. Rowcliff hamhandedly drags Wolfe down to headquarters, Wolfe delivers one of his most blistering speeches and declares that he's working for Archie. With no fee in sight and plenty of suspects, Wolfe and Archie have a job on their hands.

If Over My Dead Body represents Wolfe at his most human than certainly Prisoner's Base does the same for Archie. Archie has some great moments in the story as he has to navigate a world of corporate jealousies in order to uncover the truth and bring the killer to justice. Archie deals with the death of not only the heiress, but another woman who died because he followed his advice. The story also gives keen insight into the Archie-Wolfe relationship with Wolfe at his most paternal and wise.

Add in a decent mystery plot and Prisoner's Base is a true classic and one of the best of the Wolfe series.

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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25Aug/130

Book Review: Farewell, My Lovely

Raymond Chandler's  second novel begins on two seemingly unrelated tracks. A man named Moose Malloy walks into a Black establishment and kills the owner because he's looking for his girl Velma who used to sing at the place when it was a white club. Marlowe does a favor for a police detective because he doesn't have anything else to do and because it can be handy in his line of work for a police detective to owe you a favor. Then when he hits a dead end, he takes a job for a man named Marriott to help him deliver ransom money for a stolen jade necklace and Marriott ends up murdered.

Marlowe goes on a wild ride, gets beat up, knocked out a couple times, drugged all leading to the conclusion of the case. If anything, the book is more cynical than The Big Sleep with crooked cops abounding and a de facto 1940s open marriage. The attitude portrayed towards blacks in the book was sadly stereotypical and if not hostile, was at least indifferent to their plight. In addition, while the dialogue was good, I don't think it was quite as good as the The Big Sleep.

However, even with its faults, it's one of the best detective stories ever written.  If it didn't have a a clever mystery, if it didn't have Marlowe on a scary trip while drugged as a sleazy sanitarium, it would be a great book because of  its characters. They're on every page.  They had depth and nuance, even corrupt Bay City cops, a gambling magnate, a drunk widow, and of course Moose Malloy. You add all the elements together and you have a masterpiece.  Whether it's as good as the Big Sleep, we can argue about, but its a masterpiece none the less.

And of course, Philip Marlowe remains the honest man, the knight who's courage and incorruptibility  make the book work.  In this book, he doesn't do anything near as dramatic as ripping apart his bed when he rebuffed Carmen Sternwood. Here, it's more subtle. In a classic scene, Marlowe is being questioned by a police lieutenant and helps a fly out of the police office and lets it go. At the end of the book, he asks the Lieutenant about the fly and he doesn't know what he's talking about.

It subtly paints a picture of a Marlowe who doesn't quite see the world the same way his contemporaries (even good men) do as they accept corruption as just a matter of course. While Marlowe isn't a crusader, his sense of honor compels him to challenge the corruption that's in front of him.

Except for some offensive racial language, the book really stands the test of time. While Philip Marlowe books are not recommended for kids or very sensitive adult readers, for fans of hard boiled fiction, the book is a must.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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17Aug/130

A Look at John J Malone

John J Malone was the best known creation of mystery writer Craig Rice a pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig that was pretty popular in the 1940s, spawning two movies, a TV series, and several radio incarnations. I've read two of the out of print books ahead of the launch of the Mr. Malone programs

I actually found The Fourth Postman at my local public library, but wasn't thrilled with it, so I decided to give an earlier book a chance.

The Corpse Steps Out was the second John Malone mystery comedy. Jake Justus is a publicist for a radio star who is being blackmailed. She and Justus find the blackmailer dead, and then the body disappears. Quickly, the book becomes a tale of disappearing bodies, bodied being moved, and more murders follows while Jake, Helene, and Malone seek to solve the mystery and get married.

The theory behind the Malone stories was that everything was better with booze. Characters have drinks to be social, drinks to calm down, drinks to think, drinks because it'd been twenty minutes since their last drink. In that way, it was similar to the Thin Man, only moreso. As post-prohibition America embraced these stories of over the top fantastic drinking as catharsis or a weird sort of alcohol fantasy.

At any rate, readers we're treated to a good enough mystery, some decent humor, and some keen philosophical points that were obtained when the characters were, of course, drinking. The big downside to the book was that no characters was all that likable or human even other than the murderer. The drinking buddies didn't really care about catching the murder or justice, only protecting the reputation of Jake's client, a well-beloved radio singer who was like one of ancient sirens who led men to their ruin. So perhaps that gave it a cynical element of realism.

The Fourth Milkman finds John J Malone investigating the murder of three postmen with a wealthy and meek man accused of the crime.

It was released in 1948, fifteen years after the end of prohibition. Orgies of alcohol were really out of fashion. Perhaps more than that, the talents of Craig Rice were in decline. Call Ms. Rice many things, but she was no hypocrite. She practiced the wild hard drinking lifestyle her books uplift and perhaps that caused a decline of her writing ability ahead of her too early death.

Jake Justus was the main on-stage character in The Corpse Steps Out and had been relegated to third banana. He finally married the wealthy woman sometime after that book and seems to have become a shiftless derelict whose main scene involved waltzing into the crime scene with a murder weapon while in a drunken stupor.

Malone investigates the case somewhat ably in his constantly pickled state. The book is a notch below The Corpse Steps Out with no real likable characters and even more of its humor falling flat.

Jake Justus was the main on-stage character in The Corpse Steps Out and had been relegated to third banana. He finally married the wealthy woman sometime after that book and seems to have become a shiftless derelict whose main scene involved waltzing into the crime scene with a murder weapon while in a drunken stupor.

Malone investigates the case somewhat ably in his constantly pickled state. The book is a notch below The Corpse Steps Out with no real likable characters and even more of its humor falling flat.

Overall, neither book is horrendous, but neither holds up well over time. The radio shows are a different matter of course. While the best known detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe were defined to some extent by their literary counterparts, most other detectives from books took the names of their literary counterparts and a few elements of their stories but made their own way. The Malone radio shows did this under several different actors and we'll look forward to bring you these radio episodes in September.

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11Aug/130

Book Review: The Thin Man

Dashiell Hammett's novel, The Thin Man  launched one of the golden age's greatest detective movie franchises, along with a popular radio program, as well as a 1950s syndicated TV series. The movies remain a fantastic showcase of the talents and chemistry of William Powell and Myrna Loy.

The Nick and Nora in this book don't have the pure level of charm and chemistry that made the movies so enjoyable. That was all the work of Powell, Loy, and direct W.S. Van Dyne. The book is good but different. The Thin Man is a comedy of manners mixed with a solid mystery.

Nick Charles is a retired private eye who gets pressed into investigating the murder of a woman in which a former client of his named Clyde Wynant is a suspect, though Wynant (who was the actual thin man not Charles) has been missing for quite some time. The mystery is actually pretty well done. The interaction between Charles and the policeman investigating the case are great detective work and thinking.

The comedy of manners portion works on many levels. Nick Charles is the ex-detective and committed husband who operates and understands many circles in life: from the wealthy socialites to the petty hoods that predominated during prohibition. The Wynant family is a freak show of children ruined by money and an ex-wife who is a compulsive liar. Compared to high society, the criminals and mobsters in the story are a far more sane and decent lot.

Of course, that leaves us with a story where the only sympathetic characters are Nick and Nora. Nora tries to help the daughter, Dorothy Wynant despite the fact that she's just as much a part of the craziness as everyone else. Nick is a mature man whose grounded and wants nothing more to do with the Wynants (understandably) or the murder, but is fully settled down from his hard-scramble days as an operative.

Hammett does make a few odd decisions. Most notable was the verbatim inclusion of a story of the Donner party or a reasonable facsimile thereof that took more than ten minutes for the audiobook narrator to read. And there were a few characters that were just plain tiresome rather than amusing, particularly the ex-wife Mimi and the son Gilbert. Also the conclusion lacks the class of the silver screen denouement.

Still, it's amusing mix that features Dashiell Hammett's talents at his peak.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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4Aug/130

Book Review: Over My Dead Body

In Over My Dead Body, Wolfe's a young Yugoslav woman claiming to be Wolfe's long lost adopted daughter shows up at the Brownstone door needing help with a small matter of being accused of stealing some jewels at a fencing academy where she works. However, the case quickly escalates when a murder happens at the academy and key evidence ends up planted on Archie. Also, the book was published in 1940, and the shadow of the European War looms large with plenty of International intrigue.

The mystery is above average and the final twists took me by surprise, but what makes this book a worthwhile read is the insights it provides into Nero Wolfe's character. Most of Wolfe's life prior to coming to America remains shrouded in mystery and is rarely addressed in the rest of the corpus. How does a man of action and passion, as Wolfe once was, become a very large detective who toils with life's intellectual puzzles and avoids as much rigor and action as possible. Over My Dead Body provides more clues on this question than any book in the corpus. While it doesn't provide explicit answers, we do get a picture of Wolfe's world-weariness and his dread of the new European War which would later give way to enthusiastic anti-Nazi sentiment that would have Wolfe trying to get into the US Army to fight in, "Not Quite Dead Enough."

Also in contrast to, The Doorbell Rings, we're treated to an earlier more cooperative encounter with the FBI as representative of the American people that's both informative and amusing, with the G-man mostly played for comic relief. In this story, Archie much more of a by-stander and witness, but Wolfe puts on a good show, and Over My Dead Body is a solid entry in the series.

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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6Jul/130

Book Review: Death Times Thee

This posthumous collection of Wolfe novellas featured one story that rewrote a Tecumseh Fox novel as a Nero Wolfe novella and two alternate version of Wolfe stories that are part of the corpus.

Bitter End:

This was a reworking of Bad for Business, a novel for Rex Stout's other Detective Tecumseh Fox. necessitated by Stout's desire to make money to support him while he waged his battle against Hitler. I read the original novel but that's hardly necessary. The reworking here is seemless. The plot begins when Wolfe gets a spiked candy from Tingley's Tidbits. While the poison's not deadly, it's bitter and this is enough to get Wolfe on the warpath and make him more than willing to help the niece of the hated CEO of Tingley's. Of course, the case takes on a whole new complexity when the CEO is murdered and the niece finds herself unconscious at the scence of the crime. The story is one of the best in the corpus and Archie really shines.
Rating: Very Satisfactory

Frame Up for Murder:
An expansion of the story, "Murder Is No Joke." Differences are kind of subtle and to be honest, listening to the audiobook, I didn't notice any major changes. "Murder is No Joke" is a solid Wolfe story, so it wouldn't hurt any fan to enjoy this second telling of this story which has Wolfe and Archie seeming to be ear witnesses to murder.

Rating: Satisfactory

Assault on a Brownstone:

This was an early draft of, "Counterfeit for Murder" and may be a case for great writers to destroy early drafts of their works. However, for fans of Wolfe, it's interesting to see how Stout took the story of counterfeitting and murder. In both versions, Hattie Annis comes to Archie after finding counterfeit money in her home due to her hatred of police. In this version, rather than a tennant whose an undercover t-woman being murderered, Hattie Annis herself is. I definitely prefer the published version as Annis was one of Stout's most memorable characters and the T-woman who survived was one of those stock Nero Wolfe story women. That's not to say the story didn't have features. In this version, Archie butts heads with the Treasury Department and the results are hilarious. Still, the ending was bizarrely atypical. However, it's hard to lay too much criticism on the story. It was never met to be published, rather it gave us a look at how Stout originally thought of doing the story. Thankfully he thought better of it.
Rating: Satisfactory

Outside of "Bitter End," the book would be for Wolfe completists only as there's not a lot new if you've read the over novella collections. However, "Bitter End" makes the book worth picking up from the library at the very least.

Rating: Satisfactory

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

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16Jun/130

Book Review: The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep was the first published Philip Marlowe stories. Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to stop another blackmail attempt against for his youngest daughter, Carmen. Marlowe takes on the job and along the way tumbles into a blackmail racket, an illegal porn shop, a few murders, and the ever pressing question of what happened to Rusty Regan, the husband of Sternwood's other daughter Vivian.

From there Marlowe has to navigate the corrupt world of the Sternwood girls, stop the blackmailer, and protecting the dying General Sternwood. As a mystery, the Big Sleep is top notch. The mystery grows more complex the deeper Marlowe gets into it. Marlowe's world is packed with memorable characters that inhabit this gritty world.

And then there's the writing, in the Big Sleep Chandler has a wonderful way with words. The book features quotes like this:

“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”

“Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.”

“Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”

“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”

Fans who know Marlowe from the radio should be advised that the book is far edgier. It's a world that includes a pornography-related plot and sexual references, though the book avoids graphic description However, the morally redeeming quality of the book is the character of Philip Marlowe, an honest detective living in a code of honor facing a corrupt world that runs from LA's upper class to its underworld.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars

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