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Radio Drama Review: The Thinking Machine

The period between Sherlock Holmes and the coming of iconic characters such as Hercules Poirot, Nick Charles, Philip Marlowe, and Nero Wolfe is littered with a series of mostly forgotten detectives. One of these Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen created by Jacques Futrelle. Van Dusen appeared in one novel and fifty short stories between his creation in 1905 and the tragic death of Futrelle aboard the board the Titanic in 1912.  Colonial Radio Theatre has brought Van Dusen back to life in its new series, The Thinking Machine.

In the early 20th Century were viewed primarily as puzzles and the two mysteries in the first volume of stories released by Colonial falls firmly into this category and they're quite good puzzles: "The Problems of Dressing Room A" deals with an impossible disappearance from an actress from backstage during a performance in attire that could hardly be worn on the street. The second, "The Phantom Motor" deals with a motor car that impossibly disappears when passing between two police officers across a road known as, "The Trap."

Professor Van Dusen (Lincoln Clark) is a genius (which he'll gladly let you know) but he is not a detective. His process for solving mysteries is not so much deduction as thinking through the problem and finding a way to the solution. That's one of the great highlights of the stories is how Van Dusen and newspaper reporter Hutchinson Hatch will hash out nearly all conceivable solutions with incisive and clever logic. Then Van Dusen thinks through a way to find the solution that most of the professionals have missed.

If there's a downside to the production, it's this: Van Dusen, like  many amateur detectives during this period,  knew they were smarter and better than you and had no qualms about letting others know it. In the early 20th century, readers were kind of tolerant of this as long as the detective  got the job done.  We live in an age where really don't like people being better than us, and we certainly don't like them making a point of it. Hercule Poirot has this problem to an extent but he makes up for it with a ton of charm. Van Dusen has no such endearing qualities. With Clark's solid acting, the character could grow on listeners, but with only two mysteries in this first set, it's kind of hard to gauge how successful he could be.

However, Clark ad the rest of the cast are solid, showcasing the high production values I've come to expect from Colonial Radio Theater. Overall, these are well- acted well-produced puzzle mysteries that's worth a listen particularly if you're curious about forgotten detectives of the early 20th cenury.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0

Disclosure note: The reviewer received a free review copy for an honest review of this production.

The Thinking Machine is available as an audible download here.

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Radio Drama Review: Powder River, Season Two

Season 2 of Powder River finds Britt MacMasters (Jerry Robbins) having resumed his role as a US marshall, a new sheriff  (Joseph Zamberelli) in town, and the continued process of Chad MacMasters (Derrick Alerud) coming of age.

As the season begins, Sheriff Dawes takes over as the town's full time law man and immediately clashes with the town's  people, arresting the town's best shot Doc (Lincoln Clark) for carrying his pistol on the city streets. Dawes also seems uncomfortable with having a US Marshal in town and wants to assert his authority. However, the coming of Indian raids forces him to abandon these pursuits in order to ensure the town is protected.

While the first season of Powder River (originally intended as a limited series) was good, Robbins and the Colonial Theater players really stepped it up a notch, producing a  consistently great Western adventure series.  The highlights for me:

  • Jenny White singing: Due to an Indian attack on the Overland stage, a great singer from back East ends up stranded in Clearmont and she agrees to perform at the local saloon while she's there.  The singing was authentic and the sound quality on the musical performance: superb. It's fantastic for a series that really didn't deal much in music.
  • Chad MacMasters kidnapped:  This four part story arch has so much going for it. The basic premise of Chad being kidnapped by a vengeful enemy of the Macmaster clan has a very old school feel to it.  Colonial really took their time on this and developed this story perfectly.  It's one of the most emotionally engaging radio stories you'll ever find. The drama and suspense reach high levels as the villain drags Chad into the unforgiving Eastern Montana winter, with Britt and friends right on their trail. This is a story that works on every level from start to finish.
  • General Custer shows up:  The appearance of General Custer in Clearmont is a great story. Chad is grabbed by the idea of becoming an Army Scout under Customer, but as a former Army man that served under the egotistical general, Britt knows better. My favorite scene in this three part story was Britt's confrontation with General Custer.
  • The Stunning Season Finale:  The last two episodes of the second season really created a fantastic contrast. The fourteenth episode of the season found Clearmont celebrating America's Centennial in grand fashion. The season finale, "Nothing Lasts Forever" is about the day after as the citizens of Clearmont learn of General Custer's defeat at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The contrast between the celebratory mood of one episode and the mournful feeling of the other was striking.  The programs originally aired in 2005, and the reactions of the people of Clearmont to the news seemed similar to how Americans felt on September 11, 2001 with the terrorist attacks. Chad decides to take a dramatic new step in his life, but his father doesn't approve, leading to a tense conclusion that reveals a lot about the tough as nails US Marshal. In many ways, the whole season led up to this moment, particularly a shooting contest that father and son competed in earlier in the series.

I'm not a huge fan of westerns, but Season 2 of Powder River is just a very well-produced radio drama that's worth a listen. If you're curious about Powder River, I'd probably recommend starting with this season first as it's a higher quality production and it's not necessary to listen to season one to understand the series.

Overall, Season 2 has plenty of action, adventure, and drama and is a must listen to for your radio drama library.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars.

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Radio Drama Review: Powder River, Season One

Colonial Radio Theater's most successful radio series has been Powder River, which just concluded its six season. This remains an improbable series: A successful western produced at a time when the western genre is practically moribund and the series is produced Boston of all places.

The first fifteen episode season was originally released in 2004. It follows Britt McMasters (Jerry Robbins) and his son Chad (Derek Aalerud) as he starts a new life for himself as a rancher in Claremont, Wyoming near the Powder River in Wyoming. McMasters had been a U.S. Marshal but had retired after an incident he'd rather not discuss.

However, his past will not leave him alone. The series begins with the Ryan gang attempting to kill McMasters, and it becomes clear that it's either McMasters or the gang.

There is much to like about this first season. Robbins is great as McMasters. In addition the character of Doc (Lincoln Edwards), the town doctor who is even more handy with a gun than he is a doctor's bag is well-developed and fun. In addition, the show has a great sense and feel of Old West life with a dedication to realism without becoming hopelessly dark. At its best, it feels ike Have Gun Will Travel or Gunsmoke.

At times, this first season does stumble, mainly with stories that just don't feel right. Episodes that found Chad trying to help a disabled girl with an overprotective mother through riding horses,  or where the McMasters helped a war deserter, or the one where Mark Twain shows up and spouts famous quotes the whole episode were ones I bore more than enjoyed.

However, the show's inconsistent quality took a decided turn for the best that moved it from 3 stars to 4 stars with the last few episodes that dealt with the resolution of the Ryan gang story line. The last episode had an absolutely stunning plot twist that has to be heard to be believed. It's an incredible finale.

The series wasn't originally intended to become the multi-season success it has been. As such, the writers felt free to kill off some significant characters. The old west was a harsh place and that's definitely reflected in these stories.

Overall, I give it a solid 4.0 out of 5.0 stars.

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EP0735s: Father Brown: The Quick One

JT Turner

At a hotel, Father Brown tries to find out who killed an outspoken local man in a hotel bar.

Recorded: June 4,  2008

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Program played with Permission of Colonial Radio Theatre




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