Category: Golden Age Article

Book Review: Boston Blackie

Boston Blackie was the lead character in fourteen movies and two separate radio series’ in the 1940s and a TV series in the 1950s. Before that he was a character in a series of short stories by Jack Boyle, the first few stories were collected in the 1919 book called Boston Blackie.

In literature, Blackie was a master criminal. He was hardly alone in that as both the Lone Wolf and the Saint were reformed thieves. What made Blackie different is not only was he a thief but he was a thief written with exceedingly noble character. The book opens with an introduction where Boyle describing his first meeting with Boston Blackie in San Francisco after the San Francisco Fire where he was tenderly caring for children left homeless. Boyle highlighted his dedication to his own moral code and suggested readers were in no position to judge the man.

We learn that Blackie has a wife named Mary. This seems to be the one thing both radio and TV shows took from the book in naming Blackie’s girlfriend in both mediums. They are partners in life and in crime. Both are pillars of the criminal community.

They commit all sorts of crimes but stop short of murder. Blackie, Mary, and their friends live according to a criminal code of honor. And Blackie is the ultimate upholder of the code. In the first and best story, Blackie is robbing a safe when he meets the son of the owner, who is a poor little rich boy left all alone. Blackie manages to get the boy a better home life and bring his parents together while still getting away with a fabulous jewel.

Blackie has reasons that he thinks makes most of his crimes virtuous. He plots to steal from a ship as revenge on the ship owner for treating Mary’s father badly. Blackie gives up the fruits of one robbery to save a poor man being railroaded by the police. In keeping with the criminal codes, he goes to prison rather than turn in a criminal who killed someone.

The only tracking down of a criminal occurs when Blackie goes after a bigamist who got out of prison because of his practice of encouraging jailbreaks and snitching to the guards to get reductions in his sentence, getting several prisoners killed while escaping.

The police and prison officials are universally corrupt in the Boston Blackie stories. Framing people for crimes they didn’t commit and being willful sadists is part of the job description. In many ways, this reflects big city police corruption and plays into the distrust the public had for the police.

It may stem from writer Jack Boyle’s run ins with the law. Boyle spent 11 months in San Quentin and created Blackie while serving in Canon City near Denver.  Boyle’s stories embellished his criminal career, though. He actually was in prison for check forgery. (Source: In Search of Jack Boyle)

As a book, Boston Blackie has a twisted moral sense to it. Often times, I’ve heard old time radio police programs and various leaders from the era complaining about literature that glorifies criminals. I never understood the full thrust of what was meant by that until this book. I often imagined books that, like modern media, glorify sadistic murderers for being as bad as they wanna be. Boston Blackie instead glorifies criminals as honorable, saintly figures who live by a code of honor.

The book’s relation to the radio show and the later Chester Morris movies is a bit strained. While the Lone Wolf and the Saint shifted in literature, Blackie’s transformation from an honorable crook to straight-laced hero came exclusively on radio and film. He began as a reformed thief in the Chester Morris movies. By the late 1940s, one episode of the radio series suggested Blackie had never been in trouble with the law at all.

The book comes from the same era as another book that launched a media franchise, Tracer of Lost Persons (See review here. Like Tracer of Lost Persons, this book has its share of pretty dated sappy melodrama. Unlike Tracer of Lost Persons, there’s far fewer surprises or goofiness to add to the entertainment value. The main draw of the book is if you want to see the origins of Boston Blackie as a literary character. On its own, the book doesn’t have a whole lot to commend it.

Rating 2.25 out of 5

The Top Ten Big Finish Stories of 2019, Part Two

Continued from Part One

5) Lies in Ruin by James Goss starring Paul McGann, Alex Kingston, Lisa Bowerman, and Alexandra Riley from the Legacy of Time

This is the first story in Big Finish’s big 20th Anniversary box set. It opens with two Doctor Who archaeologists River Song (Kingston) and Bernice Summerfield (Bowerman) meeting on the ruins of a destroyed world. The Doctor (McGann) arrives and they realize what the ruins are (or think they do.)

While this is a big story with huge sci-fi concepts, it also works well as a character piece. Most of the story is the Doctor, River, Bernice, and the Doctor’s new companion Ria (Riley) interacting and it plays out beautifully. It’d have been tempting in bring River Song and Bernice Summerfield together to turn the entire story into a tit for tat verbal battle. Lies in Ruin doe have such moments, but the story moves on. McGann’s performance is marvelous, bringing his most melancholy and sad take on the Eighth Doctor late in his life. It helps even elevate Ria and give her annoying character some pathos.

4) Space 1999: Breakaway by Nicholas Briggs, Starring Mark Bonnar and Maria Teresa Creasey

I did a full review on two hour pilot episode last year (see here). This was a great re-imagining of the Gerry Anderson classic about a Moon Base about to launch a major space mission, but also dealing with a mysterious illness. Great acting, superb sound design, and definitely an intriguing story that whet my appetite for more.

3) The Sacrifice of Jo Grant by Guy Adams, Starring Katy Manning, Tim Treloar, Jemma Redgrave, and Ingrid Oliver from The Legacy of Time 

While observing a time anomaly,  UNIT leader Kate Stewart (Redgrave) and former Unit Agent Jo Grant-Jones (Manning) are sucked back in time to the 1970s where they meet the incarnation of the Doctor Jo traveled with, played by Tim Treloar.

This story works on a number of levels. There’s humorous moments, but it’s a great character piece, particularly in the focus on the relationship between the Doctor and Jo. It’s sweet to see how they interact and how the much older version of Jo relates to the Doctor she knew as a young woman. It’s a well-paced, fun, and emotionally satisfying listen.

2. Doctor Who and the Star Beast written by Alan Barnes from a comic strip by Pat Mills and John Wegner, starring Tom Baker and Rhianne Starbuck from Doctor Who, the Comic Strip Adaptations, Volume 1

This  was adapted from a Doctor Who Magazine Comic strip from 1980. In this story, a teenage foster child (Starbuck) decides to protect a cute alien from authorities. whose spaceship crashed. The Doctor (Tom Baker) gets caught in the middle as another group of aliens are hunting the cute alien and have mis-identified the Doctor as an accomplice.  However, another wrinkle is thrown in as we learn that the cute alien named Beep the Meep (Bethan Dixon Bate) is nowhere near as innocent as he appears.

In some ways, this comes off as a bit of a twisted send-up of E.T. (even though E.T. wasn’t produced until years after the comic strip.) It’s Doctor Who at its most wacky and insane, but it’s cleverly written and does work in a few emotional beats. The cast is great and it sounds like Baker is having fun with the material, which makes for a delightful listen.

1) No Place, Written by James Goss, Starring David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Bernard Cribbins, and Jacqueline King

This story finds the Doctor (Tennant) pretending to be married to his companion Donna (Tate). They’re traveling with her grandfather Wilf (Cribbins) and her mother Sylvia (King) as they’re remodeling a haunted house for a reality TV show.

This story has a lot going for it. There are multiple mysteries including what’s going on in the house and why the Doctor and why the Doctor and friends are even doing this. There are scary moments and fun moments. The characters play well off each other as everyone picks right up from where they left off on television a decade ago without a missing a beat. 

It’s enjoyable from start to finish and my favorite Big Finish story of 2019.

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The Top Ten Big Finish Stories of 2019, Part One

I’m a huge fan of Big Finish Audio Dramas. Mostly the ones I listen to feature stories with the past stars of Doctor Who reprising their original roles in new science fiction adventures as well as several Doctor Who spin-offs featuring other characters.

Big Finish releases a ton of new stories packaged together in box sets. I haven’t heard them all, so I can’t consider this a definitive list by any means of the best of the Big Finish. It is only the best of what I’ve heard of their 2019 releases.

10. The Perfect Prisoners by John Dorney starring Tom Baker and Jane Slavin from the Fourth Doctor Adventures, Series 8, Volume 2

This two episode story wraps up an eight episode two box set story where the Fourth Doctor (Baker) is joined by 1970s Police Woman Ann Kelso (Slavin) as they investigate a crime syndicate with schemes that stretch across time and space. This is a very complicated plot involving a sinister mind control scheme as well as multiple layers to the mystery of who is running the syndicate. We also get some big revelations about Ann that have an emotionally powerful impact on the Doctor.

9) Day of the Master written by John Dorney, starring Paul McGann, Nicola Walker, Hattie Moran, Michelle Gomez, Derek Jacoby, Eric Roberts, Geoffrey Beevers, and Mark Bonnar from Ravenous 4:

This is the big finale to the four box set Ravenous series and it is an epic story with multiple things going on. The Doctor (McGann) and Companions (Walker and Moran) have to stop the Ravenous from destroying the universe after the Master (Beavers) was apparently killed by them in the previous story. Like the Doctor, the Master is a Time Lord with multiple regenerations and three of these (Gomez, Jacobi, and Roberts) begin to get in the way of the Doctor and companions but eventually come together and team up. The series does a lot. Its an exciting two hour adventure with so many twists. It provides some real fun to hear these many iterations of the Master play off each other. At the same time, the story doesn’t forget that the Doctor is the hero and still gives him plenty to do. The deeper you are into Big Finish, the more you get out of this story as it not only provides the payoff for four box sets of the Ravenous story, but also pays off and answers questions that go back years before.  However, it doesn’t require a deep knowledge of the continuity to enjoy it.

8. The Vardan Invasion of Mirth written by Paul Morris and Ian Atkins, starring Peter Purves and Steven Critchlow from the Companion Chronicles: The First Doctor, Volume 3

Steven Taylor (Purves) finds himself separated from the First Doctor and seemingly stranded on Earth in the 1950s and working in a TV repair shop. However, he receives a mysterious message via television from the Doctor that leads him on a path to playing straight man to old time comic Teddy Baxter (Critchlow). The idea of Taylor (one of the Doctor’s more serious and no-nonsense companions) appearing in a comedy act is funny itself. However, the story is a charming and heart-warming tribute to the comedy of that era which Purves requested and the sincerity really shines through. Critchlow is great as Baxter as there’s some laughs to add but also a lot of sadness. The story has a nice mystery with a few good twists and this is a really fun hour of entertainment.

7. Companion Piece written by John Dorney, starring Nicola Walker, Hattie Moran, India Fisher, Alex Kingston, Rahkee Thakrar, John Heffernan, and Paul McGann from Ravenous 3:

This is an unusual story set during the Ravenous saga as the Doctor’s main companions for this series (Walker and Moran) are kidnapped from the events of Ravenous series by the Nine (Heffernan), a kleptomaniac Time Lord who decides to go about collecting all of the Doctor’s companions. There are cameos by a lot of different companions but the focus is on the companions of the Eighth Doctor (McGann): past (Pollard), present, and future (Thakrar) as well as River Song (Kingston.) They’ve got to come together to thwart the Nine and get back to their own place in time. It’s ultimately a distraction from the on-going story arc, but what a fun distraction.

6. The Bekdel Test written by Jonathan Morris, starring Alex Kingston and Michelle Gomez from the Diary of the River Song, Volume 5

This is set during the time that River Song (Kingston) was imprisoned for murdering the Doctor. She’s transferred to the Bekdel Institute, a prison filled with dangerous inmates, and most dangerous of all is Missy (Michelle Gomez), one of the Doctor’s oldest enemies. This story delivers on so many levels. Kingston and Gomez play off each other with some hilariously witty banter and a few really good character moments. The idea of the Bekdel institute is incredibly well-executed as a concept. Its name is a clever play on words for the so-called Bechdel test for female characters in fiction which also plays into the main plot of the story. This one has some really clever twists and nice surprises. It’s a superbly written piece that really lets these characters play off each other and the result is a delight.

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Book Review: The Innocence of Father Brown

Note: A version of this review appeared in 2009

This is the first Father Brown short story collection by G.k. Chesterton. Father Brown was in many ways a continuation of what Chesterton wrote in his classic Orthodoxy. 

The intellectuals of Chesterton’s time viewed the orthodox Christian as superstitious and weak-minded. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy, asserted his vision of orthodoxy was entirely different: conscious, sensible, winsome, and wise. 

Two years after writing Orthodoxy, he wrapped it in a Cossack and embodied it in the person of Father Brown, a physically unremarkable and humble priest, who uses his wisdom, common sense, and experience as a confessor to solve even the most baffling crimes.

It should be noted that, contrary to what many people have said, Chesterton was not a Catholic at the time he wrote the first Father Brown stories from 1910-1914. That conversion wouldn’t happen until the 1920s. However, he already knew the priest who would facilitate his confession and Father John O’Connor was the basis of the character.

To enjoy Chesterton’s books, you have to appreciate a couple of things. First of all, many are unlike any detective stories we read today.  While there’s plot and action, the main focus is the puzzle, not character development. Outside of Brown and his friend Flambeau, most of the characters remain flat. They’re stereotypical Frenchmen, Calvinists, Rich Men, and Atheists. They’re there to provide their piece of the puzzle and then get on with it.

 There’s also not any sense of danger or mayhem. There’s little violence onstage, although Chesterton can come up with some quite ghastly ways to kill a man.

This is a battle of wits between you and Father Brown, and most of the time you’re going to lose quite badly. The plot unfolds to reveal the puzzle, Father Brown solves the puzzle and the story ends, often abruptly.

What carries the stories is Chesterton’s voice which I find delightful, even when reading a book over one hundred years after the time. Chesterton uses his prose like a painter uses paint, true artistry that’s understandable to a modern reader.

Father Brown is a fun character. When he speaks, he says something important. Brown was the first in a long line of unlikely detectives that would include Charlie Chan and Inspector Columbo: the last person in the world that the criminal would be worried about finding them out. But somehow, he solves the case with a completely unexpected solution.

There are a total of twelve stories in the collection, each constituting a different mystery. Several stood out to me:

The Blue Cross: The first Father Brown story and perhaps his most iconic tale. When Chesterton originally published this short story in 1910, readers must have been shocked to see Father Brown emerge as the hero. Through the whole of the mystery, the focus had been on a police detective following him. But the makings of the great detective were in place. He would hang back as a background figure until stepping forward to solve the case. When that first story was published in September 1910, a literary star was born.

The Invisible Man: This was a fitting case, because it not only provided an extraordinarily surprising solution, but also an insight on how Father Brown surprised so many with his observations.

The Three Tools of Death: This is the first Father Brown story I heard an adaptation of, and after reading it, I appreciate it more. The solution is a gigantic surprise. It’s also a reminder that many descriptions Chesterton gives at the start of the story convey what the popular view of a character is, not necessarily what the person is really like. 

The Sign of the Broken SwordThis had to be my favorite in the collection. To give you an idea of how different these stories are from modern mysteries, the entire case takes place on an entirely different continent from where the mystery occurred, and no witnesses are questioned. The story centers around a simple riddle. 

Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest?

From there, the case proceeds to a startling conclusion, all without leaving a forest an ocean away from the scene of the crime.

On the negative side, the Honour of Israel Gow was absurd. Chesterton was trying to make a point about his perception of Calvinist legalism, but it fell a little flat. The solution in the Wrong Shape was not the right shape of Chesterton’s best Father Brown stories, but it was still passable.

Overall, I found the stories enjoyable and would encourage others to read them. You can read the entire book online or you can buy it on Amazon. (affiilate link.)

TV Episode Review: Murder She Wrote:A Christmas Secret

In “A Christmas Secret,” a Gulf War Veteran is set to marry Elizabeth, the daughter of a prominent Cabot Cove couple. While visiting for the holidays, Charlie receives an anonymous blackmail tape. When the woman who made the tape is nearly murdered, Jessica seeks to unravel the mystery.

What Works:

This episode has nearly everything you’d expect from a Murder She Wrote Christmas episode. The mystery has lots of suspects and potential motives as well as its share of red herrings

As this was from Season 9, the show was past the point where old Hollywood legends were showing up every week, but the recurring Cabot Cove cast is fun and the guest cast is solid.

The story has the right holiday flavor. It has just the right sentiment and rarely becomes saccharine or cheesy.

What Doesn’t Work:

Cabot Cove is supposed to be in Maine, but the show is filmed in California. That was never more obvious than seeing the streets snowless in December. The story features a Christmas trope of, “Will there be a White Christmas, it means so much to Character X.” I can’t help but feel the plot is a Hollywood ploy to avoid having to cover sets in fake snow for Christmas-related stories. It certainly feels that way here.

The solution requires a colorblind person to be completely incapable of making adjustments for her disability, and I have to admit I’m not entirely sure whether the writers have portrayed it accurately.

Overall:
This is a nice little Christmas treat. It’s neither the best Christmas mystery or the best Murder She Wrote, but it makes for fun holiday viewing.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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