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

13Sep/140

Telefilm Review: Three Act Tragedy

In Three Act Tragedy, Poirot attends a dinner party at the home of Sir Charles Cartwright where a harmless clergy men collapses and dies after cocktails. It’s thought just to be a natural death until a Doctor friend of Sir Charles dies in the same manner. Poirot and Sir Charles then team up to find out what’s the truth behind the deaths.

Overall, this is a beautiful production. It’s stocked with great characters, chief of which is Cartwright, who really plays a big role in the investigation. It doesn’t hurt that this is a simply marvelous story and the creative team were mostly faithful to it.

Comparing to the 1986 telefilm with Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis, “Murder in Three Acts”, this one works better for being a faithful adaptation in the original time and setting of the book. However, I still have a warm place in my heart for the Ustinov version and what achieved in a modern setting and really taking advantage of lucious California landscapes. While Martin Shaw turns a good performance at Cartwright, it’s not near as strong as Curtis.

Overall 2010 telefilm is a great adaptation of one of Christie’s most interesting tales.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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6Sep/140

Book Review: Murder in E Minor

After the death of Nero Wolfe creator Rex Stout, Robert Goldsborough took up the task of continuing on the Nero Wolfe series with the blessing of Stout's estate.

It's two years after the cataclysmic events of A Family Affair and Nero Wolfe, the world's greatest private detective is no longer practicing. However, when the niece of a man who once saved his life in Montenegro turns to Wolfe because her uncle is being threatened, Wolfe goes into action, but too late as quickly the uncle is killed.

The book is most enjoyable if read for its own merits rather than hoping it to continue the Stout legacy. Goldsborough tries a number of things that are ultimately unsuccessful which were hallmarks of the Stout books. First, is Wolfe himself who is re-reading Jane Eyre in an early chapter and discusses why third parties don't succeed in Presidential elections at the dinner table. Wolfe's interests both literary and conversational were far more erudite with Stout writing. The third party thing is kind of dumb and obvious. There's a visit from Kramer where he has a sincere heart-to-heart with Archie pleading for him and Wolfe to get off the case. That the Police would try and pressure Wolfe off at this point was incredible, and the heart-to-heart thing had been tried in the last Wolfe book by Stout. Perhaps the most egregious thing to happen was when Archie went to get a taxi, pick up a cashier's check, and arrange a simple visit from some suspects and got a "very satisfactory" from Wolfe. First of all, Archie made a big deal of it when this was merely his job and he should be ashamed for making a big dea of it. Secondly, Wolfe only handed out "very satisfactories" when Archie did something truly remarkable, not just doing something any low level employee could manage.

However, Goldsborough did a fair number of things right. The book's plot offers a few teases of Wolfe's past in Montenegro and that itself is sure to tantalize fans. And the appearance of a mysterious woman from the past who Wolfe was glad to see also added to it. When the solution became obvious, Goldsborough worked out the denoument pretty well and it felt almost Stoutian except for Wolfe explaining everyone's motives which seemed more Poirotish.

And of course, the mystery was clever, as clever if not more so. than the average Wolfe story under Stout, and Goldsborough does a great job with characters like Lily Rowan. Overall, this is a solid first novel. Of course, having a first time novelist take over this series was a dubious call at best and what can make it a frustrating read is the author does seem unsure of himself, leading to some scenes that are awkward.

Still overall, I'll rate it "Satisfactory."

 

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30Aug/140

DVD Review: The Father Dowling Mysteries, Season One

The Father Dowling Mysteries was a delightful mystery series starring Tom Bosley (Happy Days) and Tracy Nelson as Chicago-based Father Frank Dowling and Sister Stephanie “Steve” Oskowski, a priest and nun constantly finding themselves in the the thick of mysteries. The duo first appeared in a 1987 TV movie before joining the 1989 NBC line up as a mid-season replacement before moving to ABC in 1990 for another mid-season replacement season and its only full season. Having aired on NBC and ABC, the DVD release, of course, comes from CBS Home video. Father Dowling was a character created by Ralph McHenry in a series of popular novels, but the novels really don’t appear to have come much into play in the stories.

The first season set collects the 1987 Movie, “The Fatal Confession” as well as the seven episode first season of Father Dowling.

Ultimately, this isn’t a series made by the cleverness of its mysteries or bone-chilling suspense, or CSI-like crime scene details. In the end, Father Dowling stands firmly on the charm and chemistry of its two protagonist and Bosley and Nelson are wonderful to watch.

Bosley is very believable as Father Dowling. He does a perfect job creating that balance that’s required in a clerical detective. Dowling is clever, but he’s also compassionate. He cares about catching the bad guy but he also cares about people’s souls and lives. In so many ways, Frank Dowling is a bit of a throw back to a gentler era in television that spawned characters like Andy Taylor. He was truly good and kind, and also didn’t take himself too seriously.

Sister Steve is street smart but also very compassionate. The biggest flaw with the way the series played the character was that in each episode, they had to have her do something you wouldn’t typically expect a nun to do usually in the line of duty but sometimes not: beating the neighborhood boys at basketball playing pool, fixing a car, mixing drinks at a bar, or teaching an aerobics class. It was all in the line of work. Sometimes, it was humorous, though it times it could get goofy and a little repetitive. The first few episodes had her being able to do every single thing well. Thankfully, in the “Face in the Mirror Mystery,” they finally had her undertake a task she couldn’t do well: rollerskating.

Rounding out the regulars were Father Dowling’s cranky housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) and the very particular Father Phil (James Stephens) who would appear in the first and last episodes of the 1989 series before becoming a regular. As for the episodes themselves:

“The Fatal Confession” had some good moments in it as Father Dowling looks into the apparent suicide of a former parishoner, but the last quarter of it or so was just too much like a soap opera

“The Missing Body Mystery,” the feature length first episode of the 1989 series begins with a man stumbling into St. Michaels and dying. When Father Dowling returns after calling the police, the body is gone. His stability is called into question and the bishop wants to relieve him and replace him with Father Phil. It’s a great story and a solid beginning.

“What Do You Call Girl Mystery,” is a story about a slain high-priced call girl that manages to tell a good story without being exploitative or sleazy.

“The Man Who Came to Dinner Mystery,” is probably the only clunker in the first season. Steve’s ex-fiance (played by Nelson’s then-husband William Moses) witnesses a murder but when he shows up with the police, the body’s gone. Even worse someone’s trying to kill him. This story not only has a similar plot to a much better episode that aired two weeks previously as a well as a weak conclusion, but it tries to create dramatic conflict over Steve’s decision to become a nun and fails.

The main problem is that we’re told that Steve was almost ready to marry her ex when she ran off to the convent to become a nun. Why would a young woman make this very radical decision? All of the reasons Sister Steve gives such as "it was the right thing for me" don't really ring true. It’s impossible to believe a nun would say or if someone wanted to be a nun with such weak reasons, that the Catholic church would allow it. Of course, treating the subject realistically may have required too much religiosity for network TV executives liking. But if you can’t do it well, why do it at all? Why try introduce a dramatic subplot that’s not believable?

The season got back on track with the two part, “Mafia Priest Mystery,” in which Father Luciana, the son of a mafia family becomes Father Dowling’s new Assistant. He’s trying to make a break with the family business but is drawn into an effor to help his brother Peter go straight and finds himself framed for murdering the DA. This is a great story with a lot of tension, suspects, and situations. We do learn whodunit about half away through the second episode but there’s still some great suspense including a delightful train chase. I also appreciate how the episode highlights both Frank and Steve’s compassion as they deal with and minister to members of the crime family even while trying to find the killer.

“The Face in the Mirror Mystery,” is actually a pretty decent story despite the fact that the premise of an “evil twin” of the main character has been done to death. This is  a great cat and mouse game between Father Dowling and his twin brother Blaine, though the payoff scene is a little silly.

The season concluded with, “The Pretty Baby Mystery,” which has a woman chased by armed men leaving her baby in the church. Father Dowling and Steve try to find the mother and end up getting arrested by the Feds. This is another episode that really respects the characters’ vocation and differentiates them from the typical TV detective. The episode also marked the return of James Stevens as Father Phil, who has become the Bishop’s assistant.

Overall, the first season of Father Dowling was thoroughly enjoyable. It manages to be a mostly well-written family friendly detective series with likable characters. It treats its main characters with respect, but also manages a great deal of humor and warmth. I’ll look forward to future seasons.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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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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9Aug/140

The Top 12 Sherlock Holmes Stories, Part Three

We continue our countdown of the top 12 Sherlock Holmes stories. (See: Part One  and Part Two.)

3) The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902): It’s no wonder that Sherlock Holmes' third novel  is  the most often adapted Sherlock Holmes story. It’s rich with atmosphere with its setting on the moor. It also has some genuinely scary moments with the menace of the titular hound as well as some great elements that add suspense such as the escaped convict. If the story suffers at all, it’s from the fact that Sherlock Holmes is off stage for much of the story. But this really gives Watson a chance to shine as both an observer and a man of action.

2) The Adventure The Red Headed League (1890) This is a good concept that comes with a built in moral. A man gets paid a fantastic salary by the Red Headed League for copying pages from the encyclopedia because he has an amazing head of red hair. However, the Red Headed League disappears as quickly as it appeared sending the confused shopkeeper to Holmes.

There are two things that are really fascinating about this story. The first is the idea of a superior intelligence preying on people’s greed and stupidity to victimize another person. This would be revisited (albeit without as much success) in "The Stockbroker’s Clerk" and "The Three Garidebs." The second thing is just seeing how Holmes puts this whole case together. It’s one of his finest pieces of deduction as Holmes faces a worthy and underrated foe.

1) The Sign of Four (1890): This is one of the best mystery novels of all time. The Sign of Four has so much working for it. It’s a book that was decades ahead of its time. The Penguins Classic edition of this book is only 160 pages. However, it’s tightly written and manages to work so much in. You have a great puzzle mystery, combined with creepy and memorable characters, a fast-paced quick moving story, and even a good action and chase scene. It includes a flashback to the past that reveals what happened in backstory but unlike in A Study in Scarlet, the flashback section is interesting and doesn’t drag on forever.

This story works on so many levels, particularly when you consider how dry and one dimensional detective fiction was for decades after that. While the Sign of Four is often overshadowed by The Hound of the Baskervilles,  from my point of view,  The Sign of Four is the better novel. The Sign of Four was decades ahead of its time. Decades after The Sign of Four, most mystery novels were rather one dimensional puzzle mysteries but The Sign of Four showcases everything a good mystery novel can be and that it was written in the 19th century is a testimony to Doyle's genius.

That concludes my list. I'd love to hear about yours. Please share about your favorite Holmes stories in the comments.

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2Aug/140

Top 12 Sherlock Holmes Stories, Part Two

We continue our countdown of the top 12 Sherlock Holmes stories. (See: Part One.)

7) The Scandal in Bohemia (1891)

A case that Holmes was mastered in. It’s a clever and satisfying story about Holmes attempt to obtain incriminating leters and a photograph that could compromise the King of Bohemia and his upcoming wedding. The story plays off of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” but takes the story in a different direction. The result is a very bold short story, particularly as a choice to lead off the first Sherlock Holmes short story collection.

6) The Adventure of the Six Napoleons (1904)

This is a story that illustrates what sets Sherlock Holmes apart from the Scotland Yard. It’s not just that he finds the right answers.  It's that he asks the right questions. When a series of burglaries occur involving busts of Napoleon, Scotland Yard concludes that its the work of a monomaniac and sets about finding him but Holmes sees the puzzle of why he’s smashing the busts to be an open question and that leads to a different investigation. Also, I really like the tribute Inspector Lestrade pays to Holmes at the end of the story. It says a lot about Holmes and how his relationship has develop with Scotland Yard over the prior two decades.

5) The Speckled Band (1892)

This was actually Doyle’s favorite of his stories and there’s plenty of iconic moments. The mystery and the solution to it are the stuff of nightmares. It’s a story with a lot of suspense and a thrilling conclusion. I also love Dr. Grimesby Roylott’s take on Holmes, “Holmes the meddler. Holmes the busybody. Holmes the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office.” It’s a classic scene of a man trying in vain to deflect Sherlock Holmes with invective and antics. Roylott makes for a fantastic villain and that makes this a particularly enjoyable read.

4) The Silver Blaze (1892)

Sherlock Holmes’ search for a missing race horse seems seems a simple enough problem at first with a mysterious stranger having been seen in the area on the night the horse disappeared, and its trainer was killed. The solution is far different than we imagined and is extremely clever. This is a wonderfully constructed mystery and was the only Holmes story cited by Father Brown creator G.K. Chesterton in his essay on how to write detective fiction. This is also a story where Holmes solves the case  with a nice dramatic flourish, withholding the solution to Watson, the owner, and Inspector Gregory until the day of the big race.

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26Jul/140

The Top 12 Sherlock Holmes Stories, Part One

The Sherlock Holmes stories are remarkable. While there have been some innovators in the detective genre in past 90 years or so that have added new wrinkles and and twists to the genre, Doyle’s work stands up as must-read for serious mystery fans.

There were countless genius detectives solving crimes, but none are loved or revered like Sherlock Holmes. While there were a few stories that didn’t work and some people read struggle with the Victorian setting, the Sherlock Holmes canon of fifty-six short stories and four novels has stood the test of time remarkably well. Which of them are the best?

Over the next three weeks, I’ll post my list of the top twelve Sherlock Holmes’ stories:

12) The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (1892):

This is one of the definitive holiday detective stories. This murderless mystery is a great puzzle that begins simply enough after a man lost his hat and a Christmas goose.  It really starts with what seems like an incident that seems like it should be beneath the notice of the great Sherlock Holmes but is really a fascinating puzzle. Doyle shows that while some mysteries involve sensational or salacious details, it’s not always necessary. I also love how the ending is both consistent with Holmes’ character and appropriate for the spirit of the Season.

11) The Devil’s Foot (1910):

The story tells of Holmes and Watson visiting Cornwall for a rest. However, Holmes  is pulled into investigating a mysterious death and insanity that afflicted a family. It is a haunting and chilling story that manages to merge the right elements of horror and the detective story. Great atmosphere throughout and a satisfying resolution makes this a winning story.

10) The Empty House (1903)

Sherlock Holmes was a character not even his creator could kill off. The “Empty House” is a wonderful story that tells us what really happened when Holmes faced Moriarty in, "The Final Problem" and then sets Holmes against the deadly Colonel Sebastian Moran. This was a great story to welcome Sherlock Holmes back to literary life.

9) The Adventure of the Naval Treaty (1893):

A truly engaging mystery. It manages to have major stakes with British national security, while also present a more personal problem for a young diplomat for whom the disappearance of this treaty has cast a shadow over his career. The story is engaging with some great clues, a great conclusion, and Holmes wrapping it all up with a theatrical flourish.

8) The Problem of Thor Bridge (1922)

This story of a seemingly sweet and benevolent governess facing a charge for murder is one of the best of the later Sherlock Holmes stories. The "Problem of Thor Bridge"  is engaging and the solution is classic. While many 1920s Holmes stories are disliked by fans and critics alike, this one is a true gem.

Continued Next week...

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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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