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

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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5Jul/142

Film Review: The Saint (1996)

This film attempts to remake and update Leslie Charteris' character of Simon Templar (aka: The Saint.) In this modern setting, the Saint is still a criminal who hasn't gone straight and finds himself entangled in issues in post-Soviet Russia where control of energy is vital to the future and evil Communist turned evil Billionaire is planning to topple the government by obtaining the secret to cold fusion. The Saint must obtain the secret from Doctor Emma Russell (played by Elizabeth Shue).

Positives: The film does a great job with its location work, bringing to life Russia in Winter with all its cold and grittiness. Elizabeth Shue's character is pretty well-crafted, cutting against the grain of stereotypical scientists who are cold and lifeless and she's longing for something deeper and is hungry for philosophy, truth, and beauty.

Kudos to whoever did Val Kilmer's make up. In this version, Simon Templar is a master of disguise and it seems plausible that he could pull it off with how different he looks in each disguise and Kilmer's dialects are masterful.

Negatives: We can start with spending the first six minutes of the movie gratuitously showing Simon being beaten by a stereotypically overbearing priest for refusing to accept the name chosen for him as he was left at the orphanage as a nameless orphan. Will Hollywood decide this cliche is ever overdone?

In the film's second and third acts, the best it can really manage is typical action slock which is not bad but not really good either. Plus the ending drags out through senseless decompression after the resolution.

I also have to say that the film's understanding of science is dumbfounding. The formula obtained for cold fusion is incomplete, but all our heroine needs is two hours in a room without computers or anything to wrap it up. But hey, it's an action film.

The film's biggest flaw goes back to Templar. The character just isn't likable. In fact, we rarely understand why he does anything. He wants to get $50 million in his bank account to retire...why? Why $50 million? And why does he want to quit? Is he wanting to stay out of jails? Does he not like what he does and feels on some level its wrong? It's never explained.

Part of this is Kilmer who lacks any charm or charisma that actors like George Sanders or Roger Moore brought to the role. There's no swagger in Kilmer's Saint until the end by which point its too late. There's no sense of fun. It's just a guy doing a job and wanting to make money.

The other thing is the way the film was written makes the character hard to like and it's the way he seduces vulnerable women and uses them for his own ends. First, it's a passenger on the plane who just found out her husband is cheating on her and then Doctor Russell, a lonely eccentric romantic longing for something deeper. This is contrary to the original Saint films and TV shows, that while roguish, always fought on the side of angels, and left you with the impression that no innocent person had been hurt.

It would have taken magnificent performance to make such a character likable and Kilmer's mediocre performance just doesn't do it.

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28Jun/140

Audio Drama Review: Charlotte Pollad Box Set

Charlotte Pollard Box Set
As we continue to honor Big Finish’s 15th Anniversary of doing Doctor Who Audio plays, we’ll take a look now at their latest Doctor Who Spinoff series, Charlotte Pollard.

Charley Pollard (India Fisher) was introduced as Eighth Doctor Paul McGann’s companion in 2001 and continued in that role until 2007. She is most aptly described as an Edwardian Adventuress, originally from the 1930s. In 2007, she departed from the Eighth Doctor, falsely believing him to have died. She then ended up travelling with the Sixth Doctor, a previous regeneration which caused untold paradoxes. She ended up leaving the Sixth Doctor in 2009's Blue Forgotten Planet, and began travelling with the Viyrans, a race dedicated to ridding the universe of a series of viruses released in an explosion.

The Charlotte Pollard Box Set features four adventures of about an hour as Charley breaks free of the Viyrans and begins her own adventures.

1) The Lamentation Cipher

This story picks up with Charley continuing her work for the Viyrans who have been repeatedly using her services for a time and then putting her into Chryogenic sleep until needed in. Charley is not happy with this life though she believes the Viyrans intents are altruistic. However, when a mysterious Viyran who is different from the semi-automotons of that race offers her a chance to escape she takes it and eventually makes it.

This is a necessary chapter as it does a great job establishing where Charley is at and Robert Buckham Jr. (James Joyce) and others who would be play a key role in the story. It also does the necessary work of introducing people to the character who hadn’t followed the Doctor Who stories Charley appeared in.

2) The Shadow at the Edge of the World:

Charley escapes from the Viyrans via the Forever and Ever Perlexity and finds herself in the 1930s wandering with a group of women who are the last survivors of an expedition. The story has plenty of suspense and atmosphere and is a great all female performance. (With the exception of monster voices done by Producer Nick Briggs.)

3) The Fall of the House of Pollard

This story focuses on Charley’s family and at last she returns home only to find how much her disappearance has affected them. At times, the pacing is a little slow as it takes quite for Charley to interact with her parents. The way Charley actually gets home is oddly contrived and doesn’t make much sense, the cruel treatment of the character of Michael Dee seems gratuitous, and the ending is disappointing. Still, the scenes with Charley and her family are moving with Terrance Hardiman and Anneke Wills turning in solid performances as Lord and Lady Pollard. This one works primarily as a character piece that probes issues rarely raised in the classic Doctor Who series about what happens to the families of those who travel in time and space.

4) The Viyran Solution

Charley is back with the Viyrans and learns that the virus hunting cyborgs have come up with a solution to eliminating all viruses but it’s one that is so insane that the entire Universe depends on her discovering it and thwarting it. Meanwhile, Robert Buckham Sr. has other plans to use the Viyrans for his own profit.

The story concludes in a way that could mark, a “the end” moment for Charley or could leave the door open for future installments.

This also comes with a bonus “making of” CD with more than an hour of interviews with writers and cast members on each episode.

The series has some high points. Throughout, everyone performs well. Though Charley is a bit more cynical than her run with the Doctor, she still a likable character who delivers some great lines, particularly in Episode 4. The story concepts are interesting particularly in Episode 2, which gives a good idea of what Charley would be like in an adventure where the Viyrans were not playing such a huge role as pursuers.

The downside as I see it is that Charley’s actual role in these drams is a bit too passive. Charley doesn’t come up with clever plans or even take initiative for the most part. For example, her escape from the Viyrans in the first episode wasn’t really her idea. While she makes a couple key decision in Episodes 2 and 4, the first box set of Charlotte Pollard is much more about things happening to Charley rather than her doing anything or making anything happen. That’s fine if you're the sidekick. Not so much if you’re the main character.

However, I hope there is a second series of adventures. Charley’s definitely a fun character with a very unique voice. The stories are well-written and intelligent, and the folks at Big Finish are consummate professionals whose use of sound effects makes the story come to life with fantastic sound effects.

Overall, I give Series One a rating of 7/10.

The Charlotte Pollard Box Set  is available from Big Finish Productions.

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21Jun/140

Big Finish Celebrates Fifteen Years of Doctor Who Audio Dramas

In July, Big Finish Productions celebrates  fifteen years producing licensed Doctor Who audio dramas.  In celebration of this milestone, we'll take a look at the history of Big Finish's work this week and next week we'll review one of their latest releases as we take a look at some of the most successful contemporary audio drama being produced.

From 1963-1989, BBC aired Doctor Who which chronicled the adventures of the Doctor, a time travelling alien known as a Time Lord. Every few years, the Doctor would "regenerate" and take on a different face and a somewhat different personality than he had previously. This element introduced when the first actor to play the doctor, William Hartnell was ailing. This served to allow the recasting of the role and since then had served to allow both the lead and the direction of the series to change while still remaining Doctor Who. 

There were seven doctors in those twenty-six years, the most popular of which was Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor which ran for seven years. Baker's multi-colored scarf became iconically associated with the show. Still eight seasons, after he'd left the show left the air with a whimper in the final Seventh Doctor story, "Survivor."

After that, Doctor Who went off the air for most of the next sixteen years. 1996 saw a joint U.S./British effort to revive Doctor Who with a made for TV movie that aired over Fox and starred Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. When the TV was made,  McGann hoped to star in a brand new Doctor Who Television series, but that failed to materialize.

The series would finally return to television in 2005 and become an international sensation.

However, during the intervening years, that didn't meant Doctor Who wasn't being made...it just wasn't being made on Television.

Doctor Who and Radio

Doctor Who and the Pescatons
During Doctor Who's television run, audio dramas didn't play a huge part in the series. The fourth Doctor recorded two audio dramas in 1970s, one of which was a 20 minute educational piece on geography, as well as a 45 minute commercial release Doctor Who and the Pescatons which was kind of a hybrid of audiobook and radio drama.  In 1985, during an eighteen month hiatus for the TV show, the Sixth Doctor played by Colin Baker starred in a radio serial Slipback.

In 1993, Doctor Who returned to BBC radio with an intriguing idea. The Doctor present was not the last doctor to appear on television, but the Third Doctor played by Jon Pertwee who'd left the series nearly twenty years before. The story Paradise of Death was set in the midst of the eleventh season of Doctor Who.

Paradise of Death

The program was a success and fans demanded more. Pertwee made a second program in 1994 but there were snags in getting the program to air as the BBC was wrangling with potential suitors to purchase rights to the series according to Pertwee and the story, The Ghosts of N-Space didn't end up airing until January of 1996, a few months before Pertwee died.

The demand for Doctor Who audio continued through the series' dedicated fan base. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Allred who had played the Seventh Doctor and his companion Ace starred in a series of audio dramas called The Professor and Ace which while avoiding flagrant copyright violation, was obviously an attempt to tell a Doctor Who story without the Doctor's time machine The TARDIS  or other tropes of the series. 

In addition, many fans made unauthorized productions of Doctor Who. One of these being the Audio Visual tapes in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Many of those involved in these efforts helped to start Big Finish Productions in 1996, a company focused on producing audio dramas.

Big Finish’s first release were audio dramas featuring Bernice Summerfield, a character who had first appeared in Virgin’s New Adventures Doctor Who novels but was licensed seperately from the Doctor Who series. Some novels that had featured the Doctor were rewritten to feature the Summerfield alone.

However, Big Finish would quickly move on to bigger things. They negotiated non-exclusive rights to produce new Doctor Who audio dramas secured the involvement of Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy who had played the fifth through seventh doctors on the TV series. The format of the new Doctor Who Adventures would be much like the Pertwee BBC dramas except there would be one new Doctor Who Adventure per month beginning with the Sirens of Time, an adventure which would feature all three Doctors in it. From there on out, each month Big Finish put out a new Doctor Who full cast audio drama featuring one of the three doctors.

Sirens of Time

Big Finish added Paul McGann’s Eight Doctor to its lineup in January 2001, thus allowing him the chance to realize the hope of being able to play the Doctor in a series of dramas rather than just the single telefilm.

Big Finish continued to expand its line of programs, adding several Doctor Who spinoffs including a series about Doctor Who enemies the Daleks and Cybermen as well as one about 1970s Doctor Who companion Sarah Jane Smith, one about U.N.I.T., a military organization from the series, as well as a series of alternate dimension looks at the Doctor.

The revival of Doctor Who on television didn't end Big Finish’s run on Doctor. In fact, one of the Big Finish Audio plays actually became the basis for one of the revived Series’ most acclaimed episodes, “Dalek.” However, Big Finish was only allowed to use stories featuring the first eight doctors and scripts for radio dramas were scrutinized by the production team for the television series in Cardiff to be sure that nothing would in the radio drama would conflict with the television series.

These limits haven’t really hurt Big Finish as they’ve continued to expand their Doctor Who spinoffs including the very popular Jago and Lightfoot series, while also obtaining licenses for new audiobooks and audio dramas based on programs such as the gothic horror classic Dark Shadows, Stargate: SG1, and the British Sci Fi classic, Blake’s 7.

On the Doctor Who front, after nearly three decades of refusing to reprise his most famous role as the third doctor, Tom Baker joined Big Finish in performing a series of new adventures, joined by his former compatriots. In 2013, as Doctor Who celebrated its fiftieth anniversary Big Finish put on its own fiftieth anniversary special featuring the fourth through eighth doctors, Light at the End, which some fans consider to be superior to the internationally broadcast television special featuring the two latest Doctors.

Light at the End
In advance of the fiftieth anniversary television special, McGann’s Eighth Doctor finally has his regeneration scene and recognized all of his companions from the audiobooks which many interpreted as making all (or most) of the audio dramas canonical within the Doctor Who universe.

When Big Finish began doing Doctor Who fifteen years ago, it was taking advantage of huge demand from fans who demanded more of a series they loved, and having the cooperation of original actors certainly helped.

However, the audio dramas proved to be winners all around.  Big Finish Productions was able to make a wide variety of stories including large tales with relatively small casts. Actors enjoyed a family atmosphere as well as the unique opportunity radio opportunity afforded to play a wide variety of characters. And many fans discovered the benefits of radio drama. One of the chief challenges of the Classic Doctor Who series was that its special effects budget were often quite limited, but the power of audio is that you can have as big of an effect as you want when you're playing the theater of the mind.

Thus, Big Finish's Doctor Who work has survived and thrived for fifteen years. Well done and good luck on many more.

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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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7Jun/140

Radio Show Review: Incredible…But True

This week, I'm going to take a look at the 1950s radio series Incredible But True.

While there was a fifteen minute version of the series Incredible But True that aired in the early 1950s, the version which survives today is the three minute syndicate program.

The eighty existing programs focus on “true” stories of the strange, the unusual, and the unexplained, and there are some interesting ones with church organs playing without explanation, an Ambassador disappearing in the 19th in a public place with no explanation as to what happened, and weird phenomena and apparitions that couldn’t be explained by science. It’s all interesting stuff, but somewhat flawed.

Oftentimes, the show will press for some bizarre explanation with no proof there’s anything to explain. In one case, a woman disappeared in New York City and on the same day a swan appeared in a place where swans weren’t normally seen. The suggested link: Perhaps, the woman was turned into a swan.

And even those stories that don’t suffer from such gargantuan leaps in reason suffer from the limit of a 3 minute story. We’re often given a somewhat complex story and only one solution. Good programs on unexplained phenomena allow for multiple explanations, which really fuels listeners or viewer imagination.

In the end, Incredible but True isn’t bad if you’re looking for three quick minutes of entertainment with some unusual stories, but the limits of the format often leave a less than satisfying result.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.0

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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24May/140

Audio Drama Review: 12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men was first written as an episode of the Anthology Show, Studio One and then turned into the classic 1957 film starring Henry Fonda and Lee Cobb. It’s the culturally iconic story of twelve men in jury room in the Capital case of a young man accused of killing his father and how these very different people interact and how their biases and perceptions shape the way they vote. The film became a classic which was parodied and copied more times than anyone could count. In 1997, it was made into a HBO telefilm but updated to modern times. Rose also made a stage version which was performed by LA Theatre Works in 2005 and released as an audio drama.

Of course, the script is solid with great tension. The weakest part of the play is at the beginning. The judge reads the jury instructions in monotone and every line of dialogue seems to be delivered just a tad too fast. This might have been the director’s attempt to show the rush to judgment but it doesn’t work all that well.

However, once the cast gets going, they’re true professionals. Some of the voices in here include Hector Elizondo as Juror #10, Dan Castellaneta (Homer Simpson) as Juror #5, and Armin Shimerman (Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as Juror #4. The story unfolds beautifully with a lot of high tension scenes and most of them come off brilliantly on stage and on audio.

The relatively weak performance of the play had to be Jeffrey Donovan as Juror #8, the story’s protagonist. It’s a tough role to be sure particularly when giants like Henry Fonda and Jack Lemon have played the role on screen, but Donovan’s performance was just weak. Given the caliber of the rest of the case, it’s surprising they didn’t get a stronger performer for this role.

Also, this is not a true audiodrama but rather a recording of a play. This really only hurts in one scene where Juror #3 delivers a racist tirade and the entire jury, those who vote guilty and not guilty turn their backs on him. On stage, the audience could see it, but the audio audience had to rely on memories of the film and just hope that was what was going on.

The way Rose wrote the play or the way the Director adapted Rose’s play (I’m not sure which) also hurt the quality of the story. In the scene where Juror #9 analyzes why an elderly witness may have pretended to see more than he actually saw due to his feeling insignificant, another juror challenged this and a single look at the camera told us that the elderly juror was just like witness. Here, it has actually be said and in a way that’s a little clumsy.

Discussion of a piece of psychological testimony is added to the play but that actually detracts from the story, and in the same scene from the movie that’s so powerful, Rose seems unable to resist the temptation to overwrite in the play.

In the '57 film, After Juror #3 goes on a racist tirade and tells people to listen, Juror #4 says, “I have. Now sit down and open your mouth again.” The change is slight and perhaps in the 1997 version where Juror #4 says, “Sit down! And don’t open your filthy mouth again.” These are powerful moments. In the play version, Juror #4 gives a much longer less crisp response.

In some ways, this might be nitpicking, but when a radio play in based on such a famous and profoundly brilliant drama, it invites it. The original 12 Angry Men is nearly perfect for what it is, this stage play recording falls short.

That doesn’t mean the audio version is without merit. It’s $6.95 on Audible or $4.86 if you’re an Audible member and at 1 hour and 50 minutes (which includes a 17 minute interview with Rose’s widow) it’s great for a long drive and manages to do a good job with most of the key moments and performances.

Overall I’d rate it 3.5 out of 5.0.

12 Angry Men is available at audible.

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17May/140

Telefilm Review: Cat Among the Pigeons

In Cat Among the Pigeons trouble is brewing at a posh girl's boarding school Poirot visits as a favor to the headmistress, an old friend of Poirot's.  The murder of a truly horrid physical education instructor named Grace Springer puts the school in a state of a crisis and as more murders follow, parents panic.

Poirot has to solve a case that not only involves international intrigue but also a disappearing princess of an unstable  nation.

Cat Among the Pigeons is a delightful Poirot mystery. While I wouldn't put it up there with the very best episodes, it's easily worth the hour and a half to watch it. The film has everything you can reasonably expect: great acting from the entire cast, solid writing,  and a tangled web of lies that Poirot skillfully untangles to uncover the truth and solve the murder.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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