Category: Golden Age Article

Audiobook Review: Hercule Poirot’s Unpublished Stories

Hercules Poirot was featured in 33 published novels, 51 published short stories, and a stage play. But there were two Poirot Short stories that were not published during her lifetime. They appeared in book form in Agatha Christie’ s Secret Notebook by John Curran. However, the Christie estate decided to make the two short stories available seperate audiobook read by David Suchet.

The title of one story will be familiar to Christie fans, it’s called “The Capture of Cerberus,” which is the title of the published story that wrapped up, The Labours of Hercules. This particular story is vastly different as Poirot’s labour is truly Herculean as he tries to uncover the truth behind the assassination of a lightly fictionalized version of Adolf Hitler.

The story was interesting for its historical value. It also provided Christie’s answer to a question many science fiction authors have addressed, “What if Hitler had been assassinated.” Christie suggests that Hitler would have been viewed as a martyr and would have radicalized and galvanized the German people. The story is hopeful that after the horrors of World War I, another conflagration could be avoided and peace and brotherhood could somehow win out.

It was a nice thought, but the story was shelved with good reasons. To have a fictional character “use the little gray cells” and prevent a real life war that’s certainly inevitable in the real world is just not appropriate. In addition, the story is definitely not as fun as the version that went into the book. It should be noted that Christie would feature two of the characters who were in this story in the published version.  It felt like it was in more of a draft state when compared to the stories that did make into Labours of Hercules.  Thankfully, it was discarded for a much better story.

“The Incident of the Dog’s Ball” was much more satisfying.  In it Poirot receives a rambling letter from an old woman asking for help. He arrives at the lady’s house, only to find out she’d passed on (apparently of natural causes)  and had  forgotten to mail it. Slowly and methodically, Poirot begins to uncover what really happened and why the lady contacted.

Later, the short story was expanded and revised into the novel, Dumb Witness,  but works just fine as a very satisfying short story.

David Suchet’s definitive Poirot voice truly makes the story a delight. He also  read nearly all the voices well (with one exception). Suchet’s reading and the novelty of these lost stories makes this collection a must for fans of Christie and Hercule Poirot.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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Mr. Monk’s Top 20 List, Part Two

Having dispensed with the honorable mentions, we turn to the actual 20 best Monk episodes.

20)  Mr. Monk is Someone Else (Season 8, Episode 4): This episode begins with a bang. It appears that Monk is killed in the first scene. But of course, it’s not Monk, it’s contract killer Frank DePalma, who is a dead ringer for Monk. The FBI asks Monk to go undercover, find out who DePalma’s target was, and stop the killing.

Monk goes undercover, taking on the role of a wise guy assassin. Monk discovers that the target is an elderly man with no ties for the mafia.  It’s not long before everyone feels that Monk has gotten too much into character, and they attempt to pull him off the case, but Monk persists.

The mystery is one of the more solid entries of the show’s latter seasons. The highlight though is Monk finding his inner tough guy and holding his own with the mafiosos who hired him. Add in two classic confrontations with the Captain and Harold Krenshaw, and this one is definitely a keeper.

19) Mr. Monk is Up All Night (Season 6, Episode 9)

Mr. Monk is having trouble sleeping, so he heads out on a walk, and through a restaurant window, witnesses a murder. Or does he? When the Captain and Disher arrive, they find no evidence of the crime. Was it covered up or is Monk having a breakdown.

This episode, as the title implies, occurs almost entirely at night.  This gives it a noirishfeeling, that makes it particularly appealing. It also has to feature perhaps the best Randy Disher scene ever when the true culprits are apprehended.  

18) Mr. Monk and the Red Herring (Season 3, Episode 10)

The context of this episode does not make it an obvious fan favorite.  This began the 2nd half of Monk’s 3rd Season. In the interim, Sharona had been written out of the series due to contract disagreements with Bitty Schram.  This meant that the episode which introduces the “new assistant” had better be good.

The cast and crew managed to pull it off. Natalie meets Monk after killing a burglarar in self-defense. The apparent reason for the burglary is Natalie’s daughter’s fish.

The episode does a good job introducing Natalie. As a widow, she is in-tune with much of what Monk has gone through. In addition, she’s a jill of all trades which made her a valuable assistant to Monk.  She had a very distinct personality and style that differed from Sharona.

The mystery is clever and  quirky, making this a solid introduction for Natalie Teeger, despite the rough background that the episode aired against.

17) Mr. Monk’s 100th Case (Season 7, Episode 7):  Many television shows have faced the challenge of celberating a milestone. Many just ignore it, blowing past 100 or 200 episodes like it doesn’t mean a thing. Others have had clips shows, where 4 or 5 minute new footage is package with a bunch of used footage. (This is known as the cheapest type of television episode.)

In the Golden years of television when TV programs did 39 half hour episodes a year, 100 episodes wasn’t a big deal. But given that Monk’s first season was 13 episodes and subsequent seasons were 16 episodes each, this was truly a big deal for the show’s longetivity.  It was also a big deal for a reason referenced in the Season 2 episode, “Mr. Monk and the T.V. Star,” with 100 episodes, Monk would live on in syndication and create even more fans and generate millions in additional revenue.

The writer marked the event, by having a news magazine follow Monk as he solves his 100th case. The episode begins with Monk’s friends gathering around the television at the house of the magazine’s anchor to celebrate, with Monk alone at the party, and thinking something is very wrong.

The episode did a great job recreating the feel of a news magazine, and also brought back several past Monk foes back in new footage. One remarked, “Do I remember Adrian Monk? That’s like asking the Titanic if it remembers the iceberg. ”

In doing the show this way, Monk took a look back without being hokey, satisfied fans, and left plenty of room for a good mystery twist.

16) Mr. Monk Goes to Vegas (Season 3, Episode 14):  Monk gets a call from an inebriated Captain Stottlemeyer stating that he knows a man murdered his wife, whose death had been assumed to be accidental.  Monk and Natalie head out to investigate, but a hungover Stottlemeyer doesn’t remember what it was he’d noticed.

This episode was a lot of fun. Monk has a formidable villain in James Brolin, and Vegas setting was nicely done.  Monk and Natalie also have some great scenes together. Perhaps the most notable realization what that the Captain could solve crimes as easily as Monk provided the Captain was drunk. This was reminiscent of Anthony Boucher’s character, Nick Noble.

Overall, “Mr. Monk Goes to Vegas,” offers a very even mix of comedy and mystery.

Next week: 11-15

Michael Reston: The Washington Generals of Prosecuting Attorneys

With the end of Starz’s relationship with Netflix, the Perry Mason TV movies are set to disappear off the Instant Watch. I’ve set the goal of seeing all the 1980s-90s Mason TV films before they disappear.

So far, I’ve seen nine of them which encompasses the Paul Drake, Jr. era.  Some observations so far on these Perry Mason mysteries:

D.A. Michael Reston’s amazing prosecutorial road show:  The first Perry Mason movie, Perry Mason Returns featured a generic prosecutor.  For the second Mason film, The Case of the Notorious Nun,  Michael Reston (David Ogden Stiers, M*A*S*H*)  took over the role of prosecutor for the next eight movies.  Reston is moderately competent, prone to cockiness no matter how many times Mason hands Reston’s head to him, Reston is always ready to tell Mason that this time he’s picked a loser.

Perry Mason  has never been a “by the book”  legal procedural, but Reston may have been the show’s biggest legal plothole. In his first appearance, Reston is the prosecuting attorney  as Mason represents a nun in California. The next movie, Perry Mason is in New York and defends a TV star accused of murder in The Case of the Shooting Star and once again, inexplicably, Reston is the prosecutor.  Perry Mason’s next case is in Denver, where he defends the hushband of a woman likely to be appointed to the United States Senate. Reston is once again the prosecutor and this time explains that due to the politically charged case, Reston was called in as a special prosecutor. The series then settles down in Denver with Reston having apparently moved to Denver along with Perry Mason, so that he could at irregular intervals, lose court cases. Or perhaps, he thought eventually, somewhere, he could beat Perry Mason. It’s reminiscent of the Washington Generals who travelled the world  for decades losing thousands of games in a row to the Harlem Globetrotters.  Reston’s final case has him prosecuting a case, not in Denver, but in a rural county in Colorado.  I’ll definitely miss Reston’s presence in future films, but at least he got to settle down.

Paul Drake, Jr: I didn’t really get into watching the Perry Mason movies until the 1990s, so prior to my recent spree, I’d only seen one of the episodes featuring Paul Drake, Jr. (William Katt, The Greatest American Hero.)  When Perry Mason Returns aired in 1985, the writers dealt with the death of William Hopper (who played Paul Drake in the original series) by introducing Drake. Jr. as a free spirited young private eye who had pared the once-powerful Drake Detective Agency to just a one man operation, so he could pursue his other interests.

In this case, the resemblance between father and son ended at the name. Drake Jr. more often than not, comically stumbled through his cases, habitually just missing leads and losing suspects.  He was likable, but I definitely prefer William Moses’ performance as Ken Malansky.

Perry Mason and Della Street:  One thing, I’ve found astonishing, reading through fan reviews of the various Mason Telefilms is the complaints about Raymond Burr’s poor health> Some even suggested that show producers should have required Burr (who was 68 when the first film was made and 76 when the last one was completed) to lose weight for the role.

Such thoughts never occurred to me, either when watching Perry Mason as a child, nor watching the movies now. It’s true that Burr has to use a cane in many episodes, but he was still Perry Mason, and while Perry was not in his physical prime, he was just as sharp, shrewd, and dangerous of an adversary as he’d been in the 1950s. Raymond Burr’s voice, his presence, and his great chemistry with Barbara Hale made even the weaker entries worth watching, even all these years later.

Suspending Disbelief: Watching these Perry Mason movies, I’m constantly struck by how much suspension of disbelief is required for some of the courtroom scenes, and I’m not referring to the trademark courtroom confession.  I’m struck by some of the utterly amazing lines of questioning that the lawyers ask for soeemingly no good reason. In one movie, Perry impeaches the credibility of a witness when it will do absolutely nothing to cast a reasonable doubt on his client’s guilt.  In another movie,  Reston  challenges Della’s character testimony on behalf of a client by making he radmit she’d been briefly engaged several decades ago to the Defendant’s brother. I’m reminded that Perry Mason was practically a courtroom fantasy and to properly enjoy it, you have to forget, at least temporarily, how real courts work.

The Best So Far: Of the first nine Movies in the Drake. Jr.-Reston era, I’d say the three best so far  would be:   Perry Mason and the Case of the Lost Love which featured an intricate mystery, the solution to which put Perry in a very difficult position. I also liked the twists in Perry Mason and the Case of the Sinister Spirit and Perry Mason and the Case of the Lady in the Lake. The weakest was  Perry Mason and the Case of the Murdered Madam.

I hope to see the remaining 17 Perry Mason Movies before they disappear from Netflix. The Ken Malansky (William Moses) era of the movies were the ones I remember best.

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Movie Review: Evil Under the Sun (1982)

In Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) mixes business with pleasure. An insurance company calls Poirot in when the wealthy Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely) requests to have a necklace insured for a large sum of money and the necklace turns out to be a paste copy.  Blatt tells Poirot that he gave the necklace to a woman he intended to marry named Arlena, but that she opted to marry someone else and returned the necklace. She’s staying at an Island resort where Poirot and Sir Horace can confront her.

So Poirot heads off to a beautiful island resort where he relaxes and watches the situation escalate as it becomes apparent that everyone at the resort from the owner on down has cause to hate Arlena (Diana Rigg), from the owner to her husband, to the wife of a man she’s having a very indiscrete affair with. About an hour into the movie, she is murdered–to the surprise of no one familiar with Agatha Christie stories– and it falls to Hercule Poirot to find the killer. However, Poirot pool of suspect begins to dwindle as it looks like everybody has an alibi.

Review:

First, let me take a moment to praise the cinematography. The result is truly beautiful and Evil Under the Sun does a great job of bringing this fantastic setting to life.

As to the mystery itself, Evil Under the Sun is solid. The Edgar-nominated movie delivers a tough puzzle for the viewers to solve (even though, it took a long time to get to the inevitable murder.) The mystery was well-paced as I kept wondering how Poirot was going to crack this one. The story delivers a classic payoff.

The supporting cast was superb. It wasn’t star-studded, but rather filled with competent character actors who made the story work. The best supporting performance came from Jane Birkin as the wife of the murder victim’s lover.

As for Poirot himself, this was my first time seeing Ustinov as Poirot and I thought that he was okay in the role. He certainly wasn’t as good as David Suchet, and was a little too comical for my liking, but his performance was servicable.

One final note for parents. The movie is rated PG, but this film was relased in 1982 prior to the establishment of the PG13 rating which would have better suited the film due to some adult content.

Rating: 4.25 stars out of 5.0

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Mr. Monks’s Top 20 List: The Honorable Mentions

Having finished the complete Monk series, the natural thing to do when I have a blog like would be to make a list of my favorites. We’ve done it before with Columbo.

The big question for me was the number. Monk himself would prefer ten or something divisible by it.  I decided on 20, but couldn’t quite narrow it down to that. So, we’ll have 20 and five honorable mentions.:)*

To prepare for this, I went through the entire list of episodes and picked out potential candidates for the list and picked out 35 episodes from which cut.  The first four Seasons of Monk where the source of 24 picks and the last four but eleven. When I winnowed the list down to 20, 15 episodes from Season 1-4 made the list and only 5 from Seasons 5-8.  However, the second half of the series does dominate our Honorable mentions:

Honorable Mentions:

Mr. Monk and Actor (Season 5, Episode 1):   One of Monk’s cases is going to be made into a TV movie and a classic method actor (Stanley Tucci) with a habit for getting too much into character is set to play Monk  in the telefilm. As he follows Monk around Tucci’s character begins to become Monk. The 2nd half of the series featured many episodes in which humor storylines overwhelmed the crime story. This one was different in that it actually worked, thanks to an Emmy-winning performance by Tucci which sells the episode.

Mr. Monk and the Bad Girlfriend (Season 6, Episode 4): Monk suspects the Captain’s girlfriend of murder. The problem is that the murder was so cleverly committed that Monk himself is a witness to her alibi. This episode combines some great elements including some great tension between Monk and the Captain and a clever solution to the problem. Also, it’s somewhat noteworthy as mystery programs rarely make recurring characters as a murderer.

Mr. Monk and the Kid (Season 3, Episode 16): A missing toddler is found carrying a severed human finger. Through a process of deduction, Monk figures out a kidnapping is going on and the finger belongs to the victim of the family. This has a decent mystery plot and a hilarious scene where Monk’s fear of nudity ruins the handover of ransom money. However, the real genius of this is the touching relationship between Monk and the little boy who he takes into temporary custody due to some issues with the boy’s regular foster parents. The presence of the boy awakens long-dormant paternal feelings that has Monk thinking of adopting the boy. Monk, however, must confront what it really means to love in a poignant and moving end to the 3rd season.

Mr. Monk and the Foreign Man (Season 8, Episode 2): Monk is annoyed by a Nigerian man making noise across the street from his apartment, but when he confronts the man he learns that the man is in this country as his wife was struck down by a hit and run driver.  This changes everything and Monk resolves to help the husband, even to the point of tolerating the man’s smoking. (Albeit, Monk impromptu invents the smoking bag and advises the husband that’s how smoking is done in America.) The mystery was good for Season 8, but nowhere close to the show’s zenith. However, the show’s poignant dramatic moments and the comedy made it a keeper.

Mr. Monk and the Candidate (Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2):  Where it all began. This episode does a fabulous job setting the stage for what is to come.  We are given a good mystery in which our hero must prove himself in the beginning of his private consulting career after three years away from the Force after the death of Trudy. This episode, more than any other, has a Monk as a man with something to prove. The story was one of only three two part episodes in Monk history and the writers took excellent advantage of it to give us a good mystery and a solid character sketch of Monk, whose balance of fear and courage and  brilliance and madness were on full display. The episode also shows the strengths and weaknesses of Monk’s first assistant Sharona Flemming. Sharona’s big weakness was her ability to attract the wrong type of men. When Adrian exposes her date as a fraud, her pride makes her temporarily quit before returning to help Monk solve the case and set the stage for dozens of mysteries to come.

Next week: 16-20

*If anyone’s wondering why I only did a top 10 for Columbo, remember our Columbo top 10 list was only of the 40-odd 1970s episodes while Monk had triple that.  

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