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

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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10May/140

Book Review: The Mother Hunt

A wealthy young widow has a baby left on her doorstep with the claim that the Baby was her late husband's child born out of wedlock. She hires Wolfe to find out who the mother is.

The task is impossible but as usual, Wolfe comes up with a plan thanks to the unusual buttons on the baby's outfit. However, when the buttons traced to its source, a nurse who'd cared for the baby-the nurse is murdered.

Wolfe and Archie find themselves in a tight spot with the cops as they try to find the mother, but are invariably forced to find the killer as well.

This was a well-done story with great characters and a twisting and turning plot that drives Wolfe from the Brownstone under the tightest spot of his career as far as the police are concerned.

The relationship between Archie and the widow is played very well and honestly I could have seen it going places. I think there's a good case to be made that this story was where the Corpus should have ended maybe with wedding bells and respectability for Archie at last.

If not, the book marks the end of the greatest era of Wolfe stories. From 1946-63, Stout produced his best work. With A Right to Die, the tone of the rest of the books would change dramatically.

Overall, this was a wonderful Nero Wolfe novel and earns a:

Rating: Very Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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3May/140

The Top 5 Yours Truly Johnny Dollar Serials

After a year’s hiatus, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar returned to the air in October 1955 with Bob Bailey in the title role and with a new format. The series was broadcast five days a week for more than a year.

Collectively, the fifty-five Johnny Dollar serials are the best run of radio drama for a non-anthology series in terms of writing, talent, and music. With the exception of the nine part Phantom Chase Matter, and the six part Kranesburg Matter, each of these serials were five parters. The serials stories generally allowed more complex and engaging stories. Of course, there were a few times it didn’t quite work out that way but these were the exceptions rather than the rule.

Of the fifty-five serials, which were the best? That’s a tough question. Here, I offer my answer as I look at the top five serials. As this is a top five list, there were several stories that I couldn’t quite fit in.  So I’ll begin with some honorable mentions.

The Primrose Matter did a great job setting the stage and building suspense, and part four of that matter is one of the best installments of the entire series. The Kranesburg Matter had a really great plot and some great characterization. The Plantangent Matter showed Johnny’s dogged tenacity and honor in solving the murder of a woman he met only once. The Confidential Matter gave keen insight into the character as he coped with learning one of his oldest friends was a crook and undertaking to get some of the stolen money back for the insurance company. The Shady Lane Matter was fascinating in the way it put Johnny opposite a town constable in a small New England town who seemed to always insist that the suspects Johnny found didn’t do it because “it’s not in their nature.”

Of course, none of those episodes made the list. Her'es a look at those which did:

5) The Broderick Matter  (Parts One and Two, Three and Four, and Five)

Air Dates: November 14-18, 1955

The Broderick Matter starts off on a positive note. One day an eleven year old girl helped a poor man sell newspapers. The man took out a $1500 life insurance policy and faithfully paid the premiums for more than a decade to thank her. Johnny is looking forward to the case and to meeting the girl who got this type of faith from the old man. But even by part two, Johnny’s finding that her life turned out far differently than the old man would have bet.

He discovers a trail of con jobs, thefts, and broken hearts and Johnny finds himself disillusioned about the young woman and humanity in general. He tracks her down to a hotel at the end of Part Four and finds her about to jump out of a building leading to a very intense and unforgettable Part Five with Bailey and Virginia Gregg turning in a spellbinding and intense performance.

4) The Valentine Matter (Parts One and Two, Three and Four, and Five)

Air Dates: October 31-November 4, 1955

The Valentine Matter is a beautifully tragic story. Johnny meets an old time bootlegger named Valentine at a hotel. The old guy has settled down to peaceful retirement and painting in New Orleans. However, inexplicably there are attempts on his life and Johnny is on the case.

The story really drives home the humanity and decency of Johnny Dollar as portrayed by Bailey. It relies on human drama and suspense rather than any sort of cleverness. Given the insane hatred that’s driving the villains in this story, cleverness would pretty much about.

Beyond Bailey’s performance, the show was bolstered by Betty Lou Gerson’s great acting as Valentine’s daughter at Part Four, and the opening to Part Five was simply the most powerful beginning to any Johnny Dollar serial episode and it relied on sound effects alone to get the job done.

3) The Meg’s Palace Matter (Parts One and Two, Three and Four, and Five)

Original Air Date: September 24-28, 1956

This an episode which became great in the hands of its guest star. Virgina Gregg plays Meg, an Irish Woman who owns a tavern and has faced threats on her life and property. Johnny, of course, arrives representing her insurance company and has to try to keep her alive.

The suspense and the details of a mystery are good but not spectacular. In fact, there was one scene where an accomplice delayed telling Johnny who the killer was for such an absurdly long amount of time so that the killer could do away with his accomplice. In addition, Johnny uses a bluff to solve the case.

But none of that matters becauseVirginia Gregg carries the serial with her performance as Meg, a fiery character who swings between roaring angry to kindly. In the hands of a less competent actress, Meg would have been little more than a bundle of Irish stereotypes but Gregg turns that caricature into one of Johnny Dollar’s most memorable characters. Her final scene was emotionally evocative but not hammy. The whole serial served as a showcase of the unique talent that was Virginia Gregg as she elevates this story from good to great.

2) The McCormick Matter (Parts One and Two, Three and Four, and Five)

Original Air Date: October 3-7, 1955

The first serialized story of Yours Truly Johnny Dollar had to be good. It was CBS’ third try at a serialized mystery drama in the mid-1950s and those efforts had been doomed in a matter of weeks. How long Johnny Dollar would stay on there would have a lot to do with the momentum built by this story.

“The McCormack Matter” did everything it needed to and them some. It centers on a dying prisoner who tells Johnny about something he overheard a recently released prisoner say and with that Johnny sets off to investigate.

The serial showcased the show’s strengths in terms of rich characterization of guest characters, solid expansions of previously used scripts. The mystery was well-written and engaging, and also featured some fantastic action scenes. Part Four ends with Johnny being shot and in Part Five we learn our hero isn’t perfect as he accuses the wrong person before arriving at the astonishing truth.

The McCormack Matter set the tone for the rest of the series and remains one of Johnny Dollar’s best stories.

1)      The Nick Shurn Matter (Parts One and Two,  Three and Four, and Five)

Original Air Date: December 19-23, 1955

Christmas episodes rarely show very high on top episodes lists for crime series. Either a series will tell a story that’s different from what they do the rest of the year or they’ll tell a story that’s very true to the tone of the series but is awkwardly tone deaf to Christmas.

This is a serial that does neither. It manages both to remain true to the series and to the spirit of the Season.

In it, the partner of night club owner and racketeer Nick Shurn is murdered. The only likely witness, one of Shurn’s employees, Kathy O’Dare, is missing  Johnny sets out to find her, eventually tracing her to her hometown, a small timber town in Michigan. Johnny has to find Kathy before Shurn does.

It’s a series of wonderful contrasts as tough guy stuff melds with warm sentimental moments. Johnny punches out one of Shurn’s thugs and later has to kill a man in self-defense on Christmas Eve. On the other hand, Johnny helps a woman with a broken arm wrap her Christmas presents and Kathy’s fire Mike takes a liking to Johnny pretty quickly.

Part Four contains one of Bailey’s  best scenes as Dollar as Dollar stumbles through a snow storm unable to see at all. Part Five is another fine episode as Johnny awakening on Christmas morning leads to a very wistful item in the expense account showing Johnny considering what might have been.

The serial’s contrast of Christmas and sentimental warmth against violence, mayhem, and suspense might be best explained by the conversation Mike and Johnny had in which Johnny referenced King Herod when talking about Shurn’s though searching for Kathy illustrated a key idea: warmth, goodness, and truth don’t come in just nice places with little danger. Herod’s violent reaction in the midst of the miracle of Christmas helped explained the violent reaction of Nick Shurn and Benny.

The end is also priceless and a great twist once it’s all said and done. Overall, the Nick Shurn Matter was a Christmas masterpiece that’s good for a listen all year round.

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26Apr/140

DVD Review: The Saint Double Feature

In 1941, George Sanders left the role Simon Templar in the Saint series and was replaced by Hugh Sinclair.

The contrasts between Sanders and Sinclair is pretty striking.  For Sanders, the Saint was an early highlight of a career that would see him earn parts in A pictures and even earn an Academy Award. For Sinclair, this was as good as it got.  Sinclair just didn't have the presence that Sanders did, and so both of his Saint films were below Sanders best stories. Though both films were better than Sanders subpar The Saint's Double Trouble.  

The Saint's Vacation (1941)  is the better of the two films and truthfully above average when compared to most 1940s B detective features. The Saint is on vacation and gets involved in international intrigue over a music box which serves as the stories Macguffin. It's not an original idea, but the execution of it in this film is pretty enjoyable. The end is somewhat frustrating and drawn out particularly since we never get to find out what exactly the hubbub was about other than that it was a Macguff.

The Saint Meets the Tiger  (1943) is based on the first Saint Novel and finds the Saint on the trail of international gold smugglers. Most of the movie is a little boring and hard to follow, so it's a bit below average. However, at the end of the movie, a madcap scene where the Saint's sidekick and girlfriend are knocking people out aboard a ship really livens things up.

So in short,  the two films are almost mere images of each other. The Saint's Vacation is an above average film that's pretty interesting in the beginning but is bogged down by a slow ending. The Saint Meets the Tiger is a below average film that's propped up by an ending that's a lot more fun than the film itself.

Overall, I'd give the DVD 3.0 out of 5.0 and recommend it only for Saint completists at its retail price.

 

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19Apr/140

Book Review: Fit to Kill

It's the 1ate 1950s and Shayne's reporter friend Tim Rourke is on vacation in a Latin American country with a corrupt government when he meets a beautiful blonde claiming to have hot information.

Shayne is at the airport to meet Rourke, who acts out of character. Then Rourke is kidnapped while the girl disappears and Shayne is left with a lot of questions and a typewriter.

The story is okay, it's not as good as the other two Shayne mysteries I've read, but Halliday provides your expected dose of mayhem, danger, and beautiful blondes.

This one suffered for having Shayne out of the picture for the first 30 percent of the book. Rourke isn't a fun point of view character. Plus in the middle of the book, Rourke gets kind of drunk and those scenes read like   poor imitation of Craig Rice's Mr. Malone. The solution is all a bit unsurprising and it wasn't well set up.

Overall, Mike Shayne is still good and it's not a bad read, but Halliday had produced far better books than this one.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

The copy I read plus another Michael Shayne mystery are available on request with the first donation received of $50 or more for listeners in the US or Canada.  See details here.

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12Apr/140

Radio Drama Review: Death on the Nile

The plot of Death on the Nile is familiar to me. In the past,  I've reviewed the Ustinov big screen version and the David Suchet version.   Recently, I was pleased to enjoy the BBC Radio 4 version.

It can seem odd to listen to, watch, and experience a mystery multiple times because to the viewer or listener, it's no longer a mystery. We know whodunit and we know why. Yet, there are some stories that are so compelling that the stories never get old. And that's definitely the case with Death on the Nile. 

The plot has Poirot (John Moffat) on vacation in Egypt and stepping smack into the middle of huge drama.  Simon and Linnet Doyle are on their honeymoon being staked by Jacqueline, Simon's former fiancee who he jilted in order to marry Linnet, who was Jacqueline's far richer best friend. Poirot sees trouble coming and tries to head it off, warning Jacqueline not to let evil into her.  However, the tragedy occurs when Linnet is murdered with Jacqueline's gun. However, Jacqueline didn't do it as she had just attempted to kill Simon and had panicked and was staying with a nurse at the time Linnet died.

The good news for Poirot is that the boat is full of potential suspects or at  the very least, people who have their own secrets to hide.  Thus Poirot has to sift through an amazing array of lies to find what really happened.

While you listening to the radio adaptation, you may miss the stunning visuals that defined the television and film adaptations, I think that the radio version may have the been the best at capturing the emotional conflicts at the heart of Death on the Nile. The pacing is very deliberate. It was aired a five part drama, and the first murder didn't occur until the end of  part three. They really did a great job setting up the situation and the characters. The interactions between Poirot and Jacqueline are priceless, and the resolution to the secondary storylines add a more positive counterbalance that makes this enjoyable.

Death on the Nile is a great story that brings home the brilliance of the murder and the tragedy of the perpetrators in a way that captures the imagination and makes this a must-listen to Poirot adaptation.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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5Apr/140

Telefilm Review: Mrs. McGinty’s Dead

After a rocky tenth series, the eleventh series of Poirot kicked off with Mrs. McGinty's dead.  A man is convicted of murdering his landlady in what seems like a clear cut case. However, the investigating officer has doubts,  so he asks Poirot to take a second look at the case. Poirot investigates and as often happens, Poirot finds himself in a small English community where multiple secrets are being kept.

I loved this episode. I may have enjoyed  this even more than its merits deserved after my problems with  the tenth series, but this is what Poirot is supposed to be. The program has Poirot traversing the English country side in search behind the truth about two photographs which could save the life of a man on a death row. There are plenty of twists and turns, with sensational cinematography and competent acting from the supporting cast. This episode was a very strong and enjoyable adaptation of Christie's story.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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29Mar/140

Book Review: Death of a Doxy

In Death of a Doxy (1966), Archie agrees to a favor for Orrie Cather and reclaim an item from the house of a young woman. Instead, Archie finds the woman dead and smells a set up. Archie extricates himself, but Orrie, a long time associate of Wolfe’s, is charged with murder.

In a conclave with Wolfe, based on the strong conviction of Saul Panzer, the private detective decide Orrie is innocent and set out to prove it. The murdered woman was having an affair with a powerful man and the first but not last task is to find this man.

Death of a Doxy is a solidly written story. The character of Julie Jaquette, a successful nightclub singer who does an impromptu song and dance for Wolfe, which is, without a doubt the greatest moment of the book. Jacquet showed that Stout’s ability to write memorable characters was still very much intact.

The book is a bit darker and cynical than many early Wolfe mysteries of the 1950s particularly with how the killer was disposed of.

The book also introduces Avery Ballou, a character who’d play a minor role in several of the later Wolfe novels, as well as provide some foreshadowing of events that would occur in the final Wolfe novel.

Overall, I rate the book: Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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22Mar/140

Radio Drama Review: The Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon

In January 1934, newspaper readers were introduced to the adventures of Flash Gordon, an athletic Yale graduate who is kidnapped by Doctor Zarkov and taken in a rocket to the planet Mongol along with the lovely Dale Arden.

In 1935, Hearst brought Flash Gordon to radio a 26-part adventure starring Gale Gordon as Flash Gordon in The Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon. Radio serials from this era are relatively rare, so I was surprised to find the whole 26 part story is available for listeners.

The serial is actually not all that good to start with. While it’s a faithful adaptation of the comic strip, the writers seemed to struggle with being faithful while transitioning Flash Gordon from a visual to an aural medium. One big thing was that very important scenes were skipped over in the early going, so you felt someone was giving highlight of the story rather than you listening to it.

The serial got much better around the sixth episode as the scene shifted to Flash's goal of taking over  the Blue Magic land from the witch Queen Azura. What followed over the next eighteen episodes was a dazzling display of imagination and plot twists with hypnosis potions, invisibility machines, angry dwarfs and a wide variety of reversals of fortune. This was radio fantasy for kids with all its gusto.

The series did break with continuity in the comic books,  so it could bring listeners another program. Episode 24 ended with Flash, Dale, and Zarkov accidentally heading back towards Earth in a rocket ship and in Episode 25 they crashed in the Jungle near long time radio character Jungle Jim. In Episode 26, the two were finally wed to wrap up the series, so that Jungle Jim could take over its time slot.  This wouldn't be the last Flash Gordon was heard on the radio, but it would be the last complete program.

Overall, the serial was good.  Some people might be offended by Flash's active conquest, but in the end it's just fantasy.  While the beginning was rushed, and the end while good was a little out of place, the middle chapters are packed with great story.  The acting quality varies quite a bit from character to character and there are a fair share of hams on the story, but the series works.

It particularly works as a promotion for the Flash Gordon comic strip. Characters like the Blue Magic Men, Hawk Men all sound exciting, fun, and worth seeing as well as hearing.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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15Mar/140

DVD Review: Nick Carter Triple Feature Mysteries


Walter Pidgeon played Nick Carter in a series of 3 MGM films in 1939 and 1940 and the three films were released in the last few years by Warner Archives.

The first film was, Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939) which saw Nick heading to California to investigate the theft of plans for an advanced aircraft and sabotage of the factory.

This film is engaging  and breezes by in 59 minutes. The mystery isn’t all that complex, but the film is interesting for its look at a time when the aviation industry was very young.

Carter as portrayed on the film, jumped to conclusions and made plenty of surmises about people's guilt, some of which were far fetched but promised repeatedly, “If I’m wrong, I’ll apologize later.” A line that would be used in other films, though not as frequently as  here.

The second film was Phantom Raiders (1940) and it was probably the worst of the three. The film was expanded to 70 minutes, but really didn’t seem to know what to do with the extra time, so it opted for padding. You could start watching the film ten minutes in and really not miss anything.

Carter is brought in on a case where several boats are being blown up at sea by the same company leading to massive insurance payoff. This film because of the first ten minutes (which gives away the plot) is much less of a true whodunit and more of a battle of wits between Nick and the villain which does work fairly well.

The location shots are good and the plot progresses nicely. Other than the very boring first ten minutes, my big complaint is that Nick keeps trying to bow out of the case in a way that hardly seem consistent with the heroic reputation of the character.

Finally, we have the best film of the series Sky Murder  (1940) which has Nick investigating a murder that occurred in the air. The movie was one of those pre-war films that really dealt with the war in Europe and fifth columnists in the US. This 72 minute film was exciting, well-paced, suspenseful, and with some lighter moments included as well. In terms of B Detective movies, it didn’t get much better than this. This movie makes the whole set worth buying.

Overall, I found this to be a very good series of films. The glaring flaw with the series was that the Nick Carter on the screen had very little relation to the Nick Carter off the books. Through fifty years of pulp fiction, Carter had been established as a resourceful tireless he-man who looked at danger and laughed in its face. Carter also surrounded himself with younger detectives who he was mentoring, thus the title master detective.

Pidgeon plays Carter as much more typical Mystery Comedy lead. Carter’s no fool, but he’s also a bit of a lady’s man and in The Phantom Raiders he’d rather catch up with the ladies and take a vacation than bust up the ring.

And as for assistants, Nick has Bartholemew (played by Donald Meek), a middle aged bee keeper and wannabe amateur detective who attaches himself to Nick with Nick’s sufferance more than anything else.

It was Hollywood’s practice in the 1930s to pay to adapt characters to the screen and then shove these characters into the formula of the moment, which is why there was a series of Nancy Drew where Nancy was a little bit ditzy, and two Nero Wolfe films where Archie Goodwin was played as a typical punch drunk Lionel Stander character.

Even with this flaw, these three movies are good in and of themselves. The stories are well-written and there’s plenty of action for a film of its era though it's not bloody. There were a couple of machine gun scenes in this series that were thrilling.

Even Bartholemew works as a sidekick, particularly in the last two movies. While similar characters from the golden age of film usually became  nothing more than annoying comic foils, Meek turns in a solid performance and Bartholemew actually becomes a valuable asset to Nick in the second and third movies, comfortable with a gun and with using some trick action to get the upper hand on the bad guys.

The series stands up well. Only lasting for three installments meant that unlike Mr. Moto or The Thin Man, the Nick Carter series didn't stick around for one film too many.

The DVD itself is up to the usual standard of Warner Archives with no thrills but three good and very rare films with decent transfers. The only mistake made was that Warner put Phantom Raiders before Sky Murder but this is only of trivial importance as it really doesn't matter which order you watch these in.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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