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

13Jun/151

Audio Drama Review: The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 1


The Twilight Zone was one of television’s most remembered and enduring dramas from the 1950s and 60s, running from 1959-64 and then being revived for a movie in 1983, and revival TV series from 1985-89 and again from 2002-2003.

Carl Amari, best known for his work at Radio Spirit, brought the Twilight Zone to radio in a series starring Hollywood actors and narrated by Stacey Keach, who took over for Rod Serling as narrator. The stories are often expanded and updated to the reflected the twenty-first century technology and society. We’ll take a look at the first volume of Twilight Zone Audio Dramas from Audible.com which collects six stories.

“Night Call” features Mariette Hartley playing an old shut-in who begins receiving disturbing calls with nobody there. The story is creepy and Heartley's performance is perfect as she manages to play this character with gusto and depth. I found the ending a little disappointing but that is due to the original story.

“Long Live Walter Jameson”-Lou Diamond Phillips plays Walter Jameson, a professor with a secret. The father of the woman he’s about to marry discovers photos of Jameson dating back to the 19th Century. Phillips turns in the best performance of the set and the story has a classic Twilight Zone feel to it.

“The Lateness of the Hour”-In a house full of androids, with a middle-aged couple and their daughter, the daughter (played by Jane Seymour) is fed up with their artificial life and wants something far more real. It’s a wonderful Science Fiction story with a classic twist at the end.

“The 30-Fathom Grave”-Is a good and proper ghost story with kind of a classic feel as a 1960s Submarine comes upon the wreck from World War II and one crew member goes a little beserk over it.The story has a period feel---for the most part. The series had the idea of giving a woman the role of the ship's doctor, but you don't have to be an expert in military history to know that wouldn't have been the case. Either moving the story forward a couple decades or having a male doctor would have made sense. In the case, the woman doctor on the 1960s Naval vessel came off as a distracting anachronism.

"The Man in the Bottle" features a modern day genie that offers a couple who owns a pawnshop four wishes Ed Begley, Jr. stars in a tale that's amusing and has its own subtle lessons, though some of them unintended.

"The Night of the Meek" is probably the biggest disappointment of this collection. As made starring Art Carney, the story was a Christmas classic. Chris McDonald steps into Carney's role and almost sleepwalks through it. The expansions and the revisions of the story make it even weaker. I will admit that, on reflection, "Night of the Meek" had its problems and if done wrong would have come off almost as bad as the audio version if not for the fact that Art Carney was in the lead and the future Oscar-nominated Actor was able to take a performance that would have been forgettable and make it gripping and real. Sadly Mr. McDonald was out of his depth in terms of doing this for radio.

Overall, this is a good collection with some good audio quality, some solid soundscapes, and mostly well-done musical production. I will admit the appeal of these audio dramas is probably a bit less than it was in 2002 when they first began. With the development of Netflix and Amazon Prime, coupled with 4G networks, many people can watch any episode of the original Twilight Zone anytime and anywhere they want and in most cases the originals are still better.

Still, if you're a fan of audio drama, these are worth a listen. It's particularly noteworthy for allowing us to hear many modern American actors in audio drama. Beyond those in this first set John Rhys-Davies, Louis Gossett, Jr.  and Jason Alexander are among the stars who found themselves in the Twilight Zone.

In addition to the sets on Audible, you can download three episodes off their website with a subscription to their newsletter.

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6Jun/150

Telefilm Review: The Brazilian Connection

In the 1980s, the Saint returned to television with a series of TV movies starring Simon Dutton. “The Brazilian Connection” originally aired in 1989. In it, the Saint takes a hand to investigate when a baby is kidnapped in broad daylight.

The best thing about this updated Saint story is that Simon Dutton isn’t Val Kilmer. The second best thing about it is everything that doesn’t have much to do with the main mystery. There’s the early scene which has the Saint robbing a couple of criminals and getting away in style and then busting up an art fraud ring. Inspector Teal’s got a new boss who believes the Saint needs to be brought to heel, despite Teel’s support of Templar.

There’s lovely location shooting in London as well as some nice effects.

As a leading man, Dutton isn’t in the same league as the great Saint Actors: George Sanders, Roger Moore, or Vincent Price. He’s more like Hugh Sinclair, who played the role in two films in the 1940s. He’s certainly adequate, looks up to the part, and can be charming when the script lets him be. The problem is, far too often, the script doesn’t.

While this is better than the 1996 movie by a country mile, it seems the creative team doesn’t really understand the Saint and thus we’re given a story that could feature any 1980s Detective/Action hero.

The big failing of, “The Brazilian Connection” is it’s mystery story. It’s told with little style or real intrigue, and it’s hard to buy into the plot.

You could applaud the story for being years ahead of its time by its discussion of human trafficking, but the way the movie addresses the issue is unbelievable.

I’m not spoiling anything to explain the couple who kidnapped the baby in London worked for a black market baby ring that kidnapped babies from Brazil, particularly rural areas, taking advantage of local corruption to kidnap babies and smuggle them out of the country. The mystery is who the boss is.

So these kidnappers who have this Brazilian deal set up where due to their connections, they can easily smuggle babies out of the countries. So they are walking down the street, see a stroller, and do an impromptu kidnapping in the middle of London where they have none of the advantages they do in Brazil. Why? They figured they could pick up some extra bucks.

The story also does a disservice to adoptive parents who are concerned with overly strict regulations that made it difficult for them to adopt by tying people who support their cause to a baby smuggling ring.

Overall, the story isn’t awful, but it’s not great, either, and it didn’t leave me at all curious to see future episodes of this incarnation of the Saint.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

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30May/150

Book Review: The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon is rightly considered one of the landmark books in detective fiction. The tale was also immortalized on the screen in one of the greatest films of all time.

The book works so well because of its characters. Joel Cairo, Wilmer, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy are incredibly rich and fascinating characters who would be copied and recreated by lesser writers. Spade himself is perhaps the most fascinating character of them all.

As a person, he has many detestable qualities. At times, he’s coldly sociopathic, he uses people, and his own moral code is far more questionable than Philip Marlowe's is. Yet, this allows the reader to wonder where exactly Spade stands. That question is probably the most intriguing mystery in the book.

The language of the book is fascinating. Hammett uses so many rich, active words. For example, Spade doesn’t light a cigarette. He ignites it or he sets it on fire.

Probably one of the big differences (although relatively minor) between the movie and the novel is the movie doesn’t include Guttman’s daughter. It’s understandable why the film didn’t include her as there would have been issues with the production code and it also would have overcrowded the film. However, she does serve two purposes in the book. We do get a clearer picture of Spade’s humane side, as well as an idea of how ruthless Guttman could be.

The book does deal with some adult themes, but in a tasteful way, as was required by the times.

Overall, the book is a classic and worth reading as an example of great writing and characterization, even if you don’t care for the type of protagonist Spade represents or the type of protagonists that the book has inspired.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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23May/150

Radio Comedy Review: The Mel Blanc Show

Around the world, people are sitting at their computer listening to Old Time Radio.

In Boston, Jim says, “I can’t get enough of that Jack Benny.”

While in Sidney, Mike says, “I can’t get enough of the Great Gildersleeve.”

Meanwhile in Boise, Adam Graham sighs and says, “Enough of this Mel Blanc show.”

—If the Writers of Mel Blanc wrote an intro for this review.

Mel Blanc was best known as the voice of Bugs Bunny and a host of other Warner Brothers cartoon characters. He’d also become a real presence on radio, providing talents to a variety of comedians including Abbott and Costello and Burns and Allen where he played the morose and abused “Happy Postman.” He’d also been a regular on the Armed Forces Radio Services portraying a stuttering Private Sad Sack (a modified version of his Porky Pig voice) for programs such as Command Performance and Mail Call.

So, it was natural he would land a sitcom. Unfortunately, for him, he landed it at CBS. CBS comedies during this era were very hit and miss. The Mel Blanc Show would be the first of three CBS programs that wasted a reserve of comedy talent due to sub-par scripts.

It was  not due to a lack of talent. Mel Blanc played himself and he also played his assistant Zookie, who was essentially a civilian version of Sad Sack. Throughout, the production Mel Blanc was supported by Mary Jane Croft as Mel’s girlfriend Betty and the legendary Joseph Kearns appeared as her grumpy father. At different times, the series was supported by Hans Conreid, Alan Reed, and Jim Backus among others.

Early episodes were burdened by an unnecessary uncle who didn’t contribute any plot or humor as well as a third Mel Blanc character, Dr. Chris Crabbe, a vet who had some mannerisms of a dog. The character was strictly for the dogs and was discarded. Also Betty had a little brother who disappeared from the show.

The story improved from dreadful to below average after the first dozen episodes as it relied more on Mel Blanc’s legendary voice talent. To save himself from whatever predicament he got himself into, he’d unleash one or more of his legendary voices. Most of the show’s truly funny scenes came from these moments. I couldn’t help but think this would have been a much better show had they made it a sketch comedy show like Red Skelton.

The program featured a nice set from Victor Miller and the Sportsmen every episode. If you delight in 1940s music, even if you can’t get into the comedy, the musical interlude is pleasant.

However, overall, I have to rank this pretty low compared to other comedies of the era.

The first problem is it was too repetitive.

Repetition and running gags are part of comedy. There’s nothing wrong with them, to a point. Repeating catchphrases is part of situation comedy from Lum Edwards saying, "I'm worn to a frazzle, worn to a frazzzle" to Steve Urkel's nasally plea of, "Did I do that?" after one catastrophe or another. Even show without such obvious repetition would have characters doing similar things.

The problem with the Mel Blanc show is, once the show is established, every episode is exactly the same with the opening narration illustrating how pathetic Mel is, to Betty's  father coming over to complain about a repair job and calling Mel an idiot, and Mel "accidentally" calls him one back. Then we learn about what passes for a plot and Mel gets some task, Zookie goes to talk to Betty's father, which leads to Mel being displaced by Hartley Bentley, who brags about how attractive women find him. Then Mr. Cushing the lodge president comes over and complains about how ugly his wife is. After this, Mel finally gets around to explaining his problem. Mr. Cushing suggests he disguise himself and use a funny voice, Mel Blanc does so, has a final scene with Betty, cue the music.

The show's writer, Mac Benoff, would eventually get less repetitive, though not until he wrote Life with Luigi.  When I reviewed Life with Luigi three and a half years ago, I noted it was somewhat repetitive. Compared to the Mel Blanc Show, Life with Luigi was the most original program on radio.

The other thing Benoff would figure out is how to make his lead character likable. As written, the character of Mel is a born loser with no personality. It's hard to root for the character to triumph and get the girl when I see no reason to care about him at all.  At a time when radio featured such likable and memorable characters as Fibber McGee, the Great Gildersleeve, and Chester Riley, Mel is written as a nebulous void.

The show was cancelled after one season with poor ratings and I can't argue with either the network or the audience. The best thing to say for the Mel Blanc Show is that, unlike CBS's future talent-wasting comedy duds, the show did no long-term harm.

After a decade and a half in serialized daily radio comedy and six movies, in 1948,  Lum 'n Abner came to CBS prime time in a show sponsored by Fridgidaire. It essentially destroyed their careers. In 1950, After nine seasons and four movies as the Great Gildersleeve, Harold Peary got his own show for CBS, which lasted one season and managed to put him into supporting roles for the rest of his career.

Mel Blanc's career emerged unscathed. Blanc continued to provide voices for all the wonderful cartoon characters he was legendary for doing. He also did radio work and made the transition to early television along stars such as Jack BennyThroughout his lengthy career, he showed how funny he could be when given good material. It's a pity that didn't happen in the show that bears his name.

Rating: 2.0 out of 5.0

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16May/150

Book Review: The Case of the Courteous Killer

In 1958, Dragnet had been with America for nearly a decade, with 318 Radio performances coupled with more than 200 TV episodes, and a movie. It’s in this atmosphere that Richard Deming wrote his tie-in Dragnet novel, the Case of the Courteous Killer.

It begins with an unassuming man holding up couples in lover’s lane, eventually killing a man who thought the unassuming robber would be easy to handle in the first of a series of murders. Joe Friday and Frank Smith are called in to locate and apprehend the suspect.

Adapting television shows to novels is tricky business, but the late Mr. Deming does a superb job capturing the spirit of the 1950s TV show while producing a story that was more gripping and involved than half hour television would allow.

Deming nails the voices of Joe Friday and Frank Smith. Friday was particularly important as the story is told in typical Dragnet first person. There were a couple moments I didn't quite buy, though. For example, I found the idea Joe Friday watched the Boston Blackie TV show to be a little unbelievable. There are also funny moments with Frank Smith providing comic relief as he talks about his brother-in-law and various goings on. Truly, I could imagine this on TV as I read it.

The mystery was far beyond typical Dragnet cases, which were resolved in half an hour, but it was in that same matter of fact style. There are many twists as this criminal changes methods, the police stumble upon an almost unbelievable coincidence that's too strange for Dragnet's genre, and the courteous killer twice attempts to exact some not-so-courteous revenge on Joe Friday.

The story lost a bit of momentum and dragged in the last little bit with some repetitive moments before finishing up strong at the end.

Still, if you love 1950s Dragnet, or are a fan of clean early police procedural, this is a really good and engaging read.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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9May/151

Telefilm Review: Curtain


Curtain is a story many don’t want to read and don’t want to see. It’s Poirot’s last tale, the story in which Poirot meets his final end.

Poirot returns to Styles, where he solved his first great English case decades before. This is a different Poirot as far as we can tell, an invalid with a new valet whose days are numbered. Yet, he’s got one more case to solve and he turns (with reluctance) to his oldest and dearest friend, Captain Hastings.

David Suchet turns in a superb performance as this much older, ailing, and far less sunny Poirot. He’s more grumpy and snaps at Captain Hastings, who he has no choice but to depend on. Despite his inability to observe as he once did, it’s clear the little gray cells are still working.

Hugh Frasier delivers a great performance as Captain Hastings, no longer the dim-witted sidekick, he's charged with grief over the death of his wife, with concern for Poirot, and with his daughter’s coldness and involvement with an amoral man. Hasting is driven to his limit and Frasier plays this beautifully, taking advantage of a script that makes Hastings a far juicier part than the typical comic sidekick.

The mystery itself is unusual. It’s hard to follow or to even figure out if there’s a pattern to what’s going on until we get the solution. Then the nature of the evil Poirot faces is exposed, and we’re brought face to face with the shocking choice to make at the end of his days.

Poirot’s final scene is beautifully done, as he’s a man dying hoping only for forgiveness. It’s only later that we learn what for.

Curtain is a solid production, and probably the best of the season.

I’ve enjoyed the entire series, and mystery fans own a large debt of gratitude to David Suchet, who didn’t come to Poirot of remaking him, rather Suchet has said that he understood his job as an actor was to serve the writer (and in the case of the Poirot stories, his creator) by bringing the character to life as they intended it. His job was to truly to be Agatha Christie’s Poirot. While there are quite a few adaptations (particularly in Series 9 and 10) where the story was often very different from Christie’s vision, in all of these tales, Suchet remained superb and succeeded in being Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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2May/150

Telefilm Review: The Labours of Hercules


A few years back
The first thing to understand about the ITV telefilm, The Labours of Hercules is that it really couldn’t be faithful to the book as a whole the way it was produced.

The Labours of Hercules wasn’t really an Agatha Christie novel (see my review here.). It was a short story collection with an overarching theme. Where Poirot, prior to retirement, sought out to cap his career by re-enacting the Labours of Hercules. In truth, this should have been adapted as another season of hour-long adventures, as that’s how previous Christie short stories were handled.

But instead we have a ninty minute telefilm that must be evaluated on its own merits. After failing to catch a jewel thief who also commits murders for the sheer pleasure of it, Poirot is not well. He’d promised a young woman she’d been safe, but instead she’d fallen victim to the jewel thief along with a man who had been attending the same party.

Poirot is depressed, but decides to do something positive by helping his hired driver find his true love, and goes to Switzerland to do so and finds himself in the same hotel as the thief and murderer who defeated him in London. Poirot seeks to catch the killer, but finds more than his usual share of red herrings as the hotel is full of people hiding things and mysteries. In the book, Poirot solves these mysteries across Great Britain and the Continent, but the production is pretty clever in putting as many of these cases from the as possible, literally “under one roof.”

The direction in the film is fantastic, and the Chateau setting is gorgeous and atmospheric. It’s a very well-told and engaging mystery that borrows from the book, but has its own tale to tell.

The one thing that bothers me about is the tonal shift from the book. As a book, The Labours of Hercules is a fun collection of tales about Poirot deciding to cap his amazing career by replicating the original Labors of Hercules. It’s eccentric and light reading. This telefilm  is much darker, and it’s about Poirot’s failure and his struggle for redemption and the fact that his life can often be quite lonely. In many ways, this film serves sets the tone for the final story, Curtain.

Overall, even though this isn’t the Labours of Hercules as I’d really like to have it made (and I doubt, given the increasingly dark tone of our entertainment, such a production will ever be made), it’s good for what it is: an atmospheric mystery that sets up the series finale and Poirot’s last case.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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25Apr/150

Telefilm Review: Elephants Can Remember


A few years back, I listened to the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Elephants Can Remember when it was first released several back. Their version was quite enjoyable as Poirot undertakes solving a twenty-year-old murder mystery so a bride to be can be married without worry and to answer the attacks of her would-be Mother-in-Law. BBC Radio 4 managed to tell a story that was emotionally engaging and involving. Still, it didn’t quite seem to be a good story for television because of its pace and the fact it involved interviewing older people about what they did in their life.

I was curious to see what ITV’s Poirot did with Elephants Can Remember. Their solution was to make the original mystery a secondary story. As a main story, we have the murder of a psychiatrist and a brand new murder created out of whole cloth.

The problems with this are two fold. First, by having Poriot be dismissive to the cold case at first, it changes his overall character. Second, the telefilm’s new main murder isn’t all that good. Nick Dear’s plot is like a bad imitation of a Christie murder, with a lot of the tropes but none of talent for details and depth of character that made Christie’s work so fantastic.

This production takes a lesser Christie novel and turns it into a lesser television episode. This is the weakest adaptation since Series 10. There’s still some decent performances and good atmosphere, but not a whole lot to recommend this as a whole.

For a good adaptation of the story, I highly recommend the BBC Radio 4 version. As for the telefilm, to borrow a quote from the book, “Elephants can remember, but we are human beings and mercifully human beings can forget.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.0

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18Apr/153

Audio Drama Review: Star Wars: The Original Radio Drama

Following the success of the first Star Wars film, George Lucas sold the rights to do a radio adaption to National Public Radio for $1. Adapting movies to radio was a tradition that dated back to the 1930s with the Lux Radio Theater. And in some ways, the resulting Star Wars radio drama bore some similarities to the old Lux Radio Theater with two stars (Mark Hamill as Luke, and Anthony Daniels as 3CPO) returning for their original while other actors filled in other lead roles.

But in other ways, the production was entirely different. Instead of condensing a story like Star Wars into an hour, this expanded it into 13 25 minute episodes, allowing for an expanded narrative.

So how did it work?

Positives:
The expansion of Star Wars into a multi-part audio epic makes a lot of sense given that it’s modeled after golden age sci-fi serials.

The sound design is absolutely gorgeous as it’s done with Lucasfilms cooperation and the same sound from the original film. But they do a good job of creating soundscapes in other areas including the race through Beggar’s Canyon.

The actors who take over roles played in the film are mostly just as good as the original actors, which is a testament to the strength of the story. I actually thought Ann Sachs was a slight upgrade from Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia.

Most of the expansions of the story were  thoughtful. The series begins with two episodes that serve as establishing shots for Luke and Leia prior to the events of the film, and it’s  nice to hear. We get to have Luke racing through Beggar’s Canyon and we also get to see him interacting with Biggs and trying to soldier through his uncle Owen’s constantly putting him off about going to the Academy. His frustration comes off as more reason and less immature.

The audio drama really fleshes out Leia’s character beautifully. She’s far stronger than in the film and more relatable. I really loved everything new they wrote for Leia. One highlight is a much better, more emotionally engaged reaction to the destruction of her home planet of Alderaan than in the movie.

The plot arcs for Luke and Hans Solo were also improved. You really got the sense growing throughout the story that Hans was or had once been more than just a smuggler out for himself in a way you don’t get from the film. Also, there’s enough time to discuss the insanity putting a back country pilot with no experience in space in charge of fighter as the radio drama has time for concerns to be raised about the efficacy of sending Luke Skywalker into battle.

These slight changes made the journey of Hans and Luke far more engaging. Hans’  journey reminds me of Rick from Casablanca (only with the Milennium Falcon) and Luke’s journey contains echoes of the Bible’s David.

We got a little bit more of a taste of the political intrigue on the Death Star and some insight into Grand Moff Tarkin’s decision to remain on the Death Star during the Rebel attack.

While most of the cast are obscure players, there are a few future stars featured. Perry King played Hans Solo three years before getting the lead in Riptide. David Alan Grier made his acting debut. Adam Arkin also features.

Negatives:

Perry King isn’t bad as Hans Solo but he’s a  downgrade from Harrison Ford, who’s the hardest member of the cast to replace.

While most of the material added was interesting, that greatest bane of serialized drama from the Adventures of Superman to Doctor Who shows up in the form of several scenes that are padding. The worst offender was a scene in which Obi-wan Kenobe taught Luke the proper stance for holding a Light-saber. That’d be boring TV, but it’s  mind-numbing audio.

Most of the production holds together because of the strong story and great sound design. There are several scenes where the lack of skill and experience in transferring visual adventures to an aural medium become apparent. Examples includes the Trash Compactor scene or Luke swinging Leia across a chasm in the Death Star.

The final scene may have been the worst. The production crew wanting to recapture every single moment of the film couldn’t figure out how to do the scene where Luke, Hans, and Chewie received medals from Leia so instead they had Hans and Luke bickering  with Leia joining in the arguing. Not a good way to end.

What’s odd about this is that the Star Wars Audio Drama was produced in Los Angeles in 1980, when many of the people who made the Golden Age of radio so magical were not only alive, but also active in productions like the CBS Mystery Theater. I wonder if it ever occurred to NPR to see if any of these people would have been willing to volunteer their services. If they had, this might not have had so many bumpy spots.

The one really odd change in this was that Darth Vader doesn’t appear during the climatic Death Star battle scene. It's mentioned that he's out leading the attack, but we don’t hear him inside his TIE fighter getting a lock on Luke Skywalker before the Millennium Falcon swoops in and that does hurt the drama of that vital scene.

Conclusion:

I used to watch the original Star Wars film several times each year, and did a couple times watching through the entire series in one sitting.

Yet, I haven’t done this for more than a decade. Part of it was growing up and not having time to watch 90 minute movies often, part of it was the prequels which, while having their highlights, replaced the fun, adventure, and heroism of the originals with annoying side characters, big CGI effects, and darkness. Along the way, the prequels’ portrayal of both Anakin Skywalker and the Jedi Knights was disappointing to say the least.

What I loved about this Audio Drama is it managed to recapture the fun and excitement when I watched and rewatched the original Star Wars film so many years. Of course, it’s not easy to get over prequel fatique as I found myself thinking how amazingly off-base Obi-wan’s description of Anakin was based on what I'd seen in the prequels. It wasn’t gilding the lily. It was gilding the skunk cabbage.

I found to properly enjoy Star Wars again,  I needed to follow the advice of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. I had to unlearn what I’d learned. And this wonderful audio drama helps to do that as it immerses listeners in the wonderful and fascinating world of the original Star Wars characters.

It has its weak points, as well as some unnecessary padding,  and could have stood some more expert direction to make this an even better production, but there’s no denying that it does a great job of capturing the essence of a movie grabbed the attention of the world and still holds a place in the hearts of fans to this day.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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11Apr/150

Book Review: Tears of the Giraffe

Tears of the Giraffe is the second installment of the No. 1 Ladies Detective series in which Mma Precious Ramotswe runs her No. 1 Detective Agency in Bostwana.

At the end of the first book,  mechanic Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni proposed to Ma Ramotswe, and the story dwells quite a bit on their engagement and giving us a slightly broader view of J.L.B. Matekoni. While at the detective agency, she takes the seemingly impossible task of solving the nine year old mystery of the disappearance of a young American man for his distraught and now widowed mother.

There's really so much to love about this book  "Tears of the Giraffe" really is a relaxing cozy mystery and in Ma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, writer Alexander McCall Smith creates two wonderful characters. Maketoni really comes into focus as a kind and compassionate man who helps out at the local orphan farm and even takes in two foster children (without telling Ma Ramotswe.)

The book's greatest success is in making readers who come from different cultures understand how these characters think and relate to them. It's done so beautifully and naturally and in a way that doesn't feel like the writer's wagging a finger and saying, "This is how everyone should think!" but rather you feel like you're seeing how they think.  They're interesting characters with a very different spin on the world than readers in the U.K. or in America, but it doesn't feel forced. One thing I found fascinating was when Ma Ramostwe thought poorly of a college professor who didn't hire  servants. While in America, we might think hiring servants is lazy or putting on airs, she thought that by hiring others to work for you, you weer helping to support the community.

The mystery itself has a great emotional core.  Ma Ramotswe's goal is to bring some peace and closure to this woman.  The mystery doesn't require any sort of great deduction, but it does require Ma Ramotswe's intuition and craftiness to solve the case.

While talking about positives, I should also praise audiobook narrator Lisette Lecat who does fantastic job reading the books. Her typical reading voice is a somewhat posh British voice but she manages to give each of the characters a life of their own. Her reading of the American widow was superb. I was blown by how natural her American accent sounded.

This entry was more focused than the first book.  In the original, Smith had Ma Ramotswe stop and have flashbacks that were almost essays and there were multiple cases running throughout the book. Here the book manages to focus mostly on Ma Ramostwe's and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's engagement and the related plots of the adoption of the children and Maketoni's jealous maid who wants to be rid of Ma Ramotswe for her own reasons.

The story does suffer a little when a second case is added to the mix. A butcher shows up asking for the Agency to investigate his wayward wife. While it leads to some interesting discussions, the case isn't all that interesting and slows down the book's momentum. The resolution occurs off-page and we're only told about it later. The story served as a first case for Mma Makutsi, Ma Ramotswe's secretary who is promoted to "assistant detective" in this book. While I didn't like the case, I concede it does open the door for more plot twists and stories in the future.

Overall, this is a delightful read and also an excellent audiobook. Smith masters what books can do at their best: transport you to another place and even into other minds.  This book is fun and thoughtful and a great read for fans of cozier mysteries.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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