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

17Jan/150

Audio Drama Review: The Condemned

In the Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama The Condemned, the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) picks up a distress signal and rescues Charlotte “Charley” Pollard (India Fisher), not knowing that she was a companion of a future Doctor.

Wary of creating a paradox and uncertain what to do, Charley feigns amnesia, but the Doctor is immediately suspicious. However, the question of who Charley really is is put aside when the Doctor lands the TARDIS in an apartment in Manchester where a murder just been committed. And when Detective Inspector DI Menzies (Anna Hope) finds him in the murder room which no one else could have entered, he’s arrested while Charley is kidnapped and locked in the apartment of one of the building’s tenants.

The story features the Doctor playing detective as he ends up teaming up with Menzies to solve this locked room mystery. Of course, calling this an “old fashioned” would be a bit of a misnomer as this story also involves aliens. It’s a Sci Fi mystery that reminded me a lot of Men in Black. The ending has a mix of tragedy, and a bit of light horror that feels almost Noirish in a sci fi sort of way.

The guest characters are well-written and the casting is superb. Hope’s performance as DI Menzies is top notch. The character is tough and realistic with a rye sense of humor. Everyone else is pitch perfect including Will Ash as the tragic Sam and Sara De Freitas who plays Charley’s surprisingly mellow captor.

As for the leads, Colin Baker turns in a great performance as the Doctor. I was generally surprised as I’d heard very bad things about Baker’s doctor as an arrogant and annoying guy in a garish costume. However, Condemned portrays a Doctor who has mellowed much since the time of the TV series. He’s superb in the role of the sleuth, also kind, particularly towards Charley who he lets travel with him despite distrusting her.

India Fisher is solid as Charley, a character who loved the Eighth Doctor and finds herself really disoriented with this prior doctor and having to keep this secret or risk severe consequences to time itself as well as being barred from future travels. One of the oddities of The Condemned is that this new Doctor/Companion pair spends so little time together in their first adventure. In this story, it works because Charley really needs time to process this new situation. The scenes between Charley and the Doctor in the TARDIS particularly at the start of the story are strong and would set the tone for the rest of this duo’s run.

In one classic bit of dialogue, Charley explains her surprise at seeing the Sixth Doctor in his TARDIS by saying she was expecting someone. The Doctor replies, "I hadn't realised dimensionally transcendental time machines disguised as police boxes were so common!"

The story also represents a good entry point for those who want to listen to Doctor Who Audio. The first Big Finish Doctor Who Audio Drama I listened to over BBC Radio 4 Extra related so much to things that had happened in TV episodes I hadn’t seen that I felt lost. In comparison, this makes a solid jumping on point even if you’re not a fan of Baker’s run as the Doctor or even the Classic Series. To understand this episode, all you need to know is that: 1) The Doctor travels in time and space in the TARDIS and 2) That Charley previously traveled with a future version of the Doctor. The same can be said of the entire run of seven Big Finish stories featuring this pairing. It is very self-contained.

Overall, The Condemned works as a fun Sci Fi mystery with solid acting and a superb story. It's a great jumping on point for anyone who's curious about Doctor Who audios but doesn't want to figure out 50 years of continuity.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.0

The Condemned is available from BookDepository.com

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10Jan/150

Top 10 Nero Wolfe Novellas, Part Three

I continue my list of the top 10 Nero Wolfe Novellas. See Part One and Part Two.

3) Disguise for Murder (1950)

This one was adapted for A Nero Wolfe Mystery and it was also done for CBC’s Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. So, it’s a stand out whenever anyone looks at adapting the Wolfe canon, and for good reason.

Wolfe has been talked into opening the brownstone and his orchid to a flower club. At the event, a woman takes Archie aside to confide him that she recognized a murderer at the party, but she’ll only confide it to Wolfe. It goes without saying that before Archie can get Wolfe back to the office, the woman is killed in Wolfe’s office.

This is not only unfortunate, but very inconvenient for Wolfe as Inspector Cramer peevishly orders the office sealed and Wolfe just as peevishly refuses to divulge a key observation to Cramer. Cramer uses Wolfe’s dining room to interrogate the witnesses and Wolfe orders Fritz to make sandwiches for everyone but the police. The novella is far more subtle than the Television version for A&E, as it quietly shows the tension between Wolfe and the official police rather than Wolfe shouting at the police.

The story than features one of the most memorable climaxes in the Wolfe canon with Archie facing more physical danger than ever and a truly surprising solution.

2) Counterfeit for Murder (1961)

A woman named Hattie Annis comes to Wolfe's door looking quite disheveled and unlike the high value clients that Wolfe usually pays for and Archie's not inclined to let her in. However, Archie's willing to let her see the big guy because Wolfe is under the impression that he's a sucker for a certain type of woman and Archie thinks it'll be fun to show Wolfe up.

Hattie has a stack of money that she found in her boarding house which shelters showbiz people whether they can pay their $5 a week rent or not. When Wolfe sends Archie to the boarding house to investigate, they find an undercover female Treasury Agent dead.

The cop-hating Hattie Annis is without a doubt Wolfe's most interesting client so far. Her speech and personality (she calls Wolfe "Falstaff") make the story one of the most enjoyable to read in the canon.

The mystery isn't half bad either. Throw in some T-men and the NYPD in a turf war and there are Few Wolfe stories of any length that can beat this one for pure entertainment value.

1) The Next Witness (1951)

"The Next Witness" finds Wolfe called as a witness to a peripheral matter in a murder trial. While being out and watching the trial, he becomes convinced that the prosecution's case is wrong and leaves the courtroom with Archie, going on the run from the law while Wolfe tries to find the truth.

It's fascinating to read of Wolfe out in the light, asking questions of people in their own place of business is an incredible change of pace. There's also a classic scene with Wolfe in a diner eating Chili and waxing philosophical about it.

"The Next Witness" is truly a top notch story and it shows Wolfe at his wiliest and most resourceful as he's forced to stay in a strange house, travel around in a car, and question witnesses in strange places. The payoff scene in the courtroom features one of Wolfe's most brilliant stratagems.

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

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3Jan/150

Top 10 Nero Wolfe Novellas, Part Two

I continue my list of the top 10 Nero Wolfe Novellas. See Part One

6) Door to Death  (1949) : When Theodore has to take care of his ailing mother and take an indefinite leave as orchid nurse for Wolfe, Wolfe is left with the full time job taking care of them. This becomes so intolerable that Wolfe not only leaves the brownstone, but gets in a car and travels to hire away Andy, the gardener of a wealthy upstate family to tend the orchids. However, before Wolfe can get away with the replacement orchid tender, a dead body is discovered and Andy is the prime suspect.

Wolfe’s determination to find an acceptable replacement for Theordore was enough to interest him in solving the case. However, when a young woman has the impertinence to call him Nero, Wolfe becomes determined to solve the case even as he’s being ordered out by the local police. Wolfe goes to extreme measures to get back into the house and obtain an opportunity to investigate it.

This story that showed both Wolfe’s genius and self-awareness as Wolfe insists on staying away from home knowing that if he goes home, he’ll be impossible to get back out. And this is a case Wolfe wants to solve.

5) Help Wanted, Male (1945): In this last war-time Nero Wolfe story, a man comes to Wolfe for help when someone sends him a letter threatening murder. Wolfe provides his stock response and refuses the case advising him that there's little that can be done to prevent a murder and suggests he tries hiring someone else.

When the man is murdered, Cramer questions him and Wolfe informs Cramer that he is, "not interested, not involved, and not curious." However, this all changes when Wolfe receives a letter identical to the one sent to the murdered man.

Archie leaves for Washington on Army business, when he returns to New York, he finds that Wolfe has hired a king-sized decoy at $100 a day until Wolfe is able to identify the real killer.

The story is well-executed a nice variation on the Wolfe formula and the identity of the murderer is a great twist as well.

4) Before I Die (1947): In two prior novellas set during World War II, particularly in "Booby Trap," Archie made a point of Wolfe's kitchen being free of black market goods. Wolfe was extremely patriotic during the war.

By the time 1947 came around, the war was over but the meat shortages were still going on as the U.S. was trying to feed war-torn Europe. Wolfe had about had it. His hunger for some black market meat leads him to take on a job for a notorious mobster who might help him score some meat. The mobster had hired a convict from Salt Lake City to pretend to be his daughter in order to protect his real daughter from his rivals. But the fake daughter commences to blackmail him and wants Wolfe to make it stop.

Before Wolfe can do that, Archie is present for the murder of the faux daughter and the mobster. Wolfe has landed he and Archie in a tight spot. Will Wolfe uncover the identity of the true killer or will his appetite finally be the death of he and Archie?

The characters in the short story are fantastic, particularly the mob boss. With three on-screen shootings in the story, it has more action than the average Nero Wolfe story. "Before I Die" is also fun because Stout manages to take Wolfe out of his comfort zone as he deals with New York mafiosos, but still manages to handle himself surprising well.

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

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27Dec/140

The Top 10 Nero Wolfe Novellas, Part One

This week, we begin a look at the very best of Rex Stout's 39 Nero Wolfe novellas.  Note, the 33 Novels will be covered at a later date. We're only counting down the most memorable short stories featuring one of fiction's greatest detectives.

10) Murder is No Joke (1958): A woman comes to Wolfe's office concerned that her brother's business is being destroyed by a woman who has some hold over her. She wants Wolfe to investigate her but doesn't have the money to pay him. However, she offers to pay Wolfe to call the woman. Wolfe dials the number and is promptly insulted by the woman and then hears sounds that indicates violence has occurred. Archie calls the woman's office and finds she has indeed been murdered with Wolfe and Archie as likely ear witnesses.

However, Wolfe has a sense that someone is trying to make a fool of him and sets out to uncover the truth of what really happened and how the suicide of a formerly promising actress plays into what happened. He sends Archie down to the office where the murdered woman worked to ask about correspondence from the actress who committed suicide.

The highlight of this story is when Archie wants to know why Wolfe is an investigating and Wolfe and Archie share a moment of detective zen when Wolfe opens Archie's eyes to a key clue. All in all, the story has a good cast of characters and a solution that really shocked me.

9) Bitter End (1940): This was a reworking of Bad for Business, a novel for Rex Stout's other Detective Tecumseh Fox. It was necessitated by Stout's desire to make some money before he put all of his energy into fighting against Nazi Germany. It was published in a magazine in 1940, but not actually published in book form until ten years after Stout's death.

I read the original novel but that's hardly necessary. The reworking here is seamless. The plot begins when Wolfe gets a spiked candy from Tingley's Tidbits. While the poison's not deadly, it's bitter and this is enough to get Wolfe on the warpath and make him more than willing to help the niece of the hated CEO of Tingley's. Of course, the case takes on a whole new complexity when the CEO is murdered and the niece finds herself unconscious at the scence of the crime. The story is one of the best in the corpus and Archie really shines.

8) Christmas Party (1957) Archie connives to get a fake wedding license for a dancing partner who wants her to boss to marry her. The boss is being stubborn so Archie gets a fake marriage license blank with both their names on it to force the issue.

When Wolfe starts to get bossy and unreasonable in demanding Archie drive him to meet an orchid expert, Archie springs the marriage license on and tells him that he's getting married. Wolfe is displeased but Archie gets out of the errand.

Archie ends up attending the Christmas Party where the boss is murdered and Santa mysteriously disappears after the crime is committed. Archie also can't find the fake wedding license which has him at risk of a forgery charge. When Archie gets home he finds out that Santa was none other than Nero Wolfe, spying on him and his supposed fiancée. To make matters worse, a jealous young woman who believes Archie's Faux fiancee was the murderess demands that Wolfe connive to help frame her. Otherwise, Wolfe will have to endure the embarrassment of being exposed as Santa. Wolfe and Archie are in a pickle and it takes all of Wolfe's wits to get them out.

7) Instead of Evidence (1946) A partner in a novelty company comes to Wolfe convinced that his business partner's going to kill him. He doesn't Wolfe to prevent the murder, only to catch the murderer. Wolfe balks at the paltry $5000 offered to him as the bulk of it will be taken by taxes. However, he offers to report what the man has told him to  the police and take whatever action he deems appropriate.

The man is murdered by a potent exploding cigar  and Wolfe reports his visit to the police.  Dealing with people in the novelty industry allows Stout's humor to run wild as the murder victim's partner manages to chase Wolfe out of his own office. As usual, Archie is frustrated with the pace of Wolfe's investigation. But don't worry, this is one story that ends with a bang.

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20Dec/140

Book Review: Hang by the Neck


I picked up a copy of Hang by the Neck out of curiosity as I’d listened to the Crime and Peter Chambers golden age radio program and was curious what the books were like.

The answer is very much the same, only with a more complex plot.

In the book, Pete is hired by Johnny the Mick to go pick up a suitcase from Johnny’s apartment. However, Pete finds the body of a beautiful woman and then the police come up and haul Johnny and Pete off to jail. Chambers released only to come home and find the body of Johnny the Mick hanging from his window.

The police conclude that Johnny murdered the girl and committed suicide but Pete knows Johnny the Mick well enough to not buy the explanation.

What follows is Chambers’ questioning and conversing with a wide variety of shady characters to get to the truth. The suspects are pretty much stock characters for a hard boiled detective novel: the seductive performer, the charming model, the shady night club owner. The one exception to this is an ex-boxer turned painter which was a nice touch. There’s also a great speech from a cop about what private investigators are for and what they ought stick to investigating. Though later events in the book make the speech more than a tad ironic.

Radio programs were known for taking massive liberities when bringing detectives not named Sherlock Holmes to the microphone, so I was surprised to find that the characters in the book spoke exactly like the radio program with some very stylized dialogue. However, reading it, there were points were the style could be a tad wearying with a few too many pages filled with rapid fire one-liners between Chambers and someone he was questioning.

Rating the book is hard. Overall, Hang By Your Neck is average or perhaps a bit above average hard boiled detective novel. However, it doesn’t approach greatness and is by no means essential for fans of the genre. Certainly Peter Chambers isn’t in the class of Philip Marlowe, Archie Goodwin, or Nick Charles. However, if you want to read a 1950s Detective novels to pass the time, this isn’t a bad choice.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

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13Dec/140

DVD Review: Bancroft Of The Secret Service Mysteries Collection


These films star future President Ronald Reagan as Brass Bancroft, a flyer turned Secret Service Agent who battles alien smugglers, counterfeiters, thieves, and fifth columnist in these films from 1939-40.

From my experience of watching B films, these are about average. The films are not as good as the Nick Carter films for the same era. And despite being about a law enforcement officer, these really aren't detective stories (except perhaps the third film). The strength of the franchise is really two fisted action and adventure.

As a historical curiosity, it's interesting to see the future leader of the free world at work in his late 20s and looking his best. Reagan is great whenever he's on screen exuding great charm and charisma.

The action sequences are pretty good in this one. While not up to the standards of our special effects driven world, the various chases, fistfights, and peril of these four films are fun to watch and there are some standout moments that are great for various reasons. The first film did a great job casting our villains as true menaces to decency when (in response to another Secret Service man trying to bust the plane mid-flight), the pilot opens a hatch in the plane that drops the Secret Service men as well as all the illegal aliens being smuggled right to Earth in a scene that's very shocking. While the identity of the bad guy is not much of a secret in the third film despite the attempt at a veneer of mystery, the reveal of the "boss" is a beautiful work that's just great to watch.

Also, viewers of the 1950s Superman TV show will recognize John Hamilton (who played Perry White) who appears in three of the four films as various authority figures.

On the downside, unlike Donald Meek's character in the Nick Carter series, Eddie Foy Jr.'s comedic sidekick character Gabby Walters doesn't really help the series and from a plot standpoint, it only made sense for him to be in the first film. While there are  amusing moments where Foy's charm shines, the character far too often is annoying, particularly in the last film.

The rest of the cast was mostly serviceable. Nothing amazing but nothing really bad either. The writing was dodgy at times. In the first movie, the film really took a long round about way of achieving its goal with the Secret Service going to great pains to have Bancroft convicted by a jury under his own name on a trumped up counterfeiting Charge so he could go undercover in prison rather than simply have him imprisoned under an assumed name. as would happen in the third film In the final film, the plot involved a secret fictional weapon which the filmmakers tried to demonstrate. Unfortunately they didn't have the budget to do it effectively and the result is a somewhat confusing end.

It's also worth commenting on as to the dearth of women in these features. Each film has one woman each in the main cast and except for Lya Lys in Murder in the Air none of them actually stand out.

Overall, the films are okay B-movies with some nice acting by Reagan and a few standout moments. But there's a lot of this that's also pretty forgettable even by B-movie standards.

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6Dec/140

Audio Drama Review: The Innocence of Father Brown, Volume 3


Colonial Radio Theatre relaunched its Father Brown line earlier this year. Previous releases of Father Brown had stories taken throughout the Father Brown canon. A release might include a story from the Innocence of Father Brown, one from the Wisdom of Father Brown, and another two from the Scandal of Father Brown.

With the relaunch, Colonial Radio Theater is grouping stories from the same book together. The first two volumes of the Innocence of Father Brown include only stories that were released previously. However, Volume 3 contains two newly adapted stories, both of which have pitfalls for would be-adaptors. Each story features JT Turner as Father Brown and is adapted by MJ Elliott from stories by GK Chesterton.

"The Eye of Apollo" is a classic story which pits Father Brown against the founder of a sun-worshiping cult who has convinced a strong-headed wealthy woman to follow his way. When she dies, it appears to have been accident with the cult leader having a perfect alibi. The actual solution has a great ironic twist that's pure Chesterton. Colonial does a spot on job creating all the characters exactly as Chesterton wrote them.

"The Honour of Israel Gow " is difficult to adapt because the solution borders on the absurd. Father Brown, Flambeau, and a Police Inspector go the estate of a late Scottish lord and find inexplicable occurrences including candles, snuff, unset precious stones, springs and cogs, and an odd bamboo stick out loose.

This is an interesting story as Father Brown is wrong several times. The first few time are intentional. The story has fantastic scene where Flambeau and the Inspector insist that there’s no way to explain all this and Father Brown comes up with one mind-blowing explanation after another just to prove that you could think of a solution. However, Father Brown’s tone changes considerably when he finds Catholic texts have been defaced leading him to jump to a conclusion far more sinister than what really happened. Overall, the three actors really carry the story and the result is fun without being ludicrous.

"Sign of the Broken Sword" is one of Chesterton’s most influential stories in terms of impacts  other mystery writers. It’s also a very hard story to dramatize because it consists of Father Brown and Flambeau discussing a mysterious historical event that occurred half way around the world in Brazil. I was curious how Colonial would adapt the story and they didn’t depart from the original concept. As I think about it, I believe they made the right call.

It’s easy to imagine doing an adaptation with flashbacks to Brazil or with a greatly expanded investigation by Father Brown. However, I think that would make the story weaker as the sagacity and wisdom of Father Brown is what takes center stage. The adaptation works because of a strong performance by JT Turner as Father in carrying the play and his strong chemistry with James Turner as Flambeau. It's fascinating as Father Brown reveals takes the accepted facts of a story in which a very wise general behaved foolishly and very merciful general behaved cruelly and peels away the layers of deceit and mystery to discover a diabolical secret. Because the story doesn't have much action, it's not for everyone, but I enjoyed it.

"The Three Tools of Death" is one best Father Brown mysteries.  I actually based much of my Father Brown chapter in my book, All I Needed to Know I Learned from Columbo on this story. However, it's not always gotten the respect it deserved. In the 1970s, ITV ruined the story when they adapted Father Brown for television because the original story was too politically incorrect.

Colonial, on the other hand, didn't try to airbrush the story. Instead, they let it speak for itself and produced a faithful and well-done adaptation of this mystery that centers around Britain's leading optimist and teetotaler being found murdered. At first, there are no weapons found, and then all the sudden, there are too many. Father Brown says something's wrong with the crime scene, that all these weapons are "not economical."  This is a very faithful adaptation. They even preserved the post-solution ending. Father Brown, after having unraveled one of the greatest mysteries in the history of detective fiction, goes on about his rounds as a Priest. That  tells you all you need to know about Father Brown.

The one thing that may throw some listeners is that the first and last stories have a different theme and score than the middle stories since they were first released earlier.

Overall, this collection contains four solidly produced and faithful adaptations of the Father Brown mysteries. Colonial gets high marks for being willing to take on some of the tougher to adapt early Father Brown stories and doing them justice. The result is a very entertaining two hours of classic audio mysteries.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

Note: I received a digital copy of this production in exchange for an honest review. 

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30Nov/140

2014 Detective Fan Christmas Gift Ideas

It's Christmastime and finding the right gift is always a challenge if you want to find something that the recipient will enjoy. This list is for you if you have a fan of detective fiction in your life and would like some gift ideas. Below are books, movies, and audios that I've found enjoyable  and that I recommend as gift ideas. I'm a fan of a lot of detective fiction but I lean towards older material, but there are some newer items here as well.

In the hopes, this list will help you with your Christmas shopping. Here are some favorites I've enjoyed and would recommend as gifts.

Books:

1) The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen: There are few names that say detective fiction quite like Ellery Queen. This book, while not the first Queen book published is set at the start of his mystery solving career and finds him investigating will and then a bizarre murder. Then Ellery lays out his facts-only to be proven completely wrong.  The older style of language may be a barrier to some readers, but if you can get past it, it's great if you enjoy puzzle mysteries.

2) Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler: This is one of Chandler's best. Marlowe's investigation into the disappearance of a wealthy man's wife puts his life in danger and puts him on the wrong side of a corrupt local police force. The book is stocked with some of Chandler's most enjoyable characters. Great for lovers of hardboiled private eyes.

3) Homicide Trinity by Rex Stout. I wanted to include a Nero Wolfe book on the list and I wanted to also throw in a short fiction collection on the list, so this book is the winner. This book collects not one but three Nero Wolfe stories, all of them are good and "Counterfeit for Murder" contains the best one time character that Rex Stout ever created.

4) Back on Murder by J Mark Betrand: The Roland March mystery series by Bertrand is simply superb. This first story is a great tale of a veteran detective struggling for one last chance to make it back to the Homicide department. This is a fantastic police procedural and a great character story.

Movies:

5) The Thin Man Collection: This is the classic romantic comedy Detective film series. The chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell is just remarkable. The first two films are the best, but three through five are also quite good.

6) The Maltese Falcon: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre in the most iconic hard boiled detective film of all time on DVD for less than $7. A wonderful gift.

7) The George Sanders Saint Movie Collection: Many consider Sanders the definitive screen "Saint." This collection of five films showcase the charm and style that made Sanders a star.

Television:

8) Columbo: The Complete Series: This affordable DVD collection features all 69 Columbo Telefilms from the beginning starting with the 1968 telefilm Prescription: Murder through the 2003 telefilm, Columbo Loves the Night Life. 

9) Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Series: All 39 episodes of the  very good 1950s syndicated series starring Ronald Howard and Frances Marion as Holmes and Watson.

Audio:

10) Perry Mason: The Case of the Howling Dog: This isn't the Raymond Burr version of Perry Mason, rather a very faithful audio adaptation of Erle Stanley Gardener's original novels. This is just a very rich and complex mystery. While all of the Colonial Theater Perry Mason adaptations are good, this one is the best.

Bonus: 

Jim French Productions offers a wide variety of Detective audio dramas on their website. Most notably, those featuring Harry Nile, a detectives whose adventures from the 1940s-1960s have been told by French in true Golden Age style for several decades, and the delightful Hillary Caine series.

Happy shopping, hope these give you some good ideas.

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29Nov/140

Book Review: Murder in the Ballpark


I'm sure Robert Goldsborough is a nice man and he's nobly tried to carry on the Nero Wolfe stories. I bare him no animus.

That said, this is the worst mystery novel I've read in my life. It's a bad novel as a Nero Wolfe book, and it's a horrible mystery.

It begins on the cover. The cover trim is nice (only one of two good things I can say about the book), but the picture looks like a cheap public domain picture and I'm not sure what era it's from.

This was important, as I was thrown by the timing of the novel. Goldsborough previous run of Wolfe novels updated Wolfe to the late 1980s and early '90s. His most recent, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Mysteries was set in the 1920s when Archie first met Nero Wolfe. This one was set in the 1950s for some reason.

However, since that wasn't clear from the get go, I didn't think at the time that it was odd for Archie to be asking for and receiving an info dump from Saul Panzer. However, given that this is the 1950s Archie Goodwin, the same one who has read  both the Gazette and Times every day, having Saul suddenly give all the back story on a prominent State Senator for Archie's benefit was inexplicable.

Archie and Saul are in the park and they see the selfsame Senator murdered in the state and make a bee-line for the exit. The fact that they were at the stadium to see the murder doesn't serve any purpose for the plot, and nearly all the information that Saul Panzer dumped in Chapter 1 for some reason is later repeated by other characters throughout the book meaning the entire first Chapter was completely pointless.

From Chapters 2-26, there are key two points to address:

First of all, Archie Goodwin as written by Rex Stout is one of the most fun to read narrators in any language. Unfortunately, Goldsborough appears to have completely lost that in this book. All the rough edges and the humor that makes Archie so fun to read is gone leading to a very flat narrative that lacks personality.

This brings me to the second big complaint with the bulk of this book, it is boring. The questioning is repetitive and irrelevant, the dialogue is dull, the the characters are uninteresting and shallow, the settings aren't interesting. The progress of the case is mostly uninteresting. There were two exceptions to this. There was a so-so scene with Archie, Saul, and some gangsters that's okay. The sister of a veteran who committed suicide is a decent character though histrionics in the last act kind of weaken her power. But other than that, it's a tedious tale.

We get to see totally unnecessary details. For example, Archie wants to talk to a suspect who is a candidate to replace the State Senator and so instead of making an appointment or arranging to see her when she's not busy, Archie goes down to a long press conference about a proposed state highway that goes on for four pages.

Worst of all, nothing in the interaction between the long-standing characters sizzles. Two visits by Cramer are dull beyond belief, and there are no good moments for Archie or Wolfe.

Chapter 27 stands out as the one entertaining chapter in the book where Goldsborough did something Stout never did. He showed us in detail how Archie managed to gather all the suspects for the denouement and how he manages to get everyone including the murderer there. It was a fun chapter as Archie plays everyone. If the rest of the book where this good, this would have been a five star book.

Unfortunately, the final showdown doesn't go well and that is a shame because in the three prior Goldsborough books I'd read, he usually finished the book strong with a good final scene for Wolfe. In this case, the drama is minor and the interruptions Wolfe allows really detract from the scene particularly after Wolfe threatens to (but doesn't) eject the offending parties.

The solution has two problems. First, it's far fetched particularly given that the murder weapon was a high powered rifle where the bullet traveled to its target in about a third of as second.

Not only that, but it basically means that most of the line of inquiry in the book was a waste of our time. The nature of the solution and the whole story behind the murder made it the type of story that Rex Stout might have told, but it would have been in a novella rather than a novel. The effort to stretch this story out for more tan 220 pages led to it being padded beyond reason.

I also have to comment that Goldsborough's Wolfe was weaker than in other stories, particularly his very stilted dialogue at the end of the book. This is a shame because Goldsborough has usually had a decent grasp of Wolfe, but not so in this story.

Rating: Flummery

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22Nov/140

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: The Last Free Man

Murder She Wrote: The Last Free Man was the third made for TV movie featuring Jessica Fletcher following the cancellation of the long-time hit TV mystery show. This is definitely not your typical Murder She Wrote story.

In the film, while in Virgina, Jessica (Angela Lansbury) strikes up a conversation with Cassandra Hawkins (Phylicia Rashad) who is looking into the case of one of her ancestors Samuel Pickney who was labeled a murderer in the waning days of the antebellum South. To add to the mystery, he has not one but two gravemarkers with two different dates of death. Jessica and Cassandra uncover accounts left behind by Jessica’s Great Great Aunt Sarah (also played by Lansbury) who was a slaveowner who owned Sam Pickney (Michael Jace) but considered him a friend.

Through the journal entries, the audience is transported back to the late 1850s and we witness the events leading up to the murder and see how Sarah tries to solve it while dealing with prejudice and tense politics of the era.

The telefilm can be divided into two parts: The framing story and the Antebellum story that takes up most of the movie.

The latter is very well done. The cinemotography is solid and captures the feel of the era quite nicely. Lansbury has a nice turn as the proper but determined Aunt Sarah. Jace has a great emotional performance as Sam. The mystery is an interesting puzzle. It’s not great, but certainly worth watching.

The framing story is far more problematic. There are four scenes in the twenty-first century around the three larger scenes in the 19th century and the first three scenes involve uncovering letters and journals written by Aunt Sarah that tell the story of the murder and its investigation. In no case is the search actually interesting. There's no one trying to stop them from finding the information. Their search is simply finding a location, digging through boxes, and finding the documents for the next part of the main story. Where the final journal entry is found is not only easy to get to, it's absurd to imagine that something of that nature would not have already been found in the location they had it in.

Unfortunately, the framing story serves mainly to offer some ham-fisted political commentary about the modern South (the film clumsily suggests a link between Civil War re-enactors and people who spray paint racially motivated graffiti on cars) and debates over the history of the Civil War.  In some ways, it feels like the purpose of the modern day scenes isn't to tell a good story but to tell us how we should feel about the scenes from the 19th century, which is the definition of bad writing.

The historical portion with the antebellum mystery is enjoyable and evocative. but the weak writing on the modern day portions leads to wasted performances by Rashad, as well as David Ogden Stiers.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

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