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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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Audio Drama Review: Twenty-Six Hours

In Twenty-Six Hours (1952), Major Gregory Keen of MI-5 is dispatched to post-war Berlin. The diaries of a mentally unstable American general have been stolen by a ruthless ex-German General by the name of Manfred Von Remer who is holding them for ransom. The inflammatory nature of the diaries could set the world afire if they fall into the wrong hands  and its up to Keen to get the diaries with the initial plan of connecting with Remer, paying his ransom to get the diaries. However, it's not that simple when both the Soviet MVD led by Colonel Pavlov and a neo-Nazi group led by Heinrich Schiller want the diaries as well.

This is the third Gregory Keen serial  produced by Australia's Grace Gibson Productions (see reviews of Dossier on Demetrius and Deadly Nightshade) and far away, it is the best. For modern listeners, the serial may call to mind the TV series 24 and it bears some similarity to that, but not quite.

Like the previous two stories, 26 Hours is told over the course of 104 12-13 minute episodes. However, the previous two stories were set over the course of several weeks and in terms of story time, an episode might be set a few minutes after the previous or it might be set a day or two after the previous episode. In Dossier on Demetrius for example, there was time for a character to get critically wounded, go through weeks of recovery, and return to action. However, 26 hours is told in much more of a real time feel.

There's no ticking time bomb of that will happen if the mission isn't completed in 26 hours. It's just stated from the beginning that's how long Operation Quantro ran.

The result is quite pleasing as it creates a far more focused story. While there are a lot of characters in 26 hours, there are far less than in the previous stories and none as inconsequential as the shyster lawyer and designing legal secretary that showed up as a plot complication near the end of Deadly Nightshade.

The setting of 26 Hours in post-war pre-Wall Berlin is a fascinating and the series does a great job painting a picture of a bombed out ruined city still being rebuilt and going through the cold of winter. It's evocative and realistic.

26 Hours is an astonishingly good spy story with all you can expect from a pre-Bond adventure with car chases, escapes through the sewer , prison breaks, daring rescues, standoffs with hand grenades, and missions behind enemy lies. The story is packed with thrills, and also suspense, as the radio drama does a great job setting up one tense situation after another. The final twenty parts or so are absolutely gripping radio.

Unlike its predecessors, 26 Hours relies far less on characters making stupid mistakes. Keen's opponents: Remer, Pavlov, and Schiller are all solidly written intelligent characters who are very dangerous. The degree to which Keen outwits them comes from his own nerve (and boy he has nerve.)

Bruce Stewart, in his final serial as Keen, turns in a fantastic performance. In battle, Keen as tough as steel. However, away from the fray he's a bit fragile and shell-shocked. The hours tick by and Keen keeps going. He's haunted by the tragedy he's seen in the prior two adventures, and this one. He's fed up but he has a job to do.

The serial also features a solid romance with Keen falling for Remer's accomplice Anna Hoffman. He's determined to find someway to save her from the death that will eventually await Remer and offer her a better life than what she experienced in war-torn Berlin.

As usual, the story features a strong chemistry between Keen and his right hand man Sergeant Tommy Cutts. The strong bond of friendship between the two and conflict between friendship and duty is often quite moving.

There are things you could nitpick about  26 Hours. There are a few accents that are a bit off but not too many and some dialogue that's a bit forced. However, that's overwhelmed by just how good this story is. It is solidly entertaining and engaging, managing to portray realistic human emotion. The result is a true spy classic.

26 Hours can be purchased from the Grace Gibson shop which also has a free demo available.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Trouble Is My Business

Trouble is My Business collects four Philip Marlowe novellas written by Raymond Chandler. The stories were originally published in magazines such as the Black Mask with other detective heroes but were rewritten with Marlowe as the hero after the character became popular. However, other than that, the stories remained essentially the same. While Chandler thought he could improve on his Black Mask stories, he found that trying to do so destroyed them, so essentially we had the stories in their original form.

The titular story for the collection, "Trouble Is My Business" is pretty much a typical hard boiled private eye story and the one that felt most like several elements had already been incorporated in other Marlowe novels. A rich man hires Marlowe to prevent his son from marrying a designing woman and a series of violent incidents follow.

"Finger Man" is a much more intriguing story. Marlowe is the only witness against a mob boss' henchman and at the same time, an old friend asks Marlowe to help watch him as he goes to do some high stakes gambling and before you know it Marlowe finds himself framed for murder.

"Goldfish" finds Marlowe following a clue from an old policewoman in search of missing pearls and a pardoned criminal who keeps Goldfish. This is a great story that takes Marlowe out of LA for once and with some great hard boiled characters thrown in.

"Red Wind" is a Marlowe story that's been oft adapted to radio and television with both of the Golden Age Philip Marlowe radio series taking a turn at it, as well as for the 1980s Philip Marlowe TV series and the 1990s Series, "Fallen Angels." While out at a bar, Marlowe stumbles on a murder and then finds a woman who, though innocent in the crime, has nonetheless been caught up in a web of blackmail and deceit through no fault of her own. This is nearly a perfect hard boiled story. More than any other story or even novel, it highlight Marlowe as the knight in tarnished armor with his sense of honor guiding his actions through a very sketchy situation. It also is a great hardboiled story with some great characters and solid action. Given that this is only a short story, Red Wind delivers a lot.

Overall, this is a great collection of hard boiled fiction that really stands the test of time with each short story topping itself in quality.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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TV Mini-Series Review: The Escape Artist

In the 2013 BBC Mini-series The Escape Artist, Will Burton (David Tennant), a British barrister who has never lost a case, takes on the task of defending Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), a man accused of a heinous crime. Burton is able to get Foyle off but soon finds his family in Foyle’s crossfire.

David Tennant turns in a fine performance as Will Burton. Burton is likable, earnest, and caring. He’s a man doing a job he’s a good at and you never feel he crosses a line. The mini-series is stylish enough and has good moments. Also, several members of the cast pull off their roles quite well including Toby Kebbell as Foyle.

The degree to which you enjoy this is largely the degree to which you can view the British Justice system as horribly broken and the minions of the law as hopelessly incompetent. The Crown manages to lose three murder cases through a sheer force of incompetence as they fail to check a computer history before going into court and accusing the defendant of being a consumer of revenge porn, failing to fill out the search warrant form properly, and failing to properly examine the body, all while running a crime lab that invites defense challenges. While Will Burton is supposed to be some sort of genius, we really don’t see it until Part 3 as the Police and prosecutors manage to defeat themselves quite nicely.

The character of fellow barrister Maggie Gardener (Sophie Okonedo) is hard to even get a handle on. Her defense in Foyle’s second murder trial is understandable despite her obvious distaste for the man. Her actions at the end of Part 3 are .simply inexplicable and only done so that one can uncover what actually happened. After all, what good is it having a clever protagonist if no one knows how clever he's been?

Overall, if you can enjoy the music and Tennant’s performance and not focus on the plot holes, the Escape Artist is a decent but certainly not great British thriller.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

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Five Golden Age Radio Programs to Remember

Today, we finish up the first five years of the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio podcast

Over the course of five years, we've played a lot of programs. Beginning with a Monday-Friday lineup before expanding to Saturdays in January 2013, the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio had a lot of stability Wednesday-Friday with Let George Do It and Sherlock Holmes airing on Wednesday and Thursday for our first 3 1/2-4 years.

Beyond these two long time stables, there were several series that were fun and enjoyable. With new listeners coming along every month, and our RSS feeds limited, even though we've played these shows, it’s possible that some of our listeners have missed them. So we present a list five lesser known but still quite enjoyable shows that have marked these last five years.

1) The Adventures of the Abbots (1955)
Episodes Played: 18
What it’s about: Pat Abbott, a ritzy San Francisco private investigator solves cases with the aid of his lovely wife, Jean.
Features: Two different Pat Abbotts (Les Damon and Mandel Kramer) Good writing with a more mature bent. Also Claudia Morgan turns in a magnificent performance as Pet.
Best Episode: The Dead White Flame

2) A Life in Your Hands (1949-50, 1952)
Episodes Played: 13
What It’s About: A successful lawyer, who is set for life financially, dedicates his life to finding the truth in cases as an Amicus Curiae, a friend of the court who acts for neither prosecutor or defense to find the truth in legal proceeding including trials and coroner's juries.
Features: Two different Jonathan Keggs, the definition of Amicus Curiae (numerous times). The closest thing to a true legal mystery drama in Old time radio.
Best Episode: Carol Carson Murdered

3) The Fat Man (1946-51)
Episodes Played: 10
What It’s About: Rotund Private Investigator Solves crimes.
Features: A classic was extremely popular in its day. It was victimized by lost episode with 95% of its run lost. A great and human performance by J Scott Smart as Brad Runyon, a smart tough as nails private detective, with a big heart.
Best Episode: The Twice Told Secret. Also check out the Fat Man Movie.

4) Candy Matson (1949-51)
Episodes Played: 14
What it’s a bit about: The life and times of San Francisco’s best female hard boiled detective.
Features: Star Natalie Masters at her best. With all the flops and oddities that came out of San Francisco during the golden age of radio, this was a gem packed with local flavor and quirky writing. Clearly the best of several golden age detective programs featuring female protagonists.
Best Episode: Jack Frost

5) Pete Kelly's Blues (1951)
Episodes: 6 (+1 Audition)
What It's About: "This one's about Pete Kelly. It’s about the world he goes around in. It’s about the big music and the big troubles and the big twenties. So when they ask you tell ‘em this one’s about the blues. Pete Kelly’s Blues.”
Features: Best Jazz music in dramatic radio. So good that the crooks will stop to listen before doing their weekly quota of beatings and mayhem. In many ways, the program resembles Pat Novak for Hire or Johnny Madero only with jazz except Pete Kelly is a more sympathetic character as he's not out for money, he just wants to play his music but he keeps getting drawn into trouble. One of the more downbeat series we've played but so good.
Best Episode: June Gould

These are five of my favorite lesser known shows. Feel free to share yours in the comments.

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Book Review: The Little Sister

The Little Sister shows some features of some of the best Marlowe stories, but the fifth book in this series just doesn't stand up to its predecessors.

In The Little Sister it starts simply enough when a bored Marlowe is hired by the little sister of a man who moved to LA from Manhattan, Kansas and has stopped writing.

As is usual, Marlowe plunges into a case that gets him into the midst of a shady underworld, of Hollywood, and of course puts him on the bad side of police.

The story is worth reading once and has some classic Marlowe moments. Towards the end of the book, a couple of cops who've had to put up with Marlowe playing fast and loose with murders and bodies tell Marlowe off and it's a beautiful moment when the characters come to life.

It is a rare moment in this story. In 250 pages, I lost track of how many bodies were dropped and who killed them all. So many characters come and go, we really get no impression of them. There's no character in this book I really connected with in the same way I did with characters in, "Lady in the Lake," and "The Big Sleep."

Another thing that hurts the book is the focus. In the first four novels, Marlowe's scorn is directed at big city crime, crooked Los Angeles (and nearby communities) police forces. Marlowe's bile is justified because he knows of what he speaks. In the Little Sister, he uses a combination of a dirty mind and experience with two kids from Manhattan, Kansas as the basis for all sorts of psychological deductions about what a small town is like. It feels less like Marlowe's making street wise observations on life and more like he's expressing poorly informed prejudices.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a bad book, but it doesn't measure up to Chandler's other works.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0


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Telefilm Review: Dead Man’s Folly

In the Series 13 film, Ariadne Oliver’s been hire to set up a “Murder Hunt” for a fête, which is a sort of  bazaar or carnival. However, Oliver is suspicious by some changes requested to her scenario and calls Poirot in for help.

Trouble starts with the actual murder of the Girl Guide who was to play the victim in the murder hunt. This is followed by the disappearance of the lady of the house.

This is a solid mystery that lives up to the highest standards of the Poirot series. I also preferred this over the Peter Ustinov version from the 1980s, if for no other reason than I really had trouble buying Jean Stapleton as Mrs. Oliver in the Ustinov version while Zoe Wanamaker carries the role off with style.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Death on a Deadline

Robert Goldsborough's 2nd Nero Wolfe novel began poorly but improved to mediocrity by the end.

Wolfe is concerned that a Scottish newspaper baron with a reputation for sensationalism will purchase the Gazette, Wolfe's long time ally and source of information. Wolfe sets out to prevent it. However, when one of the principals in the Gazette is killed and everyone else thinks its suicide, Wolfe concludes that it's actually murder and sets out to prove it.

The first third to half of the book is carnival of flummery. To start with, Goldsborough brings partisanship into the book. Notice, I send partisanship, not politics. In finding out about the misdeeds of the news tycoon, Wolfe learns from Lon Cohen that McLaren's papers have consistently endorsed Republicans and Wolfe  expresses his disapproval of endorsing Republicans and includes this as a talking point in his full page New York Times ad. (more on that in a bit.)

Politics is nothing new to Wolfe's world. Wolfe books include anti-Communism, anti-McCarthyism, concern about civil liberties, and civil rights. Even individual political figures such as J Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, and Richard Nixon. However, in each of those cases, he was upset about their specific action. Wolfe never expressed loathing of an entire political party in Stout's work.

Of course, a progressive could argue that the Republican Party of Stout's age was more diverse and the modern version was more uniformly wrong by Wolfe's standards. However, this case is never made. Rather, Wolfe is presented as a partisan with unexplained animus against an entire political party. And this animus was never actually raised again and had no relevance to the plot. Indeed, had Goldsborough merely had Wolfe object to shotty journalism, the story would have lost nothing and he wouldn't have violated the Wolfe character.

Beyond partisanship, Wolfe's scheme of putting a full page ad in the New York Times was dumb. Doubtless, Goldsborough remembered the countless times Wolfe placed display ads in the paper, but never a full page ad for something that really didn't need it. The point of the full page ad was to get public attention so Wolfe could meet with people involved with the Gazette and the attempt to sell it to prevent the sale to McLaren. However, Wolfe could have run a smaller ad, or given his notoriety sent in an op-ed and saved the money. In addition, we get to read the ad and it's dull and sounds nothing like anything Stout's Wolfe would have said.

Archie is even more vapid when he bets Wolfe $10 that the Times won't publish the ad. Given that Archie has read The Times for years, this was just a stupid bet and it's unbelievable Archie would have proposed it. Like most attempts to reconstruct the Wolfe-Archie magic in this book, this one fails.

Goldsborough also has mixed success at updating Archie and Wolfe to the 1980s. On one hand, it's reasonable to imagine that Archie would want a personal computer and Wolfe not wanting to do it. Stout's Wolfe objected to buying newer cars and buying Archie a new typewriter. However, in one lazily written scene where Wolfe shows respect to a woman, Archie wished he had a VCR so he could record the moment. However, as he was not watching this on TV, he really meant he wished he had a video camera.

The mystery itself was decent but forgettable. There was no suspect, client, or interview in this story that was memorable. Wolfe performs no stunning act of showmanship. There was no big surprise twist in the investigation. It was bland and the solution we were presented strained credulity.

The best thing about this novel for the person who has read Stout's Wolfe is that it truly makes you appreciate all the little touches Stout put in that make reading his Nero Wolfe stories so memorable. One thing this book made me notice was the way that Stout chose dinner conversations. Stout's Wolfe talked about a wide variety of topics from agriculture to histories of the ancient world, to obscure scientific questions, and anthropology. I never knew what exactly Wolfe was talking about, but I felt like this was the type of thing a well-read genius would discuss. Unfortunately, Mr. Goldsborough's line of conversation for Wolfe seems far more limited with him mostly talking politics, political books, American history, and sports. Yes, Nero Wolfe discusses whether College athletes should be paid at the dinner table in this book.

While dinner conversation is prosaic, I do give Goldsborough credit for one thing: Compared to the last book, Goldsborough's Wolfe reads in a more Wolfian manner based on the titles of the books of Wolfe mentioned.

Still, I admit being eager to see Wolfe hold a confab and name a murderer when I got to that part of the book. Goldsborough's book allows you a chance to see Wolfe and Archie in action. If you can get past all the flummery and just think about better Nero Wolfe stories, you may enjoy this book more than I did.

Rating: PFui!

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Telefilm Review: The Big Four

The Big Four was described by Mark Gatiss, the writer who was charged with adapting it for television as, an “almost unadaptable mess.” Massive restructuring was required and much of the book's plot was cut for the telefilm, but what remained was a solid and enjoyable mystery.

Most of the story feels like a bit of political thriller as a series of strange deaths occur, and a muckraking reporter believe it’s tied in to an international conspiracy known as “The Big Four” which also appears connected to the Peace Party. The solution takes the story in a different direction and I didn’t enjoy the last twenty minutes as much as what came before. But even that had its moments. My favorite was when the killer through Poirot’s comments that the killer was “theatrical” right back at the Belgian detective who does one of his most theatrical denouements ever.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable story. It wasn’t one of the best, but with great acting and a solid script by Mark Gatiss, this is definitely worth watching.

Rating: 4.00 out of 5.00

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Book Review: The Greek Coffin Mystery

This book while not the first Ellery Queen book ever published is chronologically the earliest Queen novel. The thing to understand about Ellery Queen is that unlike Nero Wolfe, Philip Marlowe, or Father Brown, there's not a whole lot of characters or wisdom to be garnered beyond the mystery, but when the mystery is good, it carries the rest of the book.

Such is the case here. A  man dies and the latest version of his will is missing. A murder soon follows The book proceeds according to typical plan as Ellery ever the know it all detective and sets out to solve the case. This is Ellery's first case chronologically even though there'd been other Ellery Queen books. Ellery had some good guesses particularly figuring out that the new will was located in the coffin of the testator. However, then Ellery delivers a brilliant summation of who the murderer is that is irrefutable--only for him to be shown wrong. At the point, I was definitely hooked.

Of course, this is one of three false solutions in the case and not all are proffered by Ellery. This is a book that keeps your mind engaged all the way through and has a quite shocking conclusion. Overall, this is a superb puzzle mystery.

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