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14Jun/140

Book Review: Family Affair

This is the very last Wolfe novel written by Rex Stout. The book begins with a literal bang as a favorite waiter of Wolfe's comes seeking Wolfe's advice in the middle of the night. Archie puts him up in the South Room for safety, only for the man to be blown up by a bomb that rocks Archie and Wolfe's world.

This case is personal for Wolfe who is determined to catch the killer himself. It's an unprecedented case where we get a whiff of Watergate, Wolfe turns down a one hundred thousand dollar fee, and ends up going to jail all leading up to a conclusion that was shocking at the time and still is if you don't search the Internet too much before reading.

Written while Stout was 85, the book was clearly intended to bring the series to an end. I lost count of the number of times Archie said something happened for the first time. In one scene, Archie gives one person a thousand to one odds on something and he ends up being wrong. Cramer shows a softer side even while Wolfe abandons all pretense of anything but perfunctory cooperation with the police.

This is a book that you should ideally read at the end of the other Stout books, or at least after reading a couple dozen. You can't appreciate how deeply ingrained the rules that get broken in this book are unless you understand the world these characters inhabit.

Family Affair doesn't give us new insights into Wolfe's past but it does tell us a lot about what matters most to him and his closest associates: honor. There is an honor in being the greatest detective in the world and someone people can turn to, and there's honor in working for him and woe to the person who puts that at risk.

The book is a perfect finale and it leaves me a little bit hesitant to pick up Robert Goldsborough's Wolfe novels, because I can't imagine anything doing a good enough job to follow up this story.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

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

7Jun/140

Radio Show Review: Incredible…But True

This week, I'm going to take a look at the 1950s radio series Incredible But True.

While there was a fifteen minute version of the series Incredible But True that aired in the early 1950s, the version which survives today is the three minute syndicate program.

The eighty existing programs focus on “true” stories of the strange, the unusual, and the unexplained, and there are some interesting ones with church organs playing without explanation, an Ambassador disappearing in the 19th in a public place with no explanation as to what happened, and weird phenomena and apparitions that couldn’t be explained by science. It’s all interesting stuff, but somewhat flawed.

Oftentimes, the show will press for some bizarre explanation with no proof there’s anything to explain. In one case, a woman disappeared in New York City and on the same day a swan appeared in a place where swans weren’t normally seen. The suggested link: Perhaps, the woman was turned into a swan.

And even those stories that don’t suffer from such gargantuan leaps in reason suffer from the limit of a 3 minute story. We’re often given a somewhat complex story and only one solution. Good programs on unexplained phenomena allow for multiple explanations, which really fuels listeners or viewer imagination.

In the end, Incredible but True isn’t bad if you’re looking for three quick minutes of entertainment with some unusual stories, but the limits of the format often leave a less than satisfying result.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.0

31May/140

Book Review: The Saint v. Scotland Yard

The Saint, a character who remained popular for decades and has been portrayed by everyone from George Sanders and Vincent Price to Roger Moore and Val Kilmer, got his start in literature.

The Saint v. Scotland Yard  is a book published in 1932 and it collects three novellas, each featuring the Saint working outside or even against Scotland Yard, near the start of the character’s literary career . . “The Inland Revenue” sees Simon trying to shut down a blackmailer. “The Million Pound Day” pits the Saint against a ruthless gang of kidnappers who have a plan to force the printing of a million pounds in fake Italian currency. The final story, “The Melancholy Journey of Mr Teal” finds the Saint trying to steal a jewel thief’s loot before the thief's caught by Scotland Yard.

Overall, the stories are decent for the period. They’re much more adventures than they are mysteries. The cases are well-written and fun to read.

Those who know the Saint from golden age mediums like radio or the Sanders movies may not recognize much about this early version. While the Saint’s billed as the “Robin Hood” of modern crime, the Saint robs from the rich but seems more self-centered. Of course, as this was the 1930s, many people resented the rich and believed the police were corrupt or incompetent, so there was some catharsis in his antics for the common man of the day.

The brilliance of Charteris is that despite the Saint’s less than sterling conduct, he makes it really hard not to like him. The Robin Hood analogy seems inapt. The Saint in this book is really reminiscent of a romantic pirate. The Saint is a swashbuckler who laughs in the face of danger and death, and writes poetry in perilous situations. He and his girlfriend Pat are pure adrenaline junkies who get their kicks out of exposing themselves to danger which is kind of fun for people who live more tame lives.

While the Saint is no paragon in this book, he doesn’t hurt innocent people. Indeed, the book works because whoever the Saint crosses, we have a sense that they somehow deserve it.

The only other negative to this book are some unfortunate racial language which may make the book less accessible to some readers. Overall though, this was a decent early Saint novella collection.

Book Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0

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24May/140

Audio Drama Review: 12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men was first written as an episode of the Anthology Show, Studio One and then turned into the classic 1957 film starring Henry Fonda and Lee Cobb. It’s the culturally iconic story of twelve men in jury room in the Capital case of a young man accused of killing his father and how these very different people interact and how their biases and perceptions shape the way they vote. The film became a classic which was parodied and copied more times than anyone could count. In 1997, it was made into a HBO telefilm but updated to modern times. Rose also made a stage version which was performed by LA Theatre Works in 2005 and released as an audio drama.

Of course, the script is solid with great tension. The weakest part of the play is at the beginning. The judge reads the jury instructions in monotone and every line of dialogue seems to be delivered just a tad too fast. This might have been the director’s attempt to show the rush to judgment but it doesn’t work all that well.

However, once the cast gets going, they’re true professionals. Some of the voices in here include Hector Elizondo as Juror #10, Dan Castellaneta (Homer Simpson) as Juror #5, and Armin Shimerman (Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as Juror #4. The story unfolds beautifully with a lot of high tension scenes and most of them come off brilliantly on stage and on audio.

The relatively weak performance of the play had to be Jeffrey Donovan as Juror #8, the story’s protagonist. It’s a tough role to be sure particularly when giants like Henry Fonda and Jack Lemon have played the role on screen, but Donovan’s performance was just weak. Given the caliber of the rest of the case, it’s surprising they didn’t get a stronger performer for this role.

Also, this is not a true audiodrama but rather a recording of a play. This really only hurts in one scene where Juror #3 delivers a racist tirade and the entire jury, those who vote guilty and not guilty turn their backs on him. On stage, the audience could see it, but the audio audience had to rely on memories of the film and just hope that was what was going on.

The way Rose wrote the play or the way the Director adapted Rose’s play (I’m not sure which) also hurt the quality of the story. In the scene where Juror #9 analyzes why an elderly witness may have pretended to see more than he actually saw due to his feeling insignificant, another juror challenged this and a single look at the camera told us that the elderly juror was just like witness. Here, it has actually be said and in a way that’s a little clumsy.

Discussion of a piece of psychological testimony is added to the play but that actually detracts from the story, and in the same scene from the movie that’s so powerful, Rose seems unable to resist the temptation to overwrite in the play.

In the '57 film, After Juror #3 goes on a racist tirade and tells people to listen, Juror #4 says, “I have. Now sit down and open your mouth again.” The change is slight and perhaps in the 1997 version where Juror #4 says, “Sit down! And don’t open your filthy mouth again.” These are powerful moments. In the play version, Juror #4 gives a much longer less crisp response.

In some ways, this might be nitpicking, but when a radio play in based on such a famous and profoundly brilliant drama, it invites it. The original 12 Angry Men is nearly perfect for what it is, this stage play recording falls short.

That doesn’t mean the audio version is without merit. It’s $6.95 on Audible or $4.86 if you’re an Audible member and at 1 hour and 50 minutes (which includes a 17 minute interview with Rose’s widow) it’s great for a long drive and manages to do a good job with most of the key moments and performances.

Overall I’d rate it 3.5 out of 5.0.

12 Angry Men is available at audible.

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17May/140

Telefilm Review: Cat Among the Pigeons

In Cat Among the Pigeons trouble is brewing at a posh girl's boarding school Poirot visits as a favor to the headmistress, an old friend of Poirot's.  The murder of a truly horrid physical education instructor named Grace Springer puts the school in a state of a crisis and as more murders follow, parents panic.

Poirot has to solve a case that not only involves international intrigue but also a disappearing princess of an unstable  nation.

Cat Among the Pigeons is a delightful Poirot mystery. While I wouldn't put it up there with the very best episodes, it's easily worth the hour and a half to watch it. The film has everything you can reasonably expect: great acting from the entire cast, solid writing,  and a tangled web of lies that Poirot skillfully untangles to uncover the truth and solve the murder.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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10May/140

Book Review: The Mother Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Very Satisfactory

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

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3May/140

The Top 5 Yours Truly Johnny Dollar Serials

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

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

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

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

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

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

Air Dates: November 14-18, 1955

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

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

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

Air Dates: October 31-November 4, 1955

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

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

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

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

Original Air Date: September 24-28, 1956

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

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

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

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

Original Air Date: October 3-7, 1955

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

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

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

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

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

Original Air Date: December 19-23, 1955

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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26Apr/140

DVD Review: The Saint Double Feature

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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19Apr/140

Book Review: Fit to Kill

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

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

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12Apr/140

Radio Drama Review: Death on the Nile

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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