Category: Golden Age Article

Book Review: The Stones Cry Out


The Stones Cry Out by Sibella Giorello features FBI Geologist turned Rookie FBI field Agent Raleigh Harmon. She is assigned to a civil rights case in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia after a police detective and a black gym owner fall to their deaths in the middle of a rally led by the mayor. More than 200 people were present, but no one claims to have seen anything.

Her supervisor wants the case closed quickly and wants Raleigh and her over the hill partner, do the most perfunctory of investigations. Raleigh wants to get to the truth, but to do that she has to deal with a host of uncooperative witnesses and buried secrets.

This book does so much right. It creates a believable and relatable protagonist in Raleigh. She’s smart, dedicated to getting justice, and tenacious. She also has a complicated life. Rookie FBI agents rarely get assigned as close to home as she was but she has an ailing mother who is a bit eccentric and finds peace in regularly attending Pentecostal tent revivals.

Faith plays a role in her life and motivates her in her work, but author Sibella Giorello avoids her being preachy, pushy, or arrogant.

The book also does a very good job with its setting. There’s a clearly a great deal of appreciation and knowledge of Richmond that went into this book, but the description isn’t overwhelming as many books can be.

The investigation itself is well-handled. It shows the challenge the FBI often faces when assigned Civil Rights cases as their job is to get to the truth, yet they’re not trusted by people in the local community and they’re not welcomed by local police.

There’s also a good deal of forensic science in the book, particularly geology, being Raleigh’s specialty.

The book only has one major flaw and that is that the final third of the book really depends on Raleigh making a very stupid mistake and two random men who have nothing to do with the investigation assaulting her out of nowhere. While I suppose random things do happen, even to FBI Agents, it felt like the story slightly derailed even though it did eventually recover.

Overall, this is a well-written book with a great heroine. It’s a solid procedural with many interesting aspects to it, and this is one series I’d like to read more from.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

The digital form of this book is available for free for the Kindle.

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DVD Review: Pie in the Sky, Series 2

Series One of Pie in the Sky was a good enough series with a likable lead that, despite some weaker stories, left me hungry for more. In Series Two, Pie in the Sky really hits its stride.

The basic set up of Pie in the Sky is that Police Inspector Henry Crabbe (Richard Griffins) is ready to retire and focus on running a restaurant. Due to a mishap and a crooked partner, Crabbe ends up in line for a murder wrap. Assistant Chief Constable Fisher (Malcolm Sinclair) knows Crabbe’s innocent but holds the threat of an inquiry over Crabbe’s head to keep him on call. Crabbe spends most of his time running the restaurant Pie in the Sky, but when Fisher calls he goes into action to solve a case.

Series 2 manages to expand and clarify much of Series 1. Including giving a clear understanding of Crabbe on a very fundamental level. It only took a single sentence, but in a conversation with newly promoted Detective Sergeant Sophia Cambridge (Bella Enaharo) about the importance he placed on doing police work as opposed to a police career. That defines the difference between Crabbe and Fisher, whose entire focus is on career advancement. For Crabbe, each case is a job that must be worked well and solved correctly. For Fisher, cases are important based on how the outcome will advance his long-term career goals. While In Series One, Crabbe’s problem with other policemen was  vague. In Series Two, it firmly nailed down that it’s officers who are more concerned about advancing their career rather than actually getting things right.

It also explains why Crabbe is so suited to being a chef. The focus on quality work and getting the job done right is at the core of that position. And whereas his lack of attention to career left him in a rut on a police force, the attention to detail serves him well in the kitchen.

Of course, this does lead to some conflicts with his accountant wife Margaret (Maggie Steed) who is the legal owner of the restaurant  to satisfy a British legal requirement that wouldn’t let Henry own the restaurant as a policeman. It doesn’t help that she has no real taste for fine food and only sees how the bottom line can be improved. She doesn’t meddle all the time, but most often her efforts to change the business to make it more profitable cut against Henry’s overall ethic and good restaurant practices such as when she decided to start double booking tables to maximize the profits.

Yet, despite their differences or perhaps because of them, the Crabbes make a lovely middle-aged couple, balancing each other out. Both can be kind. While Henry’s heart of gold and decency is much more obvious, Margaret also shines in the series and the way they play off each other is fun to watch.

We do get some insight on Fisher. In the episode, “The Policeman’s Daughter,” Fisher has Crabbe look for his daughter who has fled to an enclave of drifters. We learn all Fisher really has is his career and that his wife cheats on him regularly and he has lost the respect of his daughter. Crabbe does his best to bring some sort of peace.

Cambridge received a promotion after the first series and this one focuses on the challenges of it. In one scene, another department tries to get her and Fisher fights the head of the other department over her and it becomes apparent she’s merely being used as a way for them to beef up their rankings for racial diversity. This contributes to the fact there are several instances where she doesn’t get respect for her achievements or rank that are due. It’s all done in an understated way though. She’s a still a very good character, but both she and Fisher are in this series less than in the first.

The staff of the restaurant was used more creatively. In the first series, Pie in the Sky was Crabbe’s refuge from trouble. Yet, in a bit of realism, the restaurant itself began to present some genuine problems, particularly when Crabbe had to step away to solve a case. He’d be in and out while his restaurant was in the hands of his twenty-something assistant chef and waitstaff and problems would develop that he would eventually have to solve. My favorite example of this is when they decided to switch out the classical musical Crabbe plays in the chicken coop for heavy metal music in order to get the chickens to lay more eggs. It actually works but with a side effect.

There’s also tension between the assistant chef Steve (Joe Duttine) and the head waiter John (Ashley Russell) as the former is an ex-con and the later is an experienced waiter from many highly regarded establishments. The rivalry mainly serves to show Crabbe’s sense of diplomacy.

The episodes are well-written. Each has a mystery at the core that’s well-crafted, but not so complex it doesn’t leave time for the comedy and drama of the episode. Some of the better ones include, “The One That Got Away,” where Crabbe has to stop a friend from being railroaded from the murder of his fiancee by an ambition Detective Inspector. In “Black Pudding,” Crabbe meets up with an elderly woman whose cookbooks he admires and finds her relatives are after her steamy memoirs. The “Mild Ones” finds Crabbe in pursuit of two elderly con-women who rip off people for thousands but leave behind an amazing recipe for bread pudding. In the “Mystery of Pikey,” some locals pressure Fisher to get Crabbe to investigate a series of minor local crimes. He gets results, but not what they would hope for.

The only weak episode of the series is the series finale, “Lemon Twist” that has Crabbe, Fisher, and Cambridge attending a management training conference. The premise is problematic as its hard to see why Fisher would send Crabbe as Crabbe is only working part time and has no interest in managing for the police or a long-term police career. The mystery is weak and there’s some humor around Crabbe that requires him to act out of character. The episode is not that bad, though. The restaurant plot has some genuinely funny moments after they earn a five star review from a nationally known food critic.

So, the worst episode of this series was but mediocre. The rest of the Series is pure gold. The stories are fun cozy mysteries with a lovable lead doing his best to bring peace and order in the kitchen and to whatever case he’s called to investigate.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Mister Monk Goes to the Firehouse


Cause I think you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.
-Lyrics from “When I’m Gone” from “Mr. Monk and the End.” by Randy Newman

True to the song, I’ve been missing Adrian Monk. Watching Elementary and it’s much more forced dynamic has made me appreciate Monk even more. It’s been nine years since his last new case aired on USA and there’s been no follow up TV movies or specials that many had hoped for, even with the proliferation of original streaming content in a world where there’s going to be a YouTube series “Kobra Kai” featuring Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence as adults. And we can’t get a Monk movie made?

However, Monk had adventures that were not on television, but rather in a series of novelizations. I reviewed one when I was first watching the series and thought it was okay, so I gladly picked up another one to get a much needed Monk fix.

The plot of this book was the basis of the TV episode, “Mr. Monk Can’t See a Thing” but this book stands on its own, particularly since the blindness plot isn’t used.

Mr. Monk’s apartment is being fumigated and he’s so OCD even 4-star hotels can’t meet his standards and a 5-star hotel is out because it’s an odd number. So desperate to end a series of embarrassing and tedious visits to hotel rooms, his assistant Natalie Teager invites Monk to stay with her and he agrees before realizing what she’s saying.

At Natalie’s house, Monk finds Natalie’s daughter Julie wants to hire him to investigate the case of firehouse dog who was murdered while the firefighters were out fighting a blaze in the neighborhood. Mr. Monk visits the scene of the fire, where an elderly woman died. The police assumed it was an accident, but Monk proves it murder. So he’s soon investigating the killing of the woman as well as the dog.

This is a pretty solid book. The mystery’s nice and involved with lots of texture, twists, and features, as well as a few nice side mysteries for Monk to solve along the way. It’s also a case that doesn’t end when Monk knows who “the guy” is as he has to put in a lot of work to prove it.

The overall story is pretty well-balanced. There’s some really good humor that captures Mr. Monk’s OCD nature, such as when he deals with Natalie’s cracked dishes by throwing them all out. Yet, it also captures the more endearing aspect of him such as Mr. Monk’s childlike joy at arriving at the firehouse. Reactions to Monk vary from kind tolerance and respect to the rude, disrespectful annoyance from impatient people in a hurry.

There are also some good side characters in the story such as the very lovable Firefighter Joe.

The book is told from Natalie’s point of view, which means we don’t get to see Monk interacting on his own with characters such as his therapist Dr. Kroger. Natalie is a very empathetic person and that helps readers connect with the story. Probably the biggest downside to Natalie as she’s written is that she editorializes everything and could go off on tangents. Thankfully there aren’t too many of those.

Overall, this is an enjoyable book for those wanting a good Monk fix.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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A Look at the Alan Young Show

Baby Boomers will remember Alan Young as a mild-mannered Wilbur Post on Mr. Ed. Generation X and Millennials are more likely to have encountered his work as Scrooge McDuck in Duck Tales and as Jack Allen on Adventures in Odyssey.

Before all that, he was a young comedian who held a spot on radio, first as a 1944 Summer replacement over NBC, then with an ongoing series over ABC from 1944-46, and then back to NBC from 1946-47, and returning again to NBC for six months 1949.

What was the series? Was it any good? I’ll offer my answers based on the existing episodes. We don’t have any surviving episodes from the 1944 Summer Run or the 1949 series. We do have more than 20 episodes from 1944-46 run, and we have the entire 1946-47 series and that’s what this review will be about.

Concept

The concept of this series is fluid. Consistently, Alan Young plays Alan Young, a young man living in Van Nuys, California. Throughout much of the series, he’s trying to win the favor of his girlfriend Betty’s father. The week after he finally seemed to succeed, both Betty and her father were written out of the series. While some episodes of the second season of the ABC run reference Alan running a sign painting business, there are relatively few references to his work, or what Betty’s father did for that matter, which is quite odd.

The plots are superficial, the continuity inconsistent, with characters occasionally behaving in ways and saying things that make no sense to justify a joke. Like many other programs, it has characters whose performances center on one joke: the department store salesman who will mirror what a customer says even at the point of reversing himself, a newspaperman who is frantically busy and confused. Most of more significant characters have multiple catchphrases which are delivered often for comedic effect.

In many ways, the show resembles the Mel Blanc Show (which I reviewed several years back.) Both are somewhat born loser characters, and Mel Blanc also had a girlfriend named Betty who had a father who didn’t like him. Blanc’s show also copied so many of the tropes of Young, but not nearly as effectively. It’s disappointingly bad given the voice talent on it, but it serves as a helpful comparison in showing how Young’s show was different.

The Alan Young show benefited from better written stories. Alan could win some and he could lose some, and the endings of the episodes were usually wonderfully zany and surprising in how things turned out.

The Performances

While Alan Young’s character could feel a bit like a loser, I don’t think the character ever felt pathetic. Young played his character with a great sense of charm, charisma, and good humor. His delivery got laughs for jokes that probably wouldn’t have worked otherwise. His performance was likable, and did a good job running up and down the comedic scale of emotions. He was twenty-five when he got his own sitcom and brought a lot of youthful energy that you just didn’t hear from the middle-aged leads on most other programs.

The supporting players were mostly okay. Again, we get a lot of one note characters who provide the same sort of material week after week. The only character I thought was probably a waste of time was Lulabell. Lulabell shows interest in Alan during the post-Betty shows but never becomes his girl. She’s a Southern Belle meant to deliver Southern stereotypes and say a version of, “ya’ll” and allow Alan a chance to mock her for it. It’s probably the most tedious part of the series.

The characterization of Betty as well as Alan’s later girlfriends is weak. Essentially, they want kissed, they want to get married, and they want Alan to act in ways that are attractive to them and get offended when he doesn’t. That’s pretty much the whole part.

Other than that, all the characters were okay.I laughed at some more than others, but most were well-conceived and worked. Plus, the show rotated the characters and the writers had a good sense of how not to overplay a joke and they rotated many of these characters on and off the program so they didn’t get tiresome. My favorite of these side characters is Mr. Busby, the newspaper editor. He’s just an incredibly manic character and I always laugh during his scenes.

However, the best thing about the Alan Young show is the show’s primary antagonist, Hubert Updike III, played by Jim Backus. Updike is the insanely rich scion of a family with extreme amounts of wealth which Updike boasts about, such as claiming to own entire states, among other constant exaggerations. Updike has an exalted opinion of himself as the most beautiful creature on Earth, and is constantly trying to foil Alan’s plans. Initially, this is because Updike is Alan’s rival for Betty’s affection, but he continues this after Betty’s disappearance. Add to Updike’s other qualities a tendency towards childish petulance when he doesn’t get his way, and you’ve got the makings of comedy gold with the right man in the role.

Backus is definitely the right man. His delivery and timing is superb. The most wonderful part of nearly every episode is the times that Hubert Updike’s on. He was a superb foil for Young, playing beautifully off him. No one has more catchphrases than Backus and somehow he managed to make most of them funny every time he said them, and Young borrows a few of the lines and gets plenty of laughs himself.

It’s worth noting the co-writer of the series was Sherwood Schwartz, who created Gilligan’s Island. Not coincidentally, Backus was cast to play the millionaire, Thurston Howell III. In many ways, what you get to hear on the Alan Show is a younger, more over the top version of Thurston Howell.

Other Factors

It was a post-War program from the era when it wasn’t enough to give you a sitcom, you also got a number or two from the orchestra in most episodes. These are enjoyable,were popular hits, and are mostly well-performed with just a slip up or two in the process to keep things interests. The commercials don’t stand out, but they’re not annoying either.

Overall

Is this one of the great old time radio comedies? No. It’s too formulaic and other than Hubert Updike, there’s not a whole lot outstanding about the series, but it’s also not a comedic dud like the Harold Perry or Mel Blanc programs. Obviously, if you’re a fan of Mr. Young or of Gilligan’s Island, it’s worth a listen. It’s also not a bad choice if you just want to listen to a comedy program. There are better programs, but there are far worst things you could listen to both golden age and modern entertainment.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

Episodes of the Alan Young show can be found at the OTRR Library 

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Review: Elementary, Season Two

Season 2 of Elementary saw the modern-day Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) continuing to consult for the New York Police Department, with Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) as his junior partner who he is training in being a detective.

This season has them returning to London for one case and running into Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans) who becomes a recurring character throughout the season.

The mysteries are solid, although they tend to take a fairly predictable turn of Holmes getting one or two incorrect solutions before arriving at the truth. The mysteries have a strong tendency towards intrigue and deep conspiracies as plot elements.

Probably the highlight of the season was their take on Inspector Lestrade (Sean Pertwee). In this story, Holmes’ assistance of Lestrade led to national notoriety. However, when that assistance ended due to Holmes’ drug use, Lestrade ended up on the downswing unable to cope with the unreasonable expectations set. It’s interesting exploration and Lestrade is a fun character with a nice little arc.

The series struggles on several fronts though. Of all modern Holmes adaptations, Elementary’s First Season featured the strongest supporting cast in Captain Gregson (Aiden Quinn) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill.) It really felt like we saw less of them, particularly Captain Gregson. Bell had a mini-arc in the season where Holmes’ arrogance caused an injury which nearly ended Bell’s career. This arc was interesting, although the resolution wasn’t particularly satisfying.

The biggest problem is the relationship dynamic between Holmes and Watson. In the traditional Holmes and Watson relationship, Holmes is exceedingly brilliant compared to Watson. Watson’s no fool, but he lacks the pure brilliance of Holmes. What Watson typically contributes is determination, physical courage, and a better understanding of how human beings work. He also has a great awe for his friend’s power.

This is where the decision to gender-swap the role of Watson becomes problematic. To have a woman as in awe of Holmes, and to have Holmes as superior to a woman partner, would be seen in today’s era as sexist.So the writers made Joan Watson a novice detective to become almost Holmes’ equal in deductive ability by the end of the season.

The problem with this approach is, for the Holmes/Watson dynamic to work, Holmes must be head and shoulder above all his compatriots, considering how hard he can be to work with. With difficult detectives of any gender, if they are just slightly above average compared to other detectives, why put up with the headaches of working with them?

To be honest, Holmes is often insufferable throughout this second season. He remains manipulative and self-absorbed. He harasses the family of a friend who died of a drug overdose after decades of sobriety and raises the possibility of foul play because he’s afraid of eventually relapsing himself. He’s rude with a lot of people who clearly didn’t deserve such mistreatment. (Editor’s note: no one deserves mistreated.) His story line this season is one of trying to keep Watson close, because he needs her for his well being and equilibrium.

What the season seems to show is she has no need for him. She is a strong, independent woman who makes her own choices, is her own person, and has no need for anyone. She needs the work but is perfectly capable of doing it without him by the season’s end.

The original Holmes and Watson dynamic was interdependent. They needed each other, and that’s the key to any dynamic joint detective program. Failing to capture this hurts the series.

Not helping it was a story arc woven through the season that seemed more Soap Opera than Sherlock Holmes where Watson had a relationship with Holmes’ brother because they could. The plot twists and turns were outrageous and seemed to be trying to compete with the bizarre and wild plot turns on the BBC Series Sherlock. While I’ve criticized many things about Sherlock, the series has an undeniable sense of style that allows it to pull of most of its wild plot turns. Elementary lacks that and so many of these plot ideas fall flat.

The series isn’t bad, particularly when it comes to its mysteries. Yet, Season 2’s fundamental problems with characters and characterization make it okay at best.

Rating: 3.0 outof 5.0

 

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