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

28Dec/130

Radio Drama Review: Gregory Keen: Deadly Nightshade

The character of  Gregory Keen was introduced in the Australian radio serial Dossier on Dumetrius. In that serial, Keen, a MI-5 Major played by New Zealand Actor Bruce Stewart, hunted down an international war criminal named Dumetrius through the streets of London. (see review here). The second Keen serial turns to more familiar territory for the writer and original audience: the streets of Sidney, Australia.

In Deadly Nightshade,  Stewart returns as Keen. Also returning was the actor who played the villain from Dossier. The character of Felix Huberman is the half brother of the Keen's archenemy. (Yes, it's contrived but work with us.) Huberman is an official with Australian federal law enforcement who is also the chief lieutenant of Carla Mingione who is trying to get organized crime established in Sidney. Keen is sent by MI-5 because of the disappearance of scientist Bruno Kesselring who is feared to have defected to the Russians, though this is largely forgotten through most of the serial as Keen finds himself trying to find the truth behind the Nightshade ring, believing it will lead to Kesselring.

Deadly Nightshade has its strong points. Like its predecessor, it is a  highly addictive and is a fairly complex 104-part story.  In many ways, it's a better  Keen story.  Dossier featured our hero, Major Keen as a somewhat dense character who did majorly stupid things for a huge number of episodes including his 40+ episode manhunt for innocent bystander Peter Ridgeway and believing the treacherous Heddy Bergner innocent for nearly 70 episodes because he was in love with her. Here Keen is not gulled for that length of time. To be sure, there are some stupid moments. Early on, Keen concludes that Huberman's up to no good but decides he has no choice but to play along with him which involves not introducing himself to the police and not meeting up with the contact that'd been designated for him by London. This stupidity ends after less than ten episodes and other lapses of sanity and reasonable judgment are short.

Keen in Deadly Nightshade  is a man to be feared in a story that's far darker than Dossier. Keen is clearly a much more ruthless character than in the previous serial.  Keen is driven and at times, seems almost mentally disturbed in his pursuit of the Nightshade Ring, even being willing to kill unarmed men to achieve his ends. He's still haunted by his memory of Heddy Bergner, much to the chagrin of Sherry Reed, a party girl who fell for Keen and became involved in his adventures, only to find Keen constantly spurning her.

The story is darker but not necessarily better in places. While Deadly Nightshade is a far more logical tale with a minimal number of plotholes, it was also a little less fun than Dossier.  The story is interesting due the concerns with organized crime making its way to Australia and the wide variety of plot twists that can fit into a story of this length.

This makes a decent listen, but definitely not for kids under 13.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.0

14Dec/130

Audio Drama Review: The Father Brown Mysteries Volume 5

Colonial Radio Theatre's fifth collection of Father Brown Mysteries starring JT Turner showcases CRT's increasing  production values. The whole collection is graced by a much more polished theme, and the general quality of acting and dialects were also up from when the series first started.

This collection features three of the most popular Brown stories.  Three of these were adapted for the 1970s ITV Father Brown television, and two by the 1980s BBC radio series and Colonial's adaptation is at least the equal of these previous adaptations.

The stories included are:

  • The Hammer of God: The wealthy reprobate brother of a local minister is found murdered with a small hammer that hit him with a seemingly impossible amount of force.  This is one of Chesterton's most thoughtful and clever stories. JT Turner's portrayal of Brown's compassion even in the midst of confronting the murderer really gives a whole new spin on that part of the story.
  • The Curse of the Golden Cross: A professor  acquires a rare golden cross, but also a deadly enemy who is determined to kill the professor and claim the cross. The professor he's been followed to England where a vicar claims to have found the rare cross' twin. All is not as it seems. The original story wasn't Chesterton's greatest, but this is a faithful adaptation that hits the key points quite nicely.
  • The Mirror and the Magistrate: A respected magistrate is murdered and suspicion falls on a radical poet who had a grudge against him. However, Father Brown is certain the poet is innocent. This one is a fun case as we hear Brown's deconstruction of the prosecution's case and how the fact that the prosecutor wears a wig plays into the startling conclusion.
  • The Wrong Shape:  If there was one story in this collection I expected not to like, it was this one. I didn't get Chesterton's original story when I read it. The written version seemed a little too metaphysical. However, I have to say I really enjoyed the radio adaptation. Colonial did a great job of bringing this more obscure but still very clever mystery to life.

Overall, I was thoroughly entertained by this set.  CRT continues to bring  these great stories to life with the humor and social commentary that Chesterton brought to the originals.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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

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7Dec/130

Book Review: Stranger in Town

Brett Halliday knew how to catch a reader's attention from the get-go. The book begins with Michael Shayne stopping for a drink in a small Florida town. A beautiful young woman walks out to him and then two hoods drag him out of the bar, beat up and nearly run him down with their car.

Shayne gets thrown in jail after blowing his top in a confrontation with the local police force but hangs around town determined to find out who the woman was that fingered him and why she did it. Along the way, Shayne discovers that she was an amnesiac who stumbled into town and was supposed to have been taken back to her father in Orlando. Shayne discovers the story was a lie and to find the truth he has to untangle a web of crime and corruption.

The book buzzes along and is a fast paced story filled with plenty of suspense and great plot twists and action throughout most of it. The only flaw in the pacing is that the book does slow down about 3/4 of the way through before wrapping up strong with the last chapter and a half.

The book also gives some keen insights into social attitudes of the mid-1950s and deals with a hot topic of today. Even though Shayne is no huge moralist, he reflected the values of his time in a way that's intriguing or sad depending on your point of view.

Rating: 4.0 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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30Nov/130

Audio Drama: The History of Harry Nile, Set Six

The History of Harry Nile Set 6 covers 24 cases in which the late Phil Harper portrayed the Seattle Private Detective, set between May of 1956 and Summer of 1958.

At this point, it’s tough to add much to what I’ve written in the previous five reviews. The series while produced in the 1990s and early 21st century sounded just like a vintage detective series from radio’s golden age.

Both Harry (Phil Harper) and his red-headed assistant Murphy (Pat French) were well-established in their roles and had them down to a tee. And producer/writer Jim French really knew how to do a 19-23 minute radio drama and make it shine.

The stories are mostly typical PI fare but with a few surprises thrown in such as, “Submarine Warfare” which has the owner of a new subshop asking for Harry’s help with vandals while his wife is sending Harry notes that her husband wants to kill her. Harry’s cases take him to New Orleans, to California, and to three different western cities where a salesman is keeping different girls and runs into predictable problems. There’s a theft at a mission around Christmastime. And the story of a missing fire extinguisher salesman where Harry has to live up to the bill of one of America’s top ten private investigators.

These are well-done tales with no real clunkers, but consistent quality from episode to episode. The only downside is that on occassion, the motive may be a little thin. Some listeners may be bothered by the relationship between Harry and Murphy with Harry, with Murphy pining for Harry but Harry showing no interest whatsoever. However, this too is a throwback to some golden age programs like Let George Do It.

Overall, this set lives up to the high standards of its predecessors and is a must for fans of Phil Harper’s Harry Nile.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

The set is available at French's website for $49.95 on CD or as a digital download for $25.

The History of Harry Nile, Set 6  (along with Sets 1-5) are available on Audible for $19.95 for members or 1 Credit. I bought this set with my an Audible listener Credit ($14.95).

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23Nov/130

Movie Review: The Brasher Doubloon

This 1947 adaptation of the Philip Marlowe novel, The High Window is an illustration both of how not to adapt a book and how not to do a detective movie.

As soon as I saw the Mustached George Montgomery, I knew I'd had trouble buying him in the role of Philip Marlowe. Philip Marlowe with a mustache? He couldn't carry it off and it was more than the facial hair.

To be clear, Montgomery does give the best performance in this movie, but that's not saying much. Every performance in this movie is either extremely wooden or hammy.

The movie was also incredibly inconsistent with Marlowe narrating, with it being present at the early part of the film and then disappearing later on. In addition, the voice overs he did were pointless. A good voice over should communicate something we didn't or show off the hard boiled nature of the private eye or the setting. The narration here did nothing other than say things that we could see on the screen or were just plain bland. In addition, while this is supposed to be a hard boiled private eye movie, it ends with a gathering of the suspects and Marlowe revealing whodunit like it's Charlie Chan or the Thin Man.

The biggest problem with this movie is that it's a story of the greatest hard boiled eye of them all, Philip Marlowe and the "romance" angle in this movie is so hard to swallow. In the novel High Window, Marlowe recognizes that the timid secretary of his client is emotionally wounded and needs helped. He gallantly works to help her with no idea of doing anything romantic with her. Here, George Montgomery's Marlowe is downright creepy in his attempts to seduce Merle Davis (Nancy Guild). It just felt icky and my feeling has nothing to do with our politically correct times. Chandler recognized this was not the way a hero should act and that a man who has to hit on an emotionally traumatized woman is not only a cad, but a loser.

The movie does have a chase scene that's half way decent. In some way screenwriter Dorothy Bennett did manage to pare down Chandler's more convoluted story line and eliminate character like Leslie Murdoch's wife. The story features a young Conrad Janis who looks a lot like Leonardo DiCaprio in this film. Finally, the DVD release is long overdue, and it's worth watching once for Philip Marlowe completists.

In the end, this is just a poor film, and it's poor for a B-film. It'd be understandable if this came from a studio like Monogram, but Fox made this and they showed in both Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto that they could make entertaining B detective movies, for whatever reason, they didn't here.

Rating: 3.0 out of 10

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16Nov/131

Book Review: The High Window

Philip Marlowe is hired to recover a lost coin for a crotchety widow. She suspects her daughter-in-law and wants Marlowe to arrange for her daughter-in-law to divorce her son.

Marlowe, of course, encounters a ton of obstacles and a mounting body count. In addition, to the official side of the business, he suspects something is really wrong with the old woman's secretary, who is being mistreated.

The case is somewhat average fare. It's by no means a bad story but it's also not The Big Sleep and it's not Farewell, My Lovely. It has its moments such as when Marlowe is justifying non-cooperation with the police on the basis of a case they mishandled through corruption, and then later he admits the story was made up and later on, says maybe it wasn't. However, the characters aren't as good and the dialogue isn't either. In addition to this, there are few less threads that are left hanging and there are a few more, we really don't care about.

On the positive side Marlowe's noble actions towards the secretary and the purity of his motives really live up to his Knight in Tarnished Armor Rep. In the end, it's a great story but not a classic.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0

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9Nov/133

Telefilm Review: The Hollow

This is the final film in the ninth series of Poirot, originally broadcast in 2004.

In, “The Hollow” Poirot is staying at a cottage in the country. After being invited for a return visit, Poirot finds a doctor dead and his wife holding a gun. The doctor’s secret mistress tells the wife to thrown the gun to the water which in the end doesn't matter as it’s not the murder weapon.

Poirot seeks to untangle the truth of the very complicated relationships but runs into resistance and new suspects at every stage.

Overall, I thought this was a solid production and it rose above the typical mystery of its sort where the characters of wife and the other woman can be cardboard cutouts. The husband is really just a very selfish person in his private life with the only thing coloring that is his more noble professional efforts as a doctor. However, both the wife (played by Gerda Christo) and the mistress (played by Megan Dodds) were fully fleshed out as complex and fully developed characters. The interaction between the mistress and Poirot was particularly well done. It was also a thrill to see Edward Harwicke (Watson from the Grenada Sherlock Holmes series) in it.

I had two complaints about this. First was the ending which featured Poirot allowing the murderer to walk away and get something after their identity has been revealed based on their promise not to go anywhere and tragedy results. It really is out of character not that Christie’s original ending would have worked but they had to come up with something better. Also they added in a sex scene that while not r-rated and not even showing actual flash was just unnecessarily gratuitous and titillating which doesn't suit this series at all.

Overall, despite these flaws, The Hollow is a great adaptation of a book that’s not usually considered one of Christie’s best.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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2Nov/130

Book Review: The Golden Spiders

The Golden Spiders finds Wolfe and Archie in ill-temper. Archie decides to admit a neighborhood boy who comes to Wolfe because of Wolfe’s antipathy to police and the fact that he saw a woman in a car apparently in trouble. Wolfe handles the boy well and agrees to help by tracing the plate of the car.

However, the boy is murdered the next day and the case goes to another level. The boy’s mother asks Wolfe to find out why he was killed and offers her son’s savings which amounts to $4.30 to find the killer. They begin the process by placing an ad, and get a response that’s followed by another murder.

This sets Archie and the teers on an investigation that leads them to the high and low end of society and on to the trail of an extortion ring that’s the key to the whole plot.

This is really a mixed bag in terms of quality. It has more action than any other Wolfe story, including a torture scene that’s somewhat uncomfortable. To be fair about that, the bad guys started it by torturing Orrie Cather before Archie and friends turned the tables on them.

There’s also a very strong scene with Inspector Cramer that’s probably his best scene as a detective in any of the books he’s featured in. There are some good bits between Wolfe and Archie, and a pretty good final denouement.

The book’s weak point comes with Wolfe proposing a ruse for Archie that’s so transparent, it doesn’t fool anyone. It’s really pathetic and beneath the standard of fun ruses that characterize the Wolfe books.

The Golden Spiders was the basis of the pilot movie for A Nero Wolfe Mystery, and I have to say this is one case where the movie beat the book. And the biggest difference was emotional impact. The book deals with the death of a child, but it doesn't seem to impact the characters correctly. Stout could do this and often did with tragic adult deaths which Archie or Wolfe inadvertently played a role in books like in Prisoner’s Base, but just doesn't seem to deliver here. It’s worth noting that Pete Drossos is the only child to play a major role in any of the Wolfe stories, so writing children may not have been Stout’s forte.

There’s enough good stuff to keep this interesting, but overall I can only give the book a:

Rating: Satisfactory

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

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26Oct/130

Audio Review: Dr. Who: Marco Polo

Dr. Who has become a 21st phenomena with the series revival growing to even greater acclaim than the previous stories. Yet, it still has its roots in the 1960s where the first two Doctors played by William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton gave the character his roots. The stories of the Doctor and his companions were originally produced as half hour programs that were serialized stories as opposed to the one hour usually self-contained today.

I've watched a decent amount of first doctor material. I've seen the first three serials with Hartnell as well another, "The Aztecs." News came out that two previously lost serials are now available for purchase both starring the second doctor Patrick Troughton, but that leaves nearly a hundred episodes of the show lost,  effecting twenty-six different serials including the last two Hartnell stories and first seven with Troughton.

While hopefully more of these videos will emerge, Dr. Who fans don't have to wait to at least enjoy the stories because sound tracks of early Dr. Who episodes, recorded by fans at the time the series aired, and remastered and re-released by the BBC are available through Audible. So, I'm going to listen to all the Dr. Who missing  episodes I can't see beginning with Marco Polo and see how the  audio format helps or hurts.

"Marco Polo"  is  the fourth Dr. Who Serial and ran seven episodes from February to April 4 and follows after the events of "The Edge of Destruction" which left the TARDIS  damaged and finds the Doctor and the TARDIS crew (Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright, and Susan Foreman) stranded on top of a snow capped mountain and in danger of freezing to death. However, they encounter several Chinese as well as a Mongol warlord named Tagama who wants them killed. However, the Chinese are led by Marco Polo who saves them and treats them kindly.  However, they quickly find that Polo's motives are not entirely pure: He wants to give the TARDIS to Kublia Khan in hopes of securing his own return home to Venice. However, the warlord Tagama has designs on TARDIS of his own.

The audio is narrated by William Russell (who played Chesterton in the series) who shares bits of action that the soundtrack can't pick up. These bits are minor. In some ways, being in an audio format helps this series as the setting is quite ambitious  with luscious and ornate Oriental settings.  Given the budget of the original show, it's safe for me to say that the theater of the mind will easily beat what 1960s British TV could do in its portrayal of the Khan's palaces.

This serial also seemed reminiscent in its slower pacing of radio serials I've listened from the 1940s and '50s which often had more deliberate pacing overall with cliffhangers built in to keep the audience's attention.

Another big difference from the modern Dr. Who is that other than involving time travel, this story has very little science fiction. If there were a modern Dr. Who/Marco Polo stories there'd be ghosts, space aliens, or zombies thrown in.  Instead what we get is a great historical adventure with its share of twists but just an adventure happening in medieval China.

The character of Marco Polo makes this story unique from many early serials. While in other programs like "The Aztecs, "  characters like Tagama scheme and turn initial allies of the TARDIS crew into enemies, this is a lot more complex as Polo is enlightened. He isn't superstitious, bloodthirsty, and works to save the crew despite requests to kill them.  His broad experiences have made him willing to consider anything including their claim that the TARDIS is a flying caravan, which is why he stole it. He feels bad about it too.  Polo's moral struggle really does create some solid dramatic tension. 

Less interesting is the overused trope of the girl about to enter into an arranged marriage that doesn't want to do it, and the convenient plot device used to resolve it, though they did do a decent job making the character likable and someone you care about.

While the serial isn't great, it's good for what it is: a fun historic adventure serial. It works well with the audio format  and for now, it's the only way to encounter the classic Marco Polo story line unless you want to read the novelization.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.00

This serial is available from audible.com

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19Oct/132

Book Review: Back on Murder

For Roland March, it's pretty simple, either he's going back (to being homicide detective) or he's going out (as in completely out of the Houston PD) March made headlines seven years before when he solved a sensational murder, but the high expectations caused by the publicity of the case combined with a personal tragedy led to a decline in his work where he's on one dead end assignment after another, most regularly working a sting where police capture stupid wanted felons lured into the open with the promise of winning a free car contest.

March makes some keen observations at scene of the murder of an inner city drug dealer. March believes that the murder is tied into a nationally covered disappearance of a teenage girl. He goes against orders to look into the angle and gets yanked off the case and on to the task force looking into the disappearance, another dead end. Can March somehow parlay his hunches, uncover the secrets of a group of crooked cops, and stay alive so that the get his career and life back on track.

The book is remarkably well-written and has high quality throughout most of it. March is a fantastic character with his own set of inner demons. March's narration varies from hard boiled wry cop sarcasm to poignancy, to vivid and powerful word images that paint as clear a picture of 21st Century Houston as Raymond Chandler's Marlowe's stories did of 1940s Los Angeles. The character does change as the story goes on. He becomes more of a team player. At the beginning of the book, his focus is really on him: The quest to get back into Homicide. As his focus shifts to the case at hand, actually getting his man leads to real cooperation.

The mystery is a clever tangled web of intrigue that intersects with crooked cops, with honest efforts to help other, and an old rival of March's that won't go away. Really, everything ties together in the end and the clues are solidly laid out.

The last quarter, and the last sixth of the book in particular do suffer a bit of a slowdown with more fizzle than sizzle. Bertrand made the dubious decision to fill in a bunch of back story details towards the end of the book as we were closing in on the killers and a hurricane kills not one by two birds for our hero. These are minor issues given how good the rest of the book was.

The book is from a Christian company, but has little Christian material. March is a moral man but not a believer. The best Christians get from the book is a murder mystery that doesn't make a Christian look like a psycho. The book is a clean read as far as profanity goes and doesn't go for overly graphic

Overall, I enjoyed the book immensely and will be watching for the next book in the series.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

Note: The Kindle version of this book is available for free.

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