Category: Golden Age Article

DVD Review: The Last Detective, Series One

Dangerous Davies, the Last Detective (played by Peter Davison of Campion and Doctor Who fame) isn’t your usual crime drama lead character. His estranged wife Julie describes him to one of her many boyfriends as “Dangerous because he isn’t…” ” He is “”The Last Detective’ because he’s the last man they’d put on anything important.”

His boss tells him, “The last detective, that’s what you are, Davies. The last detective I’ll ever think of for a job. Unless it’s a crap job; then you’ll be the first.”

Of course, PC Davies is far from incompetent. Whatever task he’s given, he takes on with relish and shows competence and intelligence. He’s easy to underrate and gains people’s confidence. He’s kind of like Columbo (most of his episodes are about the length of a 1970s columbo episode) except instead of being assigned every celebrity murder case, he goes out and investigates the report that a jeweler has shot a duck.

This first series collects four episodes including the feature-length TV movie, along with the episodes “Moonlight,” “Tricia,” and “Lofty.”

The TV movie is a great story as he takes on a cold case murder investigation without telling his superior based on a clue he came up with in a far less desirable case. It’s a well worked out procedural that does a great job showcasing the character and his overall decency. It’s probably the most traditional mystery of the four, and also the most engaging.

“Moonlight” is an odder story as Davies investigates the disappearance of an elderly man with a shady past, and an often tempestuous relationship with his wife. The story has some character moments and solid guest performances, but gets tedious in a few spots with the same themes harped on repeatedly. That and a less than a satisfying conclusion make this my least favorite episode of the season.

“Tricia” has Davies experience the downside of being a personable and caring person. He ends up taking on a case of a woman who claims to have been assaulted and robbed. The story shows Davies being shrewd and cautious as he figures out Tricia is falling for him and begins to discover what a bad thing that can be.

“Lofty” is the second strongest episode of the story. The episode begins by showing Davies’ friendship with an eccentric old man named, “Lofty.” When Lofty dies under mysterious circumstances, the police don’t care much, but with a word from her social worker, Davies presses. Believing the case to be a waste of time, his boss gives it to him. What follows is a solid investigation leading to a great mystery involving World War II and a ring. There are some red herrings thrown in, but I found this to be a very engaging story.

Overall, this was a strong series.  The mysteries are not concerned with big sensational “ripped from the headlines” crimes but rather with jobs that many policemen might look down upon. What makes Davies so admirable as a character is that any serious job, he takes on with serious dedication and determination. Finding how Lofty died or investigating Tricia’s robbery will not earn him plaudits from “the man upstairs,” however the way he approaches his work ultimately gives importance to it that supersedes the dismissive attitude of his superiors and gives the cases weight and dignity.

While the series has comedic elements, the comedy isn’t played broadly. Indeed, he’s a character you feel sympathy for because he’s a genuinely nice and decent person who it feels like life itself has turned against him with an estranged wife who (though not divorced) tells him about her boyfriends, and mocks and belittles him to his face,  younger colleagues who act like they’re in high school, and a series of unfortunate incidents that happen to him like he’s being followed by a rain cloud.

There are also two very important relationships. His friend Mod (Sean Hughes) provides a non-policeman sounding board for Davies in his investigation and the two have some wonderfully fun interactions and it’s with Mod that most of the real comedy occurs. And then there’s Detective Inspector Aspinall, who  has a complex relationship with him. While Aspinall rides him and saddles him with essentially meaningless cases, he also has some moments that are more respectful and rebukes the younger detectives who seem bent on finding new ways to make Davies’ life unpleasant.

Overall, this first series is a great start, showcases the fine acting talents of Peter Davison, and tells some great human mysteries.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Morality for Beautiful Girls

In the third No. 1 Ladies Detective novel, Mma Ramotswe is planning to consoldiate the office space for her Detective agency with her fiance Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s garage. However, he’s ill and his sluggishness turns out to be depression. So quickly Mma. Ramotswe finds she has to manage the affairs of both the garage and detective agency. This is all complicated when a high-ranking government official hires her to take a case out in the country.

This third book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective series retains all the charm of the prior installments. Author Alexander McCall Smith seemlessly takes his readers to this place and captures the thoughts and feelings of a culture foreign to most of his readers.

Having Mr. Matekoni get depressed is a definite loss to the book as his presence and point of view were so great in the first two novels. However, this clears this way for Mma Makutsi to establsih herself as a main character. In the original book, she was really a side character. Smith tried to increase her role by making her Assistant Detective but the case she worked wasn’t all that compelling and the change felt forced.

Here, Smith does succeed in making Mma Makutsi a compelling character. At the start of the book, before he took ill, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni suggested getting rid of her as Mma Ramotswe’s agency wasn’t making a profit. However, she proves her worth by taking over and successfully managing the garage in Maktekoni’s absence and when Mma Ramotswe’s out of town she has to investigate a case that can bring money to the agency when a beauty pagent director hires the agency to investigate the contestants to make sure a morally strong woman wins the pageant. We also find out that Mma Makutsi has an ill brother who is staying with her and this adds to the character.

There are two mysteries in the book. Overall, they’re not bad cases as far as they go. Mma Ramotswe investigates a case of government bureaucrat who fears his brother’s wife is poisoning his brother while Mma Makutsi investigates the beauty contestants. The first case has a solid enough solution but her explanation to the government man is laden with a bit too much pop psychology. And Mma Makutsi’s looking into the beauty contestants’ character is fascinating and offers social commentary on these pagents everywhere, not just in Botswana, but in the end I thought the solution was a tad too pat.

I also thought there were some dropped threads from the previous book, but overall I enjoyed the story even if it wasn’t quite as good as the first two.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: The Death and the Life

The Death and the Life is another one-man play starring Roger Llewellyn and written by David Stuart Davies adapted by Big Finish Productions. The story is a mix of fact and fiction as it centers upon Arthur Conan Doyle’s efforts to rid himself of his most famous creation once and for all with the writing of “The Final Problem” and failed.

The play imagines Holmes and his fellow characters reacting to Doyle’s actions and scheming. Doyle’s disinterest is reflected in a hilarious scene where Holmes describes a madcap adventure to a snoring Watson. The story is bolstered by the use of Doyle’s own journals and letters. Another great scene is the one which Holmes learns he’s a fictional character from his arch-rival who is not too pleased that he’s been created by Doyle as a single-use plot device.

With its light comedy and heavy symbolism, The Life and the Death  is a story about a literary creation whose popularity transcended the writer who created him. The play is helped by another strong performance from Roger Llewellyn who manages to perfectly portray all the characters and angles of this very deep and well-written play. Overall, this is another story that’s a wonderful listen for fans of Sherlock Holmes.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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TV Episode Review: The Rockford Files: There’s One in Every Port

In this Season 3 episode of the Rockford Files, Rockford is begged to take part in an illegal high stakes poker game by the daughter of Eddie Marks (Howard Duff, best known as radio’s Sam Spade), an old friend from prison after Rockford visits an apparently ailing Eddie in the hospital. However, the poker game is robbed and the organizers pin the blame on Rockford.When Rockford finds Eddie gone from the hospital, he realizes he’s been had. Rockford had been used to lead the gang to the poker game so Eddie could take the pot in order to pull off a scam.

In order to avoid being killed by the gamblers, Rockford has to concoct a con of his own to foil Eddie’s scam and to reclaim the stolen money before he finds himself killed by the gamblers. To do this, his pal Angel recruits a group of conmen to help pull off the job.

As a story, the plot is intricate, and it’s different from a typical Rockford Files episode. It’s much more of heist/sting story with the big question being not who done it, but what is Rockford’s scheme to defeat the conman. It’s graced by great writing and a super guest cast including John Doehner (who played Paladin in Radio’s Have Gun Will Travel.)

As a fan of old time radio, I love seeing Duff and Doehner on screen.  Also, the appearance of Duff in The Rockford Files is interesting as Rockford’s work was compared to Sam Spade’s earlier in the series. However, even if that’s not a highlight for you, the episode’s clever plotting and strong acting make this story a winner.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

This episode is available for free streaming through Hulu.
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Book Review: Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration

Raymond Chandler’s Philip MarloweA Centennial Celebration was published in 1988 on the 100th Anniversary of Chandler’s birth. The book collects more than twenty Marlowe short stories. While most of them are by newer authors, the book includes “The Pencil,” (1959) Raymond Chandler’s last completed Philip Marlowe story which (heretofore) has only been published in this collection.

To begin with, I’ll take a look at “The Pencil.” In it, a former mob figure asks Marlowe’s help in disappearing when threatened with being penciled out by mob hitmen. The story is good, astonishingly so. It was published in 1959 a year after Chandler wrote the awful Playback and it’s stunning to think the same author wrote both. The story isn’t quite the equal of, “Red Wind,” but stands up with the other Philip Marlowe stories published in Trouble is My Business.

“The Pencil” recaptures the feel of mean streets, fascinating characters, hard boiled dialogue, and a battle with the underworld that made Marlowe stories so good in the beginning. The story also brings back Anne Riordan from, Farewell, My Lovely who is a far more interesting character than Chandler’s insipid and vapid “love interests” of his 1950s novels. It even has Marlowe getting money out of the deal, so it’s a wonderful story and it’d be great if this story were added to future editions of Trouble is My Business so  a wider world of Marlowe fans could enjoy this story.

So that’s the last 30 pages of the book. What about the twenty plus stories and 339 pages that proceeded it? The writers were all admirers of Chandler and all competent as modern mystery writers. Many of them made a good try. For the most part, their stories weren’t on par with the originals but they were fairly enjoyable.

However, some stand out, both for good and ill.

  • “Saving Grace” by Joyce Harrington is one of the closest stories to Chandler stylistically. However, I  don’t like the end. It brings in the idea of sex crimes against children and a Jerry Springeresque final confrontation that leaves a bad taste.
  • “Malibu Tag Team” by Jonathan Valin captures a lot of the spirit of Farewell, My Lovely.
  • “Sad Eyed Blonde” by Dick Lochte  is a great take on Marlowe and the only pastiche that’s a sequel to a previous Chandler story. This story reintroduces characters from, “The Gold Fish” in a different sort of mystery. The end is pure hard boiled detective and is a great set-up.
  • “Dealer’s Choice” by Sara Paretsky, creator of V I Warshawski, takes a superb turn that really captures Chandler’s cadences in a tale that deals with the Japanese internment.
  • “Consultation in the Dark” by Frances Nevins, Jr. may not capture all of Chandler’s feel but it’s probably the second best story in the book behind, “The Pencil.” It’s a suspenseful tale when Marlowe is out of town, and a man comes to Marlowe asking for help. Marlowe’s reluctant but the man’s got a bomb tied to his chest.
  • “In the Jungle of the Cities,” by Roger Simon is a dull tale that rejects private eye tales to talk about the House Un-American Activities Committee. This was written back when Simon was on the left, and he’s since moved right. Whether he’d write something more interesting and less political now that his politics have changed or write something that’s as dull only with a right wing slant is an interesting question, and indeed far more interesting than this story.
  • “Star Bright” by John Lutz sees Marlowe involved in a search for and protection of a potential Hollywood starlet. It’s a compelling story that captures the essence of the character, and post-war Hollywood is a superb location for a Marlowe story.
  • “Locker 246” by Robert Randisi is an interesting tale where Marlowe is manipulated into a trip to New York. Marlowe’s sense of honor is reliable, in fact it’s predictable which works to someone’s advantage in a tale of Marlowe’s brief but action-packed trip to the Big Apple.
  • “Bitter Lemons” by Stuart Kaminsky creates a great Chandleresque character in Warren Hluska, a man who swore he’d never win a beauty contest but he actually did.
  • “The Man Who Knew Dick Bong” by Robert Crais is one of those stories that left me with mixed feelings. It works fine as a private eye tale, just not as a Marlowe tale. It’s also the story in the book that uses the most swearing. To be fair, Chandler did include a dash of swearing in the rich, sweet language of his novels. Emphasis on “a dash.” Crais uses more in his twenty-two page short story than Chandler used in some novels and generally more severe. Given how creative Chandler was with language, Crais’s story was jarring for its repetitiveness. Still, the plot was interesting.
  • “In the Line of Duty” by Jeremiah Healey is a story where I don’t think the author quite gets Marlowe’s sense of justice. Marlowe might go against established rules, but there’s always a reason. This story doesn’t capture how Marlowe thinks.
  • “The Alibi” by Ed Gorman captures the tone of Marlowe from The Long Goodbye. The dour, world-weary shamus gets a request for help from one of his few friends on the force. Anyone expecting a happy ending hasn’t been paying attention.
  • “Asia” finds Marlowe at a personal low in his life in 1958. However, an Asian woman gives him a chance to be a hero again. This is a great look at the Knight in Tarnished Armor. The actual case Marlowe gets into isn’t solved this story. In fact, it barely begins, but it’s a great character journey.

Each story is prefaced by a stylistic illustration and many of them are quite evocative of the era.

While this book is out of print, it is available cheaply (1 cent plus shipping on Amazon at the time of this writing.) That makes it a no-brainer for any fan of Marlowe or hard boiled detectives in general to pick up. “The Pencil” is a superb Chandler story and at least some of the rest of the stories in the book should catch the reader’s eye.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0

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