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

22Sep/130

Book Review: Murder by Proxy (Brett Halliday)

Note: I picked up several Michael Shayne novels as a give away for our listener support campaign.  Shayne was popular in other medias including radio version starring Wally Maher and Jeff Chandler,  film version with Lloyd Nolan and Hugh Beaumont, and a television version featuring Richard Denning. I decided to give the books a whirl while flying from San Francisco to St. Louis so that I'd know of what I speak when we begin doing Michael Shayne on our program. Below is my review.

A gorgeous woman checks into a Miami hotel room and then vanishes. Her husband arrives five days later for a surprise visit and finds her missing and is outraged the hotel didn't do anything about it until now. He turns to Michael Shayne to find her.

Murder by Proxy (1962) is a short engaging book that does what its supposed to. It's been out of print for years and no one's likely to bring it back, nor unlike a Philip Marlowe book is anyone going to be told to read it. Social commentary is limited. What were left with a good solid hard boiled mystery novel that uses just the right of description to paints meaningful and evocative word pictures that powerfully tell oft the  missing "stacked" woman.

The mystery is cleverly written and is a true puzzle on both a physical and psychological level. The obvious explanation adopted by the police is that the woman simply stepped out, but she seemed to really be in love with her husband. The husband may have had some motive for killing her, but why would he step out on such a beautiful wife plus Shayne thought his concern for his wife is sincere. The puzzle and the chase are satisfying with just enough red herrings along the way.

While not a classic, this is good solid mystery mystery writing at its finest.

Note: We have a small supply of Michael Shayne novels available through our listener support page

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21Sep/130

Telefilm Review: Sad Cypress

Sad Cypress tells the story of a young woman named Elinor Carlisle on trial for murder. Through flashbacks we see Elinor speaking to her dying aunt who she inherits a fortune from. A girl named Mary had won a place in her aunt's heart and subsequently steals her beau Rodney. When Mary dies at a party held by Elinor. She's arrested for murder and Poirot steps in to investigate.

This is actually one of the best adaptations I've seen yet. The mystery had me guessing until the end, the producers did a great job creating plenty of misdirection, to make this one a puzzler. It also really worked on an emotional level helped by a top notch score that created the perfect mood. Suchet was fabulous as always, making this a nearly perfect production.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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15Sep/130

Review: History of Harry Nile, Set Five

Set Five of Harry Nile continues the high quality from the previous four sets with most episodes clocking in at 19-22 minutes in length recorded in the 1990s, but with stories set between 1954-56  (sort of) produced by Jim French and starring Phil Harper as Harry. The vintage feel remains on most episodes, with a few exceptions.

"The Toni Parsons" story is a great story about a girl who runs away to Seattle in hopes of finding her brother who has been declared MIA in Korea. There's the case of Harry running into a less than savory relative in, "Who Killed Harry Nile?" And Harry has to deal with a medical mystery in, "The Case of the Missing Witness."

This set marked a return of double episodes. "Always Leave 'em Wanting More"  informs us that Harry had briefly been married to a black lounge singer in the 1930s before he began his career as a private eye. While Harry learns the truth about his late wife's murder in the 1950s much of the story is set in the mid-1930s. While the episode was educational about the type of challenges faced by an interracial couple in the 1930s, it really felt like it was primarily trying to be educational. The attempts to squeeze this incident into what we know of Harry's back story was really forced and not credible.

It is perhaps the final step in the rehabilitation of Harry's harder edged past. Recalling that the first Harry Nile story, "West for My Health" had Harry come West with orders to kill a man with Harry debating whether he'd carry this out, we've come along way to much more of a straight arrow character.  Though if you want a rougher edged story, another 1950s framed story tells of Harry's days in Los Angeles and deadbeat client he'd never forget in a great story called, "Tony Macaroni Still Owes me $600."

The other thing that become apparent listening to the show is how hard it was to keep supporting characters actors on the show.  Harry gets several friends on the force who pop in for two or three episodes and then pop out. Perhaps the most memorable such character to appear was Keys Louise who has a key that'll get her into every office in town.

One actor who stuck with the show and eventually succeeded Harper was Larry Albert whose voice work on a variety of characters was truly indispensable. His best episode was entitled, "Finding Portland," in which Albert plays Fred Allen, who is visiting town to promote his new book. The story is set in 1956, seven years after Allen's last radio appearance and Albert is dead on as Fred Allen. He captured the voice perfectly in a way that made you feel like you were actually hearing Allen.

Despite a few rough spots, Set 5 of the History of Harry Nile was simply marvelous radio entertainment the spirit of golden age radio detectives.

Rating: 4.5 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 5  (along with Sets 1-4, and 6) 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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14Sep/131

A Look at the Nancy Drew Films

1938 and 1939 saw the release of four films starring Bonita Granville as Nancy Drew. In the film, Drew is a precocious teenager who is always stumbling into mysteries.

These are light mystery comedies with typical 1930s suspense stories. The mysteries aren't bad, but the comedy really reigns supreme. The books and the movies are like night and day. This was really standard Hollywood practice when they'd bring a detective to radio or film. They'd be far more likely to adapt the character to what was popular at the time rather than take a risk on making a movie based on what made the books work.

Thus Nancy while bright, intelligent, and brave, also makes some klutzy mistakes and can charge in too quickly to danger, making her a typical 1930s heroine.  Other changes are less clear. Why they changed the boyfriend's name from "Ned" to "Ted" I'll never know.

That said, the movies are good fun for what they are, light mysteries with a touch of Screwball comedy. The best of the films is the only one in the public domain: Nancy Drew, Reporter. It features a pretty intriguing plot and the comedy consistently hits with one scene where Nancy, her boyfriend, and two younger kids perform a song to get out of a tight spot in a scene that seems like an inspiration for the 80s cult hit Adventures in Babysitting.

Bottom: All four films are pretty fun but those expecting the straighter mysteries and the super competence of Nancy in the novels may be disappointed.

Rating 3.5 Stars out of 5.0

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8Sep/130

How Not to Play with the Classics

Long time readers of the blog will know from my reviews that certain attempts to  mess with classic stories bug me. Among them was a key change to the plot of ITV's production of Evil Under the Sun
or an earlier British TV version of Father BrownAt the same time, I've given a big thumbs up to the drastically altered ITV production of Appointment with DeathI enjoyed the first season of Sherlock and I'm a big fan of the 1940s Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movies.

So is playing with the classics good or bad?

They can work and can add a layer of new interpretation. However, there are three big reasons that make many altered stories not work:

1) Pointless Changes

This is the big one.  The series that have tampered with classics and have worked have had a point. In the case of Sherlock, it was the idea of putting Sherlock Holmes in the 20th century and re-imagining him growing up in our time rather than in the Victorian Age.

Similarly the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes film basically ends up creating a steampunk world for Holmes to inhabit. I think that the script for Appointment with Death was written with the realities of modern stories of child abuse in mind, with the goal of addressing it in a way that was cathartic and in some ways, redemptive.

We can argue whether they're good but at least there's a point. On the other side of the ledger are the often pointless changes that are made to stories.  The worst offends tend to be those productions that are generally faithful to original.  Their deviations become obvious and more often than not due to the fact that we expect them to be following the story line.  Five Little Pigs is a key example of this. The gun scene at the end was so obviously tacked on that it was distracting. Similarly, the decision to make a darker ending to the end of the 1991 Sherlock Holmes ITV episode, The Disappearance of Lady Frances Fairfax seemed similarly pointless.

There's a legitimate case for producers to decide to do a program that is innovative and plays around with the classic plots. However, slipping these things into stories that are otherwise supposed to be faithful adaptation really doesn't work.

2) Changes that Make Characters Unrecognizable 

At the end of the day,  you can play with plots and characters only so much. The main characters actions must seem consistent with their established personas. Sherlock works because yeah, I can imagine a Sherlock Holmes from General X or Y act like that. One thing that makes Appointment with Death work is that the compassion of Poirot was perfectly believable and in line with how the character acted, often offering himself to young people in distress or headed down the wrong road.

On the other hand, Suchet's portrayal of Poirot in ITV's presentation of Murder on the Orient Express was hard to swallow. The portrayal was so hard boiled that he was practically a Belgian Philip Marlowe. Similarly, I couldn't buy CBS version of Sherlock Holmes in the 2012 series Elementary, who unlike the version of Sherlock didn't ring true as a modern version of Holmes, but seemed more like a rougher edged version of Adrian Monk.

And of course, the 1970s Father Brown series made the mistakes of putting lines into Brown's mouth that might suit a trendy 1970s progressive clergyman but would hardly belong in the mouth of a character created by G.K. Chesterton, the man who literally wrote the book on Orthodoxy

3) Changes that Mess with the Overall Plot:

There are changes that can be made to a story that are quite innocuous. For example, the 1970s film versions of Evil Under the Sun substituted a male character for a female character so that Roddie McDowell could appear in the reole. There was no harm done to the plot by this. But the telefilm version substituted a male  character in another role and it tipped the hand towards what the solution to the case. 

The only thing worse than pointless tinkering is thoughtless tinkering that ruins productions for new fans as well as old.

Even if these three pitfalls are avoided, that doesn't guarantee I'll like the result. I may not really care much for a filmmaker's vision, but I'll least respect them for having one.

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7Sep/130

Book Review: Prisoner’s Base

In Prisoner's Base, a missing heiress shows up at Wolfe's house asking for help while giving no details including her name. She wants Wolfe to hide her, but Wolfe isn't in to taking boarders except for an extravagant $10,000 a month fee. He has Archie throw the woman out and gives her a head start before Wolfe accepts a commission from her attorney to locate her. The heiress leaves and the next day, news of her murder hits.

Archie leaves the Brownstone takes a leave of absence and sets out to solve the case himself as he feels responsible for the woman's death. He quickly finds himself in hot water with the police. While initially remains disinterested, when Lt. Rowcliff hamhandedly drags Wolfe down to headquarters, Wolfe delivers one of his most blistering speeches and declares that he's working for Archie. With no fee in sight and plenty of suspects, Wolfe and Archie have a job on their hands.

If Over My Dead Body represents Wolfe at his most human than certainly Prisoner's Base does the same for Archie. Archie has some great moments in the story as he has to navigate a world of corporate jealousies in order to uncover the truth and bring the killer to justice. Archie deals with the death of not only the heiress, but another woman who died because he followed his advice. The story also gives keen insight into the Archie-Wolfe relationship with Wolfe at his most paternal and wise.

Add in a decent mystery plot and Prisoner's Base is a true classic and one of the best of the Wolfe series.

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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1Sep/130

Telefilm Review: Five Little Pigs

Sixteen years after her mother was convicted of murdering her father and subsequently executed, a young woman asks Poirot to uncover the truth and clear her mother's name.

To do this, Poirot begins a meticulous series of interviews, trying to jog the memories of witnesses and using their stories, he tries to piece together what really happened and to do that he has to cut through people's biases which are as fresh they were when the murders first happened. The story is intriguing, intelligent, and the solution is shocking as perceptions are turned on their head. Suchet gives a sold performance as Poirot and the rest of the cast is well in this first episode not featuring the Poirot "family" of the first-eighth series.

The only downside is the ham-fisted tampering with the plot. They changed the sexuality of one character and added some gunplay at the end. The tampering was obvious and was distracting from the story. Still, Christie's original story was so strong and Suchet's acting so good, that it is still a must-see movie for mystery fans.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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31Aug/130

Radio Drama Review: Powder River, Season Three

The third season of Powder River picks up several months after the second left off and begins in with a noticable change. With son Chad Macmasters (Chad Alerud) gone, Marshall Britt Macmasters (Jerry Robbins) becomes a darker character. He's no longer raising a young son, but drinks hard, and is just a far tougher morose character. Even after Chad returns home in the second episode this remains the case because even though Chad's home, he's basically viewed as full grown man and there's little reason to hold back from his darker impulses.

The first half of the season really continues in the same vein as the second. Chad has gone undercover with the Lucas Clyde gang and become a wanted man. Macmasters along with the rest of the Powder River regulars has to to track down the gang, and this is the central point of the first four episodes of the series, including some interesting twist on how non-vigilante justice was dispensed in the old West.

The fifth episode gave some needed comic relief while also educating as Deputy Clay Tucker (Deniz Cordell) had a toothache and the town's citizens offer suggestions for taking care of it that will make listeners thankful for modern dentistry and then this this leads into the three part series of episodes, "Morgan's Town" which has Powder River's top guns trying to catch a cattle rustler and murderer that committed a murder-that he couldn't possibly have committed. It makes for a nice mystery and plenty of action as they have to go to the town that Morgan owns and controls lock, stock, and barrel in order to gain the evidence they need to convict him.

The second half of the season is different. It seemed to be trying to get away from having nearly every episode involve the chase of the villain of the week.  Unfortunately, the quality of these episodes was decidedly mixed due to airtime given to a new actors who didn't seem to be on the same level as the existing cast and a few plot points that strained credulity.

Perhaps, the most disappointing part of the set was the two part finale which features a crooked saloon owner hoping to take over Claremont. After sizzling finales for Season 1 and 2, this one fizzled. Simply put, the saloon owner wasn't a worthy foe for Britt Macmasters and Sheriff Dawes. The guy was in way over his head and didn't know it. He wasn't a nice person, but unlike Lucas Clyde or Morgan, I didn't think this guy was a threat. In addition, the episode with the relationship or potential relationship between town reporter Sandy Dolan (Diane Capen) which had never really been developed and seems to suffer from no interest at all from Macmasters.

This isn't to say that the second half was without good episodes. "The Bride from the East" was the best episode of the season. It starts out looking to be a lighter episode with Clay having told a girl he was corresponding with that he was a General and trying to rope the town into upholding his outrageous lie. However, when the woman (Kate Manson) arrives, it turns out she has a secret of her own. Manson is superb and the episode is both education and well-written. I also have to say that the two part episode featuring the return of Sam Donato (Sheriff Wilkins from Season One) was fun listening even if there were a couple points that were far fetched.

Despite some stumbles towards the end of the set, as a whole, Season 3 of Powder River works with some good solid exciting stories and some dramatic twists. As both "The Awful Tooth" and "Bridge from the East" show, the series is thoroughly researched, and has an authentic western feel. While not as great as the brilliant Season Two , Season Three is a worthwhile installment for fans of Britt Macmasters and friends.
Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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25Aug/130

Book Review: Farewell, My Lovely

Raymond Chandler's  second novel begins on two seemingly unrelated tracks. A man named Moose Malloy walks into a Black establishment and kills the owner because he's looking for his girl Velma who used to sing at the place when it was a white club. Marlowe does a favor for a police detective because he doesn't have anything else to do and because it can be handy in his line of work for a police detective to owe you a favor. Then when he hits a dead end, he takes a job for a man named Marriott to help him deliver ransom money for a stolen jade necklace and Marriott ends up murdered.

Marlowe goes on a wild ride, gets beat up, knocked out a couple times, drugged all leading to the conclusion of the case. If anything, the book is more cynical than The Big Sleep with crooked cops abounding and a de facto 1940s open marriage. The attitude portrayed towards blacks in the book was sadly stereotypical and if not hostile, was at least indifferent to their plight. In addition, while the dialogue was good, I don't think it was quite as good as the The Big Sleep.

However, even with its faults, it's one of the best detective stories ever written.  If it didn't have a a clever mystery, if it didn't have Marlowe on a scary trip while drugged as a sleazy sanitarium, it would be a great book because of  its characters. They're on every page.  They had depth and nuance, even corrupt Bay City cops, a gambling magnate, a drunk widow, and of course Moose Malloy. You add all the elements together and you have a masterpiece.  Whether it's as good as the Big Sleep, we can argue about, but its a masterpiece none the less.

And of course, Philip Marlowe remains the honest man, the knight who's courage and incorruptibility  make the book work.  In this book, he doesn't do anything near as dramatic as ripping apart his bed when he rebuffed Carmen Sternwood. Here, it's more subtle. In a classic scene, Marlowe is being questioned by a police lieutenant and helps a fly out of the police office and lets it go. At the end of the book, he asks the Lieutenant about the fly and he doesn't know what he's talking about.

It subtly paints a picture of a Marlowe who doesn't quite see the world the same way his contemporaries (even good men) do as they accept corruption as just a matter of course. While Marlowe isn't a crusader, his sense of honor compels him to challenge the corruption that's in front of him.

Except for some offensive racial language, the book really stands the test of time. While Philip Marlowe books are not recommended for kids or very sensitive adult readers, for fans of hard boiled fiction, the book is a must.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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24Aug/130

Review: History of Harry Nile, Set 4

Set 4 of the Adventures of Harry Nile settles into a good rhythm with these adventures set in 1952-54 and having a flawless golden age feel. The series is so right, so good, and so relistenable.

Harry Nile is to 1950s Seattle what characters like Barrie Craig were to New York or Jeff Regan to Los Angeles. French captures the time, the place, and the feel of a great city that just wasn't represented as a consistent locale among writers of golden age detective fiction.

Jim French had clearly become the master of the 20 minute episodes as Harry plows through one case after another with mystery, comedy, and a good dose of suspense. The late Phil Harper is flawless. He's mostly supported by French's wife Pat as Murphy, but also an ensemble cast of local actors appear. However, some bigger names do make an appearance including Russell Johnson (the Professor from Gilligan's Island) and Harry Anderson (Night Court) takes a couple turns, most memorably as the owner of a jazz club facing vandalism and harassment.

The set includes "The Case of the Blue Leather Chair" the only Harry Nile to be broadcast live. In addition, many were recorded live before a studio audience, who are heard throughout the production. The most amazing thing about these stories is that they were recorded in the 1990s, at a time when most people thought radio drama was a lost art. However, the Frenches and Harper showed that the formula worked: good writing and professional acting can make magic in the theater of the mind, even in 1990s Seattle. Even for a detective like...Harry Nile.

Purchasing Information:

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

The History of Harry Niles, Set 3  (along with Sets 1,2  and 4-6) 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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