Category: Golden Age Article

Book Review: Except the Dying

Except the Dying is the first of Maureen Jennings’ novels featuring Detectives William Murdoch, a Victorian-era Toronto police detective. Three of Jennings’ novels would be adapted as made-for-TV movies and a TV series would be filmed based on characters from the book.

Except the Dying is quite different from the popular TV series. It’s a straightforward procedural mystery without the bells, whistles, and flaws that define the TV series such as guest appearances from historical personages, new (to the Victoria era) investigative techniques and gadgets being deployed to solve cases and characters with cultural attitudes that no one living at that time had.

Acting Detective William Murdoch is called to investigate the case of a woman found dead and stripped nude. The post-mortem examination reveals she was pregnant and died of exposure after taking a large amount of opium. Murdoch has to discover who killed her and why.

This is is a well-crafted procedural mystery. Murdoch is given lots of suspects and a few red herrings to sift through. Jennings does a great job capturing a sense of life in Toronto in the late Nineteenth Century. It captures all the religious and economic complexities that Toronto had to offer. The story has a grounded and realistic feel to it.

As a character, Murdoch is written in a three dimensional way. He’s intelligent, a Catholic, and learning to dance in hopes of getting an opportunity to meet women again after the recent death of his fiancée. He’s a good cop, but he’s no genius. The rest of the characters are not deep, but they do feel authentic and believable for the era.

Readers looking for a cozy mystery should not expect this book to have a family-friendly feeling. Crimes and vice are described realistically with some violent scenes and harsh words and the case leads Murdoch into contact with ladies of the night. However, while the book is realistic, it’s neither gory or salacious.

Overall, Except the Dying is a solid first novel, a good procedural, and a fine introduction to Jennings’ famous detective.

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Audio Drama Review: Jago and Litefoot Forever

Jago and Litefoot was one of the finest speculative fiction audio drama series ever made. It featured veteran actors Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter in the leading roles of theater impresario Henry Gordon Jago and pathologist Professor George Litefoot. The two first played the roles in the 1977 Doctor Who Story, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” and were first reunited in the one-off pilot story, “The Mahogany Murderers.” We’ve discussed the series in depth before.

Baxter’s death in 2017 meant the end of the series, which had finished its 13th series on a cliffhanger.

Jago and Litefoot Forever offers fans one last chance to say goodbye. The aftermath of Series Thirteen was resolved through exposition by Jago. Professor Litefoot has disappeared. Jago looks for him with the help of old friends but finds his memory starting to fade. The plot has some nice twists and a few red herrings thrown in to keep the listener guessing. For Jago and Litefoot, the plot is about average, though with some high points in it.

Much of the running time is taken up by flashback scenes as Jago and other characters recall past adventures. Professor Litefoot is given a part in the proceedings by copying dialogue from previous stories into this one. Writer Paul Morris went through the more than sixty scripts that’d been performed over the years to find lines he could give the Professor. The unavoidable flaw with this approach is that often Litefoot’s delivery feels unnatural to the context of the play.

With the use of clips and previously recorded dialogue, the cynic might compare this to Trail of the Pink Panther, the critically panned sixth Pink Panther film made after star Peter Sellers died. Trail used clips of previous Pink Panther movies and outtakes from previous films. It’s a point that producer David Richardson addresses in the extras. Despite the superficial similarity, Jago and Litefoot is something entirely different.

The writing is still solid, if not remarkable. Other than the somewhat awkward use of Baxter’s old lines, the production values remain high. The release succeeds as a tribute to Baxter and to the series with the return of several beloved guest stars, including Doctor Who Actor Colin Baker and Louise Jameson (who played the Fourth Doctor’s companion Leela). The ending also serves as a nice capstone for the series.

The release comes with some nice extras. The CD release includes the first CD release of the Jago and Litefoot short story, “The Jago and Litefoot Revival”  which is read by Baxter and Benjamin. It tells of the two Victorian Adventurers meeting with the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors from the revived series. The behind-the-scenes extras include interviews with all the principles. The extras give insight into the making of the release as well as what would have been in the Fourteenth Series. There’s also a lovely variation on the theme by composer Jamie Robertson.

Jago and Litefoot Forever was made with obvious love and respect for the series. It’s not intended for new listeners. However, for long-time fans, it provides a chance to properly say goodbye to a great series and is definitely worth a listen.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

The series exclusively at BigFinish.com through the end of the month.

TV Series Review: Banacek

A version of this review appeared five years ago

More than a decade prior to becoming universally associated with the character of Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, George Peppard played Thomas Banacek, a Boston-based, Polish proverb-spouting insurance investigator. He made a comfortable living solving cases the insurance company couldn’t crack and collecting ten percent of the insurance company’s savings.

The series aired from 1972-74 and it focused on classic impossible mysteries. How does a football player on the field disappear in front of thousands of fans? How does a million dollars in cash vanish from behind a locked display case? How does $23 million in paintings vanish from a truck transporting it?

Banacek takes no case where the missing item is less than a million dollars in value. While a murder usually happens in the course of the investigation, it’s not guaranteed. The focus is on the big property crime, not on violence.

Banacek was part of NBC’s Mystery wheel, so its original running time with commercials was 90 minutes, with the shows themselves running a shade over 70 minutes in length. This allows for plenty of development, particularly in the early episodes, without a lot of fluff. A grand total of thirteen episodes were released.

Throughout the series, Peppard was supported by Ralph Manza who provided the comic relief as Banacek’s chauffeur and erstwhile sidekick. Manza’s character would occasionally take a crack at the solution that would be invariably offbase. Murray Mattheson played Felix Mulhol, a bookstore store owner that seemed to know everything about everything.

Banacek was portrayed as God’s gift to women, at least those who weren’t looking for a serious relationship. Among the Banacek women was future Lois Lane Margo Kidder. However, scenes in bed were avoided throughout the series, as mere verbal hints were all that would be allowed.

The second season did see some changes. In the first season, the insurance company was more than happy to hand over six-digit checks in order to avoid seven-digit losses. However, in the second season, an insurance company exec tried to thwart Banacek with the help one of his own investigator Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford) who tried to maintain an on-again, off-again romance with Banacek while trying to beat him out of his exorbitant fees.

This was a bad move, as it tampered with the show’s dynamic, slowed down the stories, and didn’t add anything to the plot. Kirkland wasn’t particularly likable. In one story, she wormed her way into an investigation, asking to learn from Banacek while on a leave of absence from the company and then tried to sell him out to her insurance company. The character didn’t appear in the last two episodes of the second season since the episodes were set outside of Boston.

The second season disc for Banacek contains the original pilot which shows a bit of the original conception. In the original conception, Banacek only worked cold cases that hadn’t been solved in sixty days and the executive commented on how much money the insurance company has squandered on investigators’ pay and expenses searching for millions of dollars in gold. Perhaps this is why the producers went with a format where Banacek came on with a promise of reward soon after the items were stolen. It made more economic sense. In the case in the pilot, they ended up out all the money they paid the investigators plus the reward.

Peppard played Banacek differently in the pilot. He was a quieter, less flip character. He spent a good fifteen minutes straight on screen at one point saying nothing. He spoke with conviction, explaining why he didn’t change his last name to something less obviously Polish.

Jay and Carlie were also in the pilot. Jay was quite different. He owned a limo rental business based in Dallas rather than being Banacek’s employee and simply drove him around. He also pulled a classic doublecross when he bribed the operator to listen in to Banacek’s phone call and overheard a key clue which he used in hopes of collecting the reward. Definitely a different conception than the loyal, albeit dimwitted character who’d appear in the rest of the series.

Overall thoughts:

Banacek is certainly not an essential mystery series. Unlike Columbo, Poirot, or Monk, Banacek is one of those shows you can take or leave.

Peppard is at his best as the wise-cracking detective who stays one step ahead of cops and official insurance investigators while hunting down items of unbelievable value.

The first season is a well-performed series with great mysteries, solid plots, and great solutions. The second season has too much airtime taken up by Carlie Kirkland and that drags down the stories. Still, even that season has the great entry, “If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn’t He Tell Us Where He Is?” as well as the fairly good, “Rocket to Oblivion.”

Overall, I’d give the series three 3.5 stars out of 5.0 with Season 1 getting 4 stars and season 2 getting a 3.

In terms of availability, Banacek is a hard series to lay your hands on. The season sets are out of print. Last time, I recommended a bargain best of Banacek DVD with six episodes on it and that’s also gone out of print. I watched it originally through Netflix’s DVD rental service. but Netflix no longer carries it. If your local library doesn’t own it, viewing the series may come at a premium that could price it out for anyone but diehard fans until a new printing is done.

 

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Audio Drama Review: Black Jack Justice Season Three

Season Three of Black Jack Justice features six half hour episodes and finds the team in a fairly well-established routine with Jack (Christopher Mott) and Trixie (Andrea Lyons) joined by the office dog, King.

The types of cases they solve this season are far from unheard of, yet the series is enjoyable due to their great sense of style.

The season opens up with, “Payback” where Jack is determined to solve a murder case that led to him getting thrown into jail for thirty days and to get payback on the client who caused the incarceration.

“Sabian’s Law” finds Jack and Trixie on opposite sides as Trixie would rather lose a reward to the firm than have to deal with the indignity of losing a bet to Jack, which leads to an unlikely team up with their police foe Lieutenant Sabian. “Trixie’s Pet” finds Trixie getting the firm involved in investigating a case where Button Down Theo, an operative for the big detective firm in town, has landed himself in trouble.

“The Reunion” finds Jack and Trixie trying to help a wealthy widow facilitate a meeting between her and her estranged twin sister.

“Much Ado About Norman” has the two searching for their emotional client, because they fear he’s about to do something stupid, rash, and illegal.

The season concludes with, “Dance, Justice, Dance” which opens with Jack and Trixie in a firefigh. Then Jack reveals the true version of the oft-misquoted statement, “Music soothes the savage beast,” before explaining how they got a job protecting musicians who got a contract with a big casino along with anonymous warnings that they might not live to fulfill it.

There’s not a bad episode in the bunch and each has its own unique features that make for fun listening. “The Reunion” may have been the best mystery of the season. I also loved the more character-driven nature of “Much Ado About Norman.” And “Dance, Justice, Dance” has a great bit of world-weary narration, particularly the ending.

The sound effects continue to be a bit dodgy. This could be heard during the gunfight in the finale. Other than that, though, the third season of Black Jack Justice was quite a delight.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Listen to Season 3 of Black Jack Justice for free at the Decoder Ring Theater website.

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Book Review: Three for the Chair

This review was originally published August 27, 2011.

While shopping in the thrift store, I found a 1968 Bantam Paperback copy of Three for the Chair, a 1957 compilation of three Nero Wolfe novellas. While the book was not my planned next Nero Wolfe read, I decided to grab it cheap and enjoy the book.

Each story in this book will be reviewed in its own right.

A Window for Death

A man left his family under a cloud of suspicion and then made a fortune in mining. He returns home and apparently dies of natural causes. Members of the family aren’t so sure, and are suspicious of the man’s partner who inherited the entire mining interest. Wolfe is hired to determine whether there is enough to call the police in.

This story is very workmanlike. There’s little action. The majority of the story involves Wolfe questioning witnesses in the Brownstone and the rest involves Archie doing so outside. No added deaths occur and there are no real plot twists. Inspector Cramer does not appear in the story. A Window for Death ends with Wolfe composing a note to him. Still, the actual solution is pretty clever.

Rating: Satisfactory

Immune to Murder

At the request of an Assistant Secretary of State, Wolfe leaves the comfort of the Brownstone for a rustic fishing resort to help with sensitive oil negotiations by cooking fish for the ambassador who had specifically requested Wolfe. Wolfe hates the locale and plans to leave after lunch. Wolfe’s plans are upset when Archie discovers the Assistant Secretary of State lying dead in stream.

The potential suspects include members of a diplomatic delegation who are immune to prosecution and two rich oil magnates. The District Attorney suggests absurdly that Archie was there as a hired assassin. The truth doesn’t come out until the murderer does something that insults Wolfe’s vanity.

This story was adapted for television on a Nero Wolfe Mystery as the last episode and was panned by fans. In my opinion, there was nothing wrong with either the episode or the story. It was, however unfortunate to make this the last episode. We had none of the familiar supporting characters that fans loved, plus in the context of a final episode, the solution was unsatisfying. However, in the context of a Nero Wolfe reading binge, the story represents a nice change of pace.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Too Many Detectives

Thanks to Archie’s interest in learning about wiretapping, Wolfe agrees to help a man tap his own phone. Later, Wolfe learns he was duped and the man who hired him didn’t own the phone being tapped.

Wolfe’s embarrassment is deepened when he’s summoned to Albany and forced to endure a long car ride to discuss the matter. Wolfe and Archie find several other detectives waiting.

When it’s their turn to testify, they learn the man who fooled them claimed they knew the wiretap was illegal. When it was time for the phony client to testify, he’s found dead, and Wolfe and Archie are arrested as material witnesses.

While Archie and Wolfe are released on bail, they can’t leave the jurisdiction, a situation Wolfe can’t tolerate. The only way out is for Wolfe to find the killer.

Wolfe compares notes with the other detectives and finds all but one of them was taken in by the same scheme as Wolfe. Wolfe then gets all six detectives to share every available operative back in New York City to solve the case, leading to a surprising and satisfying solution.

This story is notable for featuring Dol Bonner. Ms. Bonner had appeared in her own novel in 1937 and also appeared in a Tecumseh Fox novel. She and Wolfe got along well which had Archie nervous. He figured Bonner was that rare woman Wolfe could actually fall for. Archie even imagines a situation where Archie, Wolfe, Bonner, and Bonner’s assistant Sally Colt are all in the Brownstone solving cases together. Thus, even great authors have intriguing ideas occur to them which, if tried, would wreck their franchise.

As an aside, the story makes me curious to read Stout’s Dol Bonner novel.

As for Too Many Detectives, it was truly a good use of an hour and deserving of a:

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Overall rating for the Collection: Very Satisfactory

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