Category: Golden Age Article

Book Review: Mycroft Holmes


What was Mycroft Holmes like as a young man? What events made him the man he became? His more famous brother once said he “was the British government.” He was a behind-the-scenes player who set the pace for national security foreign policy, while founding and running a social club for the anti-social known as the Diogenes Club.

This is the topic of Basketball Legend Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Anne Waterhouse’s novel Mycroft Holmes. The book begins with Mycroft Holmes as a young man working at the foreign office, engaged to marry a beautiful woman. He’s best friends with Douglas, a native of Trinidad who secretly owns the finest tobacconist shop in London. Douglas pretends to be an employee of two white shopkeepers who pretend to run it in order to avoid the prejudices of the time. When children began mysteriously dying in Trinidad, Mycroft’s fiancée (whose family has a plantation there) takes off for the island and tells him not to follow. He, however, joins Douglas and departs for the Island to aide her and find out what he can do to help her and stop the trouble.

The novel is superbly researched. Abdul-Jabaar traces his heritage backs to Trinidad and the book reflects a broad knowledge of the island, its history, and the various sub-cultures that are part of it. The book’s plot deals with issues of slavery and race but rarely comes across as if we’re reading a modern-day screed on the topic. Much of it is told as simply what happened, with any sentiments being expressed being believable for people living in the Victorian era.

The book has pacing that’s appropriate to a novel set in this era. The pacing is never glacial but the book isn’t afraid to take its time, to paint a vivid picture, and to show the action’s development. As for the story itself, it’s a bit more action than it is a mystery.

At the heart of the book is Mycroft’s relationship to Douglas. In many ways, Douglas is Mycroft’s Watson. He’s not a genius, but he’s steady, reliable, courageous, and street smart. The dynamic is different because, as the book starts, Douglas is a 40-year-old man of the world, while Mycroft is a brilliant young man in his twenties who is, in many ways, naïve about the ways of the world. The book is a coming-of-age story for him.

Of course, no Holmes book would be complete without Sherlock playing a role in it, in some way. In Mycroft Holmes, it’s limited to a couple of brief cameos that offer a compelling take on the two brothers’ relationship. The book manages to be true to who the characters have been established to be in canon while showing just enough of brotherly warmth between them.

There are a ton of pastiches about Sherlock Holmes and friends. Many of them are awful. If you’re a little bit skeptical and wonder if a basketball player could write one of the good ones, wonder no more., Mycroft Holmes is a superb novel and a great origin story for the Greatest Detective’s big brother.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: The Last Detective Series 2

Police Constable “Dangerous” Davies (Peter Davison) returns for four more mysteries.

Overall, the series improved both in the quality of the writing and the quality of the cases given to Davies. His professional life is on the upswing as he does seem to be gaining some grudging respect from his boss.

At the same time, his personal life takes a hit. He has to temporarily vacate his rooming house and move in with his friend Mod (Sean Hughes). This creates tension in a relationship that’s mainly been supportive in Series 1. In addition, his estranged wife continues to be horrid. They’re separated, yet she calls him over to complete household repairs and to take the family dog at her convenience. She dates other men and tells him about it. She ignores him when he puts up clear hints that this is hurtful. She gets annoyed when he doesn’t want to hear details about the man she’s going to Paris with for the Easter Holiday.

Despite his griefs, at work Dangerous gets his killer in four separate cases:

Christine: Davies investigates the unexplained death of a lottery winner. The lottery winner had a trophy wife and a mentally challenged Haitian boy as his ward. This one is a good case. The character of Christine, the dead man’s wife, is fascinating. She’s dishonest and evasive, but why? We slowly come to understand her as the episode goes on. It’s a great character story and a good mystery to boot. Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Long Bank Holiday: Davies has plans for the long Easter Holiday weekend while trying to help a local pharmacist, called a chemist in this show from Britain. Davies comes across numerous humans remains on the chemist’s property. Most of the department is busy processing the crime scene. This leaves him to solve several cases all on his own. Several of them interlink.

This one leaves me with mixed feelings. On one hand, I can appreciate the cleverness of the story. On the other hand, this is almost too clever. The story is far too busy and has way too many plotlines for a 70 minute TV show. A nice show, but it’s a bloated story. Rating: 3/5

Benefit to Mankind: Dangerous goes in for assertiveness training. On anyone else, it would lead to the character going too far and becoming a jerk. Davies is so non-assertive, it just helps him to show a healthy degree of assertiveness that’s required for the job and his personal life. In one case, he demands his wife give him his turn with the family dog. She typically only lets him have the dog when she doesn’t want it. The mystery will require the assertiveness as Davies investigates the apparent suicide of a researcher. Davies is stonewalled at every turn by the owners of the research firm. This episode is fun. The only dumb part is Mod’s awkward attempt to attract the attention of the woman teaching the assertiveness class. Rating: 4/5

Dangerous and the Lonely Hearts: Davies is called in to investigate when a young girl refuses to speak and can’t be identified. He discovers that she’s a refugee and locates the girl’s mother only to find her murdered. The best clue Davies has is the mother’s involvement in a lonely hearts club. He discovers one of the men she’d dated was his boss. The mystery is good and the story also features Davies trying to express his feelings to his wife in a beautifully acted scene by Peter Davison. The one big problem with the episode is that a character attempts suicide. This serves as a red herring but it’s never adequately explained. Rating: 4/5

Overall, this series isn’t perfect, but I thoroughly enjoyed these episodes and they’re definitely worth a watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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A Look at Our Miss Brooks

Our Miss Brooks is the most popular and beloved of the post-War sitcoms, airing from 1948-57. It was on television from 1952-56 and came to theaters. The television version lacks an official DVD release, so only a few public domain episodes are easily available. We’ll be focusing on the radio version.

The series began in 1948, focusing on Connie Brooks, an underpaid English teacher at Madison High School who was a boarder in the House of Miss Davis. The series covers Brooks’  troubles with an authoritarian principal and trying to win the man she’s in love with, bashful biologist Philip Boynton.

Originally, Shirley Booth was chosen to star and a pilot was recorded featuring her, but she wasn’t a good fit. Eve Arden won the starring role and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part. She had a great sense of comedic timing and near perfect delivery, always generating a laugh at the right time. In addition to her relationship frustrations, Miss Brooks was beset by financial problems. And, again, Principal Osgood Conklin’s  constant demands went above and beyond any reasonable interpretation of her job description.

Conklin was played by Gale Gordon and his character makes the series what it is. Conklin is an authoritarian and a bit of an egotist. He strictly enforces all rules, including ones he himself ignores. A character like this could become obnoxious, yet Gordon makes him fun. He has signature lines, such as the most incredulous of, “Oh you do…” to someone whose opinion he thinks is preposterous. He also has a classic delayed reaction where he goes on calmly for several seconds before realizing what someone said and responding.

Conklin was humanized a bit. He often suffered from Miss Brooks’ accident-prone nature. By the end of most episodes, Conklin has got his comeuppance, which makes for good catharsis.

Mr. Boynton was played from 1948-53 by Jeff Chandler and thereafter by the Robert Rockwell, who played the role on television. Boynton is a biology teacher and tone-deaf to romance. He likes Miss Brooks but doesn’t express it even though they date quite a bit. He’s cheap and rarely pays for anything with Miss Brooks. His idea of a hot date is a trip to the zoo. He’s obsessed with his biology animals and will often demur on more exciting opportunities.

Miss Brook’s landlady Mrs. Davis (Jane Morgan) serves as a warm, supportive figure who is hilariously absentminded. Walter Denton (Richard Crenna) is a squeaky-voiced teenager who lavishes Miss Brooks with praise and frequently drives her to school. He’s also a representative of the students and often locks horns with Mr. Conklin.

Harriet Conklin (Gloria McMillan) rounds out the regulars as Conklin’s daughter and Walter’s girlfriend. She was level-headed, intelligent, and kind. Major recurring characters included Miss Enright (Mary Jane Croft), a fellow English teacher who was a rival for Mr, Boynton’s affections. Most of her episodes featured an entertaining verbal catfight between her and Miss Brooks. Stretch Snodgrass (Leonard Smith) was a stereotypical “dumb jock” but a well-realized one, always managing to create laughs through his malapropisms and his inability to keep anything straight. Gerald Mohr played at least two different French Teachers in order to be stereotypically French and romantic.

The stories are standard sitcom fare that relies on the characters and the cast’s chemistry in order to make the plots work. The stories reflect the culture of the times and the expectation of teachers to maintain a high moral standard. Mr. Conklin would sometimes take this to excess and raise concerns about Miss Brooks and Mr. Boynton’s “fraternization.” However, they’d been dating for at least five years and still addressed each other as Miss Brooks and Mr. Boynton even away from work. They were far above most people’s standards. The series reflects a more innocent time in entertainment.

The show does have its weaknesses. Many episodes require Miss Brooks and company to convince people of an outrageous whopper of a lie. The problem is the lies are so outlandish and the deception has such low consequence for the truth coming out, the show comes off as dumb rather than funny.

In addition, the series doesn’t have the heart of many other productions from the same era. Unlike The Life of Riley or The Great Gildersleeve, characters in Our Miss Brooks, never have any regrets about their actions, nor do they have heartwarming moments. The story remains a comedy all the way through each episode. While comedies should focus mostly on the funny, the lack of any emotional moments or regrets makes the characters more shallow and harder to relate to.

Still, despite its issues, the series works due to its funny situations and Arden and Gordon’s unerring timing and delivery. It is one of radio’s true classic sitcoms.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

180 Episodes of Our Miss Brooks are available here.

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Graphic Novel Review: Jazz Age Chronicles, Volume 1

This black and white comic book collection features two stories set in the 1920s. Both feature Private Detective Ace Mifflin, a Boston-based Private Detective. He has many of the same vices as Sam Spade, but isn’t quite as good as Spade. Though he is good enough to get the job done in most cases.

In the first case, “The Case of the Beguiling Baroness,” Mifflin is hired to keep tabs on a baroness. A secret society is interested in her because of her dabbling in the black arts. When she dies, it’s just the start of the case. This one’s an intriguing mystery and a bit of a genre mash-up between a traditional private detective story and the strange tales featured in the Doc Savage and the Shadow pulp magazines. This one works okay, but Mifflin’s role in this is a bit confused. He’s out of his element, and the hero is supposed to be Clifton Jennings, who hired him. This one could have worked better.

The second case is, “Vote Early, Vote Often.” Mifflin gets in trouble, gets his license suspended, and runs into a whole lot of political corruption. All as he tries to help a friend get free of a murder charge. It’s a good noirish story with a neat mystery to unravel. Mifflin works far better in this story and he is in his element. Of the two tales in the book, I preferred this one more.

Overall, this is a decent graphic novel collection and a nice read if you’re a fan of 1920s’ detective and pulp fiction stories.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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DVD Review: Father Dowling Season Three


After a TV movie and two partial seasons, ABC gave the Father Dowling Mysteries a regular season of 22 episodes in 1990-91.

The same cast of regulars from Season 2 returned with Father Frank Dowling (Tom Boswell), Sister Steve (Tracy Nelson) investigating mysteries and Father Prestwick (James Stephens) and housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) providing comic relief.

The series maintained a pleasant, family friendly voice tone with likable characters. Steve does a lot of undercover work and handles most tasks well, but you don’t get the impression she’s unrealistically super competent in everything like during Season One.

Some of the past seasons had episodes that could more rightly be called “adventures”  than “mysteries,” but these are true mysteries. The plots are thought-out but never too intricate.

The one thing I did miss from Season Two was the little touches that made Father Dowling and Sister Steve seem more like a real Catholic priest and nun. Except as discussed below, they don’t do anything to cut against that idea other than the fact that the two can always run off to investigate a mystery.

My favorite episodes of this season is, “The Christmas Mystery.” It’s a nice mystery with a few suspect twists, but it’s a fun Christmas treat and there aren’t enough good Christmas mysteries out there. In, “The Moving Target Mystery,” a contract killer comes into Father Dowling’s confessional and confesses he was hired to kill him. He is backing out because he won’t kill a priest but somebody else will. It’s a good set up for a story.

The “Fugitive Priest Mystery,” finds Father Dowling on the run thanks to his evil twin Blaine, and he has to clear his name and find out what Blaine’s up to. “The Hard-Boiled Mystery,” is my favorite episode of the season. Father Dowling goes to have words with a writer who decided to write a story based on Father Dowling. It’s set during the 1930s with Dowling as a hard-boiled priest-detective. We flash from the present to the hard-boiled detective scenes and they’re absolutely hilarious.

On the downside,  some stories just didn’t work. After having an angel in Season 2, the writers decided, “How about having Father Dowling encounter the devil?” Thus we were given, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery.” What we get is a Hollywood version of the devil who is defeated by a plot ripped off from, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” The story introduces an older brother for Steve and contradicts a previous season’s story featuring Steve’s younger brother. Further, it has the characters acting really out of character. It’s the worst episode of the series.

“The Consulting Detective Mystery,” is a bit of clunker. Father Dowling makes a deduction as to who committed a crime. He’s wrong, leading to an innocent ex-con losing his job. This leads to Sherlock Holmes appearing in order to restore Father Dowling’s confidence. It’s not a great setup and the actor playing Holmes doesn’t work. It’s not as bad as, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Mystery,”  but it’s weak and poorly executed.

The rest of the box set is serviceable and fun. Father Dowling was never a big budget show, and it never featured television’s most clever mystery writers. It was a show you could enjoy with the whole family. Another reviewer described the show as “cute,” and I’ll go with that. This season, in particular, features Father Dowling and Sister Steve working to save a cute zoo monkey framed for murder. It’s easy viewing with a bit of nostalgia for simpler times thrown into the deal.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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