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

12Oct/130

Radio Drama Review: Fort Laramie

Fort Laramie  came to radio in 1956 in the midst of both the decline of radio and the rise of the adult Western on both radio and television that began with Gunsmoke and featured such programs as The Six Shooter and Have Gun Will Travel.

The program centers around Lee Quince (Raymond Burr in the series, John Dehner in the pilot) a Captain of Cavalry assigned to B Company at Fort Laramie under the command of Major Daggett (Jack Moyles). Their job is simple: keep the peace by enforcing the treaty and avoiding a war with local Indian tribes.

The series sets a high standard for realism on every level.  It takes a look at life on an old West fort from so many different perspectives. What happens when the company payroll is delayed? How are outbreaks treated? What type of people joined the Cavalry during this time? What would life be like for a widow of a soldier or for a young wife married to an officer and unused to the rigors of the West? The series uses thorough research, mixed a solid imagination, and good human drama to create memorable scripts.

The ugly reality of war is portrayed. The series is brutally honest about the terror of falling into the hands of Indians. In one episode, a woman talks about using a gun to defend herself but saving the last bullet for herself to avoid being captured by cruel Indian tribes. At the same time, the series also shows the prejudice, neglect, and in one case, outright insane slaughter that was heaped on Native Americans. The series keeps in balance.

The cast of the show is great. This series is Raymond Burr's only starring role over radio. Usually he played heavies, but he shines as the experienced, sly, and Indian-wise hero. He's ably supported by Moyles, the former star of Rocky Jordan Vic Perrin as the veteran enlisted man Sergeant Gorce, and Harry Bartel as the green Lieutenant Siberts.

With such a talented cast, Director Norm Macdonnell was able to do some interesting things. For the first half of the series, Quince was constantly cutting down the inexperienced naivete  of Siberts until Daggett called Quince out and said he was going to ruin Siberts, which forced Quince to address his own bad attitude and get Siberts to feel free to relax. This was really not the type of topic you'd see discussed with two ongoing characters a series in the 1950s.

However, the show dealt with a lot of very human issues, not all of them dark and serious. There were the humorous episodes that brought lighter touch. What made them work well was that these humorous shows were not thrown in randomly. They'd often come before  a very dark and serious episode,  as if to deepen the emotional impact of the next week's show.

Like many shows from the mid-1950s, the programs that survive are in wonderful condition, making for great listening.

The full run was done by Andrew Rhynes as a podcast over at the Old Radio Westerns and is definitely worth a listen.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars.

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6Oct/130

Telefilm Review: Death on the Nile

This was third episode in the ninth series of Poriot films starring David Suchet and was originally broadcast in 2004. It finds Poirot on vacation in the Middle East and embarking on a cruise down the Nile. However, all is not well. A wealthy American heiress stole her best friend's fiance and married. The jilted woman decides to spitefully haunt the young married couple's Honeymoon which was the same Honeymoon played by she and her former lover. Poirot attempts to intervene but tragedy escalated. The groom is shot and wounded by his ex-lover and the bride is found murdered. The most likely suspect has a perfect alibi.

With this Poirot begins his investigations and more bodies drop until Poirot gives a solution that turns everything the audience understood about the love triangle and other passengers on its head.

The film is brilliantly acted and filmed through out and an incredible adaptation of an incredible story. Naturally, I mentally compared to the Peter Ustinov film version and found it to be a draw. Both featured great lead actors, and a decent cast. Both deliniated from the original story to similar degrees though in slightly different ways. The biggest difference may be between the casts. For my money, I'll take David Niven from the Ustinov movie over James Fox from the ITV story. Though, there is a case to be made that Angela Lansbury took her role of Salome Otterbourne over the top in the 1970s version and so the performance of Frances De La Tour may be preferable. Both versions are just extraordinary works that actually make you want to read the book if you haven't.

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5Oct/130

Book Review: Champagne for One

In Champagne for One, while attending a dinner party held for unwed mother at the home of a prominent socialite, Archie witnesses the death of one of the mother's attending the party, one who had been known to be carrying vile of poison. Archie had been made aware of this and was watching the girl and swore she didn't put anything in her glass, making it a murder.

Wolfe ends up hired by one of the attendees to protect him from exposure as the father of the dead woman's child by exposing the murderer first. The mystery itself actually quite satisfied. There are plenty of secrets to be uncovered and a lot of layers to make this mystery.

Socially, it's interesting because it was written on the cusp of the sexual revolution. Archie is at one point scandalized by a woman who has had two children out of wedlock and at another things a 31-year old man who expects to marry a virgin an old fogey before his time.

Overall, this a good solid story, not one of my favorites but still easily merits a rating of:

Satisfactory

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

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28Sep/130

Radio Drama Review: The Thinking Machine

The period between Sherlock Holmes and the coming of iconic characters such as Hercules Poirot, Nick Charles, Philip Marlowe, and Nero Wolfe is littered with a series of mostly forgotten detectives. One of these Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen created by Jacques Futrelle. Van Dusen appeared in one novel and fifty short stories between his creation in 1905 and the tragic death of Futrelle aboard the board the Titanic in 1912.  Colonial Radio Theatre has brought Van Dusen back to life in its new series, The Thinking Machine.

In the early 20th Century were viewed primarily as puzzles and the two mysteries in the first volume of stories released by Colonial falls firmly into this category and they're quite good puzzles: "The Problems of Dressing Room A" deals with an impossible disappearance from an actress from backstage during a performance in attire that could hardly be worn on the street. The second, "The Phantom Motor" deals with a motor car that impossibly disappears when passing between two police officers across a road known as, "The Trap."

Professor Van Dusen (Lincoln Clark) is a genius (which he'll gladly let you know) but he is not a detective. His process for solving mysteries is not so much deduction as thinking through the problem and finding a way to the solution. That's one of the great highlights of the stories is how Van Dusen and newspaper reporter Hutchinson Hatch will hash out nearly all conceivable solutions with incisive and clever logic. Then Van Dusen thinks through a way to find the solution that most of the professionals have missed.

If there's a downside to the production, it's this: Van Dusen, like  many amateur detectives during this period,  knew they were smarter and better than you and had no qualms about letting others know it. In the early 20th century, readers were kind of tolerant of this as long as the detective  got the job done.  We live in an age where really don't like people being better than us, and we certainly don't like them making a point of it. Hercule Poirot has this problem to an extent but he makes up for it with a ton of charm. Van Dusen has no such endearing qualities. With Clark's solid acting, the character could grow on listeners, but with only two mysteries in this first set, it's kind of hard to gauge how successful he could be.

However, Clark ad the rest of the cast are solid, showcasing the high production values I've come to expect from Colonial Radio Theater. Overall, these are well- acted well-produced puzzle mysteries that's worth a listen particularly if you're curious about forgotten detectives of the early 20th cenury.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0

Disclosure note: The reviewer received a free review copy for an honest review of this production.

The Thinking Machine is available as an audible download here.

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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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