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TV Mini-Series Review: The Escape Artist

In the 2013 BBC Mini-series The Escape Artist, Will Burton (David Tennant), a British barrister who has never lost a case, takes on the task of defending Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), a man accused of a heinous crime. Burton is able to get Foyle off but soon finds his family in Foyle’s crossfire.

David Tennant turns in a fine performance as Will Burton. Burton is likable, earnest, and caring. He’s a man doing a job he’s a good at and you never feel he crosses a line. The mini-series is stylish enough and has good moments. Also, several members of the cast pull off their roles quite well including Toby Kebbell as Foyle.

The degree to which you enjoy this is largely the degree to which you can view the British Justice system as horribly broken and the minions of the law as hopelessly incompetent. The Crown manages to lose three murder cases through a sheer force of incompetence as they fail to check a computer history before going into court and accusing the defendant of being a consumer of revenge porn, failing to fill out the search warrant form properly, and failing to properly examine the body, all while running a crime lab that invites defense challenges. While Will Burton is supposed to be some sort of genius, we really don’t see it until Part 3 as the Police and prosecutors manage to defeat themselves quite nicely.

The character of fellow barrister Maggie Gardener (Sophie Okonedo) is hard to even get a handle on. Her defense in Foyle’s second murder trial is understandable despite her obvious distaste for the man. Her actions at the end of Part 3 are .simply inexplicable and only done so that one can uncover what actually happened. After all, what good is it having a clever protagonist if no one knows how clever he's been?

Overall, if you can enjoy the music and Tennant’s performance and not focus on the plot holes, the Escape Artist is a decent but certainly not great British thriller.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

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Five Golden Age Radio Programs to Remember

Today, we finish up the first five years of the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio podcast

Over the course of five years, we've played a lot of programs. Beginning with a Monday-Friday lineup before expanding to Saturdays in January 2013, the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio had a lot of stability Wednesday-Friday with Let George Do It and Sherlock Holmes airing on Wednesday and Thursday for our first 3 1/2-4 years.

Beyond these two long time stables, there were several series that were fun and enjoyable. With new listeners coming along every month, and our RSS feeds limited, even though we've played these shows, it’s possible that some of our listeners have missed them. So we present a list five lesser known but still quite enjoyable shows that have marked these last five years.

1) The Adventures of the Abbots (1955)
Episodes Played: 18
What it’s about: Pat Abbott, a ritzy San Francisco private investigator solves cases with the aid of his lovely wife, Jean.
Features: Two different Pat Abbotts (Les Damon and Mandel Kramer) Good writing with a more mature bent. Also Claudia Morgan turns in a magnificent performance as Pet.
Best Episode: The Dead White Flame

2) A Life in Your Hands (1949-50, 1952)
Episodes Played: 13
What It’s About: A successful lawyer, who is set for life financially, dedicates his life to finding the truth in cases as an Amicus Curiae, a friend of the court who acts for neither prosecutor or defense to find the truth in legal proceeding including trials and coroner's juries.
Features: Two different Jonathan Keggs, the definition of Amicus Curiae (numerous times). The closest thing to a true legal mystery drama in Old time radio.
Best Episode: Carol Carson Murdered

3) The Fat Man (1946-51)
Episodes Played: 10
What It’s About: Rotund Private Investigator Solves crimes.
Features: A classic was extremely popular in its day. It was victimized by lost episode with 95% of its run lost. A great and human performance by J Scott Smart as Brad Runyon, a smart tough as nails private detective, with a big heart.
Best Episode: The Twice Told Secret. Also check out the Fat Man Movie.

4) Candy Matson (1949-51)
Episodes Played: 14
What it’s a bit about: The life and times of San Francisco’s best female hard boiled detective.
Features: Star Natalie Masters at her best. With all the flops and oddities that came out of San Francisco during the golden age of radio, this was a gem packed with local flavor and quirky writing. Clearly the best of several golden age detective programs featuring female protagonists.
Best Episode: Jack Frost

5) Pete Kelly's Blues (1951)
Episodes: 6 (+1 Audition)
What It's About: "This one's about Pete Kelly. It’s about the world he goes around in. It’s about the big music and the big troubles and the big twenties. So when they ask you tell ‘em this one’s about the blues. Pete Kelly’s Blues.”
Features: Best Jazz music in dramatic radio. So good that the crooks will stop to listen before doing their weekly quota of beatings and mayhem. In many ways, the program resembles Pat Novak for Hire or Johnny Madero only with jazz except Pete Kelly is a more sympathetic character as he's not out for money, he just wants to play his music but he keeps getting drawn into trouble. One of the more downbeat series we've played but so good.
Best Episode: June Gould

These are five of my favorite lesser known shows. Feel free to share yours in the comments.

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Book Review: The Little Sister

The Little Sister shows some features of some of the best Marlowe stories, but the fifth book in this series just doesn't stand up to its predecessors.

In The Little Sister it starts simply enough when a bored Marlowe is hired by the little sister of a man who moved to LA from Manhattan, Kansas and has stopped writing.

As is usual, Marlowe plunges into a case that gets him into the midst of a shady underworld, of Hollywood, and of course puts him on the bad side of police.

The story is worth reading once and has some classic Marlowe moments. Towards the end of the book, a couple of cops who've had to put up with Marlowe playing fast and loose with murders and bodies tell Marlowe off and it's a beautiful moment when the characters come to life.

It is a rare moment in this story. In 250 pages, I lost track of how many bodies were dropped and who killed them all. So many characters come and go, we really get no impression of them. There's no character in this book I really connected with in the same way I did with characters in, "Lady in the Lake," and "The Big Sleep."

Another thing that hurts the book is the focus. In the first four novels, Marlowe's scorn is directed at big city crime, crooked Los Angeles (and nearby communities) police forces. Marlowe's bile is justified because he knows of what he speaks. In the Little Sister, he uses a combination of a dirty mind and experience with two kids from Manhattan, Kansas as the basis for all sorts of psychological deductions about what a small town is like. It feels less like Marlowe's making street wise observations on life and more like he's expressing poorly informed prejudices.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a bad book, but it doesn't measure up to Chandler's other works.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0


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Telefilm Review: Dead Man’s Folly

In the Series 13 film, Ariadne Oliver’s been hire to set up a “Murder Hunt” for a fête, which is a sort of  bazaar or carnival. However, Oliver is suspicious by some changes requested to her scenario and calls Poirot in for help.

Trouble starts with the actual murder of the Girl Guide who was to play the victim in the murder hunt. This is followed by the disappearance of the lady of the house.

This is a solid mystery that lives up to the highest standards of the Poirot series. I also preferred this over the Peter Ustinov version from the 1980s, if for no other reason than I really had trouble buying Jean Stapleton as Mrs. Oliver in the Ustinov version while Zoe Wanamaker carries the role off with style.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Death on a Deadline

Robert Goldsborough's 2nd Nero Wolfe novel began poorly but improved to mediocrity by the end.

Wolfe is concerned that a Scottish newspaper baron with a reputation for sensationalism will purchase the Gazette, Wolfe's long time ally and source of information. Wolfe sets out to prevent it. However, when one of the principals in the Gazette is killed and everyone else thinks its suicide, Wolfe concludes that it's actually murder and sets out to prove it.

The first third to half of the book is carnival of flummery. To start with, Goldsborough brings partisanship into the book. Notice, I send partisanship, not politics. In finding out about the misdeeds of the news tycoon, Wolfe learns from Lon Cohen that McLaren's papers have consistently endorsed Republicans and Wolfe  expresses his disapproval of endorsing Republicans and includes this as a talking point in his full page New York Times ad. (more on that in a bit.)

Politics is nothing new to Wolfe's world. Wolfe books include anti-Communism, anti-McCarthyism, concern about civil liberties, and civil rights. Even individual political figures such as J Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, and Richard Nixon. However, in each of those cases, he was upset about their specific action. Wolfe never expressed loathing of an entire political party in Stout's work.

Of course, a progressive could argue that the Republican Party of Stout's age was more diverse and the modern version was more uniformly wrong by Wolfe's standards. However, this case is never made. Rather, Wolfe is presented as a partisan with unexplained animus against an entire political party. And this animus was never actually raised again and had no relevance to the plot. Indeed, had Goldsborough merely had Wolfe object to shotty journalism, the story would have lost nothing and he wouldn't have violated the Wolfe character.

Beyond partisanship, Wolfe's scheme of putting a full page ad in the New York Times was dumb. Doubtless, Goldsborough remembered the countless times Wolfe placed display ads in the paper, but never a full page ad for something that really didn't need it. The point of the full page ad was to get public attention so Wolfe could meet with people involved with the Gazette and the attempt to sell it to prevent the sale to McLaren. However, Wolfe could have run a smaller ad, or given his notoriety sent in an op-ed and saved the money. In addition, we get to read the ad and it's dull and sounds nothing like anything Stout's Wolfe would have said.

Archie is even more vapid when he bets Wolfe $10 that the Times won't publish the ad. Given that Archie has read The Times for years, this was just a stupid bet and it's unbelievable Archie would have proposed it. Like most attempts to reconstruct the Wolfe-Archie magic in this book, this one fails.

Goldsborough also has mixed success at updating Archie and Wolfe to the 1980s. On one hand, it's reasonable to imagine that Archie would want a personal computer and Wolfe not wanting to do it. Stout's Wolfe objected to buying newer cars and buying Archie a new typewriter. However, in one lazily written scene where Wolfe shows respect to a woman, Archie wished he had a VCR so he could record the moment. However, as he was not watching this on TV, he really meant he wished he had a video camera.

The mystery itself was decent but forgettable. There was no suspect, client, or interview in this story that was memorable. Wolfe performs no stunning act of showmanship. There was no big surprise twist in the investigation. It was bland and the solution we were presented strained credulity.

The best thing about this novel for the person who has read Stout's Wolfe is that it truly makes you appreciate all the little touches Stout put in that make reading his Nero Wolfe stories so memorable. One thing this book made me notice was the way that Stout chose dinner conversations. Stout's Wolfe talked about a wide variety of topics from agriculture to histories of the ancient world, to obscure scientific questions, and anthropology. I never knew what exactly Wolfe was talking about, but I felt like this was the type of thing a well-read genius would discuss. Unfortunately, Mr. Goldsborough's line of conversation for Wolfe seems far more limited with him mostly talking politics, political books, American history, and sports. Yes, Nero Wolfe discusses whether College athletes should be paid at the dinner table in this book.

While dinner conversation is prosaic, I do give Goldsborough credit for one thing: Compared to the last book, Goldsborough's Wolfe reads in a more Wolfian manner based on the titles of the books of Wolfe mentioned.

Still, I admit being eager to see Wolfe hold a confab and name a murderer when I got to that part of the book. Goldsborough's book allows you a chance to see Wolfe and Archie in action. If you can get past all the flummery and just think about better Nero Wolfe stories, you may enjoy this book more than I did.

Rating: PFui!

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Telefilm Review: The Big Four

The Big Four was described by Mark Gatiss, the writer who was charged with adapting it for television as, an “almost unadaptable mess.” Massive restructuring was required and much of the book's plot was cut for the telefilm, but what remained was a solid and enjoyable mystery.

Most of the story feels like a bit of political thriller as a series of strange deaths occur, and a muckraking reporter believe it’s tied in to an international conspiracy known as “The Big Four” which also appears connected to the Peace Party. The solution takes the story in a different direction and I didn’t enjoy the last twenty minutes as much as what came before. But even that had its moments. My favorite was when the killer through Poirot’s comments that the killer was “theatrical” right back at the Belgian detective who does one of his most theatrical denouements ever.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable story. It wasn’t one of the best, but with great acting and a solid script by Mark Gatiss, this is definitely worth watching.

Rating: 4.00 out of 5.00

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Book Review: The Greek Coffin Mystery

This book while not the first Ellery Queen book ever published is chronologically the earliest Queen novel. The thing to understand about Ellery Queen is that unlike Nero Wolfe, Philip Marlowe, or Father Brown, there's not a whole lot of characters or wisdom to be garnered beyond the mystery, but when the mystery is good, it carries the rest of the book.

Such is the case here. A  man dies and the latest version of his will is missing. A murder soon follows The book proceeds according to typical plan as Ellery ever the know it all detective and sets out to solve the case. This is Ellery's first case chronologically even though there'd been other Ellery Queen books. Ellery had some good guesses particularly figuring out that the new will was located in the coffin of the testator. However, then Ellery delivers a brilliant summation of who the murderer is that is irrefutable--only for him to be shown wrong. At the point, I was definitely hooked.

Of course, this is one of three false solutions in the case and not all are proffered by Ellery. This is a book that keeps your mind engaged all the way through and has a quite shocking conclusion. Overall, this is a superb puzzle mystery.

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Telefilm Review: Three Act Tragedy

In Three Act Tragedy, Poirot attends a dinner party at the home of Sir Charles Cartwright where a harmless clergy men collapses and dies after cocktails. It’s thought just to be a natural death until a Doctor friend of Sir Charles dies in the same manner. Poirot and Sir Charles then team up to find out what’s the truth behind the deaths.

Overall, this is a beautiful production. It’s stocked with great characters, chief of which is Cartwright, who really plays a big role in the investigation. It doesn’t hurt that this is a simply marvelous story and the creative team were mostly faithful to it.

Comparing to the 1986 telefilm with Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis, “Murder in Three Acts”, this one works better for being a faithful adaptation in the original time and setting of the book. However, I still have a warm place in my heart for the Ustinov version and what achieved in a modern setting and really taking advantage of lucious California landscapes. While Martin Shaw turns a good performance at Cartwright, it’s not near as strong as Curtis.

Overall 2010 telefilm is a great adaptation of one of Christie’s most interesting tales.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Murder in E Minor

After the death of Nero Wolfe creator Rex Stout, Robert Goldsborough took up the task of continuing on the Nero Wolfe series with the blessing of Stout's estate.

It's two years after the cataclysmic events of A Family Affair and Nero Wolfe, the world's greatest private detective is no longer practicing. However, when the niece of a man who once saved his life in Montenegro turns to Wolfe because her uncle is being threatened, Wolfe goes into action, but too late as quickly the uncle is killed.

The book is most enjoyable if read for its own merits rather than hoping it to continue the Stout legacy. Goldsborough tries a number of things that are ultimately unsuccessful which were hallmarks of the Stout books. First, is Wolfe himself who is re-reading Jane Eyre in an early chapter and discusses why third parties don't succeed in Presidential elections at the dinner table. Wolfe's interests both literary and conversational were far more erudite with Stout writing. The third party thing is kind of dumb and obvious. There's a visit from Kramer where he has a sincere heart-to-heart with Archie pleading for him and Wolfe to get off the case. That the Police would try and pressure Wolfe off at this point was incredible, and the heart-to-heart thing had been tried in the last Wolfe book by Stout. Perhaps the most egregious thing to happen was when Archie went to get a taxi, pick up a cashier's check, and arrange a simple visit from some suspects and got a "very satisfactory" from Wolfe. First of all, Archie made a big deal of it when this was merely his job and he should be ashamed for making a big dea of it. Secondly, Wolfe only handed out "very satisfactories" when Archie did something truly remarkable, not just doing something any low level employee could manage.

However, Goldsborough did a fair number of things right. The book's plot offers a few teases of Wolfe's past in Montenegro and that itself is sure to tantalize fans. And the appearance of a mysterious woman from the past who Wolfe was glad to see also added to it. When the solution became obvious, Goldsborough worked out the denoument pretty well and it felt almost Stoutian except for Wolfe explaining everyone's motives which seemed more Poirotish.

And of course, the mystery was clever, as clever if not more so. than the average Wolfe story under Stout, and Goldsborough does a great job with characters like Lily Rowan. Overall, this is a solid first novel. Of course, having a first time novelist take over this series was a dubious call at best and what can make it a frustrating read is the author does seem unsure of himself, leading to some scenes that are awkward.

Still overall, I'll rate it "Satisfactory."


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DVD Review: The Father Dowling Mysteries, Season One

The Father Dowling Mysteries was a delightful mystery series starring Tom Bosley (Happy Days) and Tracy Nelson as Chicago-based Father Frank Dowling and Sister Stephanie “Steve” Oskowski, a priest and nun constantly finding themselves in the the thick of mysteries. The duo first appeared in a 1987 TV movie before joining the 1989 NBC line up as a mid-season replacement before moving to ABC in 1990 for another mid-season replacement season and its only full season. Having aired on NBC and ABC, the DVD release, of course, comes from CBS Home video. Father Dowling was a character created by Ralph McHenry in a series of popular novels, but the novels really don’t appear to have come much into play in the stories.

The first season set collects the 1987 Movie, “The Fatal Confession” as well as the seven episode first season of Father Dowling.

Ultimately, this isn’t a series made by the cleverness of its mysteries or bone-chilling suspense, or CSI-like crime scene details. In the end, Father Dowling stands firmly on the charm and chemistry of its two protagonist and Bosley and Nelson are wonderful to watch.

Bosley is very believable as Father Dowling. He does a perfect job creating that balance that’s required in a clerical detective. Dowling is clever, but he’s also compassionate. He cares about catching the bad guy but he also cares about people’s souls and lives. In so many ways, Frank Dowling is a bit of a throw back to a gentler era in television that spawned characters like Andy Taylor. He was truly good and kind, and also didn’t take himself too seriously.

Sister Steve is street smart but also very compassionate. The biggest flaw with the way the series played the character was that in each episode, they had to have her do something you wouldn’t typically expect a nun to do usually in the line of duty but sometimes not: beating the neighborhood boys at basketball playing pool, fixing a car, mixing drinks at a bar, or teaching an aerobics class. It was all in the line of work. Sometimes, it was humorous, though it times it could get goofy and a little repetitive. The first few episodes had her being able to do every single thing well. Thankfully, in the “Face in the Mirror Mystery,” they finally had her undertake a task she couldn’t do well: rollerskating.

Rounding out the regulars were Father Dowling’s cranky housekeeper Marie (Mary Wickes) and the very particular Father Phil (James Stephens) who would appear in the first and last episodes of the 1989 series before becoming a regular. As for the episodes themselves:

“The Fatal Confession” had some good moments in it as Father Dowling looks into the apparent suicide of a former parishoner, but the last quarter of it or so was just too much like a soap opera

“The Missing Body Mystery,” the feature length first episode of the 1989 series begins with a man stumbling into St. Michaels and dying. When Father Dowling returns after calling the police, the body is gone. His stability is called into question and the bishop wants to relieve him and replace him with Father Phil. It’s a great story and a solid beginning.

“What Do You Call Girl Mystery,” is a story about a slain high-priced call girl that manages to tell a good story without being exploitative or sleazy.

“The Man Who Came to Dinner Mystery,” is probably the only clunker in the first season. Steve’s ex-fiance (played by Nelson’s then-husband William Moses) witnesses a murder but when he shows up with the police, the body’s gone. Even worse someone’s trying to kill him. This story not only has a similar plot to a much better episode that aired two weeks previously as a well as a weak conclusion, but it tries to create dramatic conflict over Steve’s decision to become a nun and fails.

The main problem is that we’re told that Steve was almost ready to marry her ex when she ran off to the convent to become a nun. Why would a young woman make this very radical decision? All of the reasons Sister Steve gives such as "it was the right thing for me" don't really ring true. It’s impossible to believe a nun would say or if someone wanted to be a nun with such weak reasons, that the Catholic church would allow it. Of course, treating the subject realistically may have required too much religiosity for network TV executives liking. But if you can’t do it well, why do it at all? Why try introduce a dramatic subplot that’s not believable?

The season got back on track with the two part, “Mafia Priest Mystery,” in which Father Luciana, the son of a mafia family becomes Father Dowling’s new Assistant. He’s trying to make a break with the family business but is drawn into an effor to help his brother Peter go straight and finds himself framed for murdering the DA. This is a great story with a lot of tension, suspects, and situations. We do learn whodunit about half away through the second episode but there’s still some great suspense including a delightful train chase. I also appreciate how the episode highlights both Frank and Steve’s compassion as they deal with and minister to members of the crime family even while trying to find the killer.

“The Face in the Mirror Mystery,” is actually a pretty decent story despite the fact that the premise of an “evil twin” of the main character has been done to death. This is  a great cat and mouse game between Father Dowling and his twin brother Blaine, though the payoff scene is a little silly.

The season concluded with, “The Pretty Baby Mystery,” which has a woman chased by armed men leaving her baby in the church. Father Dowling and Steve try to find the mother and end up getting arrested by the Feds. This is another episode that really respects the characters’ vocation and differentiates them from the typical TV detective. The episode also marked the return of James Stevens as Father Phil, who has become the Bishop’s assistant.

Overall, the first season of Father Dowling was thoroughly enjoyable. It manages to be a mostly well-written family friendly detective series with likable characters. It treats its main characters with respect, but also manages a great deal of humor and warmth. I’ll look forward to future seasons.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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