Tag: good review

Book Review: The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe

The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe is an anthology of parodies, pastiches, and a few other things that are hard to categorize, all inspired by Rex Stout’s greatest literary creation. I’m going to give a detailed look at everything in the book.

“Red Orchids” by French Author Thomas Narcejac finds Wolfe out from the Brownstone to investigate a case with the promise of a rare, red orchid. This translation by Narcejac does a fair job capturing the Wolfe-Archie relationship, but there’s too much emphasis on Wolfe firing Archie, which wasn’t nearly as much of a thing in the novels. It’s not a bad read at all.

Next, we get an excerpt from Marion Mainwaring’s book Murder by Pastiche. The book contains several pastiches of detective characters solving mysteries. Here we get a flavor for how the Wolfe pastiche works and the author does a great job capturing both Archie and Wolfe. It was well-written and made me want to read the whole book.

I should not like “Archie Hunters” as much as I do as it’s a bit ham-fisted. It involves a parody of Mike Hammer meeting up with Nero Wolfe. Writer Jon L. Breen states he was not a fan of Mike Hammer. This is hardly a necessary statement when he named the parody Mack Himmler. In addition, Breen (through Wolfe) gives us the moral of the story. I think makes it work is the degree to which Mr. Breen commits to it. While he’s having Wolfe make a broadly political (not partisan) point, it’s so in keeping with Wolfe’s voice and something I could actually imagine Wolfe saying.

“The Frightened Man” is a pastiche that uses different character names but is inspired by Wolfe. It’s a solid entry, though a bit short for my tastes.

As to the first Chapter of Murder in E Minor by Robert Goldsborough, I’ve had my issues with Goldsborough’s Wolfe books, but this is the one is good. It does a solid job capturing the feel of Stout’s work. The first chapter is well-written and I wouldn’t mind reading the book again.

“The Purloined Platypus” finds Wolfe and Archie solving the mystery of a museum theft in the present day. It’s a good story, but the mystery is more okay, and the author is fine but not brilliant at capturing the voices and transferring the main characters to the 21st Century. However, I’m a bit prejudiced as its hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of Archie taking pictures with his phone and finding information on the Internet.

“The House on 35th Street” and “The Sidekick Case” are two of the parodies that were run by the Saturday Review. Both are short, but I think this is a case where brevity is the soul of wit. “The House on 35th Street” pokes fun at the conventions of Stout novels, while “The Sidekick Paper” takes on bad word usage in a way that you could believe Wolfe actually would.

“The Case of the Disposable Jalopy” is a parody with Wolfe and Archie in a futuristic world where both have aged (contrary to Stout’s general practice.) Archie no longer has his photographic memory and Wolfe’s mental powers have gone downhill. In addition, due to automation, most jobs have been eliminated with people living on a negative income tax and Fritz forced to buy lower class food on a budget. This is very much a sort of a Saturday Night Live sort of take on Nero Wolfe (from when Saturday Night Live was actually funny) and it’s a solid piece of humor. It’s committed to its premise, and the humor is far more hit than miss, although one of the jokes feels a bit tasteless. Overall, it’s a fairly solid parody.

 “As Dark as Christmas Gets” finds a Nero Wolfe fan who believes Nero Wolfe is real and hopes to gain his favor. Leo Haig is brought in to solve the mystery of a Cornell Woolrich manuscript that disappeared at the Christmas Party. This was a good story with some intelligent dialogue and fairly drawn characters. Haig’s Archie Goodwin character Chip is more vulgar than Archie, but not so much it got in my way of enjoying this short.

Next up is, “Who’s Afraid of Nero Wolfe” and the lead detective Claudius Lyon is the answer to the question. Lyon, like Haig, believes Wolfe is real, but is afraid of getting sued by him, so his detective work is strictly amateur which also avoids the requirement of a license. This is a fun story about a search for a missing poetry contest winner from several years back. It revolves around word play and as far as a mystery goes, it works. I enjoyed all the little twists that Loren Estleman took on the Nero Wolfe world, starting with Lyon being located in Flatbush.

In “Julius Katz and the Case of the Exploding Wine” writer David Zeltserman takes a few of the ideas from the Wolfe story and adds a whole lot to it. Katz has an Archie, but Archie in this case is an AI in a tie clip that advises Katz who is a wine-drinking gambler with a fifth degree black belt. However, like Wolfe, Katz is lazy and needs prodded to go to work. I enjoyed this and all of the twists and turns. There were characters who had very definitive counterparts in the Wolfe stories (ex: Detective Cramer), but others you have to guess at.

“The Possibly Last Case of Tiberius Dingo” is an original short story for this collection that finds a Wolfe-like detective in a state of semi-retirement but tempted to take on one final case. The writer isn’t as immersed in the Wolfe canon as other contributors and it shows but not too much. The story is still an entertaining read with some clever twists. I found the ending uncomfortable, but other than that, this was fine.

The book has a section entitled potpourri, which is a bunch of miscellaneous bits and bobs about Wolfe.

“The Woman Who Read Nero Wolfe” is a delightful short about an intelligent 500 pound circus woman who takes to reading Nero Wolfe and then has to solve the murder of a young woman she’d taken under her wing. Pithy, fun, and has a superb twist. 

“Sam Buried Caesar” is from a series of short stories about a police inspector who named his children after famous detectives. This is the story of ten-year-old Nero Wolfe and the detective agency he founded with his friend and assistant Artie. This originally appeared in Ellery Queen Magazine and a story like this poses a unique challenge because it’s got to be true to being a story about kids, without boring the adults. This story nails it and was just a lot of fun to read.

The book includes Chapter 24 from Rasputin’s Revenge. Writer John Lescroat posited that Nero Wolfe was the illegitimate son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler and born under the name Auguste Lupa. This chapter appears to be from the end of the mystery where Holmes, Watson, and Lupa are talking. This is fine and features interesting interactions. 

Joseph Goodrich adapted a couple of Nero Wolfe stories to the stage and the first scene of Might as Well Be Dead is included. This is probably as close to seeing the play as most of us are going to get as these haven’t been widely distributed or performed. The play appears to have some good ideas like having Archie as an on the on-stage narrator and really seems to condense the initial client interview from the book so the action can get moving. Other choices I’m less sure of, but they might make sense in the context of the full play. Its hard to evaluate it based on one scene.

The final short story by Robert Lopestri is amusing tale of two grandparents telling their granddaughter what it was like to live next to Nero Wolfe and why they eventually decided to move away. It’s an amusing and clever take.

While I have criticisms of many pieces in this book, I liked them all. If you’re a Wolfe fan, this book is for you. Taken together, the book is a fantastic tribute to Nero Wolfe and shows a bit of how Rex Stout’s work has been inspiring authors with the amazing characters and world he created.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

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Streaming Review: T-Men

In the 1947 film T-Men, two Treasury agents (Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder) travel to Detroit and go undercover in an attempt to infiltrate and ultimately break a counterfeiting ring.

T-men was a very entertaining bit of noir. It has the same cinematographer as He Walked by Night, and if you enjoyed the look of that film, you’ll probably like this one as well.

It’s one of those procedurals like He Walked by Night which really strove to portray the real life work of the investigator. So there’s a lot of detail, a lot of different scenes and minor characters who pop-up as our heroes try to work their way to the top, through a long tangled web of the underworld from creating their criminal identities to solving the case and making the bust. 

The script is smart, well-written and well-thought out. Our heroes are in constant peril and we’re given a reminder of how much they and, by extension, real-life Treasury Agents risk in the course of their work. Throughout most of the time, the film takes a deliberate pace, but it definitely picks up in the last ten minutes as the case comes to a finale.

The acting is solid. Outside of O’Keefe, most of the cast is made up of veteran character actors who manage to play their parts without seeming over-the-top, campy, or too stereotypical. Wallace Ford as the Schemer may have been my favorite performance. The main rising star in this is June Lockheart (Lost in Space) who appears as one of the agents’ wives.

The criticisms I’ve read online have basically come down to complaints about it being a procedural noir made in 1940s. If you want something faster paced or less detailed, this may not be the film for you. However, if you appreciate the realistic procedural films of the 1940s, this is a must-see.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Currently Available for free Streaming with Amazon Prime or on Blu-ray/DVD with two other films.

Book Review: Dick Tracy: Dailies and Sundays: 1931-33

Dick Tracy is the legendary detective created by Chester Gould whose comic strip adventures continue until this day. Dick Tracy first hit newspapers in 1931 and this book collects his first strips from October 1931 to May 1933.

This collection is notable for what you won’t find: any of Tracy’s garish rogues gallery. No Flattop, Mumbles, or Pruneface. The most prominent villain is Big Boy, but in here he’s a regular mob boss. The colorful villains would come much later for Tracy. This book features Tracy taking on thieves, kidnappers, and racketeers that were typical 1930s villains.

The book opens with the father of Tracy’s fiancée being murdered. Tracy joins the police force in order to catch the killer. The most unrealistic part of this entire collection is when Tracy is so quickly graduated and placed in a leadership position on the force with no explanation. Three months later, he slacks off because of personal problems with Tess and is demoted to uniform duty and complains about how he was demoted despite all he’d done in the three months on the force. 

Once you get past that silliness, the book is good. The crimes aren’t outlandish and Tracy’s methods are pretty solid for a 1930s newspaper strip, featuring some real detective work. The book also did go for some “ripped from the headlines” cases. For example just after the Lindbergh kidnapping, Tracy had to solve a similar baby kidnapping case.

Other than introducing Tracy and Tess Trueheart, the book’s important contribution is introducing Junior, the homeless, seeming orphan who Tracy adopts, or perhaps it may be he adopts Tracy.  He becomes part of the action on several occasions and you can see why he’s often viewed as a precursor of teenage sidekicks like Robin, the Boy Wonder and Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes.

The art in the book starts off looking a bit primitive but as Gould continues to draw, it becomes a lot more polished. The book is mostly in black and white with the exception of the earliest Sunday strips. These strips didn’t follow the daily strip plot, opting instead for a separate mystery or  sometimes just a one-off gag strip. They continued until May 1932.

The book also includes an interview with Gould by his successor on the Tracy comic strip, Max Allan Collins. 

Overall, while the book doesn’t capture Tracy at the peak, it does manage to capture Tracy’s beginnings and also help readers understand how Tracy became so popular in the first place with fun and exciting stories, detective work, and a broad-based appeal to multiple members of the family with character drama and a kid sidekick. Worth a read for both Tracy diehards and those who are curious about the beginnings of this iconic character.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Telefilm Review: Cannon/Barnaby Jones: The Deadly Conspiracy

A young woman who works at an oil company calls a congressional staffer promising to blow the whistle on her employer. This is overheard by the head of public relations who plots her death. A wine delivery man with a record is set up at the patsy for raping and killing the woman.

Frank Cannon (William Conrad) is hired by the an attorney for the accused, while the Congressional staffer hires Barnaby Jones (Buddy Ebsen), thus setting up a rare crossover between two TV detectives. Cannon had appeared in Barnaby Jones’s first episode.  Both programs were produced by Quinn Martin who used Cannon’s presence to jumpstart Barnaby Jones. Here the two detectives have both been on multiple seasons and would in effect be sharing star billing and solving the case together. 

This is a good story. Like many Quinn Martin detective shows, it was not a whodunit. Who is pretty clear from the start. However, there are all kinds of mysteries to solve along the way such as why, and what the goal of the titular “Deadly Conspiracy” is.

I liked a lot about the conspiracy. Their goal is complex, but it makes sense and also seems realistic and believable. While the conspirators are willing to kill for their goals, unlike other villains, they don’t just kill. They’re able to throw roadblocks in front of our heroes in ways that don’t involve homicide, which I think makes for a more interesting plot.

Both Conrad and Ebsen are given a chance to shine, and overall the team is very well-balanced with both playing nearly equal parts in the action and detective work. The guest cast is a notch above the typical guest cast with a lot of recognizable  actors including Diana Douglas and Francis De Sales.  Barry Sullivan shines as the chief villain.

There are two versions of the story available. The Season 5 DVD of Cannon contains a modified version of the story that’s trimmed down to a single episode of Cannon with an alternate (and in my opinion inferior) ending. The Season 4 DVD of Barnaby Jones collects both episodes and I recommend that version. While several episodes of existing programs were backdoor pilots for possible detective programs, this was the only crossover episode for two established 1970s Detective programs. It does its job well and deserves to be seen in its complete form.

Rating 4.5 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: Black Jack Justice, Season Seven

Season Seven of Black Jack Justice finds the show very well settled in to its successful formula as Jack and Trixie continue to solve crimes in a post-War unnamed American city.

The season avoids some of the fancy experimental episodes from previous seasons and really plays to its strengths. That means well-crafted mysteries and clever wordplay. The closest this season gets to any sort of emotional depth is in the episode, “The Score” when an old war buddy of Jack’s tries to draft him to rob a Nazi war criminal to exact revenge.

All of Season 7 is great listening. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d choose the fifth episode, “A Simple Case of Black and White” which finds Trixie and Jack working for a pro bowler trying to connect with his child. The plot is intricate with a surprising solution. There are characters named (of course) Black and White. That plays out to really good effect.

Overall, if you’re looking for fun diverting mysteries that illustrate how a radio detective show should be done, you’ll enjoy Season 7 of Black Jack Justice.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

The entire Seventh Season of Black Jack Justice is available for free download on their website.