Tag: good review

DVD Review: Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple – Movie Collection

The four 1960s Miss Marple films starred Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. For purist fans of Agatha Christie’s spinster detective, these films don’t offer much. Only one of the four was based on a Miss Marple book while two others were based on Poirot stories and one of the four was an original story. Some have compared these films to Peter Ustinov’s Poirot films in the 1970s and 80s, but to me that misses the mark. Ustinov’s Poirot films were at least nearly recognizable as the same character and stories despite the changes.

The only way to enjoy these four films is on their own merits and by that measure they do work. Miss Marple finds herself in one murder mystery after another. It begins with Murder She Said, when she sees a murder through a window while riding a train and is disbelieved by the local Detective Inspector (Bud Tingwell) and she’s assisted in solving it by her friend, the local librarian Stringer (played by Rutherford’s real-life husband Stringer Davis.) The formula of her getting involved in murder and having the Inspector treat her like she’s a meddling amateur and her being vindicated in the end is the way all three films go that see her investigate murders at stables, at a rooming house, and at sea. And she also generally gets an unexpected marriage proposal.

The series gets a little goofier, though mostly in a good way, as it goes along with a lot of tongue and cheek humor. I might compare it in some days to a somewhat more restrained version of the approach to the 1966 Batman TV series with a bit more of a British pantomime take to its comedy, as there are very broad characters who are well-played.

The writing is decent, although the last film Murder Ahoy (the only original story) was a bit weaker than the rest of the series. However, the weaknesses in the script are made up for by the performance of Lionel Jeffries gives as the ship’s captain as he helps sell the dodgier aspects of this story.

The music is light, with a cheery upbeat tune that wouldn’t fit most productions based on Agatha Christie’s writing, but fits this one like a glove.

This is one of the coziest mystery movie series you’ll find. If you like that sort of film and can tolerate its deviation from its source material, this is a delightful romp that’s worth viewing.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: The Patrick Scott Smokin’ Mysteries

To enjoy the Patrick Scott Smokin’ Mysteries, set the right expectations. These are not typical half-hour or hour-long mysteries. Rather, they’re about 4-6 minutes in length and meant to be enjoyed in short bursts, preferably with family. They are more about puzzles, brain teasers, and trivia than whodunits. Think more Encyclopedia Brown than Hercule Poirot.

In one episode, a series of clues were used as two police officers were engaged in trying to find where a suspect was heading and the police officer would intercept with the key being the listener’s ability to guess which street they were heading to. Of course, real police officers have a knowledge of a city’s street set up, so there’s no mystery in real life. The set up reminds me of detective-themed riddle books.

However, once you understand the set up, these are enjoyable diversions. Each episode follows Lieutenant Patrick Scott, Jr. (Scott Brick), his father, retired Captain Patrick Scott, Sr. (Patrick Fraley), or another family member or police officer as they try to solve a puzzle generally involving a crime. The set up will generally be a single scene (or two) where clues are gathered and then the listener is given about a minute of “mystery-solving music” to think about it and/or discuss the case with others who are listening before the solution is revealed.

The mysteries are decent brain teasers. There’s some humor that’s amusing, if not laugh out loud hilarious. The stories  are all fairly clean at a G or PG rating level. The mystery-solving music is pleasant, usually a bit of soft jazz, though they do mix it up a bit, particularly in three episodes that feature an Irish informant who makes the police solve his riddle in order to get clues.

Scott and Fraley are both old pros at the voice acting game and have recorded hundreds of audiobooks. Fraley (who also wrote the production) did a lot of voices for animation, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. From my childhood, he was the voice of Wildcat on Talespin and many characters on the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon including Krang the Conquerer and Baxter Stockman. Fraley was a regular fixture as an animation character actor as so many of his credits are for “additional voices.” All that to say, both are top people in the voice acting profession and delivered the performances you’d expect. Brick’s Patrick Scott, Jr. sounds exactly like the ex-Private Eye he’s supposed to be and the narration is flawless. Meanwhile, Fraley’s Senior is endearingly irascible and fun to listen to.

Beyond the leads, this is very much an ensemble production with actors having to switch from one role to another frequently and without making your characters sound all the same and everyone did a good job of that. There was only one character that seemed off, but given the sheer number of mini-mysteries in this set, that’s a good average.

The last twenty minutes or so of the disk feature a Q&A session with Frank Muller, a pioneer in the audiobook world who’d recorded books for many authors including Stephen King. Muller had just recently passed away and this was offered as a tribute to him. To me, it was an interesting insight into how good audiobook narrators ply their trade. If that doesn’t excite you, then you may not get much out of that portion.

Overall, this is an interesting release. It’s well-acted with good sound, although minimalistic, and is good for short diversions. It’s best to listen to one or two mysteries at a time when travelling with kids and looking for something to do in the car. With that approach, the more than two and a half hours of puzzle mysteries will last a good while.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: Black Jack Justice, Season Nine

Season Nine of Black Jack Justice sees Jack (Christopher Mott) and Trixie Dixon (Andrea Lyons) back for six more investigations. The ninth season continues the same high standard. It offers everything you come to expect: The opening monologue that introduces a well-worn aphorism as a basis for the case, the clever banter, and the solid mystery stories you come to expect.

Jack’s status as a newly married man has a small impact on the series. Had there been romantic tension between the two lead characters, it would have been much more major. However, unlike in most detective fiction, where statements of contempt hide passionate love, the statements of contempt between Jack and Trixie reflected that they didn’t much like each other personally but had a good working relationship. However, Jack’s mood is less dour than in past seasons as he’s enjoying conjugal bliss. One episode, “Home for the Holidays” saw Jack getting involved in solving a crime in a small town so Jack could get home to his wife.

The series had limited appearances from the recurring guest cast. Jack’s wife is seen and not heard after appearing in the previous two seasons. King the office dog and Freddy the Finger are far less present than in previous seasons.

The episodes are all good. I particularly liked the contrast between the last two episodes of the season. In “The Big Time,” Jack and Trixie get an unexpected opportunity to take on a big case for an insurance company with a big payoff. This is followed by, “The Learner’s Permit” where they agree to help a writer do research for his new detective story, and then bungle their way into a murder investigation where they should be able to tell the police everything needed to solve the case and provide photographic evidence, but instead have bungled it so badly that someone else has to step in and solve the case. Creating a contrast between a high water mark and one of their most embarrassing moments business is a clever take by writer Gregg Taylor.

While I did miss some of the recurring characters, this was still a fun listen. If you enjoyed any of the past Black Jack Justice seasons, Season 9 is well-worth listening to.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

Black Jack Justice Season 9 is available to listen to for free at Decoder Ring Theatre.

Book Review: Silent are the Dead

Silent are the Dead is an original Flash Casey novel by George Herman Coxe. It 1941, it was originally serialized in Black Mask Magazine (where Casey made his debut in 1934) in three parts, and published as a standalone novel in 1942.

In it, ace photographer Flash Casey has to get pictures of a disgraced lawyer after his camera case is stolen and his film exposed. When he goes up to the lawyer’s apartment, he finds the lawyer dead and himself in a case that grows ever more complex.

Flash Casey is an interesting character. He bares little resemblance to the character who’d arrive on radio the next year and less to the hotheaded goofball of the film Here’s Flash Casey. Casey is a decent sort. He’s got a nose for news but he’s neither heartless, nor unethical. He’s got a hard boiled edge to him, but this never goes over the top. He also takes a great deal of pride not just in his own work, but in the profession and its status, which motivates his actions in the final act of the novel.

This is a solidly written mystery novel. The plot is complex and intriguing with twists around every corner. The story is well-plotted, and well-paced. My interest never lagged from start to finish. I appreciated how photography was used in the novel to make this story distinct from the countless tales of private eyes, lawyers, and mystery men that dominated the fiction shelfs of the day. I’ve experienced a few stories from the old Black Mask magazine and compared to them, this book is above average. 

The characterization is not a huge strength. With one exception, the other characters feel mostly functional. They’re not unrealistic, over the top, or badly written, but as individuals, they’re surface level and blend quickly into a sea of newspaper employees, gangsters, damsels/potential femme fatales, and cops without much personality to distinguish them. Still, with Casey being well-written, he’s an anchor that keeps the story interesting.

In terms of quality, I’d consider it similar to the best Michael Shayne books.  It’s not a genre classic by any means, but it is a good example of a pre-War detective novel with hard-boiled flavor. In addition, its photographer hero makes it stand out from most of its mystery peers. It’s also a nice read for those who enjoy the Casey, Crime Photographer radio series and are curious about the hero’s literary origins. 

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Remembering Mathnet

A version of this article appeared in 2012.

Mathnet

“The story you are about to see is a fib, but it’s short. The names are made up, but the problems are real.”

With these words began one of my earliest mystery series, Mathnet. 

Mathnet began as just one sketch on the series, Square One, a PBS educational program designed to teach kids about Math. Other sketches included “Mathman”, the animated adventures of “Dirk Niblick of the Math Bigrade” among others. Infrequent parodies included a couple of Honeymooners parody sketches. Each sketch, song, or story had the goal of teaching about math in an entertaining way.

Mathnet was its Dragnet-style sketch starring Beverly Leech as Kate Monday and Joe Howard as her partner George Frankly. They were crime-solving mathematicians who demonstrated a wide variety of math concepts in solving crimes.

The initial episode of Mathnet, The Case of the Missing Baseball was more parody than anything else with the cameramen playing off of Dragnet’s use of close ups to show a series of rapid close-ups in part one of the Missing Baseball.  The show couldn’t keep that up forever, so it became much of a homage with comic and educational overtones.  The show also changed from its pilot episode in which the two mathematicians weren’t part of the police force, even though they acted like it until they got the criminal.

Leech turned in a solid straight woman performance as Officer Monday, but Howard shined as the goofy, but usually competent partner. Like Ben Alexander (Frank Smith) and Harry Morgan (Bill Gannon), Howard brought comic relief to the cases with dialogue like this when Kate announces they’ve received a call about a missing autographed baseball:

George: I love baseball, Kate. Martha and I, we went to Dodger Stadium last night, Kate.

Kate: The Dodgers played in Cincinnati last night, George

George: Yep. No trouble parking. You ought to go with us. Martha and Me to a Dodger game. No trouble parking.

In another episode, Kate Monday asked an apprehended criminal, “Do you agree that crime doesn’t pay?”

He responded, “Yeah, at least not the way I do it.”

The show’s comedy worked. Then, it was merely funny. Today, I see some of the ways it copies Dragnet’s success.

The show played homage to Dragnet in other ways that a kid under 10 who hadn’t seen Dragnet wouldn’t have caught on. James Earl Jones appeared as Chief of Detectives Thad Green. In the original Dragnet, the Chief of Detectives was Thad Brown.

The program was cleverly educational, working into the plot math tricks such as estimating,  calculating the angle of refraction, basic geometry, probability, depreciation, and the effective use of databases and spreadsheets. While Mathnet didn’t provide a comprehensive math education, it taught some great math principles.

For kids, the program also provided solidly plotted mysteries with some fascinating conclusions. The stories were told as five-part serials that would end each episode of Square One and give kids a reason to tune in tomorrow. Mathnet began as just one sketch of many, with it’s first serial averaging about 6 minutes of air time per show. However, due to its popularity, Mathnet took up an ever-increasing share of Square’s One time.

In the middle of the second season, the show was packed up and moved to New York where other Children’s Television Workshop Shows were based. Their first case in New York, The Case of the Swami Scam aired as a standalone TV movie. In subsequent seasons, Leech was replaced by Toni Di Buono as Pat Tuesday. But by then I was in an area where we didn’t get PBS.

I remember Mathnet fondly for two reasons.  First, the entire show, Square One, was successful at making math fun. I still use today math tricks that I learned from Mathnet and I wasn’t the only one. A reviewer on IMDB notes:

In 6th grade in 1997, on Fridays we would watch Mathnet. It was always fun but plenty educational! As a student math was always the easiest when it was made fun, and that is exactly what this movie did for us. Quite frankly, the Mathnet series actually inspired my class to do our homework, because we weren’t allowed to watch it unless the whole class did their homework. It was always a treat when we got to watch these movies. There aren’t many good math movies (as I know now because I am studying mathematics) so it is amazing that Mathnet is so interesting. When the teacher who used them retired, he took the tapes with him and now Indiana is Mathnetless which is a pity!

If only educational TV was always that effective. It also helped spur a lifelong interest in Dragnet.  When I got older, my love of Mathnet fueled my love of Dragnet and the rest, as they say, is history.

Mathnet’s blend of great comedy, solid math skills, and some great fun with classic mysteries still brings a smile to my face. My only regret is that the show has not been given its due with a DVD release.

Episodes of Mathnet are currently posted on YouTube.

Audio Drama Review: The Red Panda, Season Eight

The Eight Season of the Red Panda Adventures is its third World War II season and sees another shift in the series’ dynamics. The Red Panda (Gregg Taylor) is back in Canada after his wife Kit (played by Clarissa Der Nederlanden Taylor) (aka The Flying Squirrel) held down the fort for a long time believing him to be dead while he was in Europe.

Now their focus is on winning the war as the series marches on towards D-Day. Also with our heroes newly parents, there’s a focus on laying the groundwork for their retirement… if they survive the war. As a noted loner, the Red Panda is forced a new role as leader of a patriotic superteam of young heroes known as the Danger Federation.  At the same time, he and the Flying Squirrel battle a mix of foreign and domestic threats.

I enjoyed this series quite a bit. It may be my favorite war series so far. It managed to have a great balance of different types of stories, while still having ongoing threads. I enjoyed them all. Three were the best. “The Honored Dead” finds the World War II-era Red Panda and Flying Squirrel travelling back in time to the 1930s and meeting their old comrades. It’s a nicely done piece with a lot of emotion. In “The Lab Rats” the Red Panda has to use his scientific skills to thwart a Nazi weapon in a team up with the former Supervillain the Genie, and his old ally Doctor Chronopolis. The season finale, “The End of the Beginning” features the Red Panda teaming up with another hero and leaving the Flying Squirrel behind as he travels to Occupied Europe just before D-Day to stop a Nazi super man.

The writing and acting remain strong throughout. Probably my biggest issue with the season is some interesting ideas didn’t get the exploration they could have.  The Danger Federation could have been the focus of more stories. I also thought exploring our heroes as parents would be interesting. Instead, the baby is a plot point that sets up their desire for retirement.

The sound design does continue to be primitive, which is usually not a big deal. But in, “The End of the Beginning,” the climatic fight scene is great, but it suffers from weak sound design. If they ever decide to remaster the series with better sound effects, this is the first episode that should be done.

Overall, this was one a strong season of wartime action that moves our heroes closer to the end of the war.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Red Panda Adventures Season 8 can be listened to for free here.

Radio Review: Voyage of the Scarlet Queen

A version of this review appeared in 2012.

I’ve written before about the rarity of having a half-hour show with multiple-part episodes in the Golden Age of radio. However, one show is a notable exception to this rule, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen. The 1947-48 Mutual Radio Series was unusual in many respects. It was a sea drama, but its story-telling style bore a striking resemblance to the hard-boiled detective stories dominating the airwaves at the time. In addition to this, the first 20 episodes were interlinked.

The program follows Philip Karney (Elliot Lewis), Captain of the ketch (sailboat) the Scarlet Queen as he tries to deliver a cargo for Kang and Sons. He’s opposed at every turn by henchmen for a competing exporter, determined to steal the cargo and willing to stop at nothing, even multiple murders. He’s aided by his first mate Gallagher (played by Ed Max) who began working for the bad guys but switched to become Karney’s first mate.

The show features a recurring sophisticated and polite villain named Ah Sin as well as a returning love interest (played by Lewis’s then-wife Cathy) from one episode to the next. While some stories happen at sea, most often Karney and/or Gallagher get in trouble when the Scarlet Queen comes to port. Each episode ended with a ship’s log and the first twenty concluded with Karney announcing how many miles the Scarlet Queen had traveled from its San Francisco port of call.

The show’s exciting situations, colorful characters, and dangers around every corner make Voyage of the Scarlet Queen  one of the more unique radio programs I’ve found.  The relationship between Karney and Gallagher is also a fascinating aspect of the show. They grow from unease at distrust at the beginning to a loyal camaraderie. With one exception, each episode ends with Karney and Gallagher talking on the deck of the Scarlet Queen and Gallagher offering Karney a drink. Karney smiles and responds, “After you, Mate, after you.”

The show lost a little bit of focus after episode 20, but remained one of radio’s greatest adventures throughout its run.

One myth that has made it on to Wikipedia is that Voyage of the Scarlet Queen provided some inspiration to Star Trek based on the fact, “Each episode opens with an entry from the ship’s log.” Given Sam Spade had been giving reports to Effie for more than a year and that in another year Johnny Dollar would start handing in expense accounts, the log was just another in a long line of devices for characters to provide narration for their stories. George Raft’s Mr. Ace paid a visit to a psychologist to fill that purpose. It’s possible Gene Roddenberry heard the show, but it’s a stretch to say that played a role. The Star Trek theory also cites the fact they became embroiled in trouble with “local authorities, agents of rival merchants, or desperate women in need of rescue.” If they didn’t run into trouble, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure story. While its possible, I wouldn’t consider this a probable inspiration for anything other than audience amazement.

The series finished in 1948, but Lewis wasn’t finished with the concept. In 1950, he recorded a pilot for Log of the Black Parrot which brought Ed Max back as Gallagher and renamed his role to Matthew Kinkaid. The audition recording was far more moody and less action filled than the original series and was not picked up for a run.

Currently in circulation are 33 of the 35 broadcast episodes, with Episodes 7 and 10 being missing. In addition, the audition for Voyage of the Scarlet Queen recorded in February 1947 with Lewis as Gallagher and Howard Duff as Karney and the audition for Log of the Black Parrot are available.

Fans of great radio adventure owes it to themselves to check this series out.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0 stars.