Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 12 of 2012 - Fiction and Film

I suppose I would be remiss if I didn't put together a list of favorites for the year. So here it is. Since I've taken to reviewing quite a lot of mystery film, as well as fiction, it's almost evenly divided between the two. No particular order of preference here, although if you twisted my arm I might let it slip that I really did like Fowler's Seventy-Seven Clocks quite a bit...

The Stately Home Murder
by Catherine Aird
Published in 1969, but with (at least) one foot firmly in the Golden Age of Detection. An imposing English mansion, a few murders and plenty of dry wit.

Cards on the Table
by Agatha Christie
One of Christie's more clever Poirot books, if you ask me. The host of a party is killed by one of a foursome of bridge players who are actively engaged in their game at the time of his murder - in the same room.

Seventy-Seven Clocks
by Christopher Fowler
The fourth of Fowler's Bryant & May books and for my money the best. Certainly the wackiest plot/premise of the four I've read and probably the highest body count as well.

by Anne Holt
My first foray into Norwegian mystery fiction. A couple hundred people are stranded in a lodge in the mountains following a train wreck. A blizzard rages without and nefarious deeds are committed within.

Wobble To Death
by Peter Lovesey
It's the late nineteenth century and a hardy band of contestants are vying for a large cash prize at a tough six-day marathon race in London, also known as a wobble. Would you believe that a murder or two breaks out? Imagine that.

Murder of the Bride
by C.S. Challinor
I've become a great fan of Challinor's series about the Scottish barrister, Rex Graves, and this was one of the best of the bunch. Not surprisingly, most of the misdeeds take place at a wedding in a manor house and mostly over the course of one day.

Death on Demand
by Carolyn G. Hart
A bit of a cheat, this one, since I actually wrapped it up two days before 2012 commenced. So sue me. Hart has written a couple dozen books in this series, which concerns an amateur detective who runs a mystery bookstore on a South Carolina island that caters to the tourist trade. This was the first one and the only one I've read thus far, but I'd call it a pretty decent Agatha Christie tribute and a nice showcase for the author's extensive knowledge of the mystery genre.

The Hound of the Baskervilles
One of the more recent incarnations of Doyle's famous work. I particularly liked Ian Hart's portrayal of Watson, which was a bit different from the standard second banana to the great Holmes.

Death on the Nile
One of the great Agatha Christie works, brought to the big screen in a big way, with big stars and whopping big cinematography. Big, big, big.

Fast Company
The first of a series of three comic whodunits featuring Garda and Joel Sloane, a crime-solving pair of rare book dealers. Different actors took on the main roles each time out, but Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice turn in performances here that any Thin Man fans would be advised to take a look at.

Another Thin Man
Speaking of the Thin Man, my favorite of the five installments I've seen thus far. This time out a wealthy friend of the Charles family is bumped off and Nick and Nora are called upon to crack the case.

Francis in the Haunted House
As I said in the review, it's "the best movie that I've ever seen that featured a talking mule investigating a murder in a haunted house." I stand firmly by that position.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

7 Questions for Author R.T. Raichev

I've been thinking about doing this feature for a while and when R.T. Raichev happened to get in touch recently after reading my reviews of two of his books, I thought I'd see if he'd like to kick things off. He was kind enough to agree and so we present the first installment of the 7 Questions feature.

Though R.T. notes that The Riddle of Sphinx Island is his next book, what he doesn't mention is that it will be, as he put it in a recent email, "a take on Christie's And Then There Were None." Which sounds like it will be well worth the wait.

7 Questions for Author R.T. Raichev

What's your favorite (or most offbeat) murder method?
It's got to be the beheading with an ancient Samurai sword in Murder at the Villa Byzantine, though that's very much a one-off. I don't think I have a favourite murder method. I don't like blood at all. Looking at my books, published and  not-yet-published it goes like this: poison, gun, knitting needle, poison, manual strangulation, fruit knife, enforced drowning, gun, poison, knife, blunt instrument, gun, gun.

What's the first mystery book you ever read?
Doyle's The Sign of Four. I was about twelve, I think. I remember being haunted by the discovery of Sholto's hanging body.

Who would be your desert island mystery author?
Agatha Christie, as she stands the test of re-reading marvellously.

Who would you cast if your characters ever made it to the big screen?
Who should be cast as Antonia Darcy and Major Payne? If it is TV series, Emma Thompson and Nigel Havers. If for the big screen, perhaps, Demi Moore and Bill Nighy, or for a super-glamorous production, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, though they must acquire cut-glass English accents.

What would your readers find most surprising about you?
That I have completed five more Antonia Darcy mysteries, well ahead of schedule?

How did you come up with the your characters?
Antonia Darcy, bookish and introspective, was meant to act solo in The Hunt for Sonya Dufrette (my first published mystery), but in Chapter 1 she was teased by her son about having an admirer at the Military Club where she was a librarian. Her son had heard a certain widowed Major mentioned. Antonia had just divorced her husband and was unhappy. I needed a Watson for her and then decided that if I did introduce a retired Major who fancies Antonia, that would not only resolve the Dr. Watson problem, but would provide a touch of romance, which most readers -- especially the female readers -- like. That's how Major Payne was born. He courted Her in Sonya Dufrette and they were already married in The Death of Corinne. Antonia Darcy and Major Payne owe something to Hammett's Thin Man series, the Francis Durbridge mysteries, the screwball comedies of the 40s and of course Christie's Tommy and Tuppence.

What's next for R.T. Raichev?
My next Antonia Darcy and Major Payne mystery, The Riddle of Sphinx Island, will be published on 8/1/13 by the Mystery Press. The MP have also got my number 9, The Killing of Olga Klimt, which they are hoping to bring out in early 2014.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Movie - The Thin Man Goes Home

The Thin Man Goes Home
Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett

The consensus seems to be that the Thin Man movies went downhill after the first one. I'm on the fence about that. I don't know that I completely agree but I can see how the argument could be made. For my money the six films of the series adhered closely enough to a formula that if you like one I'm not sure what there is not to like about the others.

While it would be nice to read and watch these series type books and movies in order, for me that rarely happens. This is the fifth of the Thin Man movies I've watched and I still have number four (Shadow Of The Thin Man) to go. There's no false advertising in this title, mind you. Nick and Nora (and dog Asta, of course) really do go home - to Nick's home town, where they take up residence with his loving mother and mildly disapproving father for a short time.

Which is a rather bucolic way to get away from it all, but of course there's no way that can possibly last. And it doesn’t, now that you mention it, given that someone is bumped off right on the Charles family doorstep and the crime-solving couple are forced to spring into action.

From here things take a somewhat familiar route to the end. Which consists of Nick gathering what seems like everyone in the town and perhaps even a couple dozen others for the summing up to beat them all. All of which would have been rather long and tedious if it wasn't handled so well and if there weren't a few great comic moments tossed in for good effect.

All in all, a rather down home affair, if I do say so myself. It could have just as easily been called Murder in Mayberry, but of course that fictional town wouldn't appear on any maps for about another decade and a half.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sherlock Holmes on the Radio

I've been listening to a number of old radio mysteries lately and while I don't see the need to comment on a lot of them I thought I'd mention a few episodes that stood out.

The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
The Adventure Of The Disappearing Scientists

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are probably best known for playing Holmes and Watson in a number of films but they also appeared in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which kicked off in 1939 and ran for almost eight years. This episode, like many, was written by Dennis Green and Anthony Boucher. It concerns what for Holmes would have been a relatively new substance known as radium and the disappearances of a number of scientists working with it.

CBS Radio Mystery Theater
Nightmare in Gillette Castle

I reviewed a few noteworthy episodes of CBS Radio Mystery Theater recently, a show that also ran for about eight years, starting in 1974. This episode doesn't deal directly with Holmes so much but rather with William Gillette, an actor best known for his stage portrayals of Holmes around the turn of the twentieth century. It concerns what happens when a young husband and wife break off from a tour group in Gillette's castle and find that the going gets decidedly weird.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Seventy-Seven Clocks, by Christopher Fowler

Seventy-Seven Clocks
By Christopher Fowler

Well, I'll be damned. Someone's been reading Agatha bleeding Christie. (Raymond Land)

The first thing I noticed about Seventy-Seven Clocks was how whopping big it was. I've ranted (rather mildly) about long mystery novels on a number of occasions thus far and, as a general rule, once they pass the 200-page mark my interest begins to wane with each additional page. Normally I wouldn't go near a book that clocks in at just under 500 pages but since it was a Bryant & May book I forged bravely on ahead.

And I'm glad I did. Of the four of Fowler's novels that I've read and reviewed thus far, I'd rank this one at the top of the heap - by a longshot. Which is not to say that any of the others were particularly shabby, because they certainly weren't.

I'm not generally keen on conveying much of the plot in my reviews. I'll say even less about this one for the simple reason that Fowler has really outdone himself this time around and to spell anything out would really spoil the fun of discovering it all for yourself.

About all I'm going to say is that it takes place in the Seventies, the body count is rather high, the murders tend to be quite bizarre (and one comes from so far out of left field that I almost dropped the book) and the motivation for it all is very farfetched. And yet Fowler handles the latter so skillfully that you find yourself thinking that just maybe it could have happened. Or maybe not.

Enough said about this one. Highly recommended. Go read all 496 pages for yourself and see if you don't agree.

Friday, December 14, 2012

CBS Radio Mystery Theater

If I hadn't done some background research I'd have assumed that CBS Radio Mystery Theater aired in the Forties or Fifties, or perhaps even as early as the Thirties. But it actually ran from 1974 to 1982, featuring host E.G. Marshall and a varying cast, including some luminaries, and with a new episode airing most weeknights.

Before it was all said and done there were a total of 1,399 episodes (really, they couldn't have done just one more?), many of which are available right out there on Al Gore's Internet. You can probably find these in half a thousand places, but for now I'm sticking with CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which looks impressive enough to be an official site but is apparently the work of a very dedicated fan.

Of the four episodes of the series that I've sampled thus far there were two that didn't really do it for me. Tom Sawyer, Detective, sounded promising and it wasn't a bad story but was bogged down by too much dialogue that sounded like a cross between a Stephen Foster song and a Gunsmoke rerun. Murder On the Space Shuttle also seemed promising and it was even based on a story by Jacques Futrelle, but I'd also rank this one in the so-so category.

The Old Ones Are Hard to Kill

This episode kicked things off way back in 1974 and it was a pretty decent debut. It starred Agnes Moorhead as an older woman who runs a boarding house and who hears the deathbed confession of a boarder, one that might clear someone else of a crime. Rather than let well enough alone, she decides to do something about it and the plot thickens considerably. Not an absolute gem as far as the story goes, but nicely done even so.

Blizzard of Terror

I liked this one the best of this small bunch. It features a bickering couple who are stranded in the mountains in a blizzard and who find their way to shelter in a cottage. Oh, and there's a mass murderer on the loose. Which is the cause of no small amount of concern on their part when they find the kitchen spattered with blood and a suspicious type character already in residence.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Murder of Gonzago, by R.T. Raichev

The Murder of Gonzago
by R.T. Raichev

"Lord Remnant was shot through the back of the head by a giant rabbit," Antonia said.

If you're looking for contemporary authors who set their mystery fiction in the modern day while still imparting something of a traditional feel to it, then be sure to R.T. Raichev to your list. The Bulgarian-born author wrote a dissertation on English crime fiction and it shows, not only in the way he tells a story but also in the way his characters frequently make sly references to various aspects of crime fiction.

If you know Shakespeare better than I (which wouldn't take much doing) you might know that The Murder of Gonzago is a play within a play that takes place in Hamlet. When wealthy old Lord Remnant and a few guests at his private island of Grenadin stage their amateur production of this curiosity he ends up rather deadish. While circumstances suggest that there might have been some suspicious goings-on, it doesn't help much that the old bat's body was hastily hustled off and cremated.

As it turns out the Lord was not a particularly likable sort, to put it mildly, and thus there was the usual cast of relatives and acquaintances who might have done him in. Which is the cue for mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband Major Hugh Payne to get involved and try to unravel this tricky case, which is full of a fair number of twists and turns.

Having reviewed two of Raichev's books now (here's the other), I'm still not quite sure what to make of them. I find them to be very well-written and entertaining to read but for me they're lacking that little bit of something that would put them into the must-read category along with the likes of someone like Christopher Fowler or C.S. Challinor. I can't quite figure out what it is that's missing. But I suspect that I'll be checking out another in this series at some point down the line. Perhaps it will come to me then.