TV mysteries

THE SAINT “The Latin Touch.” ITV, UK, 60m, 11 October 1962 (Season 1, Episode 2). Black and white. First shown in the US in first-run syndication, dates unknown, then per Wikipedia, it was picked up by NBC as a summer replacement series in 1967 (in color). Roger Moore (Simon Templar, aka The Saint), Alexander Knox, Doris Nolan, Bill Nagy, Warren Mitchell, Peter Illing, Marie Burke, Suzan Farmer, Robert Easton. Screenplay: Gerald Kelsey and Dick Sharples, based on the character created by Leslie Charteris. Director: John Gilling.

   Wherever Simon Templar goes, he always seems to find someone in trouble to help. In this case, he’s in Rome wandering around the outside the ruins of the Coliseum, when he overhears a young woman arguing with an aggressively over-shady taxi driver about the amount he would like to overcharge her. Solving that problem quickly, he walks off with her, only to be slugged over the head and then waking up to discover she has been kidnapped.

   It turns out that she is the daughter of the governor of Indiana, who is in Rome with his wife on a combination of vacation and trade mission. It is not money the kidnappers want, however, but a reprieve of a deported Mafia boss’s brother about to executed back in the states. Templar, of course, offers to help the distraught parents, but time is not on their side.

   Besides the more than satisfactory performance of Roger Moore, who was still very youthful looking at this early stage of his career, Alexander Knox’s well-defined role as the worried father, caught in a serious bind — choosing between his daughter’s life against that of a hardened criminal — is of special note, as is that of Warren Mitchell as the street savvy cabdriver, the first of three such appearances. And with veteran director John Gilling at the helm, the 60 minutes of running time (less commercials) goes by very quickly.

   With that said, I should also point out the only flaw I saw: I was able to pick up on the final twist a lot faster than The Saint did. That shouldn’t have happened!


BECK. Sweden, beginning 1997. 10 seasons to date (not consecutive). Peter Haber, Mikael Persbrandt. Based on the characters created by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

   A few notes before going on with the review, the first being that much of the information on this series at IMDb is wrong. The series ran ten seasons (all available on Hulu), not six. (*) The 1997 series does not have the same cast as the one produced in 1993, and most of the episode descriptions are wildly wrong. It is not a series about “Martin Beck and his eccentric partner,” as IMDb suggests, and the story lines read as though they were written by someone with limited understanding of Swedish who didn’t have English subtitles. They sound like bad guessing based on badly translated TV Guide summaries.

   Based on the series of books by the husband and wife writing team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Beck follows a Stockholm based homicide squad in Sweden lead by Martin Beck (Peter Haber), a weary stodgy but gifted policeman with troubles at home, hypochondria, and resentment of the difficulty created by politics interfering with his investigations. Typically one of his detectives Lena Klingstrom (Stina Rautlein) formerly had an affair with and lived with Beck, but is now back on his team.

   His top investigator Gunvald Larsson is given to overuse of violence and questionable tactics, and something of an attractive oaf in the books, here played by Mikael Persbrandt (Swedish televisions spy series Hamilton) as the most attractive character in the series, whose brutal tactics usually work though he runs afoul of Internal Affairs fairly often. Gunvald is jealous of his position on the team, often rude, sexist, and would be a total ass if Persbrandt wasn’t such a good actor and the writers obviously enthralled by actor and character. As is, he brings much needed charisma to the series and an antidote to Haber’s Beck’s pained expressions and sad sack existence.

   As in the books the series is a police procedural, but beyond the name of the two main characters, once the second season passed, the episodes have little to do with Sjowall and Wahloo’s rather dark view of Sweden. (Wahloo was a Marxist -leaning journalist who weighs the books down a bit with his bleak view of his country and anything vaguely resembling Democracy.) A few episodes in the first two seasons reflect this, and Beck’s hypochondria emerges off and on over the course of the series, but the series presents a brightly lit colorful view of Sweden even when tackling serious issues (which it does well and regularly) like drugs, child abuse, government abuses, corporate crime, and the like.

   The wealthy and powerful don’t fare all that well, so some of Wahloo’s Marxist philosophy still slips through. By the by, I’m not being political, Wahloo was a well,known actual Marxist,leaning journalist highly critical of his homeland and the West. It’s how he was known before he began writing mystery novels. It’s not my opinion, it’s his own description of himself.

   And while true to the books, the series spends far too much time on Beck’s tiresomely painful private life. Rebecka Hemse has a recurring role as his combative single-mother daughter Inger who in the most recent season is secretly seeing Larsson, who is twelve years older than her. Beck is not happy when he finds out.

   Also filling out far too much of the time of the average 1 hour and 25 minute episode (many episodes were released as movies) is Beck’s annoying neighbor, or “Grannen” (Ingvar Hirdwall), who is not only eccentric, but insulting, casually racist, and boring as hell. Maybe I just don’t understand the Swedish sense of humor, but I clearly don’t get this guy who seems to have wandered in from a bad episode of Seinfeld.

   But aside from that character, the actors are good with Haber (not my idea of Beck at all) quite good, and Persbrandt far more charismatic than the books ever imagined Gunvald.

   Episodes are good, they just aren’t Martin Beck, at least not Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck. Some of them are very good though.

   “The Japanese Print” from the most recent season is a good example. Hans Sperbling is a grossly obese German policeman who has assisted Beck in Germany in the past; he’s pretty much Germany’s Beck. He has come to Stockholm quietly to bid at an art auction on a rare signed Shunga period erotic print, which he loses out to an attractive woman who identifies herself as an art agent and offers him first look at some Shunga prints and Marc Chagall prints she has in her room later that evening.

   When she doesn’t show up he goes upstairs at the hotel and finds her room open. He calls his friend Martin Beck and together they find her murdered, posed like a well known Chagall print “Woman on Bed of Roses”, and the prints gone.

   Gunvald doesn’t much trust his boss’s German friend, who despite Beck’s protests has to stay during the investigation. There are two more murders each a tableau mordant copying works of art.

   Meanwhile Beck’s grandson drops the bomb that Gunvald is dating Inger.

   The investigation leads to dealers who fix low prices at auctions illegally as well as a series of fake Chagall prints made from the original color lithographic stones that were supposed to have been destroyed. It turns out to be a multi million dollar scam and ends with Sperbling and Gunvald teamed in what works out to be a pretty good Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin vibe before going a bit melodramatic at the end with a wealthy mad collector and his armed henchmen.

   To be honest, the fat German and Gunvald are a more interesting team than Beck and Gunvald.

   The series shown on Hulu is subtitled, but this particular episode includes long sequences in English, and most episodes have some English language dialogue.

   Other than Beck’s neighbor and private life, the usual problems with series television apply. Far too many episodes end in gunfire, far too often the criminal is brought in out of thin air, and more often than is good for the series, the protagonists somehow manage to get “revenge” on the bad guy. Almost none of those problems were true to the books, which were often clever, and I suspect not to the 1993 episodes often based on the novels.

   Other than the climate, there is nothing very Swedish about the series. The plots are mostly clever and well done, acting good, and writing above average, but they could be set in any large Western capital in any country and any language, and you wouldn’t notice much of a change, a reminder that Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern played Beck and Gunvald in the Americanized film of The Laughing Policeman.


(*) IMDB says six seasons, but lists episodes since 1997 with breaks of several years between episodes over the years, the last in 2018. Wikipedia has seven seasons, but Hulu lists the series as ten seasons as did MHv where the series was also shown. I would tend to suspect both IMDb and Wikipedia haven’t been updated since they were written.

DRAGNET “The Big Lift.” NBC, 22 September 1955 (Season 5 Episode 4). Jack Webb (Sgt. Joe Friday), Ben Alexander (Officer Frank Smith), Dan Barton, Marian Richman, Kurt Martell, Alan Harris. Opening narration: George Fenneman; closing narration: Hal Gibney. Screenplay: John Robinson. Producer-director: Jack Webb.

   All of the famous hallmarks of the series were well-established by the time this episode was televised, early in the fourth season: the opening theme (!), the voiceover narration introducing the program (“The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”), the terse almost clipped dialogue throughout the story itself, and the closing remarks (“In a moment, the results of that trial.”). All of these elements were probably there from the very first episode, back on December 14, 1951, since the series had been transferred lock stock and barrel from a highly successful radio series: Dragnet on the radio had begun earlier in 1949, running to 1955, with reruns broadcast for two more years.

   I’ve not watched many of the early episodes since the the first series was on the air, so I’m not sure how common one aspect of this one was: Comic interludes! Examples: Friday and Smith are working out of Burglary and are extremely frustrated in coming up any kind of clues for a series of 17 recent break-ins. Joe Friday and his partner are sitting in a diner trying to order breakfast while being ragged by the guy on the other side of the counter (not knowing they are cops) about how the burglar is running circles around the entire police force.

   The wife of a recently robbed couple, when asked if she’d seen anyone suspicious hanging around before the theft, goes into a quiet mini-rant about how housewives are far too busy to take notice of such things. When another good citizen reports seeing a strange car cruising back and forth in front of his house, he also provides Friday and Smith with a license plate number. Turns out the car was a police car.

   One thing I missed in this episode is seeing the faces of actors I knew only from their voices I’d heard on the radio. The cast in this one is very good, but I recognized neither their names nor their faces.

   One last thought. Not only the cast was good, but also the direction and the overall production. I wonder how much time was spent in rehearsal to get everything running so smoothly and the dialogue in sync.

ROADBLOCK. Pilot episode, 1958. MCA-TV/Revue. Later shown on (Heinz) Studio 57 as “Getaway Car,” 29 March 1958 (Season 4, Episode 19, in first-run syndication). Michael Connors, John McIntyre, Wallace Ford, Olan Soule, Irene James. Teleplay: Fredric Brady, based on the story “The Homesick Buick” by John D. MacDonald (EQMM, September 1950). Director: Earl Bellamy.

   The only clue the California cops have to catch a gang of bank robbers who made their getaway in separate automobiles is by cross-referencing the locations of the stations the radio of one of the cars was preset to. The driver himself is dead, with no ID on him, having been shot while driving away.

   I don’t get it. VIN’s have been around since 1954, and the car didn’t look older than that, but maybe it was. No matter. The rest of the case is based on faulty deductions, luck and pure guesswork. No wonder this pilot episode of a proposed new series, sort of a early precursor to CHiPs, went nowhere fast.

   A young Michael Connors plays a special motorcycle-riding state investigator in this one, young and very earnest. Most of the other roles are played by old-timers who could do short plays like this in their sleep.


Note: Michael Shonk also reviewed this busted pilot a while ago on this blog. You can read his comments here.

       This is music that speaks for itself:


MURDER MYSTERY. Netflix, 2019. Running time: 97 minutes. Cast: Adam Sandler (Nick Spitz), Jennifer Aniston (Audrey Spitz), Luke Evans (Charles Cavendish), Terence Stamp (Malcolm Quince), Gemma Arterton (Grace Ballard), David Walliams (Tobey Quince), Dany Boon (Inspector de la Croix). Producers: 19 of them. Writer: James Vanderbilt. Director: Kyle Newacheck.

   It probably looked good on paper, but this production is a misfire from the get-go. You know that right away when the most capable actor on screen (Terence Stamp) gets “murdered” five minutes after he shows up.

   We can appreciate the fact that it’s an attempt to recapture the screen chemistry of Nick and Nora or Mr. and Mrs. North, but it just doesn’t work with these two leads. We found ourselves sitting there urging potty-mouthed “comedian” Adam Sandler to do something worthwhile (“If you can’t be coherent, at least make us laugh.”), but the moment never came. We found Jennifer Aniston’s character far more engaging, but it’s nowhere near enough to save this mess.

   If you’ve got an hour and a half to kill and you don’t give a rat’s navel how you do it, then this may be the movie for you. To be frank, we think Murder Mystery could possibly be the nail in the coffin for romantic comedy mysteries for some time to come. If there are plans for a follow-up to this one, our advice is “Don’t even try it!”


MONK. “Mr. Monk and the 12th Man.” Season 2, episode 9 (22nd of 125). First broadcast: August 22, 2003. Cast: Tony Shalhoub (Adrian Monk), Bitty Schram (Sharona Fleming), Jason Gray-Stanford (Lieutenant Randy Disher), Ted Levine (Captain Stottlemeyer), Jerry Levine (Kenny Shale), Ed Marinaro (Stewart Babcock), Billy Gardell (Ian Agnew), Lauren Tom (Mrs. Ling), David Figlioli (Tommy Zimm), Jimmy Shubert (Frank Pulaski), Deborah Zoe (Lisa Babcock). Writing staff: Andy Breckman (creator), Michael Angeli (writer), David Breckman (executive story editor), Daniel Dratch (story editor), Hy Conrad (staff writer). Director: Michael Zinberg.

   There have already been nine apparently unrelated murders in the San Francisco Bay area by the time a toll booth attendant is brutally dragged to death along 7/10ths of a mile of paved highway behind a sports car. The police, as is often the case in these shows, don’t have a clue, since there is no known connection among the victims. Captain Stottlemeyer talks with Monk, the department’s unofficial consultant:

    “Any connection?” asks Monk.

    “No, no connections at all. I mean, four have been men, five women. All different ages—Latino, black, white.”

    “And the M.O.s?”

    “All different. There’s been a couple of shootings—all different weapons, a hit-and-run, a drowning, an electrocution. It’s . . . it’s like a full moon every night.”

    “And you’re sure,” says Monk, “that the cases have absolutely nothing in common?”

    “Well, they have one thing in common, Monk: we can’t solve them. I swear, there’s something in the water here.”

    … but the water, unfortunately, isn’t to blame.

   According to Monk, the more he thinks about it the more he sees how all of the victims do have one thing in common: “Captain, this is a very diverse group,” one that’s “too diverse.” “I’m talking statistics,” he says. “You’d have to work hard, really hard, to find a group this different.” Finding a common denominator in a series of crimes can be one of the first steps in discovering a hidden motive, and once you know the motive you’re well on your way to finding the killer(s) . . .

   Normally we’re not too fond of serial killer stories, but this one is, thankfully, low on grue and high on plot. As in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, understanding the “why” is essential to arriving at the “who,” and this episode of Monk is a worthy successor to Dame Agatha’s classic story (there’s even an echo of it in “12th Man,” a murder in a darkened theater).

   A few years ago Curt Evans had a Mystery*File article about Seasons 1-4 of Monk (here), in which he wrote: “Season two, on the other hand, seems to me nearly flawless. The ingenuity of the mystery plots often is quite remarkable, in my view, for forty-five minute television shows.”

   We agree; the cleverness of the second season shows (and “12th Man” is one of them) was so good that the series never came as close to being that smart again. “Mr. Monk and the Missing Granny” earns high marks for cleverly obscuring the motive; “Mr. Monk Goes to the Circus” excels at exploding the impossible alibi; and “Mr. Monk and the Sleeping Suspect” takes exploding impossible alibis to stratospheric heights (those ketchup bottles—brilliant!)

   Indeed, for a long time we regarded “Sleeping Suspect” as the acme of Monk, but watching it again we’ve noticed how some of the events are throwaways not closely relating to the central story line, vignettes which are in there more for character development than driving the plot — and, we hasten to add, there’s nothing wrong with that, if done in moderation.

   The principal virtue of “12th Man,” on the other hand, is how everything — and we mean EVERYTHING — dovetails with the plot. Such apparently irrelevant elements as Sharona’s hot and heavy romance with a mayoral candidate, a man with a pipe in his head, a finger in a freezer, the outcome of a court case, and Mrs. Ling’s headaches with Monk’s dry cleaning actually serve the plot as well as being comic moments in their own right. Nothing in “12th Man” is wasted; it all fits, which is something so few dramatic mystery presentations can boast.

   Recognizing how well the various plot elements meshed (or so we’d like to imagine), the MWA nominated “12th Man” for a Major Award (as well as another Monk episode), putting us in agreement with them, for once; even so, it lost. (The winner, as it turned out, was an installment of The Practice. Nice going, MWA!)


MY LIFE IS MURDER. TV series produced by Network 10, Melbourne, Australia. One-hour episodes, starting 17 July 2019. Cast: Lucy Lawless as Alexa Crowe; Bernard Curry as Detective-Inspector Kieran Hussey; Ebony Vagulans as Madison Feliciano; Alex Andreas as George Strathopoulos, the owner of Baristas Café; Dilruk Jayasinha as Dr. Suresh; and Todd River & Elliot Loney as Captain Thunderbolt, Alexa’s pet cat. Producer: Elisa Argenzio; Lucy Lawless, executive producer.

   The cleverest thing about this new detective series is how they integrate the show’s title card into the location shots of photogenic Melbourne; it goes without saying that the most attractive thing about it is Lucy Lawless, formerly a long-haired brunette warrior princess turned short-coiffed blonde; but the least appealing part of the show is the tired plots, too many of which have been done to death.

   Only the backgrounds, the everyday world inhabited by the characters in front of which the series takes place, have anything new about them. And “cozy” is the word here, with the violence content barely moving the meter — but at least the cat doesn’t try to solve the crimes.

   The first episode of ten, “The Boyfriend Experience,” has a young woman dying from a great fall being investigated by Alexa, an ex-cop, at the request of D-I Kieran, who thinks a male prostitute is responsible; the trouble is, the closer she gets to this guy the less she thinks he might be the killer.

   The second show, “The Locked Room,” has an executive being murdered in a locked hotel room. To solve that conundrum Alexa must first establish a motive, but her prime suspects all alibi each other. The locked-room gimmick is far from ingenious, but we’re thinking it just might work.

   Episode three, “Lividity in Lycra,” has Alexa giving up jogging temporarily and taking up endurance bike riding because the victim, while cycling up a mountain, has died of dual traumas in what looks like a heart attack followed by cracking his skull in falling to the pavement; Alexa’s pretty sure she knows who did it, but the problem is determining how, with GPS coming to the rescue.

   The fourth show, “Can’t Stand the Heat,” has Alexa going under cover as a student in a cooking school looking for who might have murdered an aspiring chef.

   In this one, Alexa loses a lot more blood just trying to prepare food than from any bad guys that she’s encountered so far (her bandages, at least, match her outfits). The head chef is hardly a help, being a female version of that “Hell’s Kitchen” guy, complete with high-pressure demeanor and multiple f-bombs.

   One more thing. The character of Ebony Vagulans, Alexa’s Internet cyber-whizkid, undergoes a radical and unexplained attitude change going from the first two episodes, where Alexa could barely get her to do anything, to begging for Alexa’s next assignment — but, with those thick, rapid-fire Aussie accents, maybe we missed something.

   The TV series Johnny Staccato lasted for one season on NBC between September 10, 1959 and March 24, 1960. It starred John Cassavetes as the title character, a jazz pianist who doubled as a private detective in his off hours. Elmer Bernstein was the composer of the music heard below:

SIMON & SIMON “Details at Eleven.” CBS, 24 November 1981. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Jameson Parker (A.J. Simon), Gerald McRaney, (Rick Simon), Jeannie Wilson, Cecilia Simon, Eddie Barth. Guest Cast: Peter Graves, Markie Post, Sharon Acker. Writer: Philip DeGuere Jr. Director: Corey Allen.

   Total opposites, even if they are brothers, make good partners, even in the private eye business, or so is the premise of this long-running TV series. A.J. is the laid-back one, wearing blue jeans and cowboy boot,s while Rick wears suits and ties in the bast Wall Street tradition.

   As I understand it, this first episode was not the pilot, but while it takes a while, I’d have to say that it serves the purpose, which is to introduce the recurring vast members, letting the viewer get to know them and who they are. The two brothers bicker a lot, mostly about their childhood and how Mom liked the other best.

   Of course when they get in a jam, as in “Details at Eleven,” when they get stuck in Mexico without a car, who comes to their rescue? Mom, of course. In this story they’re hired by a woman whose daughter is missing. It turns out that she has documents that will prove that her stepfather, a prominent newscaster in San Diego area, is on the take from gangsters who are hoping to promote him to public office.

   What I noticed first of all is how fast paced this episode was. No long scenes of cars driving from one place to another, or planes landing or taking off, a la some episodes of The Rockford Files, among a few others.

   I also assume the bickering between the two mismatched brothers had a lot to do with their long-term appeal. The show was on for eight seasons, but for whatever reason this is the first episode I’ve ever seen, and I don’t know why. I enjoyed this one, and as I have the first season on DVD, I will be watching more.

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