Reviews


Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:


MR. & MRS. MURDER. FremantleMedia Australia/Bravado Productions; Network Ten, Australia. 13 episodes (20 February to 15 May 2013). Shaun Micallef (Charlie Buchanan), Kat Stewart (Nicola Buchanan), Jonny Pasvolsky (Peter Vinetti), Lucy Honigman (Jess Chalmers), Ben Geurens (Alan), Georgina Naidu (Janine). Creators: Shaun Micallef, Tim Pye, Jason Stephens. Available on Acorn TV via Roku.

            “We’re the cleaners.”

   Like the Nick and Nora Charles films of the ’30s and ’40s and the Mr. & Mrs. North TV series of the ’50s, Mr. & Mrs. Murder is a comedy series with occasional detectival interruptions, falling into the lightweight —you could say featherweight — category. Very cozy, this one, with virtually no on-screen violence.

   Series creator and star Shaun Micallef seems to be Australia’s answer to Stephen Fry as he alternately dazzles and annoys everyone with his wit and breadth of knowledge. He plays Charlie, who runs an industrial cleaning service with his more down-to-earth wife Nicola. They seem to have an exclusive contract with the Melbourne police to clean up messy crime scenes, but they simply can’t suppress their natural inclinations to investigate unsolved murders.

   The police are embodied in the person of Detective Vinetti, who (as befits plot requirements) tolerates the Buchanans’ meddling in the investigations principally because they get quick results. (Of course, it’s just barely possible that Nicola’s strong resemblance to Vinetti’s ex-wife might have something to do with it.)

   Nicola’s long-suffering live-in niece Jess is often unwillingly shanghaied into helping Charlie and Nicola with their “investigations,” and when they’re stuck for technical help they go to Alan, a wheelchair-bound boffin.

   When we say “featherweight,” we’re not kidding. Most of the mystery plots in this series are paper thin and not really all that interesting. The only episode that comes close to being first-rate is the next-to-last one, “Zootopia,” which the IMDb describes this way: “The zoo’s big-cat keeper dies by human hand, and the hippo keeper has gone missing. From clues and conversations, coworkers emerge as suspects. The break comes when Charlie gets a chance for some inside investigation during a sleepover safari.”

   While there are several scenes in this short-lived series that are truly hilarious, if you’re looking for another Nick and Nora you might be disappointed; we feel, however, that it’s just enough fun to make it worthwhile.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


JOHN BIRKETT – The Queen’s Mare. Michael Rhineheart #2. Avon, paperback original; 1st printing, 1990.

   Michael Rhineheart is a blue-collar type private detective operating in Louisville, Kentucky. (Maybe he’s the reason that Haskell Blevins had to flee to Pigeon Fork to hang up his shingle.) He has a young secretary named McGraw who doesn’t like to be called one and who passionately yearns to join Rhineheart in detecting and is also assisted when he needs it by a much older private detective named Farnsworth.

   In this offering he is hired to act as go-between in the delivery of ransom money for a kidnapped mare and colt; but not just any mare and colt These are owned by one of the leading Bluegrass families, and are due to be part of an exhibition soon for the Queen of England.

   The family has the obligatory strange members and twisty past, and it’s soon obvious that the problems revolve around that past, the family, or both. The aged matriarch who hired Rhineheart is ambivalent about it all, and has problems of her own. The overall impact of the tale was diminished severely for me by an ending that I couldn’t believe in.

   I enjoyed the book while reading it, though. If Birkett isn’t in the top rank of PI writers, he nevertheless tells a good story, and the protagonists are likeable. People are perhaps a tad more willing to spill their guts on cue to our hero than reality would dictate, and there’s of course the obligatory personal friend on the police department, but he’s hardly alone in using (and over-using) these conventions.

   I enjoyed the first Rhineheart book, The Last Private Eye (Avon, 1988) also.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.


Editorial Comment:   These are the only two books by John Birkett in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV. The author died in 2009 in his early 70s.

THE AVENGERS BEFORE DIANA RIGG –
PART ONE: THE BEGINNINGS
by Michael Shonk.


THE AVENGERS, Seasons 1-2. ABC, (Associated British Corporation) Production for ITV, 1961-63. Patrick Macnee as John Steed (Seasons 1 and 2), Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel (Season 1), Ingrid Hafner as Carol Wilson (Season 1), Julie Stevens as Venus Smith (Season 2), and Jon Rollason as Dr. Martin King (Season 2). Theme composed and performed by Johnny Dankworth. Produced by Leonard White (Seasons 1and 2), John Bryce (Season 2).

   The recent death of Patrick Macnee had me and anyone else who has watched TV in the last fifty years thinking about The Avengers. Most fans of the series, especially Americans, are familiar with Emma Peel and the later seasons of The Avengers, but not the early seasons. I have always been curious on what happened before Diana Rigg arrived.

   It began with the failed British TV series Police Surgeon that starred the popular and talented actor Ian Hendry as Dr. Geoffrey Brent. ABC was looking for something different from the “realistic and gloomy plays” that currently filled the schedule. Originally plans were to spin-off the character Dr. Brent but for a variety of reasons it was decided to drop any connection the new series might have to Police Surgeon. ABC’s head of programming Sydney Newman and Police Surgeon producer Leonard White decided to create a new series around Ian Hendry. Newman, White and a group of production people and writers would create The Avengers, a hardboiled thriller with a dark sense of humor that starred Hendry as Dr. David Keel. Patrick Macnee was hired as spy John Steed in a supporting role. The only other connection The Avengers had to Police Surgeon was actress Ingrid Hafner who played Police Surgeon Nurse Amanda Gibbs and The Avengers Nurse Carol Wilson.

   For years the episode “The Frighteners” was the only surviving episode from the first season (or in British terms the first series), but then the episode “Girl On the Trapeze” and the first act of the first episode “Hot Snow” were found in the UCLA TV/Film archive. It is not unusual now to find all three on YouTube in various conditions.

   Despite the lack of actual episodes, today we know much more about the first season. Reconstructions of the missing programs can be found at Alan Hayes’ website “The Avengers Declassified.”

   There is also a book The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes – The Lost Stories of The Avengers, Series 1, by Richard McGinlay, Alan Hayes and Alys Hayes (Hidden Tiger, 2013) that examines each of the Season One episodes in detail. Another book by McGinlay and Alan Hayes, With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes – An Unauthorized Guide to The Avengers Series 1 (Hidden Tiger, 2014) examines behind the scenes of the first season. (I highly recommend both books, especially With Umbrella… for more details about the series than I can fit in here.)

   Also beloved audio producer Big Finish has begun to record audio recreations of the lost Season One episodes with Anthony Howell as Dr. Keel, Julian Wadham as John Steed and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Carol Wilson.

   The series first three seasons were shot live on videotape and in black and white. Because of a lack of worthy scripts and to gain more time Season One episode three was broadcast live and that would continue until episode ten returned to live on videotape.

   Because of the regional system of British TV, the actual airdates vary such as the first episode “Hot Snow” first aired in only two small regions (Midlands and North) on January 7, 1961 then in five other regions including London on March 18, 1961 and not transmitted at all in the final five regions. Because of this I have left the airdate off the episodes reviewed below.

   One note about the YouTube videos used here. Each is the best available at the moment, but the videos are marred by the unnecessary addition of a iris shape light in the center of the picture that was pointlessly added by whoever downloaded these episodes.

   “The Frighteners.” – Teleplay by Berkeley* Mather. Directed by Peter Hammond. Produced by Leonard White. Guest Cast: Willoughby Goddard, Philip Gilbert and Philip Locke. *** A rich father hires the Deacon and his “frighteners” to beat-up and scare off a man who wants to marry his daughter.

    * On-screen typo for Berkely Mather (author of Pass Beyond Kashmir (1960). The book almost adapted for film by Bond producers to star Sean Connery and Honor Blackman.)

   It is impossible to fairly critique this early episode after experiencing what would follow. Those who enjoy their crime melodrama’s hardboiled will enjoy this one. Ian Hendry turned in a fine performance as the reckless heroic Doctor Keel. But the series and Steed were still a work in progress. While Hendry was the star and the story focused on his character he was just one of many to assist the ruthless and flippant Steed. Perhaps the most noticeable difference between this The Avengers and those with Rigg was a lack of playfulness and fun.

   The first season of The Avengers was a mild success but was cut short by an Equity (actors) strike at ITV that began November 1961 and lasted until April 1962. Only twenty-six episodes were completed when the strike shut down production. Producer Leonard White and the writing staff continued to work on possible changes to the series. White had hoped to do thirty-nine episodes for the first season. In late 1961 White began to make plans to add a new female character to the cast, a jazz singer named Venus Smith. She and Dr. Keel would alternate episodes as Steed’s partner.

   As some point Ian Hendry broke his contract and left the series. Producer White would long hold out hope that Hendry might return if only for an occasional guest role.

   In February 1962 while the actors were still on strike, White briefed the writers about Season Two and its characters – John Steed as the lead, Venus Smith and Cathy Gale as his partners who would alternated episodes, and One-Ten (one of the men to give Steed his instructions – played by Douglas Muir in five episodes).

   The strike ended in April and The Avengers resumed production in May, despite not having yet cast the roles of Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman would get the part in June 1962) or Venus Smith. The first audition for the role of Venus was held in August 1962 and Angela Douglas (Carry On… film series) was hired. But then for some reason she was no longer available. A second audition was held August 31, 1962 and Julie Stevens was selected for the role of Venus Smith. But Steed needed some one to be his partner to resume shooting in May, and despite his hopes producer White finally realized Ian Hendry was not coming back.

   Enter Dr. Martin King played by Jon Rollason. An obvious fill-in for Ian Hendry who was now off making movies, Rollason lacked the talent and wit of Hendry. He lasted only three episodes – “Mission To Montreal,” “Dead On Course,” and “The Sell-Out.” All three episodes made use of first season scripts written for Hendry’s Dr. David Keel, “Mission To Montreal” was originally “Gale Force,” “Dead On Course” was “The Plane Wreckers,” while “Sell-Out” kept its original title. Little was changed except the characters’ names with Dr. David Keel becoming Dr. Martin King and Keel’s Nurse Carol Wilson (Ingrid Hafner) replaced by Judy (played by Gillian Muir).

   “Mission To Montreal.” Teleplay by Lester Powell. Directed by Don Leaver. Produced by Leonard White. Guest Cast: Patricia English, Iris Russell, and Mark Eden. *** When a sex-symbol star’s stand-in is killed in her dressing room the terrified actress quits and takes a cruise to Montreal.

   The episode was an average TV thriller about a cruise ship full of spies and various suspicious characters. While Rollason is instantly forgettable in the leading role, Macnee continued to make the callous Steed almost likable.

   Poor Julie Stevens. She had a nice voice but lacked a great deal as a performer and actress. It was not her fault the writers failed so epically with the character of Venus Smith.

   The idea of adding a jazz singer with the backdrop of the shady wicked world of the nightclub seemed to fit Steed’s work and the naughty second season. The additional music could enhance the current and popular soundtrack work of Johnny Dankworth. It would also allow more sexual situations, something both Newman and White wanted to add in the second season. Yet somehow they went from casting a CARRY ON girl as Venus Smith to inexperienced young Julie Stevens. Venus became a naïve not too bright twenty-year old – an anti-Mrs. Catherine Gale.

   The writers seemed lost what to do with Venus. She seemed to exist to get in the way and need rescued. There are episodes when we wonder why Venus is even there. In “A Chorus of Frogs,” Steed involves Venus in a dangerous mission without asking just so he would have a cabin to stay in when he stows away on a ship. The Steed-Venus relationship is as creepy as Steed would ever get as he flirts with her then ruthlessly toss the clueless young girl into situations that could cost Venus her life.

   Thankfully for all, Venus lasted only six episodes in the second season -“The Decapod,” “The Removal Man,” “Box of Tricks,” School of Traitors,” “Man In the Mirror,” and “A Chorus of Frogs.”

   “The Removal Man.” Teleplay by Roger Marshall and Jeremy Scott. Directed by Don Leaver. Produced by Leonard White. Guest Cast: Edwin Richfield, Patricia Denys, George Roderick and The David Lee Trio (David Lee: piano, Spike Heatley: double bass, and Art Morgan: drums). Recurring Cast: Douglas Muir as One-Ten. *** Steed goes undercover to stop a gang of hired killers with high profile targets. One-Ten and Steed have arranged to have the unsuspecting Venus get hired to sing at one of the gang member’s nightclub.

   An above average hardboiled thriller with logic problems and an unlikable Steed. There is no real reason for Venus to be there except to sing and to have someone there to ruin undercover Steed’s plan. This episode is a good sample of the increased kinkiness of the second season with hints of nudity and sexual banter. The nightclub setting was underused and the music for the most part seemed to be filler for a too short script.

   Venus’s music numbers were: “An Occasional Man” (by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin – originally for the film Girl Rush, 1955), “I May Be Wrong “ (by Henry Sullivan and Henry Ruskin, 1929) and “Sing For Your Supper” (by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart – originally for stage play “The Boys of Syracuse,” 1938).

   David K. Smith’s website “Avengers Forever” has a cheeky essay from this episode co-writer Roger Marshall about writing for The Avengers and some of his co-workers such as Brian Clemens.

   Producer Leonard White would leave the series during Season Two. Replacing White was John Bryce, one of the series story editors from the beginning. Executive Sydney Newman left to run BBC programming and help create Doctor Who and Adam Adamant Lives!

   Steed’s third and main partner in Season Two would save the series. Next we will examine the story of Mrs. Catherine Gale as played by Honor Blackman.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE RETURN OF DRACULA. Gramercy Pictures/United Artists, 1958. Francis Lederer, Norma Eberhardt, Ray Stricklyn, John Wengraf, Virginia Vincent, Gage Clarke. Director: Paul Landres.

   This one has been on my radar for sometime, but I never got around to watching it until now. Which is surprising, given my general fondness for the Dracula legend, B-horror films, and the late Francis Lederer as an actor.

   I’m glad I finally did. Simply put, The Return of Dracula does low-budget horror right.

   Directed by Paul Landres, who also directed a movie with the unelaborate title, The Vampire (1957), the storyline of The Return of Dracula is absurd on its face. The infamous Carpathian count flees Eastern Europe for sunny California in order to reboot his vampire empire. So, if you can suspend even more disbelief than you’re ordinarily expend in watching a vampire movie, you will get the chance to see Dracula (Lederer) as he takes on the identity of a man he kills and shacks up with a California suburban family. All the while pretending to be the family’s exotic cousin. Dracula’s naturally got his eye on his supposed second cousin, the beautiful and innocent Rachel Mayberry (Norman Eberhardt). Well, that’s the case until she decides to start wearing a cross around her neck.

   So with a plot like this, what’s there to like? The answer: plenty. What the movie lacks in terms of a compelling storyline, it more than makes up in atmosphere and mood. There are numerous camera shots that aren’t particularly elaborate, but work extraordinarily well in creating a general sense of uneasiness for the viewer, provoking an otherworldly sense that something just isn’t right, of a world off kilter.

   The film is likewise well served by a minimal and eerie soundtrack that heightens the tension at the right moments. And while Mayberry may not have been the most skilled of actresses, Lederer, in one of his late film roles, more than holds his own in his portrayal of one of literature’s best-known monster villains.

 RONALD TIERNEY – The Concrete Pillow. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1995. Worldwide Library, paperback, March 1997.

   I purchased but never read the first four of the Indianapolis PI Deets Shanahan series when they came out in paperback, but there was a gap of nine years before the next one appeared, and I missed picking up any of those. It was not, in fact, until reading Kevin Burton Smith’s recent article in Mystery Scene about the series that I realized that Tierney had starting writing the books again, and that they have been coming out quite regularly.

   Save for the last one, Killing Frost, which has appeared after a time lapse of five years, and which I am told will definitely mean the end of the line for the series. I don’t know exactly what that means, but part of the ongoing focus of the Shanahan books is his age. In The Concrete Pillow, published some 20 years ago, he is 70. I don’t think he’s aged at the same rate as the rest of us, but he must at least be thinking of retirement.

   In Pillow, book number four, and the first one I was able to find in my collection when I went looking, Shanahan is already feeling his age, not so much physically, but mentally, worrying about forgetting things in particular.

   The case itself has to do with a dysfunctional family of some fame in Indiana, as the four Lindstrom brothers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were quadruplets and well-known stars of their high school basketball team. Since then, however, things have not gone well for them. One is dead, the other permanently disabled, and Deets (short for Dietrich) is hired by the third, strung out on drugs but convinced that someone is going to kill him.

   Deets has a 40-something live-in girl friend named Maureen, a former massage therapist, and a family crisis of his own to deal with. A son he has not seen in 30 years is coming for a visit, along with a grandson whom he has of course never seen before at all. He does not know how he will handle this but this aspect of the story becomes as important as solving the care he is hired to solve. Two families in turmoil, one unhappily, the other, well maybe there’s hope there.

   Unfortunately the mystery end of things winds up with Deets setting himself up for bait, waiting for the killer, still unknown, to make a move against him. The ploy works, but if you are looking for more detective work than this, you may not be satisfied. I think, though, that if you like Bill Pronzini’s Nameless PI series, where character as well the case solving comes into play, you might want to give this one a try.

The Deets Shanahan series –

1. The Stone Veil (1990)
2. The Steel Web (1991)
3. The Iron Glove (1992)

4. The Concrete Pillow (1995)
5. Nickel-Plated Soul (2004)

6. Platinum Canary (2005)
7. Glass Chameleon (2006)
8. Asphalt Moon (2007)
9. Bloody Palms (2008)
10. Bullet Beach (2010)

11. Killing Frost (2015)

PERSONAL REPORT, INC. Unsold pilot, 30m, Desilu, 1959? Wayne Morris, Touch Connors, Nancy Hadley, Ted deCorsia, Dabbs Greer, Ann Doran, Bill Lundmark. Created by Martin N. Leeds. Teleplay: Donald H. Clark & Don Martin. Producer-Director: Lee Sholem.

   There’s not a lot of information about this show on the Internet. One reference on IMDb gives the date as 1959, but there is no entry for the show itself. The two main stars play a pair of former FBI agents, Larry Blair (Wayne Morris) and Bradley Martin (Touch Connors) who have set up shop as private detectives, and they seem to be doing very well at it. The case that’s dramatized in this failed pilot is a very easy one, though. A young man has confessed to a murder, but his parents hire the two of them to prove he didn’t do it.

   Turns out that the dead man had refused the confessed killer his sister’s hand in marriage. Obviously the young man thought she did it. It also turns out that the police autopsy report says the dead man was killed two hours before the confessed killer says he did. Obviously the police prefer their cases open and shut, and messy details like this don’t matter.

   Touch Connors, later known as Mike, is the one who does most of the footwork and in the process manages to get hit on the head once, way before Mannix came along, but for what purpose, as far as the real killer is concerned, is not exactly clear. Connors, by the way, is loose and relaxed as an actor, and it can easily be seen that he was destined to a TV star. (Hindsight is great, however, isn’t it?) Wayne Morris’s performance, in quite a contrast, is forced and stiff. He died later that year of a massive heart attack, at the age of only 45.

   Overall, there’s not much a premise to begin with here, and there’s nothing special about either the story or the stars to latch onto either. If I were a would-be sponsor, I’d pass, too.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


ROMULUS AND THE SABINES. Finanziaria Cinematografica Italiana, Italy, 1961. Original title: Il ratto delle sabine. Roger Moore, Mylène Demongeot, Georgia Mool, Scilla Gabel, Marino Masé, Jean Marais, Rosanna Schiaffino. Director: Richard Pottier.

   I was curious. Roger Moore, in an early film role, portraying the founder of Rome in an Italian sword-and-sandal epic? Although I hardly expected a wondrous cinematic experience, I simply felt as if I had to see Romulus and the Sabines. After all, Moore was always my favorite Bond actor and this movie also starred French actress Mylène Demongeot as a Sabine vestal virgin princess.

   What’s not to like?

   Turns out, a lot. It’s not so much that Romulus and the Sabines doesn’t try its best to entertain audience, as it is that reaches for something beyond its grasp. Designed to be a lighthearted take on the mythological “Rape of the Sabine Women,” the film has some comedic moments and a playful historical take on the battle of the sexes, but falls victim to a flaccid, predictable script and unexceptional cinematography and direction.

   That said, Moore in his portrayal of Romulus has a singular, unforgettable screen presence. The facial expressions, from the furrowing of an eyebrow to the classic Moore smirk. It’s all there and it’s great. But it’s simply not enough to make Romulus and the Sabines anything other than an historical curiosity, in both senses of the word.

   Transforming one of the founding myths of Rome into a fanciful romantic comedy of manners is an ambitious undertaking. As much as I generally loathe remakes, I wouldn’t mind seeing an independent director taking a stab at rebooting this one. But would there even be an audience for it? That’s a tough call.

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