March 2015


THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


FRANK SHAY – The Charming Murder. Macaulay, hardcover, 1930.

   This is Frank Shay’s first attempt, and that is indeed the operative word, at a mystery novel. There is a fine plot here, one worthy of Queen, Carr, or Christie. As it is worked out, however, it is unworthy of almost anyone.

   Dr. Jack Charming is an unhappy man, for several undeniable reasons: He is a millionaire and he is irresistible to women. Both of these drawbacks are getting in the way of his practice of medicine, his simple rounds in the hospital, and his marrying the not-yet-divorced fourth wife of a bounder. She appears to be no great catch, but such apparently is love.

   Charming has invited seven friends — and with friends like his he has no need for enemies — for cocktails and a buffet. At about 9:45 p.m. off they all go to the theater, followed by drinks at a nightclub, and then back to the doctor’s apartment. The doctor sends in his guests and keeps the taxi to take home the woman he wants to marry. The guests go into the apartment to discover the police, who inform them that Dr. Charming was shot dead in the apartment while they — well, most of them; things are a bit unclear here — were all there about 9:30 p.m.

   A nifty puzzle to work out, eh? Does the author accomplish the feat? Yes. Is it satisfactory ? No.

   The first-person narrator, a newspaperman of the not-too-bright breed that was prominent in those days, tells the reader in a prologue that “no one, save these same guests and his servants,” had access to Dr. Charming’s apartment at the time of the murder. He lies. At least five others did, and there was only one servant.

   The stage presentation that the group goes to see is Professor Proteus, an impersonator. During his act, he impersonates George Washington delivering his “Farewell Address to his Generals” — no, I hadn’t known about this either. His impersonation is “pure genius,” although how anyone would be able to judge is beyond me.

   Getting closer to the present, Proteus makes himself up like Abraham Lincoln and delivers the Gettysburg Address. The audience stamps on the floor after this performance, presumably in approval. Perhaps some of them were there for the original and remember it well.

   Finally, in the here and now, Proteus makes himself up to look like Charles Lindbergh standing in front of the “Spirit of St. Louis.” No remarks this time — what would they be? — but the house shakes with applause. A little authorial license here, one presumes. Proteus is obviously on to a good thing with this group.

   Then, as a departure from his regular act, Proteus says he will make himself up to look like a member of the audience. Dr. Charming is chosen, and Proteus does such a good job that even Charming’s friends can’t tell him from the good doctor.

   It turns out that Proteus has been paid by one of the Doctor’s party to impersonate him. Why? I don’t know, Proteus doesn’t know, and if the author knows, he isn’t splitting.

   A police sergeant, the newspaper reporter, and the widower of the woman Dr. Charming wanted to marry — yes, she’s dead, too, murdered about the same time as the Doctor but In a different place — are returning from the dead woman’s apartment. The widower won’t answer the sergeant’s questions, so the sergeant turns a flashlight on him and discovers that the man’s pupils do not respond to light, which means he’s either dead or the sergeant thinks he is. The sergeant gets out of the taxi an d tells the driver to take the corpse to the morgue, Ah, those were simpler days!

   The doctor’s apartment, joined to his office, is on the ground floor. In one of the many summings-up by police lieutenant Daniel (Deedee) Donor, he has one of the suspects going upstairs. One of the suspects is shot and killed while in the apartment, apparently by someone who thought he and the victim were on the second floor.

   Four people enter the apartment through a door that only the police have noticed. The reason it has not been noticed is that it is blocked by a steel cabinet. The question of how that group got through the steel cabinet is never raised.

   The group of four contained a gangster, his hit man who was supposed to kill Charming, and two people who were to play other roles but would have made excellent witnesses to the murder, something that seems not to have occurred to the gangster. Something else had not occurred to the gangster, and who this time can blame him? “I hears someone in the bathroom and when I whispers to ’em to lay quiet the guy with the gun lets it go off.” Good hit men have always been hard to find. Luckily for the gangster, someone else had already shot Charming.

   The man impersonating Charming — not Professor Proteus, remember — was dubious about being able to do the job successfully, but after “trailing” Charming for several days he is able to fool Charming’s friends, Charming’s mistress, and Charming’s would-like-to-be mistresses under the most testing of circumstances.

   The narrator becomes drunk and starts slurring his words, except when the author forgets to have him do it.

   Those who enjoy what Bill Pronzini deems “alternative classics” ought to appreciate this novel. Others should shun it.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 6, November-December 1987.


Bibliographic Note:   There was a second case that was solved by the same detective, that being chronicled in Murder on Cape Cod (Macaulay, 1931). A quick search on the Internet suggests that the second book is more difficult to obtain then the first.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


DOUG ALLYN – Motown Underground. Lupe Garcia #2. St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1993. No paperback edition.

   Allyn is the author of short stories and a previous Garcia novel [The Cheerio Killings, St. Martin’s, 1989], but his main livelihood is leading and playing in a rock band. His Detroit reminds me of Solamita’s NYC, and like Solamita’s stories, his are filled with mean, hard people on both sides of the law.

   Garcia is a Detroit cop on leave after an explosion that injured him and killed others, and is thinking about quitting. An old friend dying of cancer asks his help in getting out of an arrangement with a crook who is taking over his nightclub, but before Garcia can do anything, the crook is killed and his friend commits suicide. The cops think Garcia killed the crook, and he finds himself between their rock and a gangster hard place.

   This is a rough story, full of mean people, bad language, and bloody violence. It’s well and tersely written, with good dialogue and mostly believable characters. The ending didn’t quite come off, though, and I’m not sure I liked any of the characters enough to give a damn.

— Reprinted from Ah, Sweet Mysteries #9, September 1993.


Bibliographic Note:   These were only the two recorded advenures of Lupe Garcia.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE DEADLY TRACKERS. Warner Brothers, 1973. Richard Harris, Rod Taylor, Al Lettieri, Neville Brand, William Smith. Based on a story by Samuel Fuller. Directors: Barry Shear & Samuel Fuller, the latter uncredited.

   The first three minutes of The Deadly Trackers are about as annoying as you can possibly get. In what appears to be an attempt to be artistic and edgy, the movie begins with an unnecessary voice-over dialogue and a frame by frame introduction to the main character, Sean Kilpatrick (Richard Harris), a pacifist sheriff in a small border town.

   It’s enough to make you want to turn the whole thing off.

   I’m guess I am glad I didn’t. While I’d never go so far to say The Deadly Trackers is a particularly good or an effective Western, it does have something worthwhile going for it. That would be Al Lettieri (The Getaway, Mr. Majestyk), a veteran crime film actor who died at the early age of 47 in 1975. Lettieri portrays Gutierrez, a Mexican lawman, who is just about the remotely likable character in this gritty, sweaty, revenge thriller.

   The plot is simple enough. After Kilpatrick (Harris) witnesses his wife and son killed by the cruel Frank Brand (Rod Taylor), he gives up his pacifist ways (a little too easily, it should be noted) and sets out to seek Brand and his three henchmen, Schoolboy (William Smith), Choo Choo (a tired looking Neville Brand), and Jacob (Paul Benjamin). None of these men are particularly interesting villains save Choo Choo, a man with part of a railroad track for a hand.

   After crossing the border, Kilpatrick encounters Mexican lawman Gutierrez and engages in a series of cat and mouse chases with him. By the time the whole thing’s over, Kilpatrick has turned into a carbon copy of the man who killed his family. In the matter of less than two hours running time, he’s become a truly despicable character, so much so that you’re not sad when [SPOILER ALERT] Gutierrez shoots the lout in the back.

   And therein lies the problem with The Deadly Trackers. There’s no one really to root for. It’s mainly just a bunch of dirty, sickly looking men doing horrible things to one another.

   That may be a necessary ingredient for a certain type of Western, but it’s not sufficient to make this anything other than a historical curiosity: an American Spaghetti Western morality play about how blood lust corrupts, a story that attempts to be more profound than it actually is.

   The movie does have some decent cinematography, but it would have been a whole lot better had the film been told from Gutierrez’s point of view. He seems like the only character in this film that you wouldn’t be terrified to be around for more than a minute or two.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


THE KEY MAN. Anglo-Amalgamated Films, UK, 1957; United Artists, US, 1958, as Life at Stake. Lee Patterson, Hy Hazell, Philip Leaver, Harold Kasket, George Margo. Written by J. McLaren Ross. Directed by Montgomery Tully.

   Just another British-second-feature of its time, but a bit better than it needed to be and perhaps worthy of note.

   The film opens on joyous celebration scenes of VE-Day in London, then on to a lone figure walking, somber and purposeful, through the confetti and ticker-tape onto a quiet street and up to a mysterious door. He inserts a key and — all of a sudden three guys grab him! And next thing one of them is saying, “Arthur Smithers, you are under arrest for robbery and murder, and anything you say….”

   Flash forward twelve years. Smithers has been released from jail, and Radio Crime Reporter Lionel Hulme (Patterson) is trying to find him — and the whereabouts of the loot from the robbery he did time for. Hulme is also broke, fighting with his wife (Hazell) and trying to get an advance from his boss so he can follow this thing up. In due time, he gets a lead, finds out Smithers has died in mysterious circumstances, gets followed around a lot by a shadowy stranger, finds out Smithers is not dead, talks to a fatale-looking femme who may be Smithers’ wife, gets a call from an informant who has the information he needs and he’ll come right round with it (and we know what happened to that lot!) gets in a fight, a car chase….

   … all pretty much standard stuff, and it’s not helped by budgetary constraints that keep the background rather sketchy. We’re told, for instance, that Hulme is a Radio Crime Reporter, but all we ever see of the station is a couple of nondescript offices: no microphones, no bustling secretaries or sound engineers. Hell, Monogram did better than that!

   On the plus side though, the writer took some time to populate this with real-seeming people, the producer cast them rather well, and the director added some fine flourishes; there’s some well-judged camera-work here and there, including a nifty fight in a pitch-black barbershop fitfully lighted by an on-and-off neon sign outside.

   But it’s the characters that surprised me most. Our elusive criminal mastermind proves to be a fairly ordinary chap, podgy and middle-aged, with a pretty young wife who loves him anyway. The venal stool pigeon and phony tipster have moments of actual humanity, and when we go to the wrap-up, the final scene between the amateur sleuth and the mysterious lady, where I was expecting to hear “You’re taking the fall, Sweetheart,” I heard something instead very real and quite surprising. Check it out if you can.

Editorial Comment:   One should not confuse this movie (as I did, for a while) with a film noir released in the US in 1955 entitled A Life at Stake, starring Angela Lansbury and Keith Andes.

WHY DIDN’T THEY ASK EVANS? ITV, UK, 30 March 1980. PBS: Mobil Showcase, US, 21 May 1981, Three hours. Francesca Annis, John Gielgud, Bernard Miles, Eric Porter,Leigh Lawson, James Warwick, Madeline Smith, Connie Booth, Robert Longden. Based on the novel by Agatha Christie (also known as The Boomerang Clue). Directors: John Davies & Tony Wharmby.

   I read and reviewed The Boomerang Clue, the US title of the novel this long three-hour British TV movie was based on not too long ago. And since the TV version so closely follows the book version, I’m going to make it easy on myself and simply summarize the plot by repeating four paragraphs from that earlier review:

    “This one begins with a young Bobby Jones (not the famous one) hitting a golf ball and doing dreadfully at it, trying mightily several swings in succession, but hearing a cry, discovers a dying man lying at the bottom of cliff. He had fallen perhaps, as Bobby and his golfing partner believe, not to mention the police and the coroner’s jury, but we the reader know better.

    “Before he dies, though, the man utters a dying question: ‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’ We are at page 9 and the end of Chapter One, and anyone who can stop here is a better person than I.

    “Assisting Bobby in his quest for the truth, especially after surviving being poisoned by eight grains of morphia, is his childhood friend, Lady Frances Derwent, whom he calls Frankie. Together they make a great pair of amateur detectives, continuing to investigate the case even after the authorities have written the man’s death off as an accident.

    “The tone is light and witty, as if investigating a murder is a lark, but this intrepid pair of detectives do an excellent job of it, even to the extent of faking an automobile accident and inserting an “invalid” Frankie into their primary suspect’s home.”

   There are a couple of changes that where made in translating the book into film, but only one maybe matters. It is as good as a direct scene-for-scene production as you could ever hope for. (A later British telecast in 2011 wrote Miss Marple into the story and changed all kinds of other things around. From what I’ve read about it, it sounds horrible.)

   On the other hand, while scene-for-scene may sound ideal, it does make for a long production, three hours worth, and viewing it on DVD, I found that watching it over the course of two evening was possible but making it very difficult to remember by the end what had happened at the beginning. Luckily I had read the book only a few months earlier.

   Before pointing out the biggest change, I’d like to say that in the movie version I didn’t get the same light-hearted “let’s solve a murder” feeling the two young sleuths seemed to have in the opening half of the book. They tried, but it just didn’t seem to be there. But many scenes were just as I’d imagined them, especially the opening one, with a body being found on the rocks beneath a tall cliff along the shoreline of Wales.

   The major difference between the book and the movie comes at the end, when the killer (in the book) writes a long letter to Frankie explaining how the murder was carried out and tying up the loose ends.

   In the movie, the two — the killer and Frankie — have a direct confrontation in an empty house. The set-up for this didn’t make sense while I was watching it, but later on I realized that doing it as it was done in the book, reading a letter aloud on a TV screen would have bored everyone, including me.

   I believe but am not positive that this movie was shown in its entirety in one evening. (The video above is only Part 1 of 3.) If it did, the attention span necessary would have to have been even greater, but commercials (in the UK) would have helped considerably in terms of snacks, bathroom breaks and whatever else that would have been needed to get through what was, all-in-all, a very nicely done piece of entertainment.

PROFILER. Pilot Episode. NBC, 21 September 1996. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Ally Walker, Robert Davi, Julian McMahon, Roma Maffia, Michael Whaley, Peter Frechette, Erica Gimpel, Caitlin Wachs. Creator/screenplay: Cynthia Saunders. Director: John Patterson.

   I came by the DVD box for this series in part by accident. I saw a large lot of DVDs up for bids on eBay, and not only in the lot were all four seasons of this series, but three seasons of another NBC series that ran at the same time, The Pretender.

   I’d never heard of either series — I wasn’t watching much network TV at the time — but the opening bid was cheap enough ($99 for 65 DVDs) — and lo and behold, no one bid against me. Of the other DVDs in the the lot I kept another 15 or 20. The rest, mostly movies — romantic comedies — from the same time period, I’ll soon be donating to the Local Library.

   What I didn’t realize at the time, but I soon found out, was that basic premise of Profiler is catching another serial criminal every week, not always a killer, but arsonists and other assorted low life. Over and above that, and how it plays out over the entire length of the season I don’t know, is the presence of Ally Walker’s character’s nemesis, a serial killer dubbed “Jack of All Trades,” who notices that Dr. Samantha “Sam” Waters, is back in action again after a three years’ leave of absence.

   Whew. Sorry for that last sentence. I know it’s a long one. Sam is forensic psychologist with the unique ability to personalize crime scenes and “see” the killer, not with extrasensory perception, but by picking up clues that others miss. She’s called into action as this episode begins by her former mentor, Bailey Malone (Robert Davi) when the police in Atlanta run into a brick wall trying to catch a killer who has been killing another beautiful woman every Saturday night.

   I should also mention that “Jack of All Trades,” whom Sam was never able to catch, murdered her husband three years ago, and is one of those serial killers who loves to taunt the police — and Sam in particular — about their ineffectiveness in nabbing him?

   I don’t know how many more in this set I will watch, but I do have four seasons’ worth, so I may. There seems to be a good chemistry between the leading players (see above), which is always a help. On the negative side, a recognized the killer as soon as the character appeared on the screen. Maybe I ought to be a profiler. Either that, or Sam ought to have listened to her own deductions to that point. They were right on target.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


THE VILLAIN STILL PURSUED HER. RKO, 1940. Anita Louise, Margaret Hamilton, Alan Mowbray, Richard Cromwell, Joyce Compton, Buster Keaton, Billy Gilbert and Hugh Herbert. Screenplay by Elbert Franklin and Ethel LaBlanche. Directed by Edward Cline.

   Never really funny but always highly amusing, this is a (mostly) straight-faced filming of William H. Smith’s popular temperance play, The Drunkard, first performed in 1844 and frequently revived for comic effect — as I write this it is still playing in Tulsa Oklahoma in a production that started in 1953, which makes it the second-longest-running play currently on the boards.

   The movie version offers a marvelous cast led by one of my favorite character actors, Alan Mowbray (best remembered as the hammy thespian in John Ford’s Wagonmaster and My Darling Clementine) with able support from that eternal juvenile lead Richard Cromwell; Hatchet-faced Margaret Hamilton, sympathetic for once as a dying ol’ widder woman; ditzy Joyce Compton, perfectly cast as Hazel Dalton, wandering lunatic; and Buster Keaton, as her brother William, whose doughty heroics here prompt bittersweet memories of his hey-day in the silents.

   The story, in case you’re interested, deals with kind-hearted but weak-willed Edward Middleton, who marries the poor-but-honest daughter of the dying ol’widder woman and is almost immediately led astray by Lawyer Cribbs, who nurses a hatred for his family (“I hated his father, I hate him, and if he should have any children, I shall hate them as well.”) and has some sort of secret buried in the woods — through which our wandering madwoman is wont to ramble.

   When our young hero succumbs to Demon Rum and flees to the City to hide his shame, it falls to his friend William to bring him home and save his wife and child from the machinations of villainous Cribbs — and incidentally cure his perambulating sister.

   Obviously this is not to be taken seriously, and Director Edward Cline, who worked with some of the great names in Film Comedy, does a fine job of keeping his players earnest and the pace accelerated. But the real show here is Alan Mowbray, who takes this rare (for him) starring role and runs away with it.

   It’s somehow fitting to see Mowbray as Cribbs, since he was a member of the Fields/ Barrymore/ Fowler circle, and W. C. Fields himself played an actor playing Cribbs in The Old-Fashioned Way (1934) to hilarious effect. Mowbray wisely chooses not to ape Fields, but puts his own stuffy hauteur into the part, and achieves the considerable feat of creating a classic screen villain who is also a wonderful comic character. Lovers of old weird movies live for films like this.

“HOLLYWOOD.” An episode of Law & Order: LA, 29 September 2010. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Skeet Ulrich, Corey Stoll, Regina Hall, Wanda De Jesus, Alfred Molina. Guest Cast: Shawnee Smith, John Patrick Amedori, Danielle Panabaker, Wyatt Russell, Jessica Lu.
Created by Dick Wolf; developed by Blake Masters. Director: Allen Coulter.

   Actually there was only one season. The series was a mess, and half the cast disappeared before it was over, to be replaced partway through by an entirely new group of attorneys and police detectives. It was a spinoff of the original Law & Order, which had just finished its 20-year run the previous spring.

   I will let anyone who knows more about the problems the series had go ahead and talk about them in the comments. I’ve not seen any more of the series than this first episode, and I confess that I simply wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening back then. (All I know is what I read online using Google.)

   The setting of the first episode was of course a natural, that being Hollywood, which is probably the first place people think of when they think of L.A. They didn’t have to think too hard to come up with a plot, even though it turns out to be a complicated one. The essence, though, is the convoluted relationship a young female actress slash party girl has with her mother, who has been guiding her and mentoring her and (no surprise) trading in on her daughter’s notoriety and fame for quite some time.

   What I really wanted to bring up again, following Michael Shonk’s recent article about 30-minute TV dramas, is that this first episode of Law & Order: LA is only 40 minutes long, after the commercials have been removed. In this case, forty minutes was simply not long enough, especially for a first episode.

   With both cops and later on lawyers involved, not to mention a story to tell, plus a lot of people who are interviewed by the police or otherwise connected to the case, there is little chance for any of them to get more than two minutes at a time of screen time. When the show was over, I knew who did it and why, but of the primary players, I couldn’t even have told you their characters’ names (or the stars’ names either, for that matter; I didn’t recognize any but one of them). One of the leading suspects was on screen for his two minutes early on, and when his character was brought back into it again toward the end, I barely remembered seeing him before.

   The actors have to talk fast to get all of the story in, too fast for me most of the time, and the locations are switched so quickly they have to identified by the equivalent of silent film insert cards. It’s an approach that works fine when viewers have been watching a series for many years, but not for a very first episode of a spinoff, already cramped for time. Not for me, anyway.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE JAYHAWKERS. Paramount Pictures, 1959. Jeff Chandler, Fess Parker, Nicole Maurey, Henry Silva, Herbert Rudley, Frank DeKova, Don Megowan, Leo Gordon. Director: Melvin Frank.

   The Jayhawkers, a late 1950s Western set in Bleeding Kansas, doesn’t have the most unique plot. Although the score by Jerome Moross is quite memorable and can be listened to here, the film’s cinematography isn’t all that captivating. And while Melvin Frank’s direction is perfectly adequate, his workmanship isn’t really Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher territory.

   So what makes The Jayhawkers – at least in my estimation – really worth watching? The characters.

   Well, one character in particular. The villain. His name: Luke Darcy. Modeled, at least in part, on abolitionist firebrand John Brown, Darcy is skillfully portrayed by Jeff Chandler in such a manner that it’s next to impossible to conceive any other actor having the role. Sometimes an actor seems as if he were just destined for the part. That’s certainly the case here.

   To appreciate The Jayhawkers, you really have to consider the film as primarily a character study of Luke Darcy rather than as a standard drama set on the eve of the Civil War. Darcy’s an imposing man, both by height and temperament. A psychologically nuanced figure rather than a caricature, he devours the classic texts of strategy and warfare, drinks red wine, and chases women. And he’s got a grandiose future planned. He’s going to be the authoritarian ruler of an independent Kansas, a tall Napoleon on the wide Prairie.

   Darcy’s not invincible, however. He’s got an Achilles Heel. He is pathologically afraid of being caught and hanged by the authorities. Nothing frightens him so much as the image – one he seems to play out repeatedly in his own mind – of him dangling, lifeless from the end of a rope. He finds the whole notion sickening, a disgusting clownish spectacle for the masses. It is little character details like this that makes Darcy a unique, if at times almost sympathetic, villain.

   But make no mistake about it. He is a villain and has done some horrible things in his time. For instance, he is responsible for seducing and abandoning another man’s wife. That man, Cam Bleeker (Fess Parker) makes it his mission to find and to kill Darcy. But things get complicated along the way.

   Rounding out the cast: Nicole Maurey as Cam’s potential love interest and Henry Silva as one of Darcy’s hired gunmen. All told, it’s a better than average Western, one that benefits greatly from Chandler’s imposing presence and his ability to convey a quiet rage that lurks just beneath a man’s seemingly calm and controlled surface.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


FATHER BROWN. BBC, UK, 2013 to date. 35 episodes. Mark Williams, Sorcha Cusack, Nancy Carroll, Alex Price, Hugo Speer, Tom Chambers. Created by Rachel Flowerday and Tahin Guner. Inspired by the stories of G. K. Chesterton.

   So, Father Dowling — no, wait, this one is British and there is no cute nun — Father Brown, that’s right Father Brown, is watching this couple making out; Father Brown is climbing over a fence; Father Brown has been poisoned; Father Brown has a broken leg and is being held hostage by a killer policeman; Father Brown pretends madness to go undercover in an asylum; Father Brown is trapped beneath a castle in a dungeon; Father Brown has to stop a bomb …

   Father Brown (Mark Williams) has a nosy housekeeper (Sorcha Cusack), a randy aristocrat friend (Nancy Carroll), her semi-honest roguish chauffer (Alex Price), a full time parish in Kembleford in the Cotswolds (where there are more murders than Chicago and Miss Marple’s St. Mary’s Mead combined) at St. Mary’s, and two policeman whose lives he is the bane of (Hugo Speer and Tom Chambers who replaced him).

   Father Brown is tall, hardy, and about as meek as a truck driver.

   Father Brown wouldn’t know a paradox if it hit him with a lorry.

   They have actually adapted a few stories by Chesterton. Not that you would know it unless you looked at the title, the only thing vaguely resembling Chesterton.

   That awful television movie with Barnard Hughes was better than this. Walter Connally’s wholly miscast Father Brown was better. Kenneth More, seemingly miscast, was brilliant as was Alec Guiness, also seemingly miscast. Mark Williams is just miscast. It is difficult for a man his size to appear to be a meek, blinking, slightly pudgy, and unassuming priest with the power of an Old Testament prophet. This Father Brown has the power of a Jessica Fletcher.

   The time is the 1950’s, God knows why since the stories end twenty years before that. Father Brown, who traveled extensively in the stories, is a parish priest and served in WWII. He deals with ex-Nazis and refugees and once with radiation poisoning. He seldom leaves Kembleford and his church, St. Mary’s. No one much respects him. Flambeau has a British accent, they couldn’t be bothered to hire an actor who could at least fake a French accent.

   You know it isn’t Chesterton because communist and atheists tend to turn out to be innocent. You know it isn’t Agatha Christie because the young lovers almost never turn out to be the murderers.

   This Father Brown never rises to the occasion. He never blinks behind his spectacles while transformed into a figure of Biblical strength. He never simply observes because he knows human nature and intuits the truth. He is never for one instant of film Chesterton’s priest in anything but name.

   It’s an attractive enough series, and I might like it if it wasn’t the only Father Brown we will get. The actors are personable, and the mysteries no worse than usual, but of course it could be so much more, and instead it is, as I said, “Murder, He Prayed.”

   If you are not an admirer of Chesterton’s stories you may not get why I feel such rancor for this unassuming little series. Try to imagine though they made a situation comedy out of The Great Gatsby. Try imagining they cast Pee Wee Herman as Sherlock Holmes. Try to imagine that the only Shakespeare there was to read was the Lamb’s version.

   You are not going to get good television from people incapable of respecting their source. You are going to get this, a series that disappoints week after week, hints at Chesterton (admittedly not easy to film though the More series did it), but never fulfills the promise. You get what seldom happens on series shown on PBS, the lowest common denominator, just like network television.

   This one wasn’t even designed to be shown at night in England. It was an afternoon series according to Wikipedia.

   This might have worked despite all that if they respected the original in any way, if they understood what made Chesterton’s stories work, what made Father Brown a rival of Sherlock Holmes — the rival of Sherlock Holmes.

   This Father Brown isn’t even a rival of Jessica Fletcher.

   If you like it despite all that, fine. But don’t kid yourself that anyone connected to this ever read a single Father Brown story and understood it or what gave it power. Father Brown the comic book would be better.

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