TV mysteries


   I reviewed the book, by Robert Thorogood, here:

A Mystery Review: ROBERT THOROGOOD – The Marlow Murder Club.

so when I learned that they were doing a TV series of it, I was naturally curious.

   To me, it seems that the cast the lead characters perfectly. I remember not a lot about the story itself, but the little I do and the little I see in the snippets below, the synchronization seems well within very close range. Given who the author is (Death in Paradise, obviously), adapting the book to TV I’d say was a project that was meant to be done.

PRESS RELEASE:

   MASTERPIECE Mystery! today announced that The Marlow Murder Club, adapted by author Robert Thorogood from his best-selling novels, premieres on PBS Sunday, October 27th at 9/8c. Along with the airdate, MASTERPIECE also announced that the cast and crew are already in production on Season 2.

JONATHAN CREEK. “The The Wrestler’s Tomb.” BBC, 1997 (Series 1, Episode 1). Alan Davies (Jonathan Creek), Caroline Quentin (Madeline Magellan), Anthony Head (Adam Klaus). Teleplay: David Renwick. Director: Marcus Mortimer. Currently streaming on Britbox (available via Amazon Prime).

   Jonathan Creek is a young lad with more hair than I have, and he seems to be getting by, but probably not lavishly, as a magician’s assistant – no, that’s misleading. He’s not the beautiful girl in net stockings whose primary job is to distract the audience away from seeing what the magician is really doing. What he is is the fellow who comes up with and designs the stage props for the fakery that goes on there while the audience is watching the girl get closed up as a mummy in a sarcophagus covered with the sharpest spikes pointing inward that you will ever see.

   In the BBC series that bears his name he also becomes the solver of “impossible” crimes, and in this the pilot episode for the series, it is that of a philandering artist who is killed in an upstairs room of his home by what is thought by the police to be a burglar, while the model he is supposed to be philandering with is taped up and gagged in the same room.

   If it is not a burglar, the most obvious suspect is his wife, but she was at the time known to be in her sequestered office. If she really did it, the key question is, how? Investigative reporter Madeline Magellan wants to know, and co-opts Jonathan’s assistance, using her own charming ways.

   Having to date watched this one twice, I can tell you that this one is a good one, and mean it. The clues are well set up, even the false ones, there is a lot of humor to go with the mystery, and I’m willing to wager you’ll have no more idea who did it – and how – than I did.

   Here are some things I liked. Jonathan meeting Maddy for lunch for the first time shows her a bit of sleight of hand that I thought wouldn’t be explained (magicians never tell), but wrong. It is, and quite satisfactorily so.

   Then about half way through, Jonathan shows Maddie a 3-D doll house replica of the wife’s office (see above) to explain (and quite cleverly) how she could have left the office unseen and gone off to commit the deed.

   Ha! Not so. It almost would have worked, and the reason why it doesn’t occurred to me just before it does to the two TV stars. (I also knew that they wouldn’t “explain all” at a point in the episode only halfway through, so there is that.)

   And believe it or not, the real solution, while admittedly somewhat far-fetched, really *could* have happened, making for a quite satisfying ending to the first of several seasons of adventures of one young Jonathan Creek. I’m already looking forward to the next one.

   

Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
“Poison à la Carte”
by Matthew R. Bradley

   

   As with Murder by the Book (1951), the Nero Wolfe novel Plot It Yourself (1959) gets a metafictional spin from Rex Stout, who’d served as the president of Vanguard Press; the Authors Guild, lobbying for copyright-law reform; and the Mystery Writers of America, receiving their Grand Master Award that year. The National Association of Authors and Dramatists (NAAD) and Book Publishers of America (BPA) hire Wolfe due to a rash of “plagiarism upside down,” with successful works alleged to be copied from unpublished material planted ex post facto. The ’teers are reinforced by Dol Bonner and her assistant, Sally Colt (inexplicably renamed Corbett, with Stout’s typical disregard for consistency).

   We learn that Wolfe’s letter-opener “was a knife with a horn handle that had been thrown at him in [The Black Mountain (1954)], in the cellar of an old border fort in Albania, by a man named Bua.” Three at Wolfe’s Door (1960) is unique, since only “Method Three for Murder” was previously published (serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, January 30-February 13, 1960); “Poison à la Carte” and “The Rodeo Murder” debut there. “Method” opens as Archie leaves the brownstone on one of the 30 or 40 times he has been fired or, as he has here, quit over the years, and on the steps meets his first solo client, Mira Holt, who found a woman stabbed to death in the borrowed taxicab she was driving…illegally.

   Per Archie, the methods for answering police questions are to “Button your lip….Tell the truth straight through….[or] Tell a simple basic lie with no trimmings, and stick to it.” A sensible Wolfe offers to split Mira’s $50 fee: “You have helped me with many problems; surely I can help you with one. I am not being quixotic. I do not accept your headstrong decision that our long association has ended, but even if it has, your repute is inextricably involved with mine. [She] is in a pickle. I have never tried to do a job without your help; why should you try to do one without mine?” In “Rodeo,” they investigate a murder that is perpetrated during a party and roping contest at Lily Rowan’s Park Avenue penthouse.

   “Poison” finds Fritz asked by millionaire orchid fancier Lewis Hewitt to cook the annual dinner for the Ten for Aristology, his group “pursuing the ideal of perfection in food and drink,” to be served (unknown to Wolfe) by “twelve young women, one for each guest,” at the home of shipping magnate Benjamin Schriver. With Rusterman’s maítre d’hôtel, Felix Courbet—aka Felix Martin from The Black Mountain?—and chef Zoltan Mahany lending a hand, Archie busies himself trying to get the phone numbers of the “Hebes.” He meets Nora Jaret, Carol Annis, Fern Faber, Peggy Choate, and Helen Iacono before the dinner, spoiled when theatrical angel Vincent Pyle’s blinis are doctored with arsenic.

   A complex set of circumstances muddled the serving, with Fern returning from the “can” to find no plate, and the other four plus Lucy Morgan serving guests different from those to whom they had been assigned, while nobody seems able—or willing—to identify who gave Pyle the fatal dish. After the usual tirade from Cramer, Helen visits Wolfe to admit stabbing Pyle in self-defense several months earlier; to keep this from coming out, to the detriment of her career, she offers to expedite the investigation and seek a motive among the others. Wolfe suggests doing so en masse with Archie present, so they convene at the apartment shared by Peggy and Nora, a gathering eavesdropped upon by Purley Stebbins.

   Arrested for obstructing justice on the verge of relocating the party to the brownstone, he tells Purley—tipped off by Nora—that Fritz is Wolfe’s client, and is grilled by Rowcliff. The next day, Fritz joins Felix and Zoltan in offering to hire him formally for the good of the restaurant’s reputation, an appeal met with an astonished “Pfui….I am solely to blame for this mess, but you offer to pay me to clean it up.” He has Zoltan call each of the five, claiming to have withheld the fact that he saw her go back for a second plate, and asking to meet at a table with a mike hidden in a bowl of artificial flowers in Piotti’s restaurant, also used for precisely the same purpose in Gambit (1962), as Archie and Purley listen in.

   As with the Grand Central rendezvous in “Christmas Party” (1957), it’s largely a question of who accepts, in this case Carol, who responds to Zoltan’s “admiration” by stating that the master of the casting couch had promised to marry her…and trying to poison Zoltan’s spaghetti anchovy. Brought in by Cramer en route to jail, she admits nothing; per Wolfe, “You took such prodigious risks that it is hard to believe in your sanity…if you are mad you are also ruthless and malevolent.” Given a novella’s constraints, Stout identifies all twelve of neither the guests—including actor Adrian Dart, corporation lawyer Harvey M. Leacraft, and Emil Kreis, Chairman of the Board of Codex Press—nor the actress servers.

   A second-season episode of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, “Poison à la Carte” (5/26/02) was the fourth and final series adaptation by William Rabkin and Lee Goldberg; also broadcast in a double-length international version, it was directed by George Bloomfield, the uncle of Maury Chaykin, who starred as Wolfe. Cast members Michelle Nolden (as Helen) and Lindy Booth (Peggy) were also seen in, respectively, Season 1’s “The Doorbell Rang” (4/22/01) and Season 2’s “Before I Die” (6/16/02). The Server Girls include repertory players Shannon Jobe and Lorca Moore, as well as an early appearance by Stockholm-born Malin Akerman, whose breakthrough role was Silk Spectre II in Watchmen (2009).

   Pyle (Domenic Cuzzocrea) ruffles feathers by dismissing a centerpiece of pricey orchids donated by Wolfe and praised by Hewitt (David Hemblen in his recurring role): “I don’t care for flowers with spots and streaks. They’re messy.” The courses provided by Fritz (Colin Fox), Zoltan (Hrant Alianak), and Felix (Carlo Rota) are lovingly depicted, while Rabkin and Goldberg create dialogue to flesh out such characters as Dart (James Tolkan). Now the host instead of Shriver (sic; Jack Newman), Hewitt tells Wolfe that a dying Pyle keeps repeating “Jack in the Pulpit,” the title of a flop he had backed; Peggy insists that, finding her assigned guest already served, she instead gave his blinis and caviar to Wolfe.

   Assigned to Hewitt, already served by Lucy (Dina Barrington), Fern (Hayley Verlyn) lost the game of musical chairs after fixing her hair and delivered none, meaning that she is in the clear and someone else—clearly the murderer—had double-dipped. Wolfe asks Kreis (David Schurmann), Leacroft (sic; Gary Reineke), and the others to envision the scene, in the hope of recalling who had served Pyle, but to no avail. Cramer (Bill Smitrovich) says a paper spill was found bearing traces of arsenic and the fingerprints of Zoltan, who states that he saw it on the floor and put it in the trash; returning with Archie (Timothy Hutton) from their all-nighter, Wolfe does the unthinkable and skips his 9:00 A.M. orchid session.

   Helen had been seeking a role in Jack in the Pulpit when Pyle tried to have his way with her, and is quite happy, once they have a nominee, to tell the police she saw her go back for a second plate. At the “party” with Carol (Emily Hampshire), Nora (Sarain Boylan), et alia, broken up by Purley (R.D. Reid), Archie uses the seating chart and twelve slips of paper to go through the various permutations. Wolfe wisely warns Cramer of the planned unmasking—with him and Rusterman’s respectively replacing Purley and Piotti’s—since Helen calls the D.A. right after hanging up on Zoltan; Fritz forgives the injury Carol did to him, and the episode adds a nice coda of him and Wolfe silently sharing wine and beer.

         — Copyright © 2024 by Matthew R. Bradley.
   

Up next: Too Many Clients- –

Editions cited

         Plot It Yourself: Bantam (1960)
         3 [sic] at Wolfe’s Door in Seven Complete Nero Wolfe Novels: Avenel (1983)

Online source:

Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
Champagne for One
by Matthew R. Bradley

   

   Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novel Champagne for One (1958) finds Austin “Dinky” Byne asking Archie a favor: to sub for him at the annual dinner party his aunt, ex-client Louise (Mrs. Robert) Robilotti, throws on the birth date of her late first husband, philanthropist Albert Grantham. At table will be Albert’s twins, Celia and Cecil; unwed mothers Helen Yarmis, Ethel Varr, Faith Usher, and Rose Tuttle; and fellow “chevaliers” Paul Schuster, Beverly Kent, and Edwin Laidlaw. The mothers are “graduates” of Grantham House in Dutchess County, “financed until they got jobs or husbands,” invited to Fifth Avenue to keep in touch…if not necessarily to find said husbands among the upper crust of society.

   Forewarned by second-timer Rose that Faith has long kept a bottle of cyanide on her, and might choose that night to use it, Archie watches her carefully until she takes a fatal drink of champagne, and knows she did not administer it herself. Cramer visits Wolfe, making clear in his presence that he thinks Archie is mistaken or lying, but will not rule homicide out; hard on his heels, Laidlaw tries to hire Wolfe to learn why. Believing it was suicide, he fears being arrested for murder if the police uncover the fact that, under a false name, he had a liaison in Canada with Faith, then a clerk at Cordoni’s flower shop, her presence at Grantham House reported to Laidlaw by Byne—apparently unaware he was the father.

   Wolfe agrees either to prove suicide or to expose the killer, but mistrusts the “remarkable coincidence” that neither Laidlaw nor Faith knew the other would be there. In return for not revealing that Dinky faked a cold to get out of the party, Archie gets an audience with Mrs. Blanche Irwin at Grantham House, who also doubts suicide and says Byne chose the mothers from the list she gave him. Archie returns home, where Orrie has brought them, and corroborating his statement earns a “quite satisfactory” (“He gave me a satisfactory only when I hatched a masterpiece”) for Ethel; Mrs. James Robbins, a Grantham House director, had gotten Faith a job at Barwick’s furniture store and an apartment with Helen.

   Helen recalls that Faith once reported meeting her mother on the street and running away after a scene, but later regretted telling Helen she wished her dead. Two days after hiring Wolfe, with no progress, Laidlaw covers by visiting with the other chevaliers and Cece to accuse him of doing them an injury by linking them with a spurious murder investigation, but the two parties are at an impasse. Archie receives an urgent summons from Laidlaw, dogged by the D.A., as Wolfe is siccing the ’teers on the mother, Elaine, who—per Lon at the Gazette—lammed after authorizing Marjorie Betz to claim the body for cremation; prefiguring the title of a 1963 entry, “I wished the trio luck in their mother hunt and left.”

   Somebody mails the D.A. (now Ed Bowen again—I give up) a note outing Laidlaw as the father, yet while he is livid, having admitted nothing, Wolfe is gratified at having goaded the killer into action: “Now he is doomed.” Cramer interrupts the interrogation into who could have known, forcing his quarry to slip out the back and bearding Wolfe in the plant rooms to no avail. Just as Wolfe tells Archie to see Celia, who gave a flippant reason for rejecting Laidlaw’s proposal but may have known about Faith, she calls asking him to the house; on arrival, she admits to being a decoy for her mother, who wants to see him along with the Police Commissioner (now Bob Skinner again—whatever), because of said note.

   Asked once again to walk back his statement, Archie tactfully withdraws and, frustrated while waiting for Saul to flush Elaine from her Hotel Christie hideout, blows up at Wolfe. Replying that “You are headstrong and I am magisterial. Our tolerance of each other is a constantly recurring miracle,” Wolfe suggests Byne deserves closer scrutiny; tailing him to Tom’s Joint, Archie finds Saul tailing her there as well, and threatened with the police, they agree to see Wolfe. Separated, Dinky asserts that he’d been intimate years ago with Elaine, who requested the meet to ask about Faith’s death, while she volunteers only the second fact, and during the interview, Orrie arrives bearing a leather case from her room.

   This contains a letter from Albert revealing that he had been her lover; supported her and Faith, if not acknowledging paternity due to Elaine’s promiscuity; and arranged for Byne to share with her the annual $55,000 tax-exempt income from a $2 million portfolio. One of the provisions, Elaine confirms, halved her payments if Faith died, and Byne, who now clearly had a motive if not necessarily opportunity, admits he typed the note to deflect the investigation away from him, but got cold feet after mischievously arranging for Laidlaw and Faith to be at the party. Then, as Wolfe leans back, closes his eyes, and start pushing his lips in and out, Archie opines, “I really should have a sign made, genius at work…”

   To determine how the crime was committed, Wolfe has Cramer and Stebbins gather the suspects to restage it in his office; Purley voices Wolfe’s observation that the distinctive way Cecil carries the glasses would enable an onlooker to know which of the pair picked up he would proffer to Faith. Waiting in the wings, Elaine is introduced to Louise, who slaps her face, having learned from Byne of Faith’s paternity, and invited her there to kill her. Standing at the bar as Hackett, the butler, poured, Louise dropped the poison into the glass, making her own son an unwitting delivery system, and it is later learned that, aware of the cyanide Faith carried, she procured some, knowing that suicide would be assumed.

   Directed by co-executive producer Timothy Hutton, who played Archie, “Champagne for One” (4/29 & 5/6/01), a two-part first-season episode of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, was the first of four written by William Rabkin & Lee Goldberg; the latter related his experience in a Mystery Scene article reprinted here by Steve. Two of the guest-stars, Marian Seldes (as Louise) and Michael Rhoades (as Kent), made their only other appearances in “Door to Death” (6/4/01), while David Hemblen is credited with one of three as orchid fancier Lewis Hewitt, mentioned in the novella. As in “Prisoner’s Base” (5/13 & 20/01), Aron Tager is billed as “Commissioner Skinn,” although correctly referred to in the dialogue.

   Louise’s dislike for Archie, dating to when he and Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) recovered her jewelry, is obvious the moment he arrives at the shindig for Helen (Kathryn Zenna), Ethel (Janine Theriault), Faith (Patricia Zentilli), and Rose (Christine Brubaker). They freshen up after dinner as Archie gets better acquainted with Louise’s son, Cecil (Steve Cumyn); her fortune-hunting second husband, Robert (David Schurmann); and chevaliers Schuster (Robert Bockstael), Laidlaw (Alex Poch-Goldin), and Kent. Then it’s dancing time, with Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No. 2: VI. Waltz 2, and Kari Matchett, later seen in a recurring role as Lily Rowan, aptly portraying Celia, who also danced with Archie at the Flamingo.

   After a fez-wearing Hackett (James Tolkan) pours the soon-to-be-deadly champagne, and Faith collapses, Archie stays by the body while having the band leader (Ken Kramer) call the police. Later, when told why Byne (Boyd Banks) gave Archie an entrée to Mrs. Irwin (Nancy Beatty), Wolfe scoffs, “Nothing is as pitiable as a man afraid of a woman”; Part 2 opens as Saul (Conrad Dunn), Fred (Fulvio Cecere), and Orrie (Trent McMullen) receive their orders. Cramer (Bill Smitrovich) and Wolfe are equally apoplectic during the plant-room confrontation, with Archie recalling the Clara Fox incident from The Rubber Band (1936), while Seldes, again ill-served by her participation in the show, chews the scenery.

   When Wolfe confronts her with Albert’s letter, Elaine (Nicky Guadagni) launches herself across the desk at him, and we are treated to the delicious spectacle of Wolfe rearing back to kick her in the chin. Chaykin also beautifully portrays his unprecedented, “unqualified admiration” (“You not only have eyes but know what they’re for”) of the attentive Purley (R.D. Reid), who exchanges glances with a proud Cramer. Despite Hemblen’s inclusion in the credits, I detected no sign of Hewitt whatsoever; since several of the episodes exist in multiple versions for domestic and international broadcast and/or home video, he may appear in one of those, or simply be credited despite ending up on the cutting-room floor.

   Goldberg observed that A Nero Wolfe Mystery “was, as far as I know, the first TV series without a single original script—each and every episode was based on a Rex Stout novel, novella, or short story. That’s not to say there wasn’t original writing involved, but it was Stout who did all the hard work…. The mandate from [the] executive producers…was to ‘do the books,’ even if that meant violating some…rules of screenwriting…. More often than not, that meant loyalty to the dialogue rather than to the structure of the plot or the order, locations, or choreography of the scenes.” He and Rabkin adapted Prisoner’s Base (1952), “Poison à la Carte” (1960)—our next post—and “Murder Is Corny” (1964).

         — Copyright © 2024 by Matthew R. Bradley.
   

Up next: “Poison à la Carte”

Edition cited

      Champagne for One: Bantam (1960)

Online sources:

MANNIX. “Skid Marks on a Dry Run.” CBS/Desilu Productions. 23 September 1967 (Season 1, Episode 2). Mike Connors (Joe Mannix), Joseph Campanella. Guest Cast: Charles Drake, Marian Moses, Wende Wagner, Vincent Gardenia, Vic Perrin, Herbie Faye. Written & directed by John Meredyth Lucas. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

   I don’t think this happens often, but here we are only two episodes into the first season, and this one’s a dud. Or at least I think so. Let me tell you about it.

   It begins promisingly enough. A client comes to Intertect (the computer-oriented PI agency Mannix works for) with a strange request: he wants to be investigated himself. He’s running for office, he says, and he wants to be sure that no dirt can be dug up about him that the opposition can use to smear both him and his campaign.

   Well, OK, but between you and me, there’s more to it than that. Mannix is assigned the case. And even though the people he talks to from the client’s past know nothing and tell him nothing, they all seem to end up dead. It makes no sense, nor (as it turns out) neither does the basic premise. I don’t suppose I need tell you why, and I wouldn’t think of doing so anyway, but when the wheels are as wobbly on the car as it is on this one, you can bet your last fifty bucks it won’t go very far, and it doesn’t.

   But, and it is a big but, the show is still fun to watch anyway. I like the title, too.
   

Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
“Christmas Party”
by Matthew R. Bradley

   

   In Rex Stout’s If Death Ever Slept (1957), Archie is posing as secretary “Alan Green” to learn if millionaire Otis Jarrell’s daughter-in-law, Susan, is stealing business secrets and cheating on his son, only to find predecessor James Eber with a bullet in the head. Wolfe tells Archie to “be guided by your intelligence and experience,” later expressed — e.g., in Gambit (1962) — as using his “intelligence guided by experience.” He hires Dol Bonner and Sally Colt, whom he met in “Too Many Detectives” (1956), to reinforce Archie and the ’teers; they find the .38 that killed two men in Susan’s locker at Clarinda Day’s, “an establishment…where women could get almost anything done that occurred to them…”

   As its title suggests, the next collection, And Four to Go (1958), is unique in containing a quartet of novellas, including “Christmas Party,” which debuted as “The Christmas-Party Murder” in the final issue of Collier’s (January 4, 1957). Two appeared in Look: “Easter Parade” (as “The Easter Parade Murder,” April 16, 1957) and “Fourth of July Picnic” (as “The Labor Union Murder,” July 9, 1957). Published there for the first time, “Murder Is No Joke” was subsequently rewritten and expanded into “Frame-Up for Murder,” which was serialized in three issues of The Saturday Evening Post (June 21-July 5, 1958), and finally appeared in book form in the posthumous collection Death Times Three (1985).

   In “Easter,” Wolfe has Archie hire a thief, Tabby, to snatch the spray of Millard Bynoe’s unique, flamingo-pink Vanda from his wife’s shoulder…just as she collapses, shot with a strychnine-filled needle at the titular event. With typical insouciance regarding character continuity, Bob Skinner is yet again the D.A. despite apparently becoming Commisioner, replaced by Ed Bowen, in Prisoner’s Base (1952); an A.D.A. Doyle also appears, but as Stout used the surname repeatedly, it is unclear if this one has any specific antecedent. In “Fourth of July,” Wolfe reluctantly agrees to deliver a speech for the Independence Day picnic of the United Restaurant Workers of America at Culp’s Meadows on Long Island.

   He is persuaded by Felix Martin, the maitre d’ at Rusterman’s, which he has supervised since Marko Vukcic died; Paul Rago, the Churchill’s sauce chef; food and wine importer H.L. Griffin; and the URWA president and director of organization, respectively, James Korby and Philip Holt. Waiting on deck, Wolfe finds Holt stabbed to death, alerting only Archie, but while he is speaking, Korby’s daughter, Flora, screams upon discovering the body. We learn that after two weeks of college, Archie “came to New York and got a job guarding a pier, shot and killed two men and was fired, was recommended to Nero Wolfe for a chore he wanted done, did it, was offered a full-time job…took it [and] still have it.”

   In “Joke,” Bianca Voss is hit with a marble paperweight and strangled with a scarf while on the phone with Wolfe, whom Flora Gallant has asked to end a pernicious influence on her brother, star couturier Alec. Or so it seems until Sarah Yare, a customer of his who’d infatuated Archie with her performance in the play Thumb a Ride, is found an apparent suicide, so Wolfe deduces that she’d acted a part to conceal, perhaps unknowingly, the fact that Voss was already dead. With 31 additional pages, “Frame-Up” turns Flora from a frump into a subject of Archie’s admiration; innocently devised to protect the interests of Alec (a hero of the French Resistance), Flora’s charade was hijacked by the killer of Bianca and Sarah.

   In “Christmas,” Archie refuses to drive Wolfe to Lewis Hewitt’s on Long Island to meet British hybridizer Thompson, citing a prior engagement — a party at the office of interior decorator Kurt Bottweil, for whom they recovered some stolen tapestries—and showing a license to wed sales representative Margot Dickey. Also present are “angel” Mrs. Perry Porter (Edith) Jerome; her playboy son, Leo; fellow employees receptionist Cherry Quon, business manager Alfred Kiernan, and “pet wizard” Emil Hatch; and Santa…tending bar. In mid-toast, Bottweil succumbs to cyanide in his Pernod, and Archie realizes that Santa has vanished in the tumult, leaving behind his mask and costume in the private elevator.

   The license was, of course, “for the birds,” a ploy requested by Margot, merely a frequent dancing partner, to make Kurt — who tore it up — stop stalling and marry her, warding off a bid by Cherry. Wolfe took seriously enough the threat of either losing Archie or having the brownstone invaded by a female to forego Thompson and observe the “happy couple” incognito, making him by default a fugitive from justice and the primary suspect. Unlike the police, he knows that the bottle in Kurt’s desk was unadulterated before Wolfe put the costume on but, unwilling to explain to Cramer the reasons for his presence there, asserts he must crack the case before the Santa-hunt inevitably leads the law to West 35th Street.

   Arriving uninvited, Cherry reveals knowledge that Wolfe was Santa, but says she has not yet told the police, fearing they’d be diverted from the real culprit, allegedly Margot; she wants “evidence” (i.e., a frame-up), because everyone knew Emil had potassium cyanide in his workshop, and agrees to give Wolfe time to assemble the facts. After making some arrangements with Saul, typically keeping Archie in the dark, he convenes the suspects in his office, where Emil offers motives: Edith and Al were jealous of a Kurt/Cherry union, and Leo did not want his inheritance drained. With Purley in tow, Cramer shows up and tries to arrest Saul, but Wolfe puts him in his place, and is ready to identify the murderer.

   Offering an edited version of the truth, with Santa a vagabond who couldn’t have known about the poison, Wolfe explains that he had Saul send each suspect a note in which “St. Nick” professes to have seen what they did, offering to meet at Grand Central. Emil and both Jeromes took theirs to the police, as did Al, who agreed to attend the rendezvous and signal them, but Margot showed up without having done so. Guilty after all, she had lied about Kurt agreeing to marry her, to deflect suspicion from herself; Wolfe tells Cherry in private after the arrest that her objective was achieved, even if not by the method she had suggested — leaving her with no reason to muddy the waters by identifying the true Santa.

   â€œChristmas Party” (7/1/01) and the previous first-season entry of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, “Door to Death” (6/4/01)  — both directed by Holly Dale and adapted by Sharon Elizabeth Doyle — were linked for international broadcast and DVD as the faux telefilm Wolfe Goes Out. Margot (Francie Swift) cuts in on Lily Rowan (Kari Matchett) and Archie (Timothy Hutton) at the Flamingo Club to discuss her proposal; we flash forward to Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) broaching the invitation from Hewitt, which here includes his former employee, Andy Krasicki. Like Lily, Theodore’s sometime substitute is not seen in the novella, nor does he appear on screen, but is obviously invoked to connect this with “Door to Death.”

   Doyle has Wolfe dismiss Christmas as “an excuse for wretched excess, aptly symbolized by an elephantine elf who delivers gifts to the whole world in one night,” and order Fritz (Colin Fox) to remove his Santa hat. M.J. Kang, in her only series appearance as Cherry, and Jody Racicot — previously seen in “Prisoner’s Base” (5/13 & 20/01)—as Leo join rep players David Schurmann (playing Al), Richard Waugh (Emil), Nicky Guadagni (Edith), and Robert Bockstael (Kurt). Wolfe’s indirect method of revealing “Santa’s” identity is retained, sending Archie to his room ostensibly to fetch his copy of Herbert Block’s Here and Now , found with the white gloves Wolfe himself purchased to complete the costume.

   Stout makes much of Cherry’s “Oriental inscrutability,” unsurprisingly eliminated for the 21st-century audience, although Kang is dressed and coiffed to emphasize the character’s ethnicity; in the novella, Margot states, “her father was half Chinese and half Indian—not American Indian — and her mother was Dutch.” The assembly in the office arrives in two contingents, with the Jeromes, Cherry, and Emil later joined by Cramer (Bill Smitrovich), Purley (R.D. Reid), and those picked up at the rendezvous: Saul (Conrad Dunn), Margot, and Al. Saul’s other errand had been to confirm that Kurt’s wastebasket was not emptied before Archie searched it, belying Margot’s claim that he tossed in the license-fragments.

         — Copyright © 2024 by Matthew R. Bradley.
   

Up next: Champagne for One

Editions cited —

         If Death Ever Slept in Seven Complete Nero Wolfe Novels: Avenel (1983)

         And Four to Go, Death Times Three: Bantam (1974, 1985)

Online source

MANNIX “The Name Is Mannix.” CBS / Desilu. 16 September 1967 (Season 1, Episode 1). Mike Connors (Joe Mannix). Joseph Campanella (Lew Wickersham). Guest Cast: Lloyd Nolan, Kim Hunter, John Colicos, Barbara Anderson. Created by Richard Levinson & William Link. Developed & written by Bruce Geller. Director: Leonard J. Horn. Current streaming on Amazon Prime.

   Anyone who’s a fan of old TV private eye shows from the 1960s and 70s (and hopefully that includes you in amongst them) knows that the first season was an anomaly. It featured Mannix as a PI all right, but the gimmick was that he was a square peg in a round hole, as the old saying would have it. He worked for a corporate outfit called Intertect, whose approach to PI work was the use of computers, — punch cards and all, back in the Stone Age. Mannix, on the other hand, was a hands-on kind of guy when he was working, just like every other PI who had come along before him.

   That whole premise didn’t last long. After just one season, Mannix moved on to having his own office, complete with his own secretary and his own cases.

   The only reason he didn’t get fired from Intertect sooner was that he was the best guy they had working for them. Which is why he’s the one who’s called on to work on a case of kidnapping, that of the stepdaughter (Barbara Anderson) of a retired gangster (Lloyd Nolan).

   At which point the whole computerized company facade presented to the public goes out the window. Mannix does his own thing, no matter what the case is, or what the client may think he wants. A kidnapping case is always a good one for a pilot episode of any PI ever shown on TV or the movies and this is a good one. Using the scenic beauty of the area in and around Palm Springs as a backdrop, Mannix tackles this new case with vim and vigor — and brains — a most worthy combination.

   At which next point it can be noted that Mannix gets clocked on the head once, the first of many such incidents as the series progressed.

   I thought I knew which way the story line was going, and wow was I surprised when it didn’t go that way. Until, that is, another twist in the tale decided that my ending was OK after all. Maybe that, or I’ve been watching TV shows such as this one for as long as I can remember.

   As for the premise, no matter which one, Mike Connors’ ruggedly handsome screen presence was more than satisfactory for the series to stay on the air for eight full seasons. You can’t argue with success like that.

   

Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
“Immune to Murder”
by Matthew R. Bradley

   

   Three for the Chair (1957) is a somewhat transitional work, containing the last two Nero Wolfe novellas originally published in The American Magazine  —  as all others had been: “Immune to Murder” (November 1955) and “A Window for Death” (as “Nero Wolfe and the Vanishing Clue,” May 1956). Rex Stout’s longtime outlet ceased publication with its August 1956 issue, so “Too Many Detectives” (September 14, 1956) debuted in Collier’s (which ironically followed suit soon after). “Window” concerns a murder committed in the Churchill Towers, and thus occasions mentions of “Tim Evarts, assistant house dick, security officer to you,” although Archie himself later repeats the “house dick” reference.

   â€œDetectives” also marks the first appearance in the canon proper of early female P.I. and occasional employee Theodolinda “Dol” Bonner, who after a solo effort, The Hand in the Glove (1937), figured in the Tecumseh Fox novel Bad for Business (1940), but ended up on the cutting-room floor when the latter was rewritten as the Wolfe novella “Bitter End” (1940).

   â€œI am against female detectives on principle,” Archie begins, but “there are times when a principle should take a nap, and that was one of them.” In Albany, he meets Dol and operative Sally Colt when all 590 private detectives licensed by the state, including a typically tetchy Wolfe, are summoned for questioning due to the “wiretapping scandals.”

   Three confreres from the Association of Licensed Private Detectives of New York State (ALPDNYS) — Steve Amsel (fired by Del Bascom), Jay Kerr, and Harland Ide — are also waiting to follow as Albert Hyatt, a special deputy of the secretary of state, questions our heroes. A man purporting to be Otis Ross had hired them to tap his own phone, which is legal, and disappeared when they learned he was not; Hyatt tells Wolfe he has a surprise, and gets one himself when the client, waiting in another room, is found strangled. Leon Groom, Albany’s chief of detectives, arrests them as material witnesses in the murder of William A. Donahue, who claimed Wolfe knew his identity…and that the tap was illegal.

   Bailed out by Stanley Rogers at the behest of Parker, and compelled to take a room at the Latham Hotel, Wolfe gathers the confreres/suspects to pool knowledge and resources; he learns that each had similar experiences but Amsel, who says he refused a tap-request by Donahue using his own name. Those tapped and his target manqué constitute the Charity Funds Investigating Committee, and Wolfe has the 48 operatives they collectively supply look into any connections with Hyatt, who had arranged for all seven to be there that day. The counsel for one of the suspect fund-raising organizations, Hyatt planned to scapegoat Donahue, believed safely out of the state, and killed him after he appeared unexpectedly.

   â€œImmune” finds Wolfe and Archie as guests at River Bend, the Adirondacks mountain lodge of Hemisphere Oil Co. (Hemoco) tycoon O.V. Bragan, at the request of Assistant Secretary of State David M. Leeson; Ambassador Theodore Kelefy, of “a foreign country with which our country wanted to make a deal,” has asked to catch a brook trout and have it cooked by Wolfe. A friend/advisor, financier Spiros Papps, identifies the others as oil-syndicate representative James Arthur Ferris and spouses Sally Leeson and Adria Kelefy. One of the five anglers doesn’t get to sample the baked brook trout Montbarry: Leeson, whom Archie finds in the river, his skull smashed in, while landing his own “supertrout.”

   Noting that the Kelefys and Papp enjoy “diplomatic immunity from arrest or detention,” D.A. Jasper Colvin says the evidence points to murder by somebody at the lodge, with a club from the woodpile, and the obvious inference a connection with the rivalry between Bragan and Ferris over Kelefy’s oil rights. Wolfe (weight-watch: Archie specifies his as 278 lbs.), who refuses to explain why the 20 trout he cooked included none caught by the ambassador — as verified by cook Michael Samek — wants only to go home. As all await the arrival of state A.G. Herman Jessel, Wolfe reluctantly tells Kelefy, “it amuses me to twist the tails of highly placed persons…I thought it would be nice touch of mockery…”

   Wolfe tells Jessel, Colvin, and Sheriff Nate Dell he’s ready to identify the murderer, but only with everyone present — and after a call to the Secretary of State, in which he reveals the true reason: Kelefy’s trout had been caught prior to the others, allowing him time for the murder. Having conferred by phone (in French, as a trooper listened) with Parker, he knew he might risk imprisonment if Kelefy were maltreated by “officers of the law,” thus the call to Washington. The motive is revealed to have no “relation to his public mission or the negotiations” but was purely personal, as Sally confirms that her husband had been seduced by Adria while he was the embassy secretary in their unnamed fictional country.

   Directed by John R. Pepper, and also broadcast in a double-length international version, “Immune to Murder” (8/18/02) was the final episode of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, and the only one adapted by Stuart Kaminsky. The prolific, Edgar Award-winning novelist, film professor/biographer, Mystery Writers of America president, and occasional scenarist  —  e.g., Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in America (1984) — specifies Kelefy (Giancarlo Esposito) as the “Vezenhuegan ambassador.” Local law has been scrambled somewhat, with Colvin, Dell, trooper Lt. Hopp, and Jessel recombined into Captain Colvin Jasper (sic; Richard Waugh), trooper Nate (Matthew Edison), and D.A. Jessel (Steve Cumyn).

   A faux news report kicks off the episode, identifying Bragan (David Schurmann), Ferris (Seymour Cassel, previously seen in “Before I Die” [6/16/02]), and Papps (Carlo Rota),  on camera. A reporter (Adam Reid) interviews Leeson (Robert Bockstael), who calls the gathering “an experiment on how being in nature — away from the secretaries, the pens and paper, [and the] long tables of formal diplomacy…may actually be able to change people’s minds,” explicitly compared with Ike’s then-imminent use of Camp David. In his narration, Archie (Timothy Hutton) notes that, “Twenty years ago…Wolfe [Maury Chaykin] got the papers that made him a U.S. citizen,” and thus agreed out of gratitude.

   Here, Papps has a predetermined “migraine,” sitting out the angling with Sally (Susannah Hoffmann) and Adria (Manon von Gerkan), as the Cook (George Plimpton) makes an ill-advised joke to Wolfe about his recipe requiring salt and onion. The credits are typically careless: Waugh’s character is addressed as Captain Colvin in the dialogue, and Cassel’s identified as, respectively, “Janus” and “James” in the opening and closing titles. Sadly, the series does not end on a high note, with pervasive scenery-chewing by, e.g., Waugh, Schurmann, and even Chaykin, as he bellows (via Kaminsky, not Rex Stout) about being in “a nightmare, dime-store, frontier theme park filled with bacteria-infested animals…”

         — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.
   

Up next: “Christmas Party”

Edition cited  —

      Three for the Chair: Bantam (1958)

Online source —

Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
Might As Well Be Dead
by Matthew R. Bradley

   

   In Rex Stout’s Might as Well Be Dead (1956), James R. Herold hires Nero Wolfe to find his son after learning that he had wrongly accused Paul — who has been sending birthday cards to his mother and sisters, postmarked New York, for 11 years — of stealing $26,000 from his Omaha hardware wholesale business. Because people often select an alias using the same initials, Wolfe places an ad directed at “P.H.,” only to have it widely assumed as a reference to Peter Hays, on trial for first-degree murder. This seems like a coincidence, until attorney Albert Freyer pops in and reveals that he knows nothing of his client’s past, and while headed down to the courtroom for a look, Archie realizes he is being followed.

   Freyer disbelieves that they have no interest in Hays when he sees Archie, who becomes certain that he matches Paul’s graduation photo by his defiant look after the guilty verdict is announced, which Freyer says is inconsistent with a despairing view that “he might as well be dead.” Convinced that Hays was framed, he gets Archie in to see him, and Hays begs them not to tell his father; since Archie’s tail suggests that someone is threatened by the possibility of his being cleared, Wolfe agrees to postpone informing Herold as Freyer starts the appeal process and he investigates the murder. The advertising copywriter had allegedly killed real-estate broker Michael M. Molloy because he loved his wife, Selma.

   Hays denied shooting him, but offered no explanation for the key to their building and the pistol — both found on him — or anything else, while Selma testified that the abusive Mike falsely accused her of infidelity, refusing to grant a divorce. Freyer reports Hays’s claim that he found Mike dead after an anonymous caller said he was beating her, opining that he is shielding Selma, who has an alibi that may not be airtight but in turns believes Hays guilty. Giving the ’teers and occasional operative Johnny Keems various jobs, Wolfe has Archie pump Delia Brandt, Selma’s successsor as Mike’s secretary, for information, with the pretext of gathering material on his last days, for an article to appear under her byline.

   Mike rented a safe-deposit box as “Richard Randall” and died intestate, but Selma refuses to be his administrator; she proposes his friend Patrick A. Degan, head of the Mechanics Alliance Welfare Association, and accepts Wolfe’s suggestion of Nathaniel Parker as her lawyer. As the conference is winding up, Stebbins calls to tell them Johnny was killed by a stolen car while investigating Selma’s theater companions that night, Thomas L. Irwin and Jerome and Rita Arkoff. She’d been asked to fill in for Fanny Irwin, benched with a headache, and Wolfe thinks that the killer not only knew she’d be out of the way but also may have engineered her absence, yet what Johnny might have learned is not yet known.

   Selma asks the couples to come to Wolfe’s, noting that Rita — also a former model, who wed TV producer Jerry — thought Fanny and Pat “were snatching a snuggle,” and Tom’s company did printing for MAWA; they are preceded by Delia’s fiancé, William Lesser, whom Archie assures they can vet the article before publication. Johnny saw all four of them, and Rita reports that she had asked Selma at the suggestion of Tom, but Fanny says the idea was originally hers, “because I could trust him with her.” They leave Wolfe with “no gleam anywhere,” and are followed by Cramer, who provides a list of the contents of Johnny’s pockets, missing the $100 given him for expenses, presumably used for a bribe.

   Watched by Archie, Parker, and an agent of the New York State Tax Commission, Degan finds $327,640 in cash in the safe-deposit box, and agrees to try to learn its source. Saul tentatively i.d.’s the body found bludgeoned behind a lumber pile on 140th Street as Ella Reyes, the Irwins’ maid and the likely bribee; Archie has Selma confirm that — which she does under an alias without alerting Donovan, the morgue desk sergeant from The Black Mountain (1954) — and stay with them for safety. Cramer arrives, “fed up,” unwilling to concede Hays’s innocence, and deduced to have led Lieut. Murphy of Missing Persons to spill the beans about his true identity to Herold, who briefly fired and then rehired Wolfe.

   Mike had invited Delia on a “business trip” to South America, and since Archie intuited that she’d been receptive, which she denied, he and Saul go to her apartment in search of anything he might have stashed there, finding it rifled and, on her strangled body, the key to a Grand Central locker. Documents from the suitcase therein cause Wolfe to convene the interested parties and finger Degan, who’d conspired to embezzle funds from MAWA with Mike, and killed him to forestall his betrayal. Johnny and, in turn, Ella died because she told him Fanny did not develop her “headache” until after a call from Pat, suggesting that she forego seeing Julie Harris in The Lark, ostensibly to discuss some private matter.

   Directed by series mainstay George McCowan, “Might as Well Be Dead” (2/13/81) was the only episode of NBC’s Nero Wolfe series featuring William Conrad to be scripted by Seeleg Lester, a longtime writer-producer on Perry Mason. Natalie Wood’s sister, Lana, who played Plenty O’Toole in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), guest-starred as Delia, with John de Lancie, best known as Q in the Star Trek franchise, as Tom. It simplifies the plot by establishing Hays (A.C. Weary) as innocent from the outset, as the audience actually sees him get the anonymous call, hear shots from outside the apartment, find Mike dead with no sign of his wife, Maggie (Gail Youngs), and pocket the gun before he is caught.

   Lester efficiently interpolates exposition by dramatizing testimony in the trial, and before they meet with Herold (Stephen Elliott), news vendor Charlie (Ralph Manza) tells Archie (Lee Horsley) that Hays, refusing to take the stand in his own defense, must be guilty. In looking at the front-page story, Wolfe immediately notices a similarity in the photos, the identical initials, and the fact that Paul refused to defend himself of embezzlement, all of which he terms “synchronicity.” Stymied by Hays’s lack of cooperation, Freyer (Michael Currie) gives Archie a transcript of the trial and thinks Wolfe could help; streamlining the plot yet again, Pat (Bruce Gray) had been Mike’s lawyer and agrees to serve as Maggie’s.

   The Arkoffs are now Jerry (John Findlater) and Tina Nelson (Deborah Tranelli), and with Saul out of town, Johnny (Herb Braha) is assigned to investigate them, Tom, and Fanny (Karen Montgomery). The death of a recurring character dating to the second book, The League of Frightened Men (1935), lacks resonance with his televised appearances limited to two quick scenes here. After Ella is killed, Cramer (Allan Miller) brings a warrant for Maggie, whom he believes Hays is shielding; Lester borrows an incident — mentioned by Purley in the novel — from The Rubber Band (1936), as Wolfe conceals her in the plant rooms, hidden underneath some seedlings he and Theodore (Robert Coote) are spraying.

         — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.
   

Up next: “Immune to Murder”

Edition cited: Might as Well Be Dead in Seven Complete Nero Wolfe Novels: Avenel (1983)

Online source [link mislabeled as “Blue Ribbon Hostage”]

ALLEYN MYSTERIES “Artists in Crime.” BBC1, 23 December 1990 (pilot episode). Simon Williams (Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn), Belinda Lang (Agatha Troy), William Simons (Inspector Fox), Ursula Howells (Lady Alleyn). Based on the novel by Ngaio Marsh. Director: Silvio Narizzano.

   There was a three year gap between this one-shot pilot and the series that eventually developed from it. In the meantime, actor Simon Williams became unavailable, and his role as Inspector Alleyn was taken by Patrick Malahide, while Simons and Lang continued in two seasons of eight additional TV films of Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries.

   I can’t comment on the latter actor in the part (not yet, that is), but I had a difficulty time at first with Simon Williams in the role. Not because he wasn’t more than acceptable. The problem was that while I’ve read about half of the Alleyn mysteries, I had only a general idea of what he looked like. The same is true about his wife-to-be, Agatha Troy, and his second-in-command “Br’er” Fox.

   This is the story in which Alleyn first meets Agatha Troy, and in the film at least, he is smitten immediately. The problem he faces is that she is intimately involved in the mystery, and she in fact is for some time an actual suspect. She is the artist overseeing a group of paying clients trying to learn to paint and living together in the same large home if not mansion. Dead is a sexy model, and in strange fashion, impaled by a knife sticking upward from the bed where she has been posing.

   She, as it turns out, and not surprisingly, is also a blackmailer. This means that Agatha Troy, whom Alleyn’s mother looks favorably upon, is hardly the only suspect. The film is beautifully filmed, a period piece set in the late 40s, but I found it difficult to keep in mind who the other suspects were, and what their involvement might be. Remembering the book only vaguely, I believe the killer’s identity was the same, but they changed the motive.

   Overall, almost more a very tentative romance than a detective story, but as we know Alleyn and Agatha Troy did eventually marry. Oh, one more thing. In this TV version, at one point Alleyn goes into a deep silent mood, and his mother explains he’s been that way since the war. Never happened in the books, nor (so I’ve been told) in any of the TV episodes that followed.

   

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