Short Christmas Mystery

Last night, my mom and I watched The Theft of the Royal Ruby to help get us in the Christmas spirit. It’s a perfect Christmas moment for those of you who like a little crime, and a little 1930’s England thrown in with your “bah, humbugs!”

The Theft of the Royal Ruby is available to watch on both Netflix  (Series 3, Episode 9) and Amazon Instant View (currently free for Prime members), and is part of David Suchet’s fantastic Agatha Christie’s Poirot series.

It’s really fun – Poirot’s quiet Christmas plans are interrupted by a spoiled prince, a stolen ruby, and a plum pudding – and it’s only a TV hour, so you’ll still have time to wrap presents afterwards.

I’m having trouble finding a rating for it, but there’s no language, no sex, and there is only one scene that might be a bit scary for children: a girl is found outside with a knife through her back, and quite a bit of blood. This sounds much scarier than it is, but if you’re not sure about whether your children would find it disturbing, I’d recommend previewing it first (as is always a good idea!). But it is really quite tame and civilized.

What are your favorite Christmas mystery TV shows/movies?

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.

Wimsey Wednesday, Part III: The Seventies Series (Mostly) Satisfies

Howdy! I’m on vacation in Brazil for most of September, so I turned the tables on my readers and opened up the blog for guests posts while I’m gone. Loyal reader (and father) intexplorer continues his Wimsey Wednesday series. See here for part 1, and here for part 2.

This is the final installment in my Wimsey Wednesday series.  Two weeks ago, I introduced Dorothy Sayers and her fabulous literary creation, Lord Peter Wimsey.  Last week, I reviewed the mid-80’s BBC serializations of three of the four Wimsey murder mysteries that feature Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, mystery writer and the object of his affections.

Today I will review the earliest BBC serialization of some of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.  These were done in the 1970’s and are probably best seen by those who share my not-altogether-unhealthy obsession for the world that Dorothy Sayers created around Lord Peter Wimsey.  These early television adaptations of Lord Peter Wimsey star Ian Carmichael and dramatize five Murder Mysteries during Wimsey’s pre-Vane days as the quintessential “man about town.”

Ian Carmichael, a popular English comic actor, was in his early 50’s when these series were made, and it feels like he is a bit long in the tooth for the part.  Interestingly, Edward Petherbridge was virtually the same age when he played Wimsey, but he doesn’t feel too old.

These pre-Vane stories introduce most of the key supporting characters in Peter Wimsey’s world and also some key parts of his back story.  We learn, for instance, that Lord Peter Wimsey served as an officer in World War I and a sergeant, named Mervyn Bunter, saved his life.  After the war, Bunter looks up Wimsey and secures employment as his Valet.  Also, we learn that Lord Peter suffers from shell shock (what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and, after the war suffered a nervous breakdown.  These (and other) elements from Wimsey’s history make him more full bodied and likable.  I have always wanted to learn more about his nervous breakdown and how he was treated.  The stories reference him recovering on the Continent, but I WANT TO KNOW MORE!

Clouds of Witness

A murder at a hunting lodge during a shoot sponsored by Peter’s brother, the Duke of Denver, serves as the centerpiece for this unhurried tour through the family of Lord Peter Wimsey.  Peter’s brother, the Duke of Denver, is discovered leaning over the body of the fiancé of Peter’s sister, Mary in the middle of a dark and stormy night.  The Duke of Denver is charged with the murder as he will not offer any comment on why he was out of the house at three in the morning.  Bunter plays a key role in helping Peter save his brother, as does Peter’s good friend, Chief Inspector Parker, of Scotland Yard, who eventually winds up marrying Mary.

Unhurried is an important word to use in describing this series.  The story is told over five episodes, and the viewer gets the chance to enjoy the ride in an unhurried manner.  This loving attention to detail more than makes up for lack of sumptuous production values.  It seems reasonable to me that a series created for television in the early ‘70’s would not be as lavishly produced as were later series (when it was beginning to be understood that television shows had a life beyond their one initial and one repeat showing).

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

An old man is found dead in a gentleman’s club (a real one) on Armistice Day.  It turns out that the old man’s sister died at about the same time, and the question of who died first becomes important to determining how the sister’s considerable fortune is to be distributed.  Lord Peter Wimsey is called in to investigate and is able eventually to unravel the actual sequence of events.

There are at least two things that make this four-part murder mystery especially enjoyable.  The first is that one of the people who helps Wimsey resolve the mystery is an former girlfriend, who is wonderfully played by a very young Phyllida Law (also known as the mother of Emma Thompson).  The second is the very sympathetic portrayal of George, a grandson of the old man.  George is suffering from a very active case of PTSD, and his erratic behavior creates some incredibly poignant and memorable scenes.

Murder Must Advertise

Dorothy Sayers once held a job working as a copy-writer at an advertising agency, and she uses this inside knowledge to create an intriguing murder mystery.  After a copy-writer is murdered at Pym’s Publicity, Wimsey goes to work at the agency, using his two middle names (Death Breedon) as a pseudonym.  The murder turns out to be related to some drug trafficking, and Wimsey has to enter that world to unravel the puzzle.  He plays the part of a mysterious Harlequin, who appears and disappears, apparently at will, to prey on the drug-addled delusions of a young woman, Dian de Momerie, to get to the bottom of the case.  This works well within the confines of the novel, where the Harlequin exists as if in a dream.  The scenes, as played for a television camera, cannot achieve the same mystical quality, and the Harlequin’s appearances detract from this very fine story.

Two interesting cameos: one of the protagonists is played by Christopher Timothy, who later achieved fame as veterinarian James Herriot in the BBC series, All Creatures Great and Small. And, Shirley Cain, who plays one of the typists at Pym’s Publicity, later plays Miss Climpson in the Petherbridge Wimsey Series.

The Nine Taylors

A random driving accident on New Year’s eve leads Peter Wimsey to be pressed into service as a replacement bell-ringer at a country-church as the local vicar fulfills his ambition of performing an epic (and very long) peal.  While there, Wimsey learns of an unsolved robbery from many years ago and a recent mysterious murder.  It turns out that the key to this entire intrigue is unraveled through Wimsey’s knowledge of campanology.

The Five Red Herrings

While vacationing in Scotland, Wimsey meets a colony of artists, one of whom is unusually odious and loathsome.  Mr. Loathsome gets murdered, and any one of six artists is suspected of the crime.  Hence, there are five red herrings and one murderer.  Wimsey eventually sorts it all out and identifies the guilty party. IMHO, this is the weakest of the Ian Carmichael set.  In the book, the story take place during a glorious Scottish summer.  This series was filmed during the winter, and they tried to create a summer ambience.  To me, the landscape looks cold, bleak, and dreich, not warm, vibrant, and glorious.

DVD Series Available: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.

Wimsey Wednesday, Part II: Petherbridge Personifies Peter Wimsey

Howdy! I’m on vacation in Brazil for most of September, so I turned the tables on my readers and opened up the blog for guests posts while I’m gone. Loyal reader (and father) intexplorer continues his Wimsey Wednesday series. See here for part 1.

Last week, in my first ever blog post, I introduced Dorothy Sayers and her most famous literary creation, Lord Peter Wimsey.  There have been two BBC drama series created from her Wimsey Murder Mysteries.  We will discuss the earlier series, from the ‘70’s, next week.  Today, we will discuss the more recent series, made in the ‘80’s.  The three murder mysteries in this series feature Wimsey as the Wooer of Harriet Vane, played to perfection by Harriet Walters.

I’m starting here as these are the Wimsey Mysteries I first started watching.  The production values are high, the sense of London between the two wars seems pitch-perfect, and the casting is mostly perfect.

To me, the mysteries are secondary to the ambience of the stories.  I tend to find murder mysteries somewhat unsatisfying when judged on the technicalities of the cases in question.  Whether it is Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the eventual solution to the mystery is generally something that COULD have happened, but is extremely unlikely to have happened.

Strong Poison

This story starts out with mystery writer, Harriet Vane, on trial for the murder of her former lover.  Lord Peter sees Harriet’s photograph in a newspaper and decides to go to the trial.  Being a Lord, getting into the SRO courtroom seems ridiculously easy.  Wimsey is instantly besotted and sets about proving that Vane is innocent of murder.  He is able to gain time through the helpful obstinance of one juror, Miss Clemson, who holds out for a verdict of innocent.  The fact that she runs Wimsey’s charitable affairs hopefully had nothing to do with her decision.  Wimsey, with lots of help from the loyal Miss Clemson and his faithful Valet, Bunter, is able to eventually work his way through a series of clever encounters, establish the truth, and save the day.

This three-part adaptation ends with an unfortunate editorial decision.  After Vane is vindicated, Wimsey goes to congratulate her (after all, she is the girl he wants to marry), and she coldly turns and walks away.  My wife assures me that the book portrays this final encounter in exactly the opposite manner.

Have His Carcase

After her acquittal, Harriet decides on a walking tour through the West Country.  Her attempt at escapism fails when she finds a blood-soaked man, dead on a rock on the beach.  She notifies the police and then notifies a newspaper man as a means of gaining free publicity for her new novel. By the time the police arrive at the scene of the crime, the body has washed away and the coroner is unable to hold a hearing on the case because of a rule of English law called “Have His Carcase.”  In the meantime, the newspaper man has notified Wimsey, who immediately comes along to offer his assistance.

A panoply of interesting characters is introduced as Wimsey and Vane try to unravel the apparent suicide, and Wimsey woos Harriett at the same time.  Her refusal of Wimsey’s advances creates some helpful dramatic tension: she needs his sleuthing help but seems tired by his persistent proposals of matrimony.  Wimsey and Vane are eventually able to prove that the dead man was murdered and to identify the murderer.  Wimsey doesn’t make much more progress with his wooing of Harriet, but he is able to get her to agree to see him from time to time.

Have His Carcase translates to the screen very well and is, IMHO, the best of any of the filmed Wimsey Mysteries.

Gaudy Night

In this mystery, Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, at Oxford, for an alumna reunion and finds that a “poison-pen-poltergeist” has created an atmosphere of high suspicion and anxiety.  The dons of the college ask Vane to investigate, because of her background as a mystery-writer and their desire to avoid a scandal.  Vane asks Peter for help and they are eventually able to solve the mystery.   More importantly, Wimsey also finally wins the heart and hand of Harriet Vane.

Unfortunately for true Wimsey aficionados, the producer/director did not successfully remain faithful to the core depth of the book.  It is clear in the book that Harriett Vane is Dorothy Sayers, and the psychological self-exploration, combined with some intensely interesting characters (including a nephew of Wimsey, who is matriculating at Oxford as the story unfolds) make for a fabulously entertaining read.

This means that the more you know the underlying story, the more you will cringe at the choppiness and alteration of key moments.  For the less familiar, there are some wonderfully satisfying glimpses of both academic and aristocratic life.

Bonus: Busman’s Honeymoon

The fourth and final Wimsey-Vane novel that Dorothy Sayers wrote is, Busmans Honeymoon, which was originally written and presented as a stage play.  To my eternal regret, the BBC was not able to secure the rights to the play and was, therefore, unable to create a series around it.  This is a major bummer.

In the play (and the thoroughly excellent book), Wimsey and Vane get married, go on honeymoon, and discover a body in the house Wimsey has purchased as a honeymoon present for his new bride.  The exploration of their new relationship as Husband and Wife, including the necessarily-different dynamic with Bunter, the faithful Valet, are beautifully explored, and the mystery, while satisfying, is secondary to the marriage.

My wife and I learned that a theater company in Chicago was staging this play, and our not-entirely unhealthy obsession is such that we flew to Chicago to see it.  To our chagrin, we learned that the company has done each of the Wimsey-as-Wooer mysteries in turn.  To our delight, we learned that the daughter and son-in-law of some great friends from our time in Scotland were members of the theater company, and we randomly bumped into our good friends in the foyer of the theater, before the opening curtain.  This inside connection gave us a chance to hang out with the cast afterwards.

 Series available on DVD: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.

Wimsey Wednesday: an Introduction to a Not-Altogether-Unhealthy Obsession

Howdy! I’m on vacation in Brazil for most of September, so I turned the tables on my readers and opened up the blog for guests posts while I’m gone. You may recognize today’s guest blogger from the comments as “intexplorer”, but I just call him “Dad”. As you will see, I come by my love of both Dorothy Sayers’ work and alliteration naturally.

When I was a teenager, I was a voracious reader with tastes that were either very eclectic or not-very-discriminating.  I read science fiction, mysteries, adventures, history, political tomes, fantasy, and more.  When I first read Lord of the Rings, I remember being struck with how complex the sentence structures were.  Whereas the fiction of C.S. Lewis and Alastair MacLean were always easy reads and instantly accessible, J.R.R. Tolkien and, later, Dorothy Sayers, required a bit of literary recalibration.  Looking back on this, I think that my reading diet contained so much light fare that my brain was not accustomed to the meaty writing of a Sayers or Tolkien without some extra effort on my part.

Mind you, I’m not equating the quality of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy with The Guns of Navarone, but I guess it does follow that part of the genius of C.S. Lewis was that he wrote superb fiction which is instantly accessible to the average reader.

Dorothy Sayers created the character of Lord Peter Wimsey after World War I as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster.  Wimsey is a member of the English aristocracy, but as the second son, he has no title, few responsibilities, and lots of money.  So naturally he decides to devote some of his spare time and ample intelligence to solving the mysteries that spring up all about him.

Author Dorothy Sayers was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford (in 1915) and was a friend of C.S. Lewis and other members of an Oxford literary club called the “Inklings.”  Sayers seems to have been unlucky in love and, clearly, Lord Peter Wimsey was her perfect man.  He is introduced as a somewhat cardboard-ish figure in Whose Body, but as Sayers develops his world and character over the course of eleven novels, he becomes as real and interesting as any person I’ve not personally met; and more interesting than many people I have met.

The books are a marvel to read, with the mysteries being of secondary importance to the sense of time, place, and manners.  Most of the books are also available as audiobooks and some as dramatizations, with the former to be preferred over the latter.  The late Ian Carmichael read most of the novels in unabridged format for the BBC Radio 4 “Book at Bedtime” series during the 70’s and early 80’s—long before audiobooks became popular.  Carmichael completely owns the characters, and any of these books make an excellent way to pass the time during long car trips.  Many is the time we have listened to some—or most—of a Wimsey mystery on a road trip, and then been forced to spend the next week or so finishing the audiobook in one or two hour segments every night: they are that addictive.

The Lord Peter Wimsey novels can be divided into two groups:  Wimsey the bachelor, and Wimsey the wooer (of novelist Harriet Vane).  Perhaps coincidentally, the two Wimsey television adaptations are divided the same way.  Next week, I will review the better (and more recent) series, which covers three of the four Wimsey/Vane novels.  And then I will review the earlier adaptation, which stars an already-too-old Ian Carmichael.  This series is also excellent, but likely to be of more interest to those who share my not-altogether-unhealthy obsession with the Wimsey characters and series.

*Janie again here! For my take on Dorothy Sayers, see my post here.

Review of Temperance Brennan (A.K.A. Bones) Series by Kathy Reichs

Bottom line: A good look at the behind the scenes of police work and what a forensic anthropologist does – extremely violent and sometimes sub-par storytelling.

Rating: Recommended if you’re a fan of police procedurals or the TV show Bones.

Review:

I watched several seasons of Bones before giving up. It’s a good mystery show, but I got tired of the sexual tension being the main focus and the jerry-rigging done by the writers to keep that tension…tense. That being said, if you’re a mystery fan, it’s worth checking out, especially the first couple seasons or so. Anyways, a few years ago I had been wandering my library looking for something fun to read and randomly grabbed one of the Temperance Brennan mysteries that inspired the show. It was very good, although the show has practically nothing in common with the books except the name of the main character and the fact that she’s a forensic anthropologist. So I read a few more over the years and always found them to be clever and entertaining.

On my recent library run I had picked up several first-in-a-mystery-series books to review, and Deja Dead was one of those. I was looking forward to reading it, based on my previous experiences with Kathy Reichs. This, my friends, is a good example of why I’m not an optimist. I didn’t enjoy it at all. It was tedious and gruesome and slow. I didn’t identify with the main character at all, and despite the extremely graphic nature of the violence, didn’t find it all that interesting until the last 70 or so pages. For a book that clocks in at 532 pages, that’s kind of a big deal. I did see some hints of why I enjoyed some of the other books in the series. Towards the end, the characters felt more fleshed out. The murder(s) part of the plot was believable if grisly. The ending was genuinely a page turning, oh-no-what-next kind of thing for me. So overall I’m going to rate the series as a “Recommended If” with the first book a “Not Recommended”. From what I recall, the murders/violence stay pretty graphic but less so than this book (I’d skip the series entirely if you’re not a fan of that sort of thing), but the writing improves tremendously: the action starts rolling earlier in the book and the characters feel more realistic. I will say that I found the science-y parts to be well done and interesting.

Available:

Deja Dead (Book 1) Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Death Du Jour (Book 2) Amazon, Barnes & Noble

First Season of BonesAmazon, Barnes & Noble

What did you think? Did you like the series?

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.

 

Castle TV Series

Bottom line: A murder mystery TV series with great characters, acting, and storylines.

Rating: Strongly Recommended

Castle is my favorite TV show. Maybe of all time, but definitely my favorite currently running show. It’s a murder mystery that features Detective Kate Beckett and her crew, who have been told to bring a writer, Richard Castle, along with them in the course of their investigations, so that he can gather information to write a series of books.

I only tried it because it stars Nathan Fillion, who was the male lead in the tragically short lived TV series Firefly. Castle is fantastically good. It’s one of those rare shows where everything comes together: the writing, characters, casting, acting, plots, etc. are all just incredibly well done. They even managed to handle the sexual tension (it’s TV, therefore there must be sexual tension) well. I stopped watching Bones because at the end of every season, there would be this huge “will they/won’t they” cliffhanger, and then when they started the next season they just pretended the last episode hadn’t happened. After 5-6 seasons like that, I just got fed up. I’m not a huge TV watcher in general, but any time the writers start to obviously manipulate the audience, I lose interest instantly (this annoys my husband – we’ll be invested maybe a couple of seasons deep and all of a sudden, I’m done.). I want to be thinking about the story and the characters, not be wondering about how the writers are going to yank my chain next. Anyways, in Castle the relationship between the male and female lead feels natural, and progresses and regresses (for the vast majority) according to believable events within the context of the show. As the characters are the main draw for me, this is even more important than usual. And ALL the characters are great, even the supporting cast – they feel realistic and interact well and are basically the kinds of people that you wish you could go hang out with.

The only downside for me is that sometimes you get an incredibly intense, edge-of-your-seat, gruesome show, and sometimes you get a fun, lighthearted show, and you never know which you’re going to get. Although I think in general that’s a good thing (keeps it fresh), it is the reason I stopped watching about a year ago when I was pregnant and tired and stressed out and couldn’t handle anything even remotely intense. I haven’t managed to get caught up yet, but I will.

Get the first season: Amazon, Barnes & Noble.

Side Note: As an interesting promotional tactic, the powers that be have created the Nikki Heat books that are supposedly written by the character Richard Castle (the Amazon author page even shows Nathan Fillion). They’re actually not bad mysteries. The writing style is a little more sensationalized and occasionally cheesy than I would typically go for, but it’s a fun extension of the Castle world. This is one of the incredibly rare times when I’ll tell you to watch the TV show first, but there it is. I’ve read the first two Nikki Heat books and enjoyed them. I don’t know yet if I’ll read the others – my “to be read” list has become quite enormously high again – but not because I don’t think I wouldn’t like them. Do be aware, especially if you typically read cozies, that these are fairly intense and PG-13-y.

Get the first book, Heat Wave: Amazon, Barnes & Noble.

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.

My Exciting Saturday Evening (& a TV Rec)

While some 27 year olds might consider a night out on the town to be the epitome of a great Saturday evening, this is what I’ve got lined up: Agatha Christie’s Poirot, chocolate chip cookies, and a crochet project. I couldn’t be happier. And no, I was not more exciting before I got pregnant.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot is a tv adaptation of (naturally) Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries. Starring David Suchet, they are excellently done. There are several seasons, so it’ll be a long time before you run out. Obviously, some of them are more well done than others, and some of them follow the books more closely than others, but they’re just a fantastically fun watch. Most of them are “tv-hour” long episodes, but there are some movie length ones as well. Netflix now has the first parts of SIX seasons on instant view, and it looks like Amazon Prime has it available as free streaming, also.

Bottom Line: If you enjoy Golden Age mysteries, period dramas, or just a good, clean tv show, give these a try.

Rating: Strongly Recommended

Get it! Amazon, Barnes & Noble

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.