DESTINATION UNKNOWN (a.k.a. “Taking a Bullet for Rich”)

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“The travelers got out of the car. There was a big bell pull at the gate, but before they could touch it the gates swung slowly open. A white-robed figure with a black, smiling face bowed to them and bade them enter. They passed through the gate; at one side screened by a high fence of wire, there was a big courtyard where men were walking up and down. As these men turned to look at the arrivals, Hilary uttered a gasp of horror.

“’But they’re lepers!’ she exclaimed. ‘Lepers!’”

And there you have it, friends, Agatha Christie’s 1954 thriller Destination Unknown (American title: So Many Steps to Death.) I’m covering this one for Rich Westwood’s salute to the year 1954 over at Past Offenses. Rich himself had mentioned trying to cover this title if he had the time, but we’re nearing the end of the month, and clearly he found a hundred better books to read. So I’m going to take one for the team and talk about this relative low point for the Mistress of Mystery.

 

Anybody with a passing understanding of my life and habits knows how much I love Agatha Christie. Still, my relationship with her thrillers is problematic. I understand and accept how much Christie enjoyed writing them. Clearly, they were easier for her to plot than her whodunits – not that this is necessarily a good thing, mind you. You take one scrappy heroine, send her off on an adventurous trip and have her cross paths with Bolsheviks, or white slavers, or Nazis and their ilk. Toss in some romance if you can, expose the ringleader of the bad guys in a moment of great surprise, and make the world safe again for King and country. I can tell you this about the thrillers: they get worse as Christie’s career progresses. The first one, The Secret Adversary, (which is also the debut of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, Christie’s sleuthing couple), is blithe and breezy, and it is firmly set in the post WWI reconstruction of England, with some passing reference to events either true or realistic enough to pass for true. The next thriller, The Man in the Brown Suit, may be her best. At least its major villain is presented in a charming and creative way, and we can see Christie practicing some tricks that she will use later to even better effect in future novels.

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From there on in, however, the quality of the thrillers becomes more piecemeal. I confess that The Secret of Chimneys is the only Christie novel I have never finished, yet I like the big twist found in its sequel, The Seven Dials Mystery. N or M is mildly enjoyable as Tommy and Tuppence adventures go; at least Christie is willing to acknowledge the real-life existence of Nazis. They Came to Baghdad, has a ridiculous conspiracy plot but a nice ending, yet I find the heroine, Victoria Jones, exceedingly tiresome, as is much of her journey to discover what the heck is going on. Skipping to the end of Christie’s career, Passenger to Frankfurt is simply a big embarrassment. It plays, as does Baghdad, with the idea of a modern-day Siegfried trying to take over the world, something that works much better in Ira Levin’s clone-of-Hitler adventure, The Boys From Brazil, or almost anything by Robert Ludlum.

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That brings us back to Destination Unknown. I enjoyed it when I first read it, but I was fifteen. That pretty much sums up my experience with all these books: each subsequent re-read becomes more and more of a chore because I return to the books as a grown-up. The adolescent me was all too willing to accept Christie’s world-building of a vast international conspiracy at face value. In this instance, we have a vague allusion to the Cold War and the possibility that the Soviet Union is causing some of the great scientific minds of the Western world to disappear. Is this true? If so, are the scientists defecting, or are they leaving without volition? Are they even alive? And what has happened to Thomas Betterton, the inventor of that crucial element, Ze Fission, without which England may not survive (although Christie forgets to tell us exactly what Ze Fission does.)

Balancing this world issue is the personal story of one woman named Hilary Craven. The success or failure of a Christie thriller can hinge on the characterization of its heroine. On the face of it, Hilary Craven is a more compelling personality than Baghdad’s Victoria Jones. Where Victoria is a simple-minded, forward-thinking Cockney whose sole motivation for every stupid thing she does is to find a boyfriend, Hilary is a grown-up with a tragic backstory. Her daughter has died, and her husband (whose surname aptly describes his personality) has fled into the arms of another woman. Hilary leaves London for Morocco, intent on ending her misery with a quiet suicide in a strange land. But she has not reckoned on meeting Jessop of British Security, who asks this woman hell bent on self-destruction if she would at least end her own life performing a perilous task for her country, one which he can assure her will most likely end in her death.

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As premises go, this one is as good as one can hope for. But then even the most mediocre Christie tends to begin well. On the one hand, the seriousness of Hilary’s situation foreshadows an equally solid, mature force of evil to do battle with. Unfortunately, that turns out not to be the case. This mysterious force stealing the minds of Europe for its own ends turns out to be all rather silly. Perhaps if the heroine had been as daffy as Victoria Jones, she would have balanced out the ludicrousness of the thriller plot better.

As it is, once Hilary agrees to take on the identity of a dead woman (Tom Betterton’s wife Olive) – not because they resembled each other, mind you, but because they both have red hair – she heads out deeper and deeper into the mysterious Middle East where she meets nobody of particular interest, certainly not any well-developed Middle Eastern characters. There’s the British spinster tourist, the loudmouth American tourist, and the cultured and refined (but incredibly old and ugly) Greek millionaire, all a bunch of stereotypes that exist to either be or not be exposed as enemy agents. The job of finding Tom leads Hilary from one laughable crisis to another. I think there are something like three plane crashes in this novel. That’s not coincidence – it’s lazy writing! Finding Tom leads Hilary into a world that even the most accepting reader will probably have to down many grains of salt to get behind. There she meets more stereotypical characters, most of them scientists stripped of any humanity in their quest to conquer and control every natural creation on this earth. You just know that every one of them sounds like a character on Hogan’s Heroes.

Really, folks, this is a plot that is fun on the surface yet cannot hope to bare up to any close scrutiny. However, it does have one redeeming factor, something that Christie pulls out of her sleeve in the end. It’s not coincidental that this trick hails most definitely from the murder mystery side of Christie’s oeuvre. That’s a good thing because it gives heft and a nice sting to the climax of the story. Otherwise, the resolution would be about as exciting as the fireworks my dad used to buy for Fourth of July in Daly City. (He would go out into the street in front of our house and set them off. However, the fog was so thick that all we could see were slight shifts of color in the thick mist, combined with a feeble “wheeee” as the firecracker went off.)

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In conclusion, I’d just like to say how happy I am that Rich is now crossing 1954 off his list. Whenever he picks a month, I like to check out what Christie, Carr, and Queen, my three favorite authors have written. Queen’s output for ‘54 was The Glass Village, a fascinatingly weird murder tale set against the backdrop of the Communist witch hunts. It’s really hard to 1) get through and 2) take seriously. Carr wrote no novels that year. He put together a collection of stories that my buddy JJ has covered for Rich, but none of these were actually written in 1954! Needless to say, it’s good to get Destination Unknown – and the year that wasn’t so hot for my top three writers – out of the way. I can only hope next month’s choice will reap a personally more promising harvest.

KA-POOWW! KA-BOOOM! Holmes and Queen in Four Colors

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In the early 1960’s, Dell’s Four Color Series experimented with giving some of the great detectives the Superman treatment by trying them out as comic books. The newsstands’ luster was raised by the appearance of original stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen. Unfortunately, these experiments did not bear fruit, and neither detective earned enough attention (read profit) to merit a full series. Fortunately, Coachwhip Publications, who have re-issued, among other classic mysteries, the entire Todd Downing series, have published these novelties that are sure to thrill the inner fan boy in all of us.

 

I have long since hung up my hat as an aficionado, yet once I was an avid collector of DC Comics. My favorites were anything Batman-related (Detective was the best one) and The Legion of Super Heroes, but I bought most of the Superman-related titles, too. I had managed to amass a tidy pile, nothing super-rare but every issue precious to me, when my mom had one of her misguided parental brainstorms and, concluding that comic books are dust magnets, threw my collection away! I managed to stow (yes, stow!) one box, along with a lifetime’s worth of resentment, in the back of my closet. Now every time an old comic sells for tens of thousands of dollars, I glare at my mom, as if to say, “See what you cost me?”

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One of my favorite memories of Detective Comics was how sometimes they crossed over into my other passion, the one for murder mysteries. There was a time when Batman functioned as much as a detective as he did an action figure. He was the brainy super hero. Murder would occur, clues and suspects abounded, and the Caped Crusader would analyze in his Batcave with as much finesse as Holmes did at 221B Baker Street. I felt challenged as a reader to solve the case before Batman did. In fact, I imagined myself as Robin, the Boy Wonder, who served here as Watson to his mentor, focusing our mental powers to unmask killers. Then, of course, Batman would have to use his utility belt lasso to take down the culprit, for less intellectual readers than I demanded this of him. Even so, these stories felt much more sophisticated than my Hardy Boys books, where the toughest crime you might find was a smuggler’s ring at Pirates’ Cove. Soon, however, they paled in comparison to the complex cases I started reading about Hercule Poirot, Sir Gideon Fell and Ellery Queen, and gradually I gave up the exploits of the Man of Steel for the Man of the Little Grey Cells.

Recently I saw an ad about the Ellery Queen comic book, and I snapped it up. An ad for the Sherlock Holmes prompted a second purchase. I tried to savor both, but it felt so cool to kick back in bed, reading comic books again, that I ate them up. Somehow, my past had merged with my present as two of the greatest detectives in fiction stared back at me from the panels where men in cowls used to fight. Just how well did these new adventures capture at least the spirit, if not the intellectual equivalent, of the originals? Well, since you asked, let me tell you . . .

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Anyone who is familiar with the career of Ellery Queen knows that nobody mastered the branding of the Queen label quite like cousins Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee did. Consider this: the novels and stories spanned 42 years, encompassing several authors near the end who ghost-wrote (or co-wrote) the final books. There was also a whole slew of hard-boiled novels published under the Queen name. Then there were the adaptations of Queen’s adventures in a myriad of forms. Nine films were made between 1935 and 1942, none of them classics but many of them enjoyable (and a few egregiously bad). Queen was much more successful in radio from 1939 to 1948. The biggest tragedy for me is that the majority of these episodes were destroyed or lost, although some have survived, some were turned into short stories by the authors, and others were published in script form by Crippen and Landru, bless them. Then came television, with two mediocre series in the 1950’s bearing little resemblance to Ellery of the novels, followed by a TV movie based on Cat of Many Tails but switched to groovy 60’s New York and starring Peter Lawford, and – saving the best for last – the delightful series starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne that was drenched in period and offered clever puzzles starring guest stars from classic cinema and TV, but unfortunately only lasted through the 1975-76 season.

Dannay and Lee cleverly went about recruiting new fans among the younger generation with board games, jigsaw puzzles, and a series of mysteries for children about Ellery Queen, Jr., eleven titles ghost written and published between 1941 and 1966. And of course, there were comic books. Beginning in 1940, Ellery Queen regularly appeared as a comic book hero. Coachwhip’s release represents the fourth go-round. After all this, I find it utterly ironic today that, not only is Queen not regularly re-published, but younger mystery fans have neither read nor heard of him.

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The Queen comics here turned out to be a lot of fun. The artwork is so-so – I had a hard time telling characters apart, for instance – but the stories themselves are enjoyable mystery adventures, with an accent on the “adventure.” Most adaptations of the Ellery Queen character lightened the intellectual load and made the man slightly harder-boiled. The radio show often was set in the world of gangsters; same with the 50’s TV shows. (This may be why I love the Jim Hutton version which, if not entirely accurate – Hutton makes him too bumbling – at least focused solely on Ellery’s intellect. Again, this may be why it was cancelled.) Ellery in the comics has evidently sent away for that muscle building program usually advertised on the back of magazines. This guy is built, as is evidenced when he goes scuba diving in “The Underwater Clue.” The glasses he wears make him look a little too much like Clark Kent. A lot of beautiful dames figure in the cases, a fair number of them femmes fatale. But there is always an element of mystery, a clue or two that helps Ellery and his ever-present dad, Inspector Queen, figure out which of the suspicious characters lurking about is the culprit.

Often, the stories introduce an element of the supernatural. This is always debunked by Ellery and the real, human, agency exposed, but it makes for some of the best panels in adventures like “The Mummy’s Curse” or “The Witch’s Victim.” One of my favorites, “The Voodoo Victim,” leads us to the precipice of believing in zombies only to have Ellery use pretty good logic to bring the case back down to earth. As you can see from the titles, every effort was made to draw in young readers with a thirst for monsters. Ultimately, I fear that kids must have found these stories too dry for their tastes; hence, the fourth incarnation didn’t seem to last very long. Ah, youth is wasted on the young.

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Turning to the Sherlock Holmes comic, one can see that a great deal of respect for the original was put into this. Action is still placed wherever it can be, with chases and explosions and someone trying to kill Holmes every three pages. But mostly, ratiocination is the order of the day, as it should be. Holmes regularly deduces reams of information about people from the slightest glance, and the deductions make perfect sense. Perhaps the weakest adventure is “The Tunnel Scheme” featuring Professor Moriarty, because the arch-villain’s scheme to take over the building of the Channel tunnel in order to mask a huge crime is beneath the genius we all know Moriarty to be. Still, the Professor is drawn well, with a high bald dome and evil eyes. Watson looks way too much like Nigel Bruce throughout, thus making this Doctor far too old for this very handsome, athletic Holmes. But their relationship is well written. In fact, all the characters, including the suspects, are stronger, better defined, than in the Queen comics, and the dialogue, while not as erudite as in the original stories, has a distinctly Victorian feel about it.

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So taking all of this into account – clever original adventures, a feeling for the time period, well-drawn characters, and an emphasis on Holmes’ deductive methods rather than any attempt to turn the detective’s cloak into a cape, and you can pretty much figure out why this comic didn’t make it past two issues. I’m not sure if any other attempts were made, although I seem to remember a Classics Illustrated version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. But that issue may reside in my dreams, along with a whole stack of yet-to-be-discovered graphic novels featuring Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Sir Henry Merrivale and the like. I don’t blame you if you shake your heads at the folly of the comic book industry for failing to tap into these unsung heroes for the kid market. Or, if you’d like, you can always follow my lead and blame my mother. Works for me every time!

HARRY POTTER AND THE CREATIVE CASH COW

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The seven books of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga occupy a prominent position on my bookshelf (the downstairs one in the living room!) I read them all and listened to the audio versions read by the marvelous Jim Dale, he of a thousand voices, many times! I own the movies (except for the last one . . . I just couldn’t.) I even stood in line at bookstores at midnight, a lifelong reader overwhelmed by the number of modern children acting as if they were the first people ever to discover the joy of books. Best of all, for a while at least, I chatted about Harry Potter with my students, bonding with them on another, more personal, level. In short, I was a happy Muggle in the Potter-verse.

So it’s of little consequence if I admit to the belief that Rowling hit her peak with Book Three, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkhaban. There the pattern she had begun at the start – Harry is like you and me, only better, Harry learns ever more new things as the wizarding world around him expands, Harry places his trust in the wrong people, Harry is betrayed, Harry needs his friends, Harry, with his friends, saves the day – reached its most perfect plateau.

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When Book Four, The Goblet of Fire, arrived -the size of a doorstop – I gather most people saw this as an improvement. More Harry must equal better Harry. But honestly, the pattern was exactly the same – well, no, now that Harry was older, two new elements were added: Harry witnesses a great sacrifice (i.e. someone dies), Harry has confusing feelings about a girl. Nevertheless, the most discerning reader might be willing to admit that the whole affair felt . . . . stretched out a bit?

Then came Book Five, Harry Potter and the Perils of Puberty, er, The Order of the Phoenix. This one was even longer! Everyone was cranky with the throes of adolescence, everyone was in love with the wrong person, and the forces of evil had become more bureaucratic (although Dolores Umbridge was and is the best thing that came out of this book!) The feeling that things were dragging was ramped up a few notches for me.

Seriously, I enjoyed the books, but I enjoyed the phenomenon more. By the final saga, which for much of its massive length feels like a Harry Potter video game, I felt half impatient and half nostalgic for things to wrap up. Still, in the end, when the smoke cleared and the forces of good had finally triumphed, at great cost, over the forces of evil, when children all over the world who wouldn’t listen to me finally learned that they had been misjudging Severus Snape for years, J.K. Rowling came up with the perfect finale, a tiny epilogue offering us the barest of hints as to what Harry Potter and his friends would be like as grown-ups. After I closed the book on that scene, I could forgive Rowling any excesses or repetitions, wipe a tear from my eye, and set the final chapter on the shelf for the day years from now when I gaze wistfully at my shelf and say, “Why not re-read the whole thing?”

And now, I fear that in the interests of financial gain, Rowling has put a damper on my plan. It must’ve been nearly a year ago when the pre-order page for the eighth book, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, popped up on my Amazon account. I remember feeling a vague surprise, mostly at how excited I wasn’t getting over this news. “Nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts . . . “ Did I want to know what happens next? Did Rowling have any new tricks up her sleeve? As a theatre director and teacher, I was intrigued to learn that this was actually the script for a new, two-part play. How would the Potter Pattern work in this format? Most importantly, what new stories did Rowling have to tell about her beloved characters that would warrant waking them up after such a fitting conclusion to their tale?

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I can’t speak to the creative effectiveness of play’s production. I don’t live in London and haven’t seen it. I hear it’s getting raves. I would love to talk to someone who has been there. I’ll bet the special effects are pretty cool. But honestly, as a continuation of Harry’s story and as a piece of dramatic literature, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child embodies the dichotomy of so many sequels to classic artworks: it was a success before it was born, and it’s not very good.

Now, Rowling didn’t actually write this. A playwright named Jack Thorne wrote it based on an original new story by Rowling. But the Potter author gave the whole thing her blessing and dedicated the book to Thorne, so we must lay much of the credit or blame at her door. If I tell you that characters we followed for seven years now behave in ways they would never have behaved before, I don’t think it’s fair to blame Thorne for this. I can blame Thorne for a certain flaccid quality in the dramatic storytelling, the theatrical equivalent of a later Potter book lacking the editorial oomph that it needed to shave unnecessary sequences and tighten the story’s structure and content. I assume that, since the play is in two parts, ticket prices are higher and/or people have to pay two fees to see the entire work.

But let’s remember that I’m holding a book in my hands! This is a different pathway toward making moolah for Rowling and Company. I mean, who ever releases a play script in advance of a healthy theatrical run? And what was the last play script to hit “Number One Order” on Amazon before this one? No, Scholastic is hitting two markets here: the playgoers and the readers. Already the critics are warning the latter group to prepare themselves for the different experience of reading a script rather than prose. I venture to guess that readers appreciate how the many many scenes add heft to the size of the story, which, clocking in at a mere 308 pages, is the shortest chapter (by one page) in the Potter saga.

The nominal hero of this story isn’t actually Harry but his second child, Albus Severus Potter. The older son James takes after his Weasley uncles, and the youngest child Lily is a girl. Albus suffers, in true Rowling fashion, with SUPER Middle Child Syndrome, as his entry into Hogwarts goes spectacularly wrong from the start. Sorted into Slytherin, bad at Quidditch, bad at magic in general, he makes his dad Harry – who, in my observation, was a terribly average student – look like a genius.

It’s just as well that Harry, despite his name at the head of the title, isn’t the hero, because the person called Harry Potter doesn’t resemble the book Harry in the slightest. Here he’s a careworn middle-aged bureaucrat for the Ministry of Magic, who seems to have forgotten how awful it is to grow up without an ever-present loving parent. This Harry wants things to be easy (as they seem to be in regards to his wife Ginny and his two other children). The Harry we knew hated it when things were easy. He chafed at the bit for a challenge, and it seems to me that the book Harry would have a million tricks up his sleeve for dealing tirelessly with a cranky son. But the plot dictates not only that Harry pay almost no attention to how unhappy Albus is growing during the first four years of his residency at Hogwarts but that he would ultimately, in a fit of temper, actually reject his son in the worst way. It has to happen – it’s the only way this plot can move forward – but it shouldn’t happen.

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The actual hero of this story to my mind – at least he’s the most likable and interesting new character – is Albus’ best friend, Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Harry’s former rival Draco. Everything about this is wrong, too. Draco shouldn’t be the person we meet here (I’ll try not to spoil it), and it’s so unlikely that he would have created such a joyful person as Scorpius. But there you are: the play’s plot dictates that all of this must be so.

Grant you, the idea that somehow the great Harry Potter’s son would become an outcast is an interesting one. The theme of living up to a heroic parent is one we recognize. It’s just that playwright Thorne does nothing very imaginative with it. Instead, he relies basically on the old pattern, or, at least, Albus’ version of it: Albus is like you and me, only worse, Albus learns very little about the wizarding world because he’s angry, Albus places his trust in the wrong people, Albus is betrayed, Albus needs his friend, Albus, – well, I’ll leave you to discover what happens. Dare I say, it won’t surprise you!

Clearly, Thorne is trading on our apparent need for a nostalgic Potter fix. There are loads of cameos, some from characters who might surprise you if I didn’t spill the beans here and say that, thanks to an all-improved rogue Time Turner, this story is a combination of It’s a Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day, and The Butterfly Effect. That means that any character, living or dead, is fair game. I would caution real fans not to put too much emphasis on this aspect of the game since all of us will be disappointed by the non-appearance of a fan favorite. (Sorry, Dobby fans!)

Being a five and a half hour long drama containing two hours worth of plot, there is plenty of time to split amongst our favorite major characters and introduce the new guys on the block. We get lots of scenes of Harry and Ginny worrying about their son. Ginny is now a loving mother and almost as colorless a character as she was in the books. Hermione is the Minister of Magic (was that a surprise to anyone), and she is still married to Ron, who gets almost all the laugh lines but not a single significant thing to do in this play.

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Mostly, though, this is all about Albus and Scorpius, the fix they get into, and how it threatens to bring about the destruction of the wizarding world. The threat of darkness coming is ever-present, thanks mostly to an act by Lord Voldemort that is so ludicrously out of character that remembering it makes me shake my head in wonder and ask, “Jo and Jack . . . what were you thinking?”

Albus’ and Scorpius’ love for each other is the best thing about them and the play. It is their bravest act, transcending the scorn of their peers and the history between their parents, and some of the most interesting conversations occur between them, like when Scorpius calls Albus out on acting like he’s the center of the friendship and Scorpius is his satellite. (Something that Hermione and Ron must have felt about Harry nearly every day of their lives.) Their friendship really blossoms over the course of four acts. It also, to be honest, seems very . . . well, gay to me.

Oh, I know, seeking it out everywhere I go! But honestly, according to Rowling, Dumbledore was gay, and he never came close to acting as passionately fond of another male as these two lads do with each other. At one point, they actually make a vow to stop hugging. And then, they can’t help but break that vow. I think it’s great, but it’s also a little bit weird in this context. And, of course, since it’s not ever explicitly stated, it just hangs there for all to notice and say nothing about just like every other homoerotic reference gay people have been accused of imagining for centuries.

There is a lot of adventure in this drama, and it must be exciting to see that play out onstage. About every thirty pages or so, from beginning to end, there is a scene that threatens to become a tear-jerker. I confess to getting a little ferklempt myself once in a while, but I imagine so many of these scenes might put a downer on a five and a half hour evening of dramatic entertainment.

Rowling has promised that this is definitely the last full-length story about Harry Potter. Meanwhile, she embarks on a new film franchise this fall with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Frankly, this is what she should have concentrated on all along: an entirely new story of the Wizarding World, where she could have made sly allusions to parallel events we have seen before while she introduces us to a whole new array of experiences. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that this will be the beginning of a grand new epic . . . and that Rowling will know this time when it’s time to say, “Enough.”

THIRTEEN BY HITCHCOCK: A Fan Pays Homage to the Master

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For the August 13 post of her fine blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, Margot Kinberg did something that still makes me hang my head in shame: she remembered Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday! More than that, she honored him with a salutary post. one which you can – and should – read here.

Although it accounted for my second post ever, I’ve blogged very little about my favorite film director. I’d like to make some amends for that here with a selection of some of my favorite Hitchcockian moments. I’m not including any from my favorite film, Rear Window. That masterpiece should not be viewed in pieces but as a whole, again and again. But there is so much more to savor: here, in chronological, not favorite, order, are a spine-tingling baker’s dozen of fabulous Hitchcock moments for you to add to your Not To Be Missed List:

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Blackmail (1929) – “The Morning After”

Some scholars say that 1932’s The Lodger is the film that shows Hitchcock becoming Hitchcock, but there’s plenty of evidence in this earlier film of his increasing mastery of suspense and his iconic obsessions for beautiful blondes, famous monuments and many other things. Blackmail also illustrates how, from the start of his career, Hitchcock embraced each emerging element of technology in this fast-developing art form. Originally made as a silent film, the filmmaker decided to leap onto the bandwagon of “talking pictures” and re-worked his original into a sound picture. It illustrated how Hitchcock wasn’t merely content to present technology – he was determined to demonstrate his artistry with every use of it.

Alice White (Anna Ondry) is a nice young English lass who, after a fight with her policeman boyfriend, allows a charming portrait artist to pick her up. He takes her back to his studio and attempts to rape her, and in the struggle, she stabs him with a bread knife and kills him. She rushes back to her parents’ home, unaware that her comings and goings have been seen by someone whose blackmail attempts will force Alice and her boyfriend to confront their darkest impulses.

The moment that is so great (and justly famous) occurs when Alice comes down to breakfast the morning after the killing. She is wracked with guilt over what she has done, and that is manifested by her obsession with images and sounds connected to knives. A neighbor woman talks to her mother, and the only word Alice can hear is knife. It ranks as one of the most creative early uses of sound in cinema history.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvlyQaJbJgs

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The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) – “The Birthday Party”

The film that distills to perfection one of Hitchcock favorite motifs – that of the innocent man on the run for a crime he did not commit – follows Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) across England and Scotland, on the run for the murder of a female spy he tried to help. All the tropes we will see again and again throughout Hitchcock’s career in films like Saboteur and North by Northwest are here, but my favorite moment comes when Hannay first confronts the head of the evil spy organization. He only has two pieces of information: the leader is missing a part of his baby finger, and there’s a professor in Scotland who might have some information. Hannay barges into Professor Jordan’s home only to find himself in the middle of a party. Hitchcock, a very private man, hated parties and set many deadly moments in his films in the midst of such events. Hannay insists on speaking to the Professor and learns, in a scene that is both funny and shocking, that sometimes the information you receive is incomplete.

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Sabotage (1936) – Sunday Dinner #1

Just as Hitchcock was at the forefront of new technology like sound, his entire career reminds us that his roots were in silent film with long segments of virtually soundless action unspooling before our eyes. Sylvia Sidney is riveting as young Mrs. Verloc who is ignorant over the fact that her much older husband is a foreign agent responsible for terrorist bombings that are occurring all over London. She learns the truth in the most terrible way, so that by the time she enters the dining room at the climax to carve her husband’s dinner, her nerves are at fever pitch. Watching Sidney and Oscar Homolka soundlessly perform the final act – where Hitchcock reminds us that the force of good may win but is always tainted by the touch of evil – is to watch filmmaking in its purest form.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIdDMLkdExg

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Young and Innocent (1937) – “Tracking Shot #1”

Volumes have been written, and justly so, about Hitchcock’s mastery of the camera, and you see evidence of this in every film. One of my favorite moments occurs when Hitchcock moves the camera in a glorious tracking shot near the climax of Young and Innocent. This is another “innocent man on the run” film: Robert (Derrick De Marnay) is accused of murdering an actress, and he knows he must find the real killer in order to get the police off his tail. The audience has already caught the real killer, the actress’ ex-husband, in the act. He is a sinister, balding figure whose eye twitches madly whenever he gets excited (or homicidal). Robert locates a bum who actually met the villain and brings him round to an elegant restaurant where he believes the killer will be found.

The director delighted in keeping his audiences a few steps ahead of the characters, and while Robert, his girlfriend and the hobo search for the bad guy, Hitchcock reveals us the murderer hiding in plain sight using a brilliant tracking shot that covers the crowded ballroom. And as icing on the cake, note the song playing in the background.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PrqZhrMDz8

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Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – “Sunday Dinner #2”

Hitchcock reveled in portraying the similarity between hero and villain. Sometimes, as in North by Northwest, it was a physical similarity, but in each case, adversaries could bring out the best and the worst in each other. In Rear Window, L.B. Jeffries wants to bring down the suspected murderer Lars Thorward, but in significant ways, Thorwald is the dark version of Jeff himself.

Nowhere is the duality of good and evil rendered more chillingly and poignantly as in Shadow of a Doubt. Young Charlie feels stifled by her small town existence in Santa Rosa, California and longs for the glamorous life of her namesake Uncle Charlie, whom she worships above all others. Only we have been clued in by Hitchcock that Uncle Charlie is “The Merry Widow Murderer.”

Over the course of the first half of the film, the niece’s blindness to her uncle’s psychopathy slowly falls from her eyes. All becomes clear to her at the dinner table one night where, before her clueless family, she hears Uncle Charlie expound upon the women he has killed:

“Women keep busy in towns like this. In the cities, it’s different. The cities are full of women – middle-aged widows – husbands dead, husbands who spent their lives making fortunes, working, working. And then they die and leave the money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do these wives do? These useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.”

Young Charlie can’t help but cry out, “But they’re alive! They’re human beings!” And Joseph Cotton who has been filmed saying this speech in profile at his niece’s side turns the full range of his sociopathic gaze on her and, thus, on the camera and purrs, “Are they?”

It’s Hitchcock’s little dig at us, we voyeurs who revel in the villain’s dirty business. Yes, we may be shocked at Charlie’s attitude, but as the chills run down our back when he fixes his gaze at us, we have to admit that we are also thrilled.

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Notorious (1946) – “Tracking Shot #2”

I have to admit that both Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman leave me a bit cold when I watch Notorious. But I’m not there for them. I’m there for Claude Rains as Sebastian, the most sympathetic Nazi agent you are likely to meet. And that’s what’s brilliant about this movie: Hitchcock makes us uncertain over whom we should align our sympathies with. True, Grant and Bergman on on the side of the good guys, but all their tactics are dishonest in the slimiest of ways – they even con each other – while Sebastian is guided by a sincere love for Alicia. To Hitchcock, Sebastian’s greatest flaw may not be his fascism but his blind love for his domineering mother, a figure who is never portrayed with much sympathy in a Hitchcock film.

Okay, the moment I was going to mention is the famous tracking shot on the stair with the key. Check it out if you’ve never seen it. But stay and watch the film for Rains’ performance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reWOxLvp5sA

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Strangers on a Train (1951) – “The Stolen Ending”

There are so many moments in this film worth extolling, and it’s odd considering how little I think of leading man and lady Farley Granger and Ruth Roman. He is stiff, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why any man would kill for her fretful Senator’s daughter. But the rest of the cast is fabulous: Robert Walker’s Bruno is one of the best nutjob killers ever, and Patricia Hitchcock (the director’s daughter) all but steals the show as the heroine’s smarter little sister. But Hitchcock’s filmmaking is the real star of this show. That duality of good and evil I talked about above is in full force here, especially in the achingly suspenseful final twenty minutes or so of the film, where Hitch crosscuts between Bruno and Guy as they race to a crime scene to beat each other at a deadly game. It all culminates in the ending on the merry-go-round, a finale that has been lifted (dare I say, stolen?) from Edmund Crispin’s novel, The Moving Toyshop. I remember reading the book years after I’d seen the movie many times, crying out, “Hey!” then checking to confirm that the book came first. And yet, it works so perfectly in Hitchcock’s film that I have to wonder how much Crispin minded. Does anybody know?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75ACQveD9ac

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The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – The Tell

Frankly, I don’t think this film gets the respect it deserves. It is the only one that Hitchcock’s remade, so he must have figured he could improve it. (He himself compared the two versions as the work of a talented amateur and a professional.) I understand how some people prefer the earlier version with its lighter tone and the charming yet clear-cut villainy of Peter Lorre’s character. We sophisticates who love our Hitchcock layered and complex will take the remake anytime. It is the only time in Hitchcock’s career when he presents a positive depiction of the relationship between a mother and her son. It also contains one of the most ambiguous villains in the canon and one of my favorites: Mrs. Drayton, heartbreakingly portrayed by Brenda de Banzie, is a woman whose dedication to her cause runs afoul of her blossoming maternal feelings for the young boy she has kidnapped in service to her ideological beliefs.

Most of all, The Man Who Knew Too Much proves once and for all what a fine actress Doris Day is. It is said that she became very unhappy on set because Hitchcock never gave her a note. When she finally confronted him, he was perplexed. Why should he give her notes if she was doing exactly what he wanted of her? Hitchcock was notoriously unconcerned with actors’ feelings; hence, the phrase attributed to him that “actors are cattle.” But he knew what he wanted from the character of Jo McKenna, a doctor’s wife and former professional singer whose cheerful demeanor is at war with her own neurotic insecurities. The moment you shouldn’t miss is when James Stewart, Hitchcock’s favorite leading man who plays the doctor husband, has to inform his wife that their son has been snatched. Knowing her as well as he does, he sedates her before breaking the news. Watching Day’s visceral reaction, you see the depths of which she was capable but was rarely asked to portray onscreen. This is the couple’s lowest point in the film, and while the story is outwardly an adventure, it is really about Ben and Jo McKenna finding each other again and restoring their family emotionally as well as physically. Que sera sera!

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The Wrong Man (1956) – The Second Line-up

How impressive is it that Hitchcock could come up with two such powerful and different films in one year, but in one sense they are two sides of the same coin. Based on a true story that perfectly embodies the director’s favorite “innocent man accused” motif, The Wrong Man, like the previous film, uses a crime story to focus on the effect that terrible events can have on a marriage, but where the McKennas rise to heroism and re-commit to each other, Rose Balestrero (Vera Miles) falls apart. Jo McKenna, she is a devoted wife and mother with a hidden nervous streak. When her husband Manny (Henry Fonda) is jailed and accused of robbing an insurance company, Rose’s sanity slowly crumbles as the foundations of her safe life are shaken. It’s a powerful performance that shouldn’t be missed, and yet my favorite moment in The Wrong Man is pure Hitchcock and has to do with one of his favorite iconic images: eyeglasses.

I don’t know why exactly, but every time Hitchcock puts a pair of eyeglasses on somebody, it spells trouble. The vision behind those lenses tends to get distorted. Sometimes the glass mirrors an awful event, like a murder. But here it’s used more subtly. Early in the film, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) has been picked up on suspicion and is asked to join a line-up. Several employees who witnessed the robbery size up the men, and one imperious woman in glasses identifies Manny as the thief. Through her sheer force of will, her less certain friend caves in and agrees with her. Much later in the film, another man bearing a distinct similarity in appearance to Manny, is picked up after he robs another store. The same women are brought in for a second line-up, and what follows will satisfy any audience member who has spent the entire film in anguish for the Balestrero family.

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Vertigo (1958) – The Kiss

Vertigo recently replaced Citizen Kane in the Number One spot on some notable best film lists. It is, without a doubt, the richest and most tragic of all of Hitchcock’s movies. Maybe it’s not my favorite because it’s almost completely devoid of the director’s puckish humor, but one could easily devise a semester-long class to study the cinematic treasures found in this film alone

James Stewart returns for the last of four roles he played for Hitchcock as Scotty Ferguson, a private eye nearly washed up by his paralyzing fear of heights (brought about when he was chasing a suspect, tripped and brought about the death of a cop trying to effect a rescue.) Hired by an old college friend to follow his beautiful wife Madeleine, whom the husband fears is possessed by the spirit of a long-dead relative, Scotty becomes obsessed with her. He meets and falls in love with her, and then he witnesses her death, which he could have prevented if only it wasn’t for that damned vertigo! He is inconsolable at his loss . . . until he meets a store clerk who resembles the late Madeleine. Scotty befriends her and becomes the most creepy Pygmalion you will ever meet, remolding Judy into the image of Madeleine by changing her clothes, her hair color, everything about her. In that last moment when the transformation is complete, Scotty and “Madeleine” are reunited in a kiss that is, by turns, erotic, disturbing, romantic, and insane. There are more layers to this moment than I could explain in a single blog post. Just watch the thing. And listen to Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent scoring of this – I go nuts every time I watch this!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwD9twaZMZM

In the recent documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, one American director – I think it was either Paul Schrader or Richard Linklater – said that this might be the greatest moment in cinematic history.

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Psycho (1960) – “Tracking Shot #3”

I always show Psycho to my high school film students. I worry for about ten seconds that these modern teens, who have been fed so much graphic violence on their screens and who have even partaken of it virtually themselves in their video games, that they would snort and scoff at the relatively “tame” violence found in this grubby black and white horror flick.

I needn’t have worried, of course, for Psycho is so masterfully unsettling that they always squirm pleasantly in their seats. Armed with a miniscule budget of $806,000, Hitchcock promised to scare the crap out of America, and he succeeded. He also made the most trenchant study of voyeurism since . . . well, since Rear Window and Vertigo! The shower scene is one of the most justly famous horror montages ever committed to film, but it’s the shot after Mother leaves the bathroom and Marian collapses on the tub floor that I always wait for.

The shower continues to run, washing all traces of Marian’s blood off the floor (the beginning of a clean-up process that Norman Bates will complete in order to cover up for his murderous mom). The camera tracks the blood going down the drain, and our eyes are drawn to the dark hole where the water spirals ever downward. And then it just . . . gets . . . great.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VP5jEAP3K4

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The Birds (1963) – “The Playground”

This is a problematical film for me. I think much of it is brilliant, and I don’t scoff – like some of my students do – at the relatively primitive special effects. Sure, digital magic allows us to see anything on screen these days, but I find it lacks any sort of imagination and, ironically, feels even faker to me than the combination of matte shots, mechanical effects and stunt work with real trained birds that Hitchcock assembled. I also recognize that this is as much a love story as it is a horror movie, and that the real mystery here isn’t why the birds are attacking – does it really matter? – but which woman will capture Mitch Brenner’s soul. Or maybe it’s really about whether Melanie Daniels, the heroine, will find her soul. No, my problem, pure and simple, is “Tippi” Hedren, the beautiful blonde Frankenstein’s monster that Hitchcock assembled to serve him. But just as Colin Clive neglected to find a good brain for his monster, Hitchcock was unable to supply his creation with some much needed acting talent. Her mannered, wooden performance nearly kills it for me every time.

My favorite moments are the attacks because they are nearly wordless, which means Ms. Hedren doesn’t get to speak. She is at her best during these moments, and the most riveting one is those suspenseful moments before the crows and ravens attack the schoolchildren. So many of my favorite moments mentioned here occur when Hitchcock feeds the audience information before his hero receives it. Here, we get a little bit more than Melanie each moment, but the director saves his most powerful punch for the end, and both heroine and audience get a great jolt!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydLJtKlVVZw

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Frenzy (1972) – “Reverse Tracking Shot”

Frenzy isn’t great, but it’s very good. It contains many of Hitch’s trademark ideas, like the duality of the hero/villain, the condemnation of an innocent man (although here, the police are a lot smarter than usual for a Hitchcock film), the obsession with beautiful blondes. There’s even a cool shot of the hero (one of Hitchcock’s least likable) getting shoved in a jail cell just as it happened to young Alfred at the behest of his own father to show what happens to bad little boys. Still, after all the greatness listed above, this film is a bit anti-climactic. But there’s one really marvelous shot, another instance of the audience being smarter than the character. This time, the consequences are truly terrible for one of the only people we actually like in this film. Using a reverse tracking shot, the director heightens our sense of helplessness as we are pulled away without being able to warn a serial killer’s next victim. Having already seen the sadistic brute dispatch an earlier victim, we squirm just as badly imagining what’s happening in the room we were forced to leave behind.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRfbuQgJsjY

So there you have it: thirteen brilliant moments, out of thousands, by the Master of Suspense. Of course, it would make the best sense if you watch the films themselves in their entirety to really understand the context of these moments. And while you’re at it, watch The Lodger, North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Rebecca and the rest. I’ve got thirteen more for you where this came from.

Or forget the rest and just watch Rear Window . . . over and over again. Savor it like the cinematic fine wine that it is. Don’t mind if I join you . . .

BRAD’S FIRST ANNUAL BINGE AWARDS!

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To binge = to indulge for a short period of time in an activity to excess, especially drinking alcohol and eating.

Not a very pleasant or healthy notion. My question is, if we add “watching TV” to that equation, does that elevate the concept of binging? Probably not, but it’s an important thing to ask, for binging is the way a lot of people watch TV these days, and I have joined the pack.

Online services like Netflix and Amazon Prime encourage us to binge when they drop an entire series, fully formed, into our laps rather than doling it out in weekly increments. When you watch something on Hulu or Netflix, you barely have time to catch your breath as the computer loads up the next episode, yet I make a conscious effort to watch only one or two episodes a day to “make it last.” This has leaked over to my regular TV watching, as  I tend to store the shows I DVR in order to watch them in batches rather than once a week.

For me, the pluses of binging outweigh the minuses. First of all, the shows I tend to like involve complex continuing storylines and character development. Watching an entire season’s worth of story in shorter spurts tends to make the experience feel more complete. You also have more control of what you watch when you watch it. Since there is nothing on TV worth seeing on Monday nights, why not kick back with two or three episodes of something you care about. (Or you can always read . . . yeah, right!) And since I’m a teacher on summer vacation, I have the freedom, should I wish, of devoting a day to watching an entire series. Not that I would ever dream of wasting my life like that . . .

An added plus is that I actually have found that binging has helped me to reduce the amount of television I watch. This summer, I recorded several series that I thought I wanted to watch, only to realize after one or two episodes that the effort did not yield the required pleasures. And so I erased them. Bye-bye, Outlander. I’ll miss all the hot sex but not the turgid political drama, which tended to get in the way of the hot sex. So long, Season Three of Silicon Valley. Suddenly, you just weren’t funny enough for me to give you my time.

The minus of binging is that when you’re done, you’re done, and you have to wait an entire year for another dose. Well, that’s the short term minus; the bigger deal is that now you’re no better than those dratted kids you complain about with their constant demand for instant gratification!

Mind you, I don’t binge everything I watch. Game of Thrones has to be viewed as close to in the moment  as possible because you need to discuss it at length with the rest of your slackjawed friends the next day! Which brings up the other minus of binging: those people who refuse to watch a show until it’s all stored up and then get vicious when you want to discuss the Red Wedding or the Bastards’ War or Arya’s Revenge in their presence. I had a Facebook friend who un-friended me, not because I discussed plot details but because my statements like “How about that amazing episode last night?” gave too much of the emotional impact of a show away for her. Binging is destroying another favorite pastime, the Water Cooler Moments. Discuss that amongst yourselves.

As I contemplated my first annual Binge Awards, I had to admit that this was a pretty grim summer in terms of quality entertainment, but I managed to come up with my top six Binging Experiences. This is a highly personal list, so it won’t include all of your favorites. I also want to say that, as we speak, I am recording the HBO mini-series The Night Of . . . which I hear is fabulous and which might have ended up on this list had I timed things better. Here we go . . .

Number Six . . .

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Dark Shadows (YouTube)

This is a very personal choice. When I was a kid, I would rush from middle and high school over to a department store at the local mall in order to watch Dark Shadows. (This 12-year-old would pretend to shop for TV sets, which fooled nobody.) My viewing the first time around was choppy due to time restraints. I watched it again in college and remember laughing a lot. This year, I got the yen to view it from the perspective of full adulthood, and when I found that most of the episodes are currently available on YouTube, I decided to go for it.

For those of you who are in the dark about Dark Shadows, it took the world by storm for five years in the late 60’ –early 70’s. The first year presents a Gothic world revolving around the Collins family who live at their family mansion Collinwood in Collinsport, Maine. The first year concerns the new governess, Victoria Winters, who arrives seeking the truth about her birth. She gets involved in murder and intrigue and ill-fated romance, which sounds like fun except that this was when soap operas moved veeeerrrryyy sllloooowwwwwlllyyyy. Suffice it to say, the show struggled to the point of near collapse when its creator, Dan Curtis, had a brainstorm: since the show flirted continuously with the idea of the supernatural lurking in the background, why not go whole hog and introduce the real thing? He stepped into those waters gradually, first with ghost sightings and then with a storyline involving a woman who had married a Collins and run away, only to return to claim her child. Turns out she was a living embodiment of a Phoenix, and all she wanted was to burn herself and her son up so that they could live forever. It worked pretty well, so Curtis turned up the heat and introduced Barnabas Collins, a vampire. And Dark Shadows never looked back from there. It featured werewolves and witches, take-offs on classic tales like Frankenstein and The Turn of the Screw. The actors were a sort of repertory company, played a wide range of Collins relations, depending on the time period in which the show took place during any given story.

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Truth to tell, the great joy of watching this series is to see how bad it really could be. Some of the storylines were terrific, the main set was one of the best on TV at the time, and many of the early attempts at special effects were pretty cool. Most of the time, however, the cheese factor was ever-present, and the beleaguered actors often dropped their lines or worked hard not to crack up. Still, there’s something about being a Dark Shadows fan that stays with you forever, and I find myself waxing nostalgic for the days when my friend Marilyn Singer and I would discuss the plot details of this show ad nauseum. I was also helped this time along by a wonderful website by a writer named Danny Horn called Dark Shadows Every Day. Danny has taken on the project of watching and writing about one episode every day, as well as about the various adjunct DS paraphernalia (comic books, novelizations, films, audio stories), and a look at how DS fit into a wildly changing America. His commentary is often hysterically funny and just as often insightful. If you have time to spare for 1200+ half hour episodes, I highly advise checking out Danny’s blog to ease you on your journey. For those of you who are not interested in watching Dark Shadows, I congratulate you on having a life.

Number Five

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Veep (Season Five – HBO)

If you had asked this American voter to describe Veep two years ago, I would have called it a totally bonkers satire of the U.S. political system. Who could have imagined how much it resembles today’s reality? The only thing different between the re-election woes of V.P. turned interim President Selina Meyers (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, brilliant) and the attempt by Donald Trump to convince somebody – anybody – that he would make a viable Commander-in-Chief, is that when we laugh at Selina, we don’t feel an accompanying undercurrent of horror. I do think that Veep, which is painfully hilarious this season, could be an effective tool for the Clinton campaign to illustrate what might happen should a sociopath become our leader. Although, let’s be fair: if the run was between Selina Meyer and Donald Trump, I would vote for Selina in a heartbeat. Louis-Dreyfuss surrounds herself with a marvelous ensemble of actors playing every sort of damaged soul you could imagine. (Special shout-out to Tony Hale as Selina’s adoring personal assistant.) If you haven’t watched this one, start at the top. You can binge it on HBO Go.

Number Four

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House of Cards (Season Four -Netflix)

I think the British understand certain things about television that we don’t in America, like when to get off the train. The British House of Cards did not last four seasons, and that was one of its strengths. And the third season of the U.S. version went off the rails by trying to humanize Frank and Claire Underwood, the central figures in this twisted satire of political intrigue. (Think Veep with that undercurrent of horror I mentioned above.)

But this latest season gets many things back on track, largely due to the focus on Claire, played to perfection by Robin Wright. Claire has the gall to say to her husband, “Maybe I don’t want to be Lady Macbeth anyore,” and when Frank balks at her personal ambition, the stage is set for a whole new web of intrigue that will lay the foundation for Season Five (which, folks, really should be the last season.)

Number Three

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Stranger Things (Season One – Netflix)

This new show is being pushed as a nostalgic throwback to all those 80’s Spielberg movies that put the science fiction genre firmly in the hands of children (and children at heart): E.T., the Extraterrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Goonies. And yes, it is set in the 80’s and all the tropes are there: a group of nerdy middle school heroes, clueless but loving parents, bullying kids and government agents, helpful but clueless teachers and sheriffs, and a mysterious laboratory encased in barbed wire which is conducting experiments in something that threatens the very fabric of our existence.

Except there’s also a healthy touch of Alien and other darker matters to appeal to us grown-ups who like our nostalgia served dry, with a twist. And we also get to find out what happened to Winona Ryder, so that’s a bonus. Thus, the tone of the show veers from the childlike wonder and angst that Spielberg could capture so well to some nice scary suspense scenes involving the kids and the Big Bad.

Stranger Things opens with double escape from the aforementioned spooky lab. One of the escapees is Something Terrible, the true origin and nature of which is explored throughout the season. The other escapee is a little girl known only as Eleven who, at the start, is clearly traumatized by a lifetime of experimentation. How and why she got there and what she knows and can do form the most satisfying part of this mystery.

The show isn’t perfect. It’s derivative qualities tend to leak out of the seams. But it is a fast-paced and entertaining show, with characters you start to root for. Certain parts of the story seem to play out to a nice finish, but there are enough questions left at the end to segue nicely into Season Two. I’ll be there for the ride.

Number Two

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UnReal (Season One on Hulu/Season Two on Lifetime)

I resisted this show about the production of a “Bachelor”-type reality series for the longest time. I don’t like dating shows (or most reality series) because the manipulative and downright fictional aspects of them are always apparent. However, UnReal is so over-the-top crazy that I highly recommend it over the real thing.

One of the biggest pluses of this show is that most of the characters are female, and UnReal shows that women can be just as strong and as rotten as men, perhaps more so. The show centers on the two women who produce “Everlasting,” the show within a show: Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) is the executive producer, and she actually conceived the show only to have her lover Chet Wilton (Craig Bierko) steal the credit. Quinn is out and out psycho in her attempt to make the worst of human nature play out on the show. Her staff manipulates all the girls competing to marry a gorgeous bachelor into humiliating, life-altering stunts. There is literally no limits to what Quinn and her staff will do for ratings.

But the show really evolves around Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a seriously damaged young woman who struggles (a little bit) with her conscience as she leads the contestants into dangerous emotional waters. One moment you’re rooting for Rachel and the next you hate her, which just about sums up how you feel about every character in this series. I tend to root for Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), the black, gay producer, who seems to have a soul a little more of the time than anyone else. This makes him the default good guy on a show that doesn’t have any good guys.

It’s odd to find this series on Lifetime, for it is real shock theatre, delivering a gut-wrenching twist every five minutes. (Without revealing spoilers, does it help to say that one woman’s on-air suicide is not the most devastating thing to happen to a contestant?) Frankly, I don’t see how the series can sustain this, and I have to admit that Season One felt stronger to me than Season Two. I also could argue that, of all the shows on this list, UnReal might be the one to benefit from not binging. You might want to take a little break along the way from so much nastiness. But it is a darkly funny, beautifully acted satire of reality television.

And now we come to . . .

Number One

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Orange Is the New Black (Season Four – Netflix)

OITNB is based on the true story of Piper Chapman, a white woman of privilege who finds herself serving a prison sentence for a ten-year old crime of transporting drugs for a girlfriend (who snitched on her to reduce her own sentence). The first season centers on Piper’s incarceration at the Litchfield minimum-security prison and her very difficult transition into life as a prisoner. As the show progressed through Season Two, more and more it expanded to include the stories of Piper’s fellow inmates, each one a fascinating case study, and each one played by a brilliant actress. Here’s another series that veers wildly in tone, from bleakly funny to downright tragic. More than any other series on this list, OITNB is the one I really have to resist binging all at once.

To be honest, things bogged down a bit during Season Three, and I had to ask myself if creator Jenji Kohan had what it takes to sustain the series much longer, especially seeing how far afoul she fell making Weeds. But Season Four is honestly maybe the best one yet, where Piper takes her place as just another inmate’s story and where other characters come into their own with a vengeance. This is the show where a relatively minor character from before like Lori Petty’s Lolly or Kimiko Glenn’s Brook can take center stage and run with it, where you never get inured to the dangers facing every woman in that prison because a moment of triumph or tenderness can turn into tragedy in a split second. The ending of this season packs one of the strongest emotional punches I’ve experienced in recent viewing memory, and it sets the stage for great drama in Season Five.

I tried to resist watching more than one episode a day with this one, but by the end, I had a Saturday four hour binge and found myself standing in front of my laptop shouting, “Oh, no, you didn’t! You couldn’t!” But they could, and they did, and now I have to wait a whole year for new adventures at Litchfield. And to find out what’s inside that little boy in Stranger Things. And to see whether Quinn and Rachel will destroy or save each other in UnReal.

And you know what? Waiting is a very hard thing to do . . .

NORMAN BERROW AND THE COOLEST MURDER METHOD EVER!

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Based on the enormous success of last month’s discussion topic – death by poison – the Tuesday Night Bloggers convened and decided to dedicate August to yet another popular murder method: murder by giant thumb. This was immediately followed by an 8 -1 decision to take the month of August off. Thus, it falls on me alone to cover the only book in the history of mystery fiction to actually employ a four-foot human thumb as a murder weapon: Norman Berrow’s The Spaniard’s Thumb (1949).

A giant thumb, you say? Why, that’s amazing, fantastic, dare I say . . . stupid? But really, if you just think about it for a minute . . . yeah, it’s a really dumb concept. Just look at that cover, provided by the talented (and possibly stoned) artists over at Ramble House, which has been so good as to publish Berrow’s full output of twenty mysteries. There’s the thumb, drenched in blood, standing in wait for whoever comes through that door. I mean, does the thumb even look Spanish???

And yet, somehow, despite the utter ridiculousness of the title and the cover, I found much to enjoy about this book. Bear with me, and I’ll try to put my finger on what that is. (Ouch . . . sorry.)

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My buddy JJ at The Invisible Event introduced me to Norman Berrow, an almost forgotten mystery writer from New Zealand. JJ’s positive reviews of The Bishop’s Sword (1948) and The Footprints of Satan (1950), two of the five mysteries featuring Detective-InTspector Lancelot Carolus Smith of the Winchingham Police Department, intrigued me. Given my desire to scoop my pal, I decided to go with the other Smith adventures first, and so I began with his premiere case, The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947). This was such an enjoyable romp, complete with three vexing impossible situations and a nicely humorous tone to the whole thing, that it made up for the fact that it really wasn’t a murder mystery at all.

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1950’s Don’t Go Out After Dark, the fourth Smith adventure, finds us wading (sometimes literally) in more traditional whodunit waters, but I had more to quibble about here. the characters were mundane and the situation too drawn out, and the ending, while twisty in a good way, didn’t feel earned, especially since this blogger had the killer’s identity figured out pretty early on.

The set-up for The Spaniard’s Thumb is more promising: to her total surprise, young and beautiful Cherry Fairfax has inherited Falloway Hall, the country mansion of her recently deceased great-aunt. She had been sure that Great-Aunt Lavinia would favor her distant cousin, Major George Dryden, whom Cherry hasn’t seen since he pushed her into the River Winch when they were children. But the male heirs of Falloway Hall seem to meet with bad ends, and who is Cherry to argue with the old lady’s decision? So she and her Aunt Margaret set up house there, not knowing that any location in Winchingham tends to be the source of bizarre and impossible events. And what’s in store for the two ladies in the disused, locked cellar of Falloway Hall ranks on the top of the Bizarro Scale. It seems that the cellar is the epicenter of a curse on the Falloway clan, a curse that takes the form of a gigantic ghost thumb. And it’s a thumb with murder on its mind!!!

A giant killer thumb is an idea so ludicrous that you expect this novel to be screwball from start to finish, yet Berrow insists that we take it seriously. He plays it smart by having his characters confront the sheer lunacy of the idea in order to create a genuinely unsettling atmosphere throughout. Detective-Inspector Smith is clued into this ambiguity right away, as he tells his superior:

“We’ve had phantom rooms and ambulant psychic bodies, we’ve had apparitions and vanishings, we’ve had a man who didn’t exist and another who existed in two places at one and the same time. We’ve had some queer things in the last few years. But there was an element of comedy, almost farce, in most of those things. But this – I tell you, Super, this is a grim business. It’s diabolical . . . “

It’s also an impossible crime. Every night at 2am, a terrible noise emanates from the cellar. If a person shines a light through the barred, locked door, the sound stops until the light goes out. And when the sound ends, an examination of the room yields nothing. Is it the thumb, stamping out a nightly “boom boom boom” of vengeance? What starts as a curious puzzle becomes more and more disquieting until the ladies call in an exorcist. The thumb exorcist isn’t handsome, but he’s pretty cuticle. (I’m sorry, but this will happen . . . ) One night, he enters the room before the sound begins in order to confront the terror, and he falls victim to a horrible and bloody murder. And he is not the first or the last who will die . . .

In terms of atmosphere, Berrow sets things up beautifully. Cherry and her aunt are likable characters, and the situation grows in seriousness through their eyes. The moments in and around the cellar build in suspense to achieve a nice sense of terror. As an impossible crime whodunit, perhaps the quality goes down a tad. Perhaps it’s because the impossible situations he lays out are so barmy that nobody in the book ever buys them. Even the witness who says he saw a giant thumb hangs his head in shame whenever he has to recount this tale. Perhaps it’s because Berrow doesn’t always play fair. I’m not locked room aficionado, but I’ll bet that those of my friends who are will find the truth behind the haunted cellar to be disappointing, maybe even a bit of a cheat from the point of view of a classic mystery lover.

And yet, there is much to enjoy here. Berrow’s prose is breezy and entertaining. As seriously as his characters take the crazy situations the author throws at them, the banter between people is often delightful, especially between Smith and his police team. That’s the good news. The other news is that sometimes it all goes on for too long. I haven’t read a Berrow novel yet that I don’t think could be improved by trimming 40 – 50 pages.

Berrow tends to begin each novel exploring the world of his victim and suspects but quickly moves into the territory of the police procedural, focusing on the efforts of the police. This is fine, as Smith is a charming protagonist, and he works with a great bunch of subordinates, including wiseacre Detective-Sergeant Bill Poynter, who “happened to know a thing or two about most things” and the stalwart Detective-Constable Brookes. The efforts of these assistants actually contribute a lot to obtaining a solution to the case. Still, there may be one or two too many conferences in the office of the Superintendent as Smith lays out the case for his spluttering superiors over and over again. Plus, in sheer size the police team always tends to outnumber the suspects, since Berrow likes to work with small casts. This reduces the fun for a mystery fan, since after a couple of murders there aren’t a lot of options left for who the murderer might be. This wasn’t really an issue in The Three Tiers of Fantasy, but it posed a problem in Don’t Go Out After Dark. Readers may glom onto the identity of The Thumb pretty quickly here, as Berrow is not much of a master of misdirection. But he does shift suspicion around a bit, and the final reveal, while not altogether surprising, is rendered with a good dollop of suspense. No “gathering of the suspects in the study” here. What starts in the cellar ends in the cellar!

So I really have to hand it (ow!) to Berrow: I’ll go out on a limb (oof!) and recommend The Spaniard’s Thumb as a diverting read, if you don’t expect a typical country house full of greedy relatives and a pantry full of clues. Rather, Berrow excels at presenting a truly cockamamie situation and draws out the suspense (sometimes to the point where it threatens to dissipate) but adds enough warmth and humor that you just want to sit back and enjoy the ride until the inevitable moment when Smith’s head rears back and his eyes bulge to signal that he has figured out the whole thing. Based on JJ’s reviews, I have a feeling that the best Smith adventures lie ahead of me, and I would be interested in hearing from those who have read some of Berrow’s work to see what his other series are like.

MISSTEP: Christie’s “Third Girl”

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Hercule Poirot appears late in 1963’s The Clocks, and the ostensible reason for this (disregarding Christie’s open dislike of the man late in her career) is that he is working on “his magnum opus, an analysis of great writers of fiction.” The first chapter where Poirot appears is mostly taken up with regaling his listener with his views, and the only thing that makes this less insightful an indicator of the author’s own mind than, say, Dr. Fell’s locked room lecture in Carr’s The Three Coffins or Drury Lane’s discussion of the dying message in Queen’s The Tragedy of X is that too many of the authors Poirot discusses are fictional. Still, some of these represent certain true life authors, and the information we get about Poirot’s – and Christie’s tastes – is invaluable.

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Hercule Poirot is front and center at the very start of his next case, 1966’s Third Girl. He has finished his breakfast and the writing of his book . . . and he is satisfied:

“He had dared to speak scathingly of Edgar Allan Poe, he had complained of the lack of method or order in the romantic outpourings of Wilkie Collins, had lauded to the skies two American authors who were practically unknown, and had in various other ways given honor where honor was due and sternly withheld it where he considered it was not.”

I’ll bet this would have been a fascinating book to read, and I only wish I could read it instead of re-reading Third Girl. The Agatha Christie group on Goodreads tackles the Christie canon chronologically, and we are now trudging through increasingly dicey waters as we read Dame Agatha’s not-so-Golden Age final works. There are a few pleasures still awaiting us, for the most part, Third Girl is not one of them.

Poirot’s post-breakfast ruminations are interrupted by the arrival of a potential client, ushered in dubiously by the sleuth’s manservant, George. As Poirot’s eyes scan the girl who stands doubtfully before him, we get full blast the author’s disapproval of the Beat generation:

“His visitor was a girl of perhaps twenty-odd. Long straggly hair of indeterminate color strayed over her shoulders. Her eyes, which were large, bore a vacant expression and were of a greenish blue. She wore what were presumably the chosen clothes of her generation – black high leather boots, white open-work woolen stockings of doubtful cleanliness, a skimpy skirt, and a long and sloppy pullover of heavy wool. Anyone of Poirot’s age and generation would have had only one desire – to trop the girl into a bath as soon as possible.”

The girl apparently didn’t bother to find out when Poirot holds his office hours, which strikes me as the truest note about a young person. She blurts out the statement that she believes she might have committed a murder, offering no concrete details to back this up. And then she adds insult to injury by changing her mind and rejecting Poirot’s offer of help, saying, “You’re too old. Nobody told me you were so old.”

Well, yes, Poirot is indeed old. If he retired from the Belgian police force in 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he must be well over one hundred by 1966. But since Christie has ignored this for the past forty years, it would have been polite for the girl to ignore it, too. Still, it makes for a tantalizing opening to a Christie novel, something she is usually quite good at supplying, and we should now brace ourselves to watch Poirot try and prove that, as long as the little grey cells are in working order, age is relative.

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Unfortunately, Third Girl is one of the novels that demonstrates the waning of Christie’s own grey cells. It isn’t unusual for her to re-use old tricks, but the ones she pulls out of her hat here are reconstituted in shabby fashion. Worst of all, the novel meanders endlessly, stretching a minor tale to nearly interminable length. And, sadly, we can blame some of that on the novel’s best character, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver.

From Mrs. McGinty’s Dead on, Mrs. Oliver has assumed the role of Watson to Poirot, and I could not be more pleased. She is a far more interesting character than Hastings ever was, and her original packaging as a staunch believer in women’s intuition who rarely intuits anything correctly has been tempered to a more realistic level. She actually is a help to Poirot in McGinty and Dead Man’s Folly and the later Halloween Party. But here, she is a hindrance and, worse, she is Christie’s primary tool for stalling the inevitable. Let me give you just three examples:

One. In the beginning, Poirot goes to Mrs. Oliver, his friend, because the girl’s comment has sent him into a depression. Mrs. Oliver wants to cheer her Poirot and get down to whatever business the girl might have been bringing to his attention by first figuring out how the girl got hold of Poirot’s name. After several pages of dialogue, Mrs. Oliver stumbles upon the fact that she herself sent the girl to Poirot. This is helpful because then the writer can fill the detective in on some of the backstory of this girl’s life, her name, family, and so on. But it beggars understanding that she could have forgotten such a recent event. And how many young people ask one for the name of a good private detective?

Two. Much of the novel’s center is comprised of Mrs. Oliver tracking down information, following people, listening in on conversations, even getting coshed for her efforts. It feels like something Tuppence Beresford could have gotten away with in a thriller, but it is hard going watching Mrs. Oliver go about it. Christie tries to make it amusing, and it is easy to smile at anything Mrs. Oliver says or does. When she is caught by a suspect she was following, a person who might be extremely dangerous, she tries to pass it off with a silly lie and a bunch of foolishness:

“Good gracious, what have I been sitting on. A dustbin! Really! Not a very nice dustbin either. What is this place I’ve got to?”

Thank goodness all of Christie’s young people identify all adults as dithering old fools, or Mrs. Oliver might have been a goner.

Three. Most insulting to the intelligence of character and reader, the whole case hinges on Poirot discovering who this girl, Norma Restarick, might have murdered. From the earliest moments of his investigation he states it plainly: “I am looking for a death. Any death.” He repeats this phrase often, and yet it is not until the end of Chapter Fifteen that Mrs. Oliver finally mentions the death Poirot has been looking for all along, a death that took place nearby and that she found out about ages ago. Why did she not mention it before? Mrs. Oliver’s response makes you thing that young people are onto something about dithering old people:

“Well really, Monsieur Poirot, I cannot see that it has anything to do with all this. Well, I suppose it may have – but nobody seems to have said so, or thought of it.”

I ask you, what self-respecting murderer is going to call an investigator’s attention to the act he or she is trying to cover up? When did Mrs. Oliver suddenly become so selective in her dispensing of information? Poirot’s anger here – and our annoyance – is justified for different reasons. Mrs. Oliver may have obstructed Poirot’s case, but she has also is clearly serving Christie’s purpose of stalling the proceedings for too long.

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And when you consider the case of the Third Girl, you want it to rush by as quickly as possible. It feels like a hodgepodge of bits and pieces from old novels cobbled together. There are elements of A Murder Is Announced, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Evil Under the Sun and more present. The only really original idea is that of the “third girl,” and it doesn’t serve much purpose here. A third girl, for those of you who didn’t know, is a member of an apartment rental agreement. The first girl finds the apartment and pays the highest rent for the best room. The second girl pays a little less for the second bedroom, and because rents are high, a third girl is brought in who can live cheaply in a closet or corner somewhere. Norma Restarick is the third girl in such an arrangement, although for the life of me I can’t figure out why. She comes from a wealthy family and has stormed out of her country home due to her hatred of her young stepmother. Surely she could be supplied with the money to find a better situation. But Norma is full of anger and confusion, and as the story proceeds we see there is good reason for both these conditions. At one point, Norma is nearly hit by a car and is rescued by a kindly young doctor. He examines and talks to her and later speaks on the phone to an unknown person:

“Can’t tell you much yet. The girl’s full of drugs. I’d say she’d been taking purple hearts and dream bombs, and probably L.S.D. She’s been all hopped up for some time. “

Purple hearts and dream bombs? It appears to be too late to Google these terms to discover if actual drugs went by these names. Despite my total ignorance about such things, I must assume that a girl “hopped up” on a combination of these three substances would have more of a coherence problem than Norma displays. We’re not talking about Molly Kendall and a bit of belladonna in the cold cream here! We’re talking about powerful hypnotic agents coursing in combination through a young girl’s bloodstream. I’m quite surprised that somebody as historically well-versed in pharmacopeia as Christie always has been would base so much of a character’s state of mind on this ludicrous mis-information. It is part of what contributes to a general criticism of this novel on the basis of the author’s ignorance of the younger generation of the ‘60’s. Perhaps young people other than rock stars did dress like the character whom Mrs. Oliver refers to as “The Peacock” –

“He was a figure familiar enough to Poirot in different conditions, a figure often met in the streets of London or even at parties. A representative of the youth of today. He wore a black coat, an elaborate velvet waistcoat, skin-tight pants, and rich curls of chestnut hair hung down on his neck. He looked exotic and rather beautiful, and it needed a few moments to be certain of his sex.”

Such sexual ambiguity certainly exists, but compounded with all the rest, it feels like a false impression of the whole Carnaby Street scene and more of an old lady’s rant against the younger generation, “the unshaven dirty kind” who all need a good bath. And when you put the atmosphere aside, you are left with a murder plot based on a series of tricks so preposterous that they are unlikely to fool anyone unless they are hopped up on purple dragons, dream bombs and L.S.D.

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At a certain point, an author might be so huge that they become edit-proof, but I can’t help wondering what could have been had Christie’s editor taken a good hard look at this book – and many of the titles that followed – and said, “Erm, excuse me, Dame Agatha, but this just won’t do as is.” Perhaps we would have had fewer books, and we would have missed out on the pleasures awaiting us had Christie been discouraged from continuing. But when I think of how interesting it might have been had the author really succeeded in mashing up a classic mystery with the then-modern world, if only she had received some guidance on this, I feel a little sad that Third Girl, along with several other late titles, feels less worthy of a revisit than it might have been.

It is not surprising that the ITV adaptation, one of the last of the Suchet Poirot series, continues in its trend of trying to “improve” Christie by taking Third Girl in a different direction. First, since the series was set in the 1930’s, Third Girl is transported back to the Golden Age. That eliminates the whole drug issue. The first murder is discovered immediately, allowing us to applaud Mrs. Oliver’s efforts rather than shake our fist at her. A second murder is eliminated. In fact, that victim, a thoroughly bad lot in the novel, becomes the film’s hero. And a new subplot is brought in to create an original motive for the crime(s). This eliminates one of the more ludicrous plot elements from the book, but in doing so it removes the entire reason that two people in the novel might know each other and/or work together. What we end up with, while cursorily better thanks to Zoe Wanamaker’s performance as Mrs. Oliver, floats in very muddy waters indeed. And when David Suchet exposes the killer with a voice shaking with rage and eyes brimming with tears, one has to think a bit to figure out what he may be crying about.

Whenever I hear that someone’s first experience with Christie was Third Girl – or At Bertram’s Hotel or Passenger to Frankfurt – I have to shudder. No wonder you think the woman was overrated! Thus, standard warnings apply. Cursory readers of Christie may avoid this one and miss out on nothing. The rest of us are required, as completists, to revisit it every so often and ponder the whys and the what-might-have-beens about it. It’s a dirty job, but we’re happy to take one for the team.