Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Granny Get Your Gun
based on a story by Erle Stanley Gardner
The obvious attraction with Granny Get Your Gun is the fact the story is based on one by Erle Stanley Gardner. Apparently it's somewhat loosely based on his Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Dangerous Dowager, though Perry Mason is nowhere in sight in the movie. I haven't read the book but it appears the adaptation here is a rather loose one and the Wild West theme was added by the filmmakers.
May Robson is the star of the show and the Granny of the title. Her name is actually Minerva Hatton and she's a wealthy old bird who made her fortune supplying miners in Nevada. She plays amateur detective here, but with her bold, no-nonsense approach and her skill with a gun she's a far cry from the dotty old Miss Marple type.
The whole affair is pretty lighthearted, as so many mysteries of the Thirties and Forties seem to be. The plot, such as it is, finds Hatton trying to find out who bumped off her former son-in-law, who's resorting to some nasty tactics to help win custody of his daughter. Hatton takes the rap for the killing at first to protect her daughter, who would otherwise be a prime suspect, and that's about all I'll say about the plot.
Not a bad effort and, at a little less than an hour, it can hardly be accused of overstaying its welcome.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Song of the Thin Man
Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett
My plan was to watch the six installments of The Thin Man series in order. Which plan held up quite nicely for the first three movies. Then TCM showed Song of the Thin Man recently and I figured I might as well go for it.
There are those who will tell you that the latter installments of the series are lesser creatures than the first one or two. I won't go so far as to argue the point but I'd say that I found this, the last of the bunch, to be nearly as entertaining as any of the others I've seen.
By this late stage of the game Nick and Nora are pretty thoroughly domesticated. Nick Jr. is getting up there and is portrayed here by a very young Dean Stockwell. The family scenes are closer to Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best than the Thin Man movies of yore, but of course there is some crime afoot - specifically the killing of a bandleader on a gambling ship.
Needless to say, Nick and Nora get involved and wend their way through another circuitous plot to make things right again. One of the most notable points about this installment, given that it's dated 1947, is how enamored it is with jazz culture - or perhaps it's more correct to say subculture. This is most evident in the frequent (to the point of being excessive) jazz cat lingo that the characters toss off. All of which leaves Nick and Nora looking like the squares, which is quite a departure from the early days, when they were the life of the party and up to the minute swinging hipsters.
If you're only going to watch one or two Thin Man movies this probably shouldn't be one of them. But it's not a bad way to pass an hour or so.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
The Curse of Senmut
by Loretta Jackson and Vickie Britton
Until I did a smattering of research for this review I wasn't aware of the term Egyptomania. I was aware that there was such a phenomenon - I just didn't know that it had a name. And while I may have my wires crossed when it comes to the chronology it was always my impression that this sort of thing began to wane sometime after the first few decades of the twentieth century.
In any event, ancient Egyptian tombs, ruins, artifacts and curses seem like a somewhat dated mix of ingredients for a mystery novel nowadays, but I decided to give The Curse of Senmut a try anyway. It didn’t hurt that the Kindle edition was being offered for a short time for the quite affordable promotional price of absolutely nothing.
What I'll say at the outset is that if you're looking for one of those highly intricate puzzle-type mysteries this book is not really the one. There's a reasonably interesting mystery at the heart of it all, but I would say that the plotting and clueing were solid but not exceptional. None of which detracted from what I thought was a quite entertaining book.
It gets underway with archaeologist Ardis Cole (this is the first and so far the only book in a planned Ardis Cole Series) heading to the Valley of the Kings to work with her acclaimed mentor, Jane Darvin. Who's on the site when Ardis arrives but is seriously ailing. She dies shortly thereafter in the hospital and Ardis has reason to expect foul play, though she's really the only one.
From here the story unfolds in a fairly linear manner, dealing in turn with each of the small circle of suspects. There's supposedly a curse at work and there's are treasures that may be disappearing from the site and there's allegedly a large cache of gold that's never been found. Before it's all over Ardis survives what seem to be several attempts on her life and the authors do manage to toss in a rather unexpected twist (at least for this reader).
Recommended, with the aforementioned caveats.
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
The Lone Wolf in London
From a story by Louis Joseph Vance
The Lone Wolf in London was nearly the end of the line for The Lone Wolf movies. They got underway in 1917, not long after Louis Joseph Vance wrote the first novel. After a stretch in which Warren Williams played the title role for nine films, Gerald Mohr took over for the next three. This is the third of those. Both Mohr and Eric Blore, who played butler/sidekick/valet Jameson in most of the Williams and Mohr films, would be gone for the last installment. For more on The Lone Wolf in fiction, film, radio and TV, check this article I wrote for the Criminal Element site.
If you like Lone Wolf movies, then you'll probably like this one. Which is not to say that it was one of the better episodes, but it wasn't all that bad either. Mohr was quite a bit more lively in the first of his three portrayals of the title character, but here he seems to more or less be going through the motions. Blore as Jameson is a steady source of comic relief, as always, and the premise is fairly standard one. Since he's in London at about the time of the theft of some valuable jewels, the finger of suspicion naturally falls upon retired jewel thief, Michael Lanyard (The Lone Wolf). And, of course, the best way for him to clear his name is to round up the person who did steal them.
Which leads to a bunch of intricate and involved plot machinations that I won't bother with. Maybe you watch Lone Wolf movies for the plot, but not me. If you haven't ever seen a Lone Wolf movie then you'd be advised to start with another installment besides this one.
Saturday, May 5, 2012
Traditional Mysteries is mostly about mystery fiction and film, but I've added a category to chronicle some of the Arthurian legends I explore from time to time. This is one of them.
Starring Clive Owen, Keira Knightley
For epic portrayals of the Arthurian legend it's going to be pretty hard to outdo King Arthur, a 2004 movie that may have outdone what's arguably its most epic predecessor - John Boorman's monumental 1982 movie Excalibur. For me King Arthur hasn't lost anything even though this was at least the fourth or fifth time I've seen it.
The notion of taking Arthur's story and turning it on its ear is hardly a new idea. One of my favorites is a series of about a half dozen or so books by Jack Whyte in which he strips out all of the magical and fantastic elements and leaves the reader with a perfectly serviceable version of the legend. Which is essentially what King Arthur attempts to do.
After a brief opening scene with a young Lancelot leaving home to fight for Rome, we jump forward about fifteen years. The knights of the round table, those that are left, are all Sarmatian (from the region that's now Iran) warriors who are required to spend fifteen years in service to the Romans. If you do the math then you'll realize that it's time for them to fly the coop. But there's a twist, as a Bishop Germanus explains to their commander - a Roman named Arthur.
As the Romans are pulling out of Britain, a great Saxon horde is massing to come down out of the north and lay the land to waste. The scenes of the Saxons on the move are pretty ominous stuff, with their war drums, thousands of marching feet (or so it would seem) and eerie chanting. Turns out there's a prominent Roman family living near Hadrian's Wall that needs to be rescued. The weaselly Bishop informs Arthur that his men cannot have their walking papers until they complete the mission. Though they carp and moan and know that it's nearly a suicide mission, they are a band of brothers, after all, and grudgingly agree to this one last foray. Any resemblance to The Dirty Dozen or The Wild Bunch may or may not have been intentional.
The knights arrive at the Roman outpost not long before the Saxons and make haste in evacuating it, including a number of people found in a grim dungeon of sorts, one of whom is a Woad named Guinevere. Woads in this movie are just another name for the real-world Picts, a painted warrior people who lived north of the wall and wasted no opportunity to harass their neighbors to the south.
As the Saxons move southward it becomes obvious to Arthur that he should put aside his feelings about the Woads and accept their offer of an alliance. But not before the small band of knights must face off against a splinter force of Saxons on a frozen lake in a scene that might remind some viewers of the Battle of Thermopylae. It's strictly over the top action movie stuff, this scene, but it does keep you clinging to the edge of your seat.
Against all odds, the crew makes it back from their mission almost intact and are given their walking papers after all. They start walking but when they see that their old leader Arthur is apparently going to try to take on the Saxons singlehandedly, they naturally have to rally round him one last time. And I'll say right here that battle scenes in this type of movie have a tendency to be rather dull, but this one was the rare exception. You can almost guess how it turns out but getting to that point's a lot more gripping that in most action flicks.
Given that it's essentially just an epic buddy movie, King Arthur relies pretty heavy on this small band of warriors. There are six of them, plus their leader and they are a fairly diverse group. I have to say I didn't care much for Clive Owen's Arthur, who's prone to speaking in great oratorical flourishes throughout and not much else. As for Lancelot, he just seems to be bewildered most of the time. Gawain and Galahad just don't seem to get all that much to do.
Which leaves it to the other three to carry most of the group scenes. There's Ray Winstone as Bors, the hard-drinking, hard-loving family man who says exactly what's on his mind. There's Ray Stevenson as Dagonet, a fierce burly fighter who turns out to have something of a heart of gold and who saves the day in the frozen lake scene. And then there's Mads Mikkelsen as Tristan, the silent, mystical type with a trained raven and a decidedly offbeat way of looking at the world.
Also worthy of note, Keira Knightley as the kick-ass Woad warrior woman - though it's a bit of a stretch to imagine someone so slight whupping big beefy Saxons in hand to hand combat. There's little or no magic or supernatural stuff to speak of here, though Merlin, the Woad leader, is said to be a magician, of sorts. Also worthy of a considerable accolade is Stellan Skarsgård as Cerdic, the muttering leader of the Saxons, who, though he's starting to get up there in years, doesn't take any mess from anyone.
Which is about all I've got to say for this one, except for an enthusiastic two thumbs up.
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Murder at the Villa Byzantine
By R.T. Raichev
I like second murders. Keeps boredom from setting in. -Lady Grylls
R.T. Raichev has written seven books in this series so far, which I've seen referred to as A Country House Crime and/or An Antonia Darcy and Major Payne Investigation. Murder at the Villa Byzantine is the sixth book in the series and the first one I've read. The starring couple apparently got married at some point as the series progressed and Darcy has made a career move from librarian to mystery novelist. As for the Major, as nearly as I can tell he's apparently retired and one of the well-heeled types who seem to turn up fairly often in mystery novels.
I'll say at the outset that while I wasn't blown away by this book I wasn't so down on it that I wouldn't be willing to give Raichev another chance, especially since I'm a fairly keen fan of country house mysteries. This one get underway at a birthday party for an aging actress where most of the characters are introduced. Perhaps it's a very mild spoiler to say that nothing else happens at the party but there it is.
What I will say, as someone who's typically not wowed by long scenes of characters chit-chatting, is that Raichev has a great knack for bringing his characters to life through their dialogue and this opening chapter was actually the highlight of the book for me.
I won’t say that it exactly goes downhill from there because that's a bit harsh but the rest of the book just didn't exactly grab me. And while I don't feel that mystery fiction really needs to be beholden to a set of rules my feeling would be that if you're going to introduce a bunch of characters at a party at a country house, it seems a bit peculiar to have the murder take place somewhere else and involve a character who's been discussed but not really introduced yet.
That character is a biographer who's currently working on a bio of a member of the Bulgarian royal family (Raichev is also Bulgarian). The murder victim is a Bulgarian woman who's providing him with information on said royal family and who loses her head at his house one night - literally. Though almost anyone could have done it, Raichev and the reader pretty come to an agreement that the suspects are the biographer or someone from the party.
The police are putting their money on the latter, and specifically the goth wannabe daughter of the victim, who seems like a pretty likely suspect for a number of reasons. Things move along and the daughter is released and the plot thickens a bit. One thing I'll say about the latter one third or so is that Raichev makes frequent use there of a tactic I find kind of annoying. That's to put the reader inside of the head of a person who's apparently demented.
But aside from that it comes to a reasonably satisfying conclusion though I could see some of the plot points coming from a mile away. There was one nice twist at the end but I wouldn't say that it blew me away. What I would say is that if you're going to try one of Raichev's books you might want to go with another one. That's what I plan to do, when time and the TBR pile permit.