Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fundamental Transitions of Life

The three major transitions in life -- birth, marriage, and death -- have remained pivotal points in society throughout history.  Most of us probably don't have a very clear idea about how these milestones were acknowledged in the past.  The fascinating series Medieval Lives takes a look at these three important events and how people living in England at that time were impacted by them.

Dr. Helen Castor is the program's host.  She is a Cambridge professor, author and TV presenter who is an expert in medieval history.  In telling the stories of these three episodes, Dr. Castor relies on the letters from the Paston family that are housed in the British Library.  The "nouveau riche" Paston family, thank goodness, were so impressed by their own importance that they saved all of their correspondence.  Over 1000 letters spanning three generations form the collection, the earliest examples of private correspondence in the English language.  It's very interesting to hear about the marriage of Margaret Mautby and John Paston through their own words, nearly 600 years later.

Episode One, A Good Birth, discusses how children were brought into the world during the years of the Middle Ages.  Society was slowly changing, but at this time, the Catholic Church still dominated the lives of everyday people.  What you did in this life mattered, but it was all to prepare you for the next (more important) life you would enter after death.  At this time, of course, niceties such as antiseptic and pain relievers were many centuries away, so every birth was extremely dangerous for both mother and child.   Most women entered their "confinement" several weeks before the actual birth.  They would withdraw into a dark, quiet chamber to be attended only by women.  Male doctors were not allowed in the birthing room.  What little was written at the time about female anatomy and childbirth was written by celibate men of the church who had little actual medical knowledge, so there was a lot of erroneous information.

As well as discussing events from the lives of the Paston family, Dr. Castor also refers to the lives of royals, as they were the only people whose lives were chronicled in detail at this time.  Therefore we get to hear the tale of Henry VII's mother, Margaret Beaufort, who was married at age 12 and a mother before she was 14. Also the moving story of King Henry VIII is told.  He travelled to the shrine at Walsingham to give thanks for the birth of his son with Catherine of Aragon, only to be plunged into despair when the child died after only 10 days.  When Henry eventually broke with the Catholic church over his desire to obtain a divorce and re-marry, he also inadvertently deprived women of some of their few comforts from the birthing chamber.  Religious relics gave women in labor a sense of security and a feeling of a connection to God, but these were swept away in the name of religious reform.  The new church was soon dictating what midwives could and couldn't do in the birthing chamber.  So that Anne Boleyn has even more to answer for than we previously thought!

The second episode concerns the way marriages were conducted in this time period.  In medieval times, it was not uncommon for the families of the prospective couple to arrange the match.  Even so, families could not force the couple to marry if they were opposed to the idea -- but no doubt they could try to persuade reluctant partners to consent depending upon how advantageous the marriage would be.  Once a match was arranged, the family of the bride and groom would decide what would be given to the couple upon their marriage.  This way, each family was doing their best to ensure that the newlyweds would start their married life out on a secure footing.  Also at this time, marriage was somewhat of an informal affair.  The bride and groom need only hold hands and say their vows in order for their marriage to be considered valid.

The church saw marriage as the symbolic marriage of Christ and the Church. This meant that they saw the need to formalize and solemnize marriage with rituals.  These included "calling the bans" for three successive Sundays to ensure that both parties were eligible to marry (they weren't related, already married, insane, etc.).  The church also got involved in the sex lives of the new couples, declaring that sex outside marriage was forbidden, but inside marriage it was compulsory.  People who were charged with adultery were excommunicated and publicly whipped.

Although marriage remained fairly easy to arrange, divorce was almost impossible.  There were two kinds of law in the 14th-15th century:  King's law, which dealt with crime and property manners, and church law, which dealt with everything else.  Therefore, if you could no longer live with your spouse, you had to try to convince the church court that your marriage was invalid for some reason.  At least 1/3 of the church law cases at this time concerned marriage issues.  In very rare cases, a divorce was granted, but this just meant that the couple had permission to live apart -- they couldn't re-marry.  Still, I would imagine this would be good enough for people who were regretting hasty marriages!

The final episode concerns how death cast a shadow over the lives of people in medieval times.  Everyone
was concerned with preparing for the afterlife.  In the 12th century, the idea of Purgatory had become official church doctrine.  People went to Purgatory for a time before ascending to heaven, but their suffering could be lessened by prayers and masses said for them by the living.  The led to people leaving money in their wills for these intercessions to be held for them.  It turned out to be quite a money-maker for the church, which also contributed to the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, as people were fed up with what they perceived to be corruption within the church.

At the same time, death was all around.  In 1348 the plague came to England, and nearly 1/3 of the population was wiped out.  This meant that those who died didn't have the opportunity for last rites to be administered by a priest.  Because of this, people were advised to constantly follow church teachings, because death could come at any time and there might not be a priest nearby to help resolve any sins that might be on your conscience.

I enjoyed the way Dr. Castor used the letters from the Paston family to make history come alive.  It was easy to sympathize with the young Margaret, nervously expecting her first child and writing her husband to ask him to hurry home.  Decades later, Margaret is a somewhat interfering mother, attempting to block her daughter from making a socially ill-advised marriage.  The letters concerning Margaret's defiant daughter Margery and her suitor, the "shop keeper's son" (the horror!) make the family and its interpersonal
relationships seem not so different from disapproving parents today.  Dr. Castor, while an expert on medieval history herself, also speaks with other experts in the field who contribute interesting insights into the time period.

The set also contains a Viewer's Guide with helpful information explaining the Middle Ages, as well as a timeline of important events that happened during this time.  There's also an interesting section on "Medieval Megastars" -- people who made their marks upon history in one way or another.  The final section of the guide discusses the Black Death, which had such a devastating effect on the people of this time.  All in all, this is a very fascinating look at the daily lives of people during this often overlooked time period.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Medieval Lives from Acorn Media in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for Medieval Lives: Four Gherkins, for being an intimate look into the daily lives of our medieval ancestors

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

It's not in the Motives for Murder handbook

From watching British mystery shows such as Prime Suspect or Vera, you'd think all female police officers are disrespected by their male colleagues, and so bitter about it that they turn to the bottle and avoid personal relationships.  Because of this, the delightful series Murder in Suburbia is a breath of fresh air.  The two female officers, DI Kate Ashworth (Caroline Catz) and DS Emma Scribbins (Lisa Faulkner) are two young and glamorous detectives who investigate crimes while also trying to navigate the tricky world of dating.  Their hunky boss, DCI Sullivan, is a welcome distraction from the daily grind, even if their detective skills can't help them learn much about his personal life.

Episode one begins with the discovery of a woman who has been murdered in her own home.  The victim, Nicola Pengelly, was stabbed to death.  It turns out that she was a member of a singles club called Applejacks, even though she was engaged.  She also has an ex-husband who is a shady car salesman.  Still, "Ash" and "Scribbs" feel that the dating club is the key to the mystery, so they attend one of the club's social nights (dressed as schoolgirls) to see if they can learn anything.  The owners of the club, Ralph and Maxine Appleby, also seem a bit shady.  There's no shortage of suspects, but when another body turns up, the two detectives have to hurry and solve the mystery before the entire dating club is wiped out.

In the second episode, a man is found dead at a private golf club.  The club was hosting his bachelor party, and the prospective groom is found floating in the pool with his hands handcuffed behind him.  He was last seen with the stripper hired to entertain the party guests, so she is the immediate suspect.  While attempting to track her down, Kate and Emma find out that the mayor of Middleford wanted to sell off some of the club's land for personal gain -- a move that was vetoed by the dead man.  While investigating, they discover that their boss, DCI Sullivan, is also a member of the club and is rather chummy with the mayor. Will his links to the golf club keep the truth from being exposed?

The detective duo is called to Millionaire's Row to investigate a murder in episode three.  The body of Gideon Finch is found in the front seat of his burned out car.  The man's widow, Hannah, doesn't seem too upset about his death, since she's having an affair with his ne'er-do-well younger brother.  Hannah tells the police that she suspects her deceased husband was carrying on with her married neighbor, Beth Whitmore.  Beth, whose husband Phillip discovered the body while jogging, denies having an affair and further states that Gideon and Hannah weren't the right sort of people for their exclusive neighborhood.  At the same time, Kate is dating a promising man, but her enthusiastic dinner table talk about the more gruesome aspects of her job seem to put him off.  Emma, meanwhile, is on the lookout for an outfit to wear to an ex's wedding that will make him sorry he let her go.  Too bad she only has Kate's closet to raid, since they don't exactly have the same taste in fashion.

When a body is found outside a charity shop, it looks as though it was a random killing.  However, it soon transpires that the victim, Lynn Chichester, was a volunteer at the shop.  Things become even more strange when it transpires that Lynn and her husband, as well as the couple that ran the shop, were involved in a bit of wife-swapping with two other couples.  Did jealousy cause someone to do her in?  Or did she find out something she shouldn't have involving the shop?  There's no shortage of suspects, and Emma is a bit distracted on the job as she tries to extricate herself from an affair with a married man.

The cut-throat world of school admissions forms the backdrop for the events in episode 5.  School secretary Helen McKee is walking along the sidewalk one evening when a car deliberately swerves to hit her.  Everyone believes that Helen helped to decide which children got admitted to the school, especially if they had attractive fathers.  The headmaster denies she had any influence on school admissions, but how else to explain how some children who didn't even live in the school's "catchment area" were admitted, while others were rejected?  Some parents whose children were rejected are very bitter about Helen's involvement in the admissions process, so did one of them harbor enough resentment to do her in?  Or was there something sinister in her private life?

The final episode in season one concerns a man whose DIY projects apparently drive someone to murder.  The man, Bernard Lloyd, is hated by everyone for his noisy building projects, but it's his wife Wendy (Mrs. Hughes from Downton Abbey!) who's found with a bloody hammer standing over his dead body.  She says she can't remember what happened.  Since so many people had a motive for wanting to quiet Bernard down, Kate and Emma have to wonder why he was killed at this precise time.  Did someone have a new beef with him?  Or did his long-lost son finally come back to exact revenge?  Meanwhile, Kate is trying to sell her flat, but is dismayed when DCI Sullivan comes to look at it for his tall, blonde "friend" Brandi.

Series two starts off on a bit of sinister note, when a local schoolgirl (who dabbled in witchcraft) is found dead in a cemetery.  Holly Andrews not only created "hex dolls" of her enemies, she kept a coded diary which keeps Emma busy with a decyphering project. Holly was mean to other students, was involved in a love triangle with two other students, and seemed to have an inappropriate relationship with a teacher.  Unfortunately, DCI Sullivan is away, so the detectives have to contend with his prickly replacement, Helen Whittle, who moves her desk into their office.  It's also hard to concentrate on the job when Emma keeps unintentionally injuring her new boyfriend.

No one really is in mourning when slimy estate agent Phil Jakes is found murdered in his office.  Neither his co-workers nor clients have anything good to say about him.  He was having a competition with his co-worker Anita to see who could sleep with the most clients.  Could a disgruntled partner of one of their conquests have been the murderer?  Plenty of clients feel that Jakes undervalued their properties to get quicker sales, so any of them might have a motive for murder.  The day that he died, Jakes was telling everyone how he was coming into some money soon, and since he was so underhanded, everyone figures he must have been blackmailing someone.  With so many possible killers, Kate and Emma have their hands full trying to find the guilty one.

A wedding is the scene of a particularly tawdry murder in episode 3.  A man is standing in an ornamental pond, drunkenly urinating during the reception after his daughter's wedding, when someone throws a live wire into the water.  Again, the victim is so disliked that no one is really upset by his death.  Still, Kate and Emma are determined to track down the killer.  The happy couple, David and Nuala, have plenty of problems.  David, a real mama's boy, works at the family business, even though his father is less than impressed by his abilities.  Nuala is the lower-class waitress who attracted his attention, much to the disgust of David's snobby mother.  Nuala's deceased father spent all his time at the pub.  While looking over the dead man's flat, Emma is attacked by an intruder.  To make matters worse, DCI Sullivan is tooling around the station parking lot in a sports car with a mystery woman.

The world of salsa dancing heats up enough to kill local enthusiast Sandra Foy in episode 4.  While dancing around her living room after a lesson, someone comes in and twirls her off her balcony.  As usual, there are plenty of people that had reason to want Sandra dead.  Her husband owns a travel business which is in financial trouble.  Jez Hughes, who works at the salsa club, broke off with his long term dancing partner Felicity in order to enter a competition with Sandra.  Roberto, the hunky Italian dancing instructor, has been having an affair with Sandra.  He wanted her to leave her husband, but she refused.  The same day Sandra died, someone threw paint over her car.  Were the two incidents related? It turns out Kate and DCI Sullivan share an interest in salsa dancing . . .

Who knew dog walking would be so dangerous?  Dog walker Christine Archer has no problem controlling the dogs, it's the people she can't deal with.  While walking the dogs someone kills her with a blow to the head.  Christine ran a kennel, and once again there are plenty of people who might have reason to want her dead.  There's her shady business partner, Steve, "the dog whisperer"  as well as the Eyshers, whose dog got pregnant while being looked after at the kennels.  Christine's friend Estelle seems upset, but it is because her friend was murdered, or the fact that her dog Trixie has run away?

The final episode in the series takes us to Birch Grove retirement home where Johnny Jones, who was a big star in the 1950s, is still entertaining the ladies.  He lives at the home with his wife of 45 years, but she is growing tired of his philandering ways (after 45 years, you would, too!).  When he's found drowned in the bath, it looks like death could have been from complications from his recent heart surgery -- except for the bruising around his ankles and the toupee stuffed in his mouth.  Drugs are missing from the nursing home's office, so Kate and Emma decide to spend the night in the hopes of witnessing some dodgy behavior.  Meanwhile, DCI Sullivan and Kate are doing surveillance when, to avoid being spotted by the criminal, Sullivan initiates a very passionate kiss.  Is this the start of something exciting, or was he only acting in the line of duty?

This set contains all 12 episodes from the two seasons of the series, which were originally broadcast in 2004-2005.  I really enjoyed all of the mysteries and the interplay between the three main characters.  The humorous touches made the series extremely enjoyable.  I also thought the constant romantic entanglements of the two female leads made them seem more down-to-earth and likable.  It's too bad the series ended after only two seasons, because it would have been interesting to see if the relationship between Kate and the boss went anywhere, or if Emma would manage to find a suitable boyfriend that she didn't injure.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Murder in Suburbia: Complete Collection from Acorn Media in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for Murder in Suburbia: Complete Collection:  Five Gherkins, for being a lighthearted look at the murky world of suburban crime

Monday, August 25, 2014

All sorts of unseemly people coagulate in London

Clarence, the Earl of Elmsworth (played by Timothy Spall) and his wacky family (including resident pig, The Empress) are back with 7 all new adventures in Blandings: Series 2.  No matter how hard Clarence tries to spend time with The Empress and his books on pig husbandry, his various family members and their problems keep interfering with his plans.  Thank goodness he has the reliably placid butler Beach to help keep everyone in line.

Episode one starts out on a distinctly jarring note with the arrival of some house guests -- the disagreeable Alaric, Duke of Dunstable and his niece Linda.  The Duke is forever shouting at people, and, without much provocation, throwing eggs at them.  He's especially upset that his niece wants to marry the totally unacceptable Pongo Twistleton.  To make matters worse, Alaric is convinced that Clarence needs to be committed to an asylum, and calls for Dr. Glossop from London to come to Blandings to examine him.  In the meantime, Freddie, Clarence's perpetually broke but cheerful son, gets wind of the scheme and decides to get Pongo to impersonate the doctor.  Connie, Clarence's long suffering sister (played with delightful exasperation by Jennifer Saunders), wants the doctor to examine Alaric for possible committal.  It's general mayhem, as usual, with the added bonus of eggs being tossed about by the generally enraged Alaric.

Clarence has just breathed a sigh of relief at getting rid of the eccentric Alaric when more bad news arrives in the person of his other sister Charlotte and their niece Millicent.  Charlotte is appalled at the lax standard of things at Blandings, and declares her intention to move in.  Millicent takes a liking to Clarence's new secretary, Carmody, but Connie wants that relationship nipped in the bud.  Poor Clarence doesn't have time to deal with distressing domestic matters, however, because the fat pig contest is coming up, and his chief rival, Stinker Parsloe is surely up to something to give his own inferior porker an unfair advantage over the vastly superior Empress.  Freddie has a brilliant idea to make Carmody seem more acceptable to the family -- they will abduct the Empress, and Carmody will come to the rescue and find her.  When Clarence discovers the Empress is missing, he assumes the dastardly Stinker is responsible, so he decides to exact his own revenge.  While Stinker is innocent in the pig-napping plot, he is behind the scheme to give the Empress Slimmo pills before the big weigh-in . . .

 Poor Clarence doesn't have time to relax after all the narrowly averted disasters of the previous episode when more chaos descends into the house.  Brother Galahad arrives with a bombshell -- he's writing a tell-all memoir that will expose the secret escapades of all the upper crust people in their social circle.  Connie, of course, is horrified and offers to settle all of Freddie's debts if he will find the dreaded manuscript and deliver it to her.  Meanwhile, the fat pig contest is still on the horizon, so Stinker decides to hypnotize the Empress into dieting, but his plan backfires.

Clarence finally decides to rebel a bit against Connie's iron rule when he defiantly grows an unruly beard.  Naturally, he implements this rebellion at a time when Connie has invited the conservative and pious Lady Cloughly to stay at Blandings.  To complicate matters, the heating has gone out in the castle, despite the best efforts of Beach to beat the old boiler, Brynhilde, into submission.  When Freddie offers a movie crew the use of the castle as a location for their latest film, he has to tell his Aunt Connie that all the people and equipment are there to fix the heating. Starlet Pauline Petite has caught the eye of both Freddie and Beach.  Not realizing that a film is being made, Lady Cloughly is alarmed to see what's going on in the parlor between a disguised Beach and the actress Pauline.  The "tramp" who keeps wandering around the castle is also a bit odd . . .

Connie is once again hoping to advance a few rungs up the social ladder when she invites Colonel Douglas Fanshawe and his daughter Valerie to dinner.  Col. Fanshawe is the current Lord Lieutenant, which means he serves as official host to the King when he's visiting Shropshire.  He wants to retire from the ceremonial position and thinks Clarence might be a good man to take over.  Freddie, meanwhile, is pet-sitting his aunt
Julia's pug Mugsy.  Valerie takes such a shine to Mugsy that she takes him with her when she leaves.  Clarence, alarmed at the prospect of his sister Julia's reaction if she discovers the dog is missing, goes to Col. Fanshawe's home to steal the dog back.  Unfortunately, Beach the butler has discovered some "Swedish vitamins" that don't seem to be having the desired healthful effects, so he's unable to assist with the plot to steal back the dog.

Episode six once again sees poor Clarence with a houseful of bothersome guests. There's the American heiress Vanessa Polk, who has been hired to paint a portrait of Clarence and the Empress.  Lord Hannibal Didicot is enraged that Clarence sold him a worthless painting, and he demands his money back.  Brother Galahad is also visiting and assisting Freddie in his plots to somehow find the money to settle his most recent debts.  Freddie has a worthless painting of a horse the he hopes to sell to Lord Didicot, but he angrily refuses to buy it.  That is until he hears Vanessa talking about an extremely valuable painting, and thinks she's referring to the horse painting.  Connie is also hoping to do some match-making between Vanessa and Lord Didicot, which allows Freddie and Galahad to put a blackmail scheme into motion.

The final episode finds Connie finally putting her foot down:  her flighty nephew Freddie must get married.  Luckily, she has a suitable candidate in mind -- Felicity Parsloe-Parsloe, Stinker Parslow's niece.  Freddie, who up until this point had met few females he wasn't attracted to, is rather alarmed by Felicity.  She's taken to dressing like a man and only speaks in monosyllables.  Aside from her rather unconventional looks and manner, there's the added complication that Freddie has fallen madly in love with someone else: Niagara Donaldson, the niece of McAllister, Clarence's groundskeeper.  McAllister knows Freddie's history, and so resigns his position in protest.  The big pumpkin contest is coming up, and Stinker Parsloe immediately hires McAllister to spite Clarence.  Connie was complete opposed to Freddie's romance with Niagara, until Beach the butler reads in a society magazine that she is heiress to a biscuit fortune.  Now if Clarence can just woo McAllister back.

The slapstick situations and witty dialogue make The Blandings a totally enjoyable series.  The actors are all first-rate, and it's also fun to see familiar faces (Celia Imrie, Robert Bathurst, Harry Enfield) make appearances.  I hope this series will continue for more adventures in the beautiful, if chaotic, Blandings castle.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of  Blandings: Series 2 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for Blandings: Series 2 Five Gherkins, for being a welcome return to the madcap adventures of a dysfunctional upper-class family

Monday, August 11, 2014

Pulling the strings behind the scenes

Now that the Internet has made it relatively easy for anyone to publish a book, the literary world of books and authors would seem to be more accessible than ever.  For Frances Thorpe, who toils thanklessly at a literary magazine in London, a chance encounter allows an unimagined entrance into this glittering world in Alys, Always.

The book begins with Frances coming upon the scene of a car accident.  Because the windshield is cracked, she's unable to see who's inside, but she begins speaking to the female victim while they wait for the ambulance and police to arrive.  Sadly, the woman doesn't survive the accident.  Soon afterwards, a police officer contacts her and asks if she'd be willing to meet with the family members of the woman who died.  They'd like to ask some questions about their loved one's last moments.  At first Frances is reluctant, but she eventually agrees.

Because she works in publishing, she immediately recognizes the husband of the victim as Laurence Kyte, author of many best-selling books and respected member of the literati.  He and his late wife Alys had two children who are young adults:  the needy, flighty Polly, and the reserved, assessing Oliver.  Frances tells the family what happened after she arrived on the scene of Alys's accident, then throws in an embellishment.  Polly, stricken at the loss of her mother, latches on to Frances and asks her to attend the memorial service.  Frances does, and she's spotted by everyone in the publishing industry, who assume that she is closer to Laurence Kyte than she really is.  She doesn't exactly correct this assumption.

There follows a long string of events where Frances attempts to get closer to the family.  She is able to use the perceived relationship with the Kytes to advance her career (which says something about the state of nepotism in the publishing industry, I guess).  She also begins to manipulate people and events to insinuate herself further into the family. It's all very odd the way the people around her just seem to put up with her, when it seems her presence is unwanted.

The blurb on the flap of the book speaks of the "audacious ending" so I was waiting for something big, but the book just sort of fizzled out without that "whizz bang" ending I was expecting.  Frances was not very likable, but she was able to use what she had to move ahead in the world, even if she wasn't always exactly honest about how she did it.  Still, if the people around her were that slow on the uptake, I guess they deserved to be manipulated.

Final Verdict for Alys, Always: Two Gherkins, for being a story with a promising start that really never took off

Better yakking than hacking

Thai journalist Jimm Juree is back in an all new mystery in the book The Axe Factor by Colin Cotterill.  I have enjoyed the previous two mysteries featuring the intrepid reporter and her wacky family, so I was hoping this book wouldn't disappoint. Now that I'm more familiar with the characters, I think I enjoyed this book the most so far.

Jimm is a 30-something freelance crime reporter for the Chiang Mai Mail newspaper.  She was having something of a successful career in the big city when she was called home to help her mother with the family business, the Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant.  Unfortunately, the run-down resort is woefully short on paying guests, which is probably a good thing, because the family members running the business all have better things to do. There's the mother, Mair, who spends her time rescuing stray animals and helping others, while early stage dementia makes her a somewhat unreliable source for any information.  Brother Arny is a massive body-builder who unfortunately faints at the suggestion of blood, so he's of limited use in a fight.  He's engaged to Gaew, a female body-builder who is the same age as his mother.  Transgender sister Sissi doesn't live with the family, but the former beauty queen and computer expert is only a phone call away when someone's computer needs to be hacked.  Rounding out the regulars is Grandad Jah, a taciturn retired traffic cop.  There are also 3 bad tempered dogs and 2 cows who wander about the place at will.

In this adventure, Jimm is drawn into the mystery of a missing doctor.  While trying to help her mother rescue a kitten, Jimm is severely scratched.  When she goes to the clinic for rabies injections, the nurse confides that she believes one of the doctors has met with foul play.  The female doctor had been extremely reliable, but she hasn't turned up for work in a while.  Jimm begins to ask around, and finds out that Dr. Somluk has a reputation for causing trouble wherever she goes.  Recently, she attended a medical conference and made a scene which caused her to be removed from the auditorium.  As Jimm investigates further, she begins to wonder if the multi-national company that sponsored the conference might not be involved in the disappearance.

At the same time, another woman seems to have gone missing.  This woman was the Thai wife of a British author who lives in the area.  The author, Conrad Coralbank, is known for writing mystery novels set in the neighboring country of Laos.  Jimm is sent out to interview him for the newspaper, and there is an immediate attraction between them.  She isn't impressed with him, but when the interview she turns in to her editor is too bland, she has to meet with him again.  This leads to something of a romance, although the mystery of the missing wife is always lurking in the background.

To add to the confusion, several blog entries (ominously listed as "found two weeks too late") are interspersed throughout the book, indicating that the writer has already killed and has Jimm in the frame as the next victim.  But who is the blog's author?  As a hurricane approaches, it's up to Jimm and her assorted band of helpers to try to trap the killer and find out where the missing women are.

I really enjoyed getting back to the shabby beach again and catching up with Jimm and her family of misfits.  The book ended on something of a downer, so it will be interesting to see how they come back after this adventure!  I enjoyed the (presumably genuine) signs taken from various places that have mangled English, such as the vending machine that was OUT OF CONTROL.

Final Verdict for The Axe Factor:  Four Gherkins, for being an amusing look at the daily life of a crime reporter who finds crime comes to her

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Poor Emily was never murdered until he came along

Its been 25 years since actor David Suchet grabbed a cane and waxed up his mustache to portray Agatha Christie's beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.   This summer, the final episodes featuring Suchet solving the most vexing of mysteries will be shown on PBS and via Acorn TV. Launched just in time for its biggest exclusive yet, Acorn TV, the premier British TV streaming service, is now available on the App Store. Acorn TV for iPad and iPhone can be downloaded here: http://bit.ly/1o1dSqo. You can see a new episode every Monday from 7/28 - 8/25.

For fans like me who aren't ready to see the series end, there is the Poirot Fan Favorites Collection.  These three disks feature six full-length mysteries that the dapper little detective solves by employing his little gray cells (and expert observational skills, naturally!).  The episodes were originally broadcast from 1989-2010.

The set gets off to an exciting start with a star-filled edition of Murder on the Orient Express.  Among the familiar faces are Barbara Hershey, Jessica Chastain, Toby Jones, and (most amusingly) Hugh Bonneville.  I enjoyed seeing a pre-Downton Abbey Bonneville as a valet.  I'm sure it was good training for his future role-reversal!  The story takes place mainly on a train travelling from Istanbul to London.  As with most Christie stories, there are quite a number of potential suspects, witnesses and victims to sort through!  Among the ones on the train are a Russian princess and her maid, a British teacher, an American obstetrician and a brash American businessman.
The businessman, Ratchett, manages to offend nearly everyone with his obnoxious ways.  He tries to hire Poirot to protect him during the train journey, saying he fears his life is in danger.  Poirot refuses.  While the train is stranded in a snowdrift in Yugoslavia, there is a murder.  Since the first class (where else?) cabin was sealed off from the rest of the riff-raff on the train, and since there are no footprints leading away from the victim's window, it quickly becomes apparent that the murderer must be among the travelers.

Episode two takes place in a cozy English village for Hercule Poirot's Christmas.  Once again, we have a thoroughly disagreeable main character.  Simeon Lee made a fortune from diamond mines in South Africa.  Along the way he committed many crimes and behaved in an abhorrent manner to everyone.  He is now elderly and wheel-chair bound, but he continues to be obnoxious and domineering.  He has three sons: George, who is a member of Parliament, but still gets an allowance from Daddy; Alfred, who lives with his wife in Daddy's mansion; and Harry, who has been estranged from the family for several years.  It's Christmas time and Poirot is looking forward to a nice, quiet Christmas, but as luck would have it, his heating goes out and can't be repaired until after the holidays.  He has no problem accepting a job from Simeon Lee over the holidays at his estate because Lee belives his life is in danger.  Lee asks Poirot to simply observe his relatives as he
makes some unpleasant announcements.  As well as his sons and their wives, his granddaughter Pilar has also arrived from Spain.  Her mother was Simeon's deceased daughter Jennifer.  Simeon calls everyone into his study where he announces that he's changing his will and that he's cutting back on expenses since Harry and Pilar are now going to be living with him.    He then throws them all out of the study.  Everyone disperses to various parts of the house, and soon afterwards, a terrible commotion is heard from behind the locked study door.  Upon breaking in, they discover Simeon Lee dead on the floor, all of the furniture overturned, and the safe open.  Since Simeon had just been showing various people the case of uncut diamonds he was storing in there, it seems likely that the culprit was after the stones.  Naturally, Poirot has to sort out everyone's whereabouts during the critical time, as well as discovering some unpleasant family secrets, but luckily, his friend Superintendent Japp from Scotland Yard is celebrating Christmas with family not too far away.  He's only too happy to help his old friend Poirot investigate the crime.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles takes us back to the days of World War I.  Poirot and many of his fellow Belgians have been evacuated to the English countryside to escape the war.  In the village one day, Poirot is delighted to meet his old friend Lt. Hastings.  Hastings has in turn come to the village to visit his old friend John Cavendish a the family estate.  Once again, we have a gaggle of children, in-laws, companions, wards, servants and various hangers-on to sort through!  Cavendish's widowed mother has recently remarried the odious Alfred Inglethorp, much to the disgust of her family.  She seems blind to all the criticism of her new spouse. Her companion, Evie Howard, voices her displeasure of the situation in such strong terms that she is dismissed from her position.  Soon afterward, several people hear Mrs. Inglethorp having a heated discussion with her husband behind the closed library doors.  That same evening, Mrs. Inglethorp drinks her last hot cocoa and expires in a noisy and public manner.
 Luckily, since Poirot is already in town, he is asked to come in and investigate.  He soon discovers all sorts of clues in the dead woman's bedroom, including a green thread on the door lock, candle wax on the carpet, a smashed cup on the floor, and so forth.  But what do all these clues mean?  Lt. Hastings attempts to help Poirot with his investigations, but of course he's just as clueless as the rest of us.  It takes a detective of Poirot's skills to sort out the clues and flush out the guilty!

The ABC Murders is a case which involves Poirot personally.  He begins receiving taunting letters from a killer promising to commit a murder in a certain town on a certain date.  At first, Inspector Japp is reluctant to believe that anything will happen, but after Alice Ascher is murdered in Andover and then Betty Barnard in Bexhill on the dates the letters mentioned, he starts to take notice.  Each victim is found with an ABC Railway Guide open to the relevant page near the body.  As the deaths continue, Poirot takes the unusual step of gathering together friends and family members of the deceased to help him with the investigation.  When Poirot investigates the lives of the victims, he begins to surmise that one murder is the main focus, and that the others are being committed to obscure that fact. But which victim is the real target?  Someone who had no connection to any of the murder victims is arrested for the crimes, but Poirot won't let the case rest until he uncovers the true motive for the killing spree.

Poirot is forced to come out of his pampered comfort zone when he and the now Captain Hastings travel to Egypt to investigate some mysterious deaths in The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb.  Teams of museum workers from London's British Museum and the U.S. Metropolitan Museum are on hand when they open the tomb of the ancient king Men-her-Ra.  As with all ancient tombs, the dead apparently don't appreciate being disturbed.  Upon entering the tomb, the expedition's leader, Sir John Willard immediately dies of a heart attack.  Before long, three other men who were on the team also die under strange circumstances.  Lady Willard becomes alarmed when her son Guy says he's going to go to Egypt to continue the work of his late father.  She asks Poirot to go out to Egypt and see if he can figure out what is going on. Poirot is initially puzzled, because the four deaths occur from very different causes:  a heart attack, septicemia, a suicide and tetanus.  Could the local rumors that the tomb was cursed be true?  Poirot suspects a more logical explanation . . .

Four and Twenty Blackbirds
is the final episode in this collection, but several characters make repeat appearances, including Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp, and the secretary Miss Lemon.  While dining out with his dentist, Poirot is intrigued when the chatty waitress remarks on the odd habits of a regular diner.  The elderly man eats at the restaurant on the same days each week, and has certain dishes that he never orders.  In the past week, however, he has come in on odd days and ordered things he previously had avoided.  Poirot stores this information away, not realizing that he'll soon have to investigate the circumstances of this odd behavior.  The same elderly diner is found dead at home at the bottom of the stairs.  The dead man, artist Henry Gascoigne, is something of a recluse.  When Poirot goes to his house to investigate the circumstances of the death, he's further intrigued by the neighbor who says the elderly man seemed not to recognize her recently, and the news that Henry had been estranged from his twin brother Anthony.  When Poirot attempts to question Anthony, he discovers that he, too, has recently died.  The only relative the two men seemed to have was their nephew George Lorrimer, a music hall manager from London.  A letter in Henry Gascoigne's pocket seems to pinpoint the exact time of his death (thanks to that long forgotten service, "the evening post"), but Poirot isn't so sure.  Luckily, Inspector Japp lets Poirot into the secret lair of the new and exciting forensics department, so it won't be long before the culprit is caught.

It's always a great pleasure to enter Poirot's world and observe the great detective at work.  His powers of observation are second to none, and it's always very interesting to see how he manages to solve the most vexing cases.  It's even funnier to see the perplexed expressions on the faces of Japp and Hastings when Poirot explains how he figured out the solutions!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Poirot Fan Favorites Collection from Acorn Media in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for Poirot Fan Favorites Collection: Four Gherkins, for being a welcome look back at the most famous cases of a beloved detective

Monday, August 4, 2014

I'm gonna go if it starts getting passionate

Insurance investigator Jimmy Griffin is back in 6 all new cases in the second series of The Broker's Man.  US viewers will recognize Kevin Whatley (Griffin) from two long-running series: Morse & Lewis.  All of the gang are back this time around, even if office girl Harriet Potter is now being played by a different actress from the first series.  No matter, she's still sassy and ready to get stuck in during the investigations!

The series begins with "Pensioned Off."  A female police officer is suing after she was harassed and pushed down the stairs at the station, suffering a back injury.  Griffin is sent to watch her to determine if her injury is as severe as she claims.  The woman, Patsy Steele, walks with the aid of crutches, and Griffin is hoping to catch her out.  She's filed not only an injury claim, but also one for sexual harassment.  The male officers who witnessed the incident refuse to testify against their superior (who supposedly committed the harassment), and the female officers are afraid to get involved.  At the same time, Harriet is reviewing old case files and becomes convinced she's uncovered a case of fraud.  A man has been collecting £20 a week since the 1940s, and she finds it hard to believe that the now 108 year old man is genuine.  The insurance company isn't concerned about such small sums, but even so, they inform Harriet that the man is required to submit a thumbprint every year to verify his eligibility, so he must still be alive.  Leave it to Harriet to get to the bottom of the case!

"Horses for Courses" gets Jimmy personally involved in a case.  His daughter, Jodie, is at a nightclub when there's a fire.  Her date is killed, and Jimmy is determined to get to the bottom of the source of the fire, even if the insurance company has accepted that it was an accident.  The owner of the club, Charles Hooper, isn't too thrilled by Griffin's investigations, and makes some veiled threats.  Harriet and Vinnie (the other office investigator) are on the case of a jockey who can no longer work after losing his "competitive edge."  Vinnie attempts to goad the jockey into action, while Harriet takes a softer approach.

The third episode, "Playback," was the most intriguing, but also the most unusual.  Two kids, Chelsea and Mickey Smeeton, disappear while on a kayaking trip with a group of other students.  They seem to be especially mouthy and obnoxious kids, so you'd think everyone would be glad to see the back of them, but no.  Their parents are suing the local education authority (who apparently organized the trip).  They were offered £7000 as a settlement, but refused.  They take any opportunity to appear, teary-eyed and distraught, on TV highlighting their plight. When an anonymous call leads police to believe the parents are lying about the disappearance of their children, the formerly sympathetic neighbors turn hostile.  Harriet once again is investigating another claim, this time from an adult film worker who claims he's no longer able to perform.

The victim of a burglary in "Kith and Kin" turns out to be a particularly nasty man.  A collector of military history, Dr. Harman is a racist and Nazi sympathizer.  "Godzilla," the man who owns the insurance company that provides the bulk of Jimmy Griffin's work, asks him to investigate the case.  Dr. Harman mostly wants his three rare medals returned.  The thieves contact him and offer to return the medals in exchange for a ransom.  Jimmy is drafted to be the go-between, exchanging the cash for the medals.  When his phone goes off an an inopportune moment, the exchange is botched.  The thieves want to set up another meeting, but the insurance company balks at supplying more money.  Dr. Harman agrees to pay up himself, and so Griffin and Vinnie try again.  Meanwhile, Harriet's unemployed brother Lee pays a visit, and he seems to have acquired some unsavory friends.

A brothel is a bad place for a respected businessman to be found shot to death.  It's especially bad for Godzilla's insurance company when it turns out the man had a "keyman" policy that is going to pay his company £10 million in the event of his death in "Keyman."  Fraser Collins would seem to be the last man who would be interested in the dodgy girls of a rundown Soho brothel, but that's where he is when a masked intruder interrupts the proceedings and ends up shooting Collins to death.  The co-owner of his construction company, Lewis Hatton, is demanding the insurance payout.  "Godzilla" asks Griffin to investigate the circumstances and to try to find a loophole in the policy or circumstances of the death which will save him the multi-million pound payout.  The first thing that needs doing is to trace the girl who was with Collins when he was killed.  To do that, Harriet puts her undercover skills to work. She quickly attracts the attention of a man who insists she'll have to work for him if she wants to operate in this part of town as a hooker.  Griffin's daughter Jodie is doing some work experience in his office, and she puts her skills to work investigating why an all-female taxi company has had so many accidents over the past few years.

The final episode of the series, "Swansong," did turn out to be the last we got to see of Jimmy Griffin and his friends.  In this story, alcoholic musician Tom Gold drives his car into the back of a stopped truck.  His wife is devastated by his death, but she quickly regains her lust for life when she takes up with Danny D., the man who managed the couple's musical career.  Danny worked at a club with a variety of acts -- singers, strippers and hypnotists might all share the stage on any given night.  When Jimmy and Vinnie come to the club to question some of the regulars, Vinnie is unknowingly persuaded by the hypnotist to join the strippers on stage (thank goodness, it's only a rehearsal and not the actual show!).  Jimmy gets a taste of being on the other side of an insurance investigation when the family returns home after a night out to find their house has been completely emptied in their absence.

These episodes were originally broadcast in the summer of 1998.  Throughout this second series we get to see the progression of Jimmy's relationship with his family -- his estrangement from his wife and the ongoing drama provided by his somewhat stroppy teenage daughter.  I was sad to learn that the actor Al Ashton, who played Vinnie, passed away at age 49 in 2007.  I really enjoyed another visit with all the great characters from The Broker's Man.  It's too bad there were only two seasons, but Oxford was apparently missing a policeman . . .

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Broker's Man: Series 2 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for The Broker's Man: Four Gherkins, for being an entertaining look at the unusual world of insurance investigations