Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh (Four Stars)

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theater release poster

Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh

Four Stars

“If it were easy, I would not be famous.”

Excellent period piece movie. Meticulously staged and photographed. All-star cast. Lots of fun.

“The criminal act is the anomaly. It takes a fractured soul to kill another human being.”

Inevitable comparison with the 1974 version: this one has a bigger pallet. Scenes set in Jerusalem and Istanbul as well as outside the train give the cinematographer a bigger canvas on which he painted with impressionistic color and drama. Branagh makes a better Poirot than Finney, but no one could take those mustaches seriously.

“Romance never goes unpunished.”

Why not five stars? The movie seemed too aware of itself. Bordered on melodrama.

“Did we die?”

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Book Review: Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Murder Must Advertise (Lord Peter Wimsey #10) by Dorothy L. Sayers

Three Stars

“The most convincing copy was always written tongue-in-cheek.”

Lord Peter without balancing humanity of Harriet Vane is thin soup. A ripping great mystery, in fact several nestled within one another, but Wimsey anticipated much that doesn’t work about Bruce Wayne. Talk about leading a double life.

“A man of rigid morality–except, of course, as regards his profession, whose essence is to tell plausible lies for money.”

Each of her books is set in a place (London here) and a culture (advertising) which allows modern readers insight into Continue reading

Book Review: Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Have His Carcase (Lord Peter Wimsey #8) by Dorothy L. Sayers

Four Stars

“I can believe a thing without understanding it.” “Your explanations are more incredible than the problem.”

Perhaps the best Lord Peter mystery yet. Opening the book in the point of view of a female mystery writer gives the story a verisimilitude wanting in previous Lord Peter works, even those featuring Harriet Vane. Her reflections on how this “real” mystery compares with her fictional ones gives the story extra substance. Her critique of detectives in general and Lord Peter in particular entertains.

“–the halcyon period between the self-tormenting exuberance of youth and the fretful carpe diem of approaching senility.”

Why only four stars? As the story progress, Vane is shoved to a supporting role. Too many recapitulations. Probably realistic, but Continue reading

Book Review: The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers (Two Stars)

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Book Review: The Five Red Herrings (Lord Peter Wimsey #7) by Dorothy L. Sayers

Two Stars

“The more you hate everybody for hating you, the more unattractive you grow and the more they hate you.”

By her own admission (elsewhere), “the plot was invented to fit a real locality.” Apparently, also written to please her Scottish friends, this is a Sudoku puzzle of clues spread through several hundred pages of prose. Not one or two but five false trails are explored and discarded. Dreary. The least pleasing Wimsey mystery to date.

“This English habit of rushing into situations on a high tide of chatter and excitement.”

Five percent in, Sayers inserts a comment, “… as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted….” Dirty trick. Yes, I deduced Continue reading

Book Review: Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Strong Poison (Lord Peter Wimsey #6) by Dorothy L. Sayers

Three Stars

“I really don’t know how it was done … I’m not worrying about a trifle like that.”

By all standards this should be one of the best Lord Peter stories because in it we are introduced, under the most trying circumstances, to Harriet Vane. If you don’t know who she is, I’m not going to spoil things more than necessary (which will make this review difficult).

“People have been wrongly condemned before now.” “Exactly, simply because I wasn’t there.”

I’m not familiar with English judicial terminology, but the judge calling the accused the “prisoner” in his charge to the jury strikes me as prejudicial.

“A man doesn’t like it to see a man go all wobbly about his sister—at least, not such a prolonged wobble.”

Love at first sight. Gushy, saccharin, head-over-heals infatuation?

“A person who can believe all the articles of the Christian faith is not going to boggle over a trifle of adverse evidence.”

Spiritualist of the 1930s would be comfortable in certain circles of today’s society. The more things change ….

“Don’t talk like Jeeves.” “… Sherlocked.” “… as Holmes would say …”

Sayers is conscious of her antecedents and boasts of them.

“The enormous and complicated imbecility of things was all around him like a trap.”

Book Review: Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Unnatural Death (Lord Peter Wimsey #3) by Dorothy Sayers

Four Stars

“I’ve seen enough to know that nothing is a certainty.”

Perhaps the best of the series to date. Sayer opens with Winsey guessing there’s been a murder and who done it, and then follows his investigation through many by-ways and dead ends. In the meantime, the body count rises.

“I have no use for men. They always look on women as sort of pets or playthings.”

Almost a century ago, Sayer investigated with insight and sensitivity gender, race and class issues, which we think are the purview of modern advocacy groups. That her conclusions would not please everyone is a given. She uses the term epicene in a relevant way.

“… with the cheerful brutality of the man who has never in his life been short of money.”

A distinguishing feature of the Wimsey stories is Wimsey’s sensitivity to the consequences of Continue reading

Book Review: Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Whose Body? (Lord Peter Whimsey #1) by Dorothy Sayers

Three Stars

“It’s a wonderful the ideas these rich men with nothing to do get into their heads.”

First published in 1923, this is a dated but enjoyable detective fiction by the sole female associated with the Inklings. Storytelling is tedious with frequent repetition and long narrative exposition, the tone is light and enjoyable.

“The franker you are with people, the more likely you are to deceive them; so unused is the modern world to the open hand and guileless heart, what?”

The central premise of this tale: whose body is which of a pair–one missing and one found, but clearly not the same person–is justified so poorly in the end, but the reader will have been hooked by then and won’t care.

“I love trifling circumstances; so many men have been hanged by trifling circumstances.”

Beneath the breezy English nobility send up is a darker backstory of “shell shock” (as they called post-traumatic stress after World War One) and changing cultural mores. Sly references to how real investigation differs from fictional, especially Holmesian.

“There’s nothing you can’t prove if your outlook is only sufficiently limited.”

Book Review: An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters (Five Stars)

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Book Review: An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters

Five Stars

“A duty once assumed is a duty to the end.”

My favorite Cadfael story. All the elements familiar to Peters’ readers–death, mystery, and sleuthing set amid a historic civil war, medieval culture, Welsh borderlands, and young love; but Peters mixes the ingredients a little differently this time.

“To me he has been all the sons I shall never father.”

Peters’ best investigation of what constitutes a life well lived. A man returns from the Crusades, as had Cadfael himself, to retire from the world into the Benedictine order. This noble is also ruined of body. As he fades, those around him seek to ease his earthly and emotional burdens, including the disappearance of his espoused bride three years previous.

“His spirit outgrows his body … there is no room for it in this fragile parcel of bones.”

Murder mysteries all involve death. Or do they? Yes, someone dies here, but was someone murdered three years previous? Why? Where? How? And most important Continue reading

Book Review: Payment in Blood by Elizabeth George (Three Stars)

Book Review: Payment in Blood (Inspector Lynley #2) by Elizabeth George

Three Stars

“[Murder] contaminates and pollutes, and no life it touches, no matter how tangentially, can ever be the same.”

Murder on the Orient Express investigated by Lord Peter Wimsey, with an old Scottish manor house playing the part of the train. As with all these cut-off-from-the-world murder mysteries, solving the crime involves untangling the relationships among the characters. That the investigators form early and conflicting opinions of who-dun-it increases the complexity.

“Silence is as useful a tool of interrogation as any question.”

The large and often indistinguishable cast is the strength and the weakness of this story. The reader is often forced to pause to figure out Continue reading

Book Review: The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne (Two Stars)

Book Review: The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne

Two Stars

“He wanted an audience, even for his vices!”

Red House is not so much a murder mystery as a who-dun-it-of-manners. Published in 1922 (before Milne’s famous children’s books), it owes as much as a debt to P. G. Wodehouse as Arthur Conan Doyle. Not bad writing, not good either. Milne would eventually find his measure in the hundred-acre wood.

“It’s very hampering being a detective, when you don’t know anything about detecting, and when nobody knows that you’re doing detecting, and you can’t have people up to cross-examine them, and you have neither the energy nor the means to make proper inquiries; and, in short, when you’re doing the whole thing in a thoroughly amateur, haphazard way.”

The story itself revolves around a young man deciding to solve a crime by consciously, and superficially, employing the technique of Sherlock Holmes. (Milne played cricket with Doyle.) That he makes many wrong guesses increases the fun. The perceptive reader suspects the real crime and culprit long before the amateur sleuths.

“We knew their answer was wrong, and we had to think at another.”

Quibble: the labeling of dialogue is so confusing that the reader is repeatedly forced to stop and puzzle it out.

“There is no point looking for a difficult solution to a problem, when the easy solution has no flaw in it.”

“Silly old ass” mimics the rhythm of a similar phrase of Christopher Robin.

“It’s a question of your instinct instead of your reason.”