Friday, December 26, 2014

Strong Poison (TV series)

When did the BBC replace their cardboard set with actual walls and furniture?  Somewhere between Murder Must Advertise's questionable staircase (its apparent flimsiness makes the fatal fall that occurs on it very believable) and Pride and Prejudice's elegant sitting rooms, the BBC transitioned between bare theatrical sets and staging to movies for the small screen.  1987's Strong Poison is not quite half-way between the two.  The sets are still sparse but more of the set dressing appears real rather than painted on, and the actors occasionally break from the all-facing-the-audience staginess.  For me, anyway, the producers' attempts to make the show less "stagey"backfired.  They added in just enough realism to make the cheapness of the sets and minimization of extras and supporting characters more apparent.

I enjoyed the adaptation (it's mostly faithful to the book), and Harriet Walter was well-cast as Harriet Vane.  She and Edward Petherbridge, as Lord Peter Wimsey, have good chemistry (although I prefer Ian Charmichael's take on the character, playing the fool and forcing others to underestimate him).  I was less satisfied with how the other supporting characters - Bunter, Inspector Charles Parker, and Miss Climpson - were portrayed.  Bunter was too subservient - the literary (and cardboard-set) Bunter is Lord Peter's friend and crime-solving partner, not "just" his manservant, and Charles was reduced to cameo status.  The real disappointment, though was Miss Climpson.  Sayers wrote her as an elderly spinster, apparently fluffy and twittering but very sharp-minded.  Here, she's not even in late middle-age and not convincingly dithery.

Persuasion (1971 tv series)

I love the cardboard-set era British TV dramas.  Part of it, I'm sure, is nostalgia for Sunday nights spent watching (and, at the time anyway, not totally understanding) UK imports on Masterpiece Theater, and some, such as Upstairs, Downstairs are a bit campy when seen today.  Others, like the Ian Charmichael Lord Peter adaptations and I, Claudius stand up quite well.  Persuasion falls into a third category.  It's well acted in its stagey way, but has neither the transcendent performances of I, Claudius, the light wit of the Lord Peter mysteries, nor the high-quality suds seen in Upstairs, Downstairs.  Jane Austen's strength was skewering the more pompous (and gold-digging) members of country society, but this version of Persuasion takes even Sir Walter Elliot and his silly eldest and youngest daughters at face value, rather than letting us see the humor in their collective vanity.  It's this sort of reverential view of the cannon which turns people off the classics.  The series was very faithful to the book, so it can't be all bad, but in some places was almost as flat as the sets.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Strong Poison

- But, by the way, you're bearing in mind, aren't you, that I've had a lover?
- Oh, yes.  So have I, if it comes to that.  In fact, several. It's the sort of thing that might happen to anybody.  I can produce quite good testimonials.

There's something faintly ridiculous about Lord Peter Wimsey.  He's a bright, active gentleman who hides that behind the mask of a foolish, idle aristocrat.  Of course his first proposal to Harriet Vane wouldn't be the typical dinner-and-roses affair.  Instead, it's the postscript to Lord Peter's promise to find Harriet innocent of murder.  Someone killed her former lover, Peter Boyes, with arsenic a few weeks after Harriet bought some while researching her most recent mystery novel.  Except for the coffee Harriet had served him, nothing he'd eaten in the prior 12 hours had been eaten by him alone (and only the omelette he shared with his cousin, Norman Urquart had been eaten by only one person).  A stroke of luck (and, to be honest, coincidence) saved Harriet from the scaffold - Miss Katherine Alexandra Climpson, proprietor of Lord Peter's investigative secretarial service was on the jury and just didn't think Harriet Vane killed Phillip Boyes.  The hung jury gave Lord Peter a month to investigate.

If Harriet didn't kill Boyes, then who did?  Lord Peter, through one of those potential testimonial-givers, meets Harriet's and Boyes's bohemian crowd who agree that the psychology of the case is wrong - but don't know who else could have killed Boyes.  Upon meeting Boyes's father, he learns of a possible motive - a scandalous great-aunt may have left him money, and Norman Urquart, an attorney, handled the estate.  With the help of Miss Climpson (who impersonates a medium to spy on an impressionable nurse) and an experienced secretary placed by Miss Climpson in Urquart's office, Lord Peter finds the motive and deduces the (now scientifically discredited) means.  While she relies a bit too much on coincidence, Sayers wrote, as usual, a tightly plotted and highly amusing mystery.  Once again, re-reading allowed me to really appreciate the humor in Miss Climpson's highly emphasized letter to her boss, and I can just imagine the apparently fluffy-brained spinster enjoying her evenings as One Who Speaks to the Dead.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lavoisier in the Year One

I'd forgotten about phlogiston.   Now, of course, it sounds ridiculous, but 250 years ago, at the dawn of chemistry, scientists needed something to explain how materials lost - or gained - weight when burned. The Year One in Lavoisier in the Year One refers to the revolutionary calendar (the one I learned in high school French class - and also forgot about), but the book is really about the start of organized chemistry.  Lavoisier - a socially awkward member of the haute bourgeoisie who trained as a lawyer - largely created science as we know it.  He discovered or co-discovered dozens of elements, created (and named) the concepts of acids and bases, and meticulously designed lab equipment and techniques still used today.  Madison Smartt Bell frames Lavoisier's scientific achievements with the events leading to his execution at the hands of the French Revolution, and while those scenes are interesting, he would have had a more interesting book if he'd left that as an afterward and spend a few more pages exploring Lavoisier's revolutionary thoughts.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Top Secret Twenty-One

I just looked back at my reviews of Janet Evanovich's books, and there's a theme.  Ms. Evanovich needs to slow down a bit, because she's become too dependent on a formula.  It's a good one (the plots, despite the wacky details, are well crafted and I laugh my way through each installment), but it's a bit tired.  Top Secret Twenty-One has two main plots, but otherwise fits the mold.  Stephanie's hunting for Jimmy Poletti, car dealer, smuggler, and Stephanie's ticket to continued rent payments.  Meanwhile, a Russian assassin from Ranger's past is trying to kill him.  Mix in vodka tastings, angry little person Randy Briggs, Grandma Mazur's bucket list, radioactivity, and feral Chihuahuas and the result is an entertaining but essentially forgettable comic mystery.  Worth reading if it's there, but not up to the standards of the series's early installments.

A Crimson Warning

Lady Emily is back in London, enjoying (or enduring) the round of parties known as The Season and encountering scandal.  Someone has been painting the town red - or rather dumping red paint on the houses of people whose scandals are revealed soon afterwards.  Needless to say, Emily throws herself into solving the mystery.  Along the way, she takes an active role in the suffrage movement, her friend Ivy plays matchmaker for a political operative, and both befriend a scandalous society matron whose carriage is pulled by zebras rather than horses.  It's an average outing for Tasha Alexander's aristocratic sleuth.  I missed Celine and Margaret, but Emily's childhood friend Jeremy elegantly slouches through a few scenes and the story is well plotted, even if the solution is slightly less than satisfying.