Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Midsomer Murder Spree!

Okay, I admit it, I've been wasting a lot of time lately watching more than my fair share of television on my computer. I just love the heretofore incredible idea of having a whole season (or more) of a show at my beck and call. Who knew computers could be this much fun?

MIDSOMER MURDERS is not the best murder mystery series ever conceived, but it sure is the most picturesque. Every episode is filmed in some gorgeous area of England - indoors and out. I mean, you can overdose on the beautiful scenery and charming houses and village streets - well, you could possibly, I can't. Ever since I read my first Agatha Christie, I haven't been able to get enough of this sort of thing. I LOVE the 'illusion' of peaceful English country life. Murder most foul among the tea and scones.

Of course the people living in the Midsomer region do tend to spoil the bucolic scenery with their unpleasant behavior and propensity for murder and sex, but hey, nobody's perfect. Apparently, according to author Catherine Graham who created the Midsomer series of books, English villages are the epicenter of murder on a grand scale. Not to mention, sordid sexual entanglements.

The earlier episodes - begun in 1997 - aren't as good as those in later seasons, though the debut, THE KILLINGS AT BADGER'S DRIFT is pretty good, mainly because of the scenery. The story itself is typically creepy (lots of creepy doings in these villages) and the denouement is kind of icky. But the scenery...!!

I've never read the Catherine Graham books, in fact, I'd never heard of them until I began watching MIDSOMER MYSTERIES a few years ago. But I'd given up on the series. It's just lately that I've been indulging my penchant for murderous village life.

Though the motives for the vilest murders, resulting in several dead bodies in every episode, are often weak and rarely make any real sense, I still get caught up in the general creepiness. Some of these old ladies can really swing a blunt instrument.

I enjoyed many of the episodes purporting to show village life with all its nasty underpinnings. One of my favorite shows so far is from Series 4 - RING OUT YOUR DEAD. Though again the murder motivation is weak. I do like the actress - Rosalind Parr - who plays the older vamp with an eye on the hapless Sgt. Troy. She once played a vamp-combo-Nazi spy on a very enjoyable Hercule Poirot episode.

John Nettles

John Nettles, a beefy, hard-edges sort of guy who takes getting used to, plays Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby. He's a no-nonsense type who appears to have an unlimited supply of patience when it comes to his associate, naive and unobservant Sgt. Troy, played wonderfully by Daniel Casey. (In later years, the cast began to change, but I haven't come to those shows yet.)

Daniel Casey

Both these actors grew on me as I got deeper and deeper into the series. Admittedly, watching several episodes over several days, makes you look at the shows from a different slant, but on the whole, I guess I like them more now than I did then even if I could have done without the occasional forays into Chief Barnaby's home life. I mean, his wife and daughter are just not that interesting. But I suppose they are there to 'soften' Barnaby a bit.

I was surprised to find Orlando Bloom in one of the early episodes and Honor Blackman in a later one, but then the actors on each show are all pretty good if not always well cast. Still, they do look more like true villagers than glamorous show folk which is a good thing.

MIDSOMER MURDERS is available to watch online at Netflix and other sites around the web. It may also be available at your local library.

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain!

"If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything."


Samuel L. Clemens aka Mark Twain (1835 - 1910)  was born 176 years ago today. I thought it would be a fun way to celebrate by reminding you of a wonderful Star Trek The Next Generation two-part episode in which the crew travels back in time and Twain makes an appearance. What's more, he helps to save Commander Data AND spends some time aboard the Enterprise. Jerry Hardin is superb as Mark Twain. A truly fun episode featuring Whoopie Goldberg, as well. Don't miss it.

It you have Netflix or the Amazon equivalent, the episodes are available for streaming.

TIME'S ARROW Part 1 - End of Season 5. Part 2 - Beginning of Season 6.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books I'll Be Reading This Winter...

Well, you know there will be many more, but let's just keep it at ten for now.

Top Ten Tuesday is the weekly meme hosted by the gals at THE BROKE AND THE BOOKISH. Each week there's a new topic and new lists. Don't forget to check in and see what other Top Ten Books other bloggers are talking about today.


1) 11/22/63 by Stephen King

I'll probably be reading this next, since its sitting here glaring at me. A time traveler tries to stop the Kennedy assassination. It's gotten great reviews and though I'm not a real King fan, I couldn't resist.

2) WICKED AUTUMN by G.M. Malliet

The first in a cozy new series featuring Max Tudor, the Vicar of St. Edwold. I love a good mystery set in an English village. I am really looking forward to this one.


No more need be said. I am anxious to see what James does with Austen's masterpiece.

4) REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

I was lucky enough to win a copy of Stephenson's new book, but I would have picked it up at the library regardless. I loved Stephenson's CRYPTONOMICON and I'm hoping this new book about a tech entrepreneur caught up in his own online war game, will be something equally wonderful.

5) COLD VENGEANCE by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Eccentric FBI agent, Pendergast, is devastated by the death of his wife, especially since he's found out she was murdered. Now he is out for revenge. A quest that will take him from Scotland, to NYC to Louisiana and will unearth deadly secrets he could never have imagined.

6) THE LONG NIGHT William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by Steve Wick

I have this near the top of my tottering pile of TBR books. Shirer was one of the great reporters working in Berlin at the beginning of WWII. His judgement, wisdom and reporting skills were legendary. I read his masterpiece, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH many years ago, and I was happy to see this new book about Shirer's reporting work.

The following four books are on my Official Christmas Wish List.

7) CATHERINE THE GREAT Portrait of A Woman by Robert K. Massie

I've never read any of Massie's work, but I know his reputation as a great biographer. I've always been intrigued by this woman, Catherine, Empress of Russia. I think this will be a great read by a writer who, at 82 years of age, is still going strong.


An American family in Hitler's Berlin. Larson, author of the THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, a fabulous read, now tells the story of a naive family's cruel awakening to the evil spreading throughout Germany and Europe.

9)  THE GREATER JOURNEY Americans in Paris by David McCullough

I've read a few snippets and am dying to read more.

10) THE AFFAIR by Lee Child

The very latest entry in the rock 'em, sock 'em, Jack Reacher series. If you love great thrillers, you will love Lee Child's work.

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Films: BITE THE BULLET (1975) starring Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Candace Bergen and Ben Johnson.

Tuesday is Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film day, a weekly meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM. Don't forget to check in later and see what other overlooked films other bloggers are posting about today.


I'd seen this great western in a movie theater many years ago and only vaguely remembered how good it was. Watching it again the other night was a real treat. The film reminded me (if I needed another reminder), just how a good cast of actors working well together can make artistry on film.

The premise of BITE THE BULLET - written and directed by Richard Brooks - is simple enough; a bunch of wild west types, cowboys and assorted others, sign up to run a seven hundred mile endurance race sponsored by a newspaper. Each rider brings his own horse. Whoever survives the rugged, savage terrain and comes in first, will win 2,000 dollars - a great deal of money in the early part of the 20th century.

The main contestants are Gene Hackman as Sam Clayton, a hard-edged, mostly silent widower, ex-soldier (Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders) with a gentle hand for the horses he loves. He is a man unafraid to show his humanity.

James Coburn as Luke Matthews, Sam's old friend, also an ex-Rough Rider, a gambler and a kind of dandy with a more loquacious attitude.

Candace Bergen as Miss Jones, a woman with secrets and her own reasons (which may or may not have anything to do with the 2,000 bucks waiting at the end), for joining in the otherwise very male dominated race.

Ben Johnson as Mister, an old cowboy trying one last time to make a name for himself.

Jan Michael Vincent as Carbo, a young, heedless bully, looking to make a name for himself as well.

Ian Bannon as Sir Harry Norfolk, a good natured Englishman riding in the race for the sport of it.

Mario Arteaga as a poor Mexican with a toothache and enough savvy to, maybe, win the money for his family.

The hard-riding contestants are followed partially along the route by a train load of prostitutes, whiskey and other cowboy essentials. The madam is played warmly by an old western hand, Jean Willes. Also on the train are the race promoters who tally up the day's events.

Richard Brooks shot the film outdoors in New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. The desert locales add a true kind of grit and a kind of abandoned loneliness to the visuals.. The race is hard on animals and man alike and director Brooks keeps up a driving tempo. A couple of the scenes are not for the faint of heart but, I think, necessary to make a point about the type of person who would enter a race like this and also to aid in character development. Most especially the character of the wannabe gunfighter, Carbo, played by the pugnacious Jan Michael Vincent.

The nobility of horses is never in doubt and director Brooks makes sure we care about these valiant animals who must continue until the race ends or they drop of exhaustion.

Director Brooks uses slow motion camera work in some key scenes in a very innovative way. He handles the characters and their various personalities, strengths and weaknesses in a manner guaranteed to make us care about them. Gene Hackman, especially, is brilliant as the laconic ex-soldier, reluctant at first to join the race.

You can just see that both actors are wearing red bikinis under the water.

James Coburn is perfection as Sam's friendly rival - the two men have chemistry together and it works wonders on screen. Ian Bannon too, is terrific. Ben Johnson almost steals the show as an old geezer just looking for respect. His natural style always worked well for him and never more so than in this film.

The only acting weakness in the cast is Candace Bergen as the too perfect looking ex-prostitute (the hardship of that life never shows on her face) who rides and shoots well but looks like she belongs in a Ralph Lauren ad, more than roughing it in the wild west. But even Bergen is passable in this, her best acting job outside THE WIND AND THE LION and Murphy Brown. Far as I'm concerned, anyway.

I wish the editing had been just a little bit tighter and the ending a bit less abrupt, but other than this, I'd say that BITE THE BULLET is pretty much a perfect western.

These are characters who have their own form of honor. They are not hooligans (well, except for the Jan Michael Vincent character and he learns the error of his ways before the race is over) or killers like you'd normally find in westerns of that era. (Or for that matter, this era as well.) The race is an honest one and there is not a single soul out to cheat the other. The winner wants to win fair and square - even the rich dude played by the usually sleazy Dabney Coleman has his rider behave honorably.

There is some shooting and killing, but it's well-deserved and done in response to certain unforeseen circumstances.

I kept waiting (because I'd forgotten) for someone to poison the water or shoot someone in the back or otherwise try to gain unfair advantage. But Brooks, very wisely, didn't write any of the usual crap into the story. For this alone, the script is a stand-out.

BITE THE BULLET is available for viewing on Netflix and other websites. If you like a compelling, unsentimental, realistic western without the trendy gore and bloodletting, then this is the film for you.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Window Dressing...

I'm doing some window dressing today. Getting the blog ready for the holidays. Please bear with me. I'm almost finished. Let me know if you like the result. (Or not.)

Cyber Daze

Another shopping frenzy day - this time from the comfort of your computer.

(Though I admit I do miss my adventures at the mall. Ah, the good old days of staggering back to the car under the weight of six or seven shopping bags full of goodies.)

Or if you'd rather not shop, but are still in a cyber sort of mood - how about a movie or two in which computers play a significant part?

...or, of course, there's always:

Monday Review: BLOODHOUNDS by Peter Lovesey

The nicely designed Soho edition.

In case you didn't suspect, I am a fan of Lovesey's Peter Diamond series set in the gorgeous city of Bath, England.

My favorite of the books is THE HOUSE SITTER, which I consider one of the best crime novels of all time.

I wasn't happy with this year's entry, STAGE STRUCK, and I know I'm in the minority on that one. But that won't stop me reading the next or even going back and reading those that I missed the first time around.

This is how I came upon BLOODHOUNDS, Lovesey's homage to the Golden Age detectives and the old fashioned whodunits which most of us love. It is also the fourth book in the series. I'm saving the other unread ones for the gray doldrums of January.

The Bloodhounds of the title are a small group of book lovers who gather together once a month to talk mysteries. They meet in a cozy crypt  at St. Michael's church and when they're not picking on each other, they actually do talk about the books they admire most. Of course part of the time is spent belittling each other's favorites, but not even ardent readers are free from fault. Each reader thinks his or her genre within the genre is best.

There's plenty of Golden Age detective name dropping during their meetings, as well as commentary on more modern writers like Andrew Vachss and Val McDermid, among others.

When Sid, one of the members of the little band is found murdered, (a very quiet chap who never had much to say to anyone) it's not just an ordinary murder. No sir. To the police department's disbelief, this  time out, it's a 'locked room' murder, just like in the good old days of John Dickson Carr.

Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is skeptical, but sure enough, the more they look at it, the more they are chagrined to realize that they do, indeed, have an honest to goodness whodunit on their hands.

The victim was found (with his head bashed in) on a small houseboat, the residence of Milo Motion, another member of the Bloodhounds group. Milo is a great proponent of John Dickson Carr and his alter ego, Carter Dickson, the famed Golden Age writer who specialized in impossible locked room murder plots.

The cabin on the boat was kept sealed with a special lock ordered by Milo, to which only he had the unique key and since Milo has an unshakable alibi for the time of the murder, then who done it? Almost as important - how was it done?

This is a terrific book which cleverly pays homage to the past while making the present day mystery as entertaining as possible. The suspects also, are a varied lot and it's hard to imagine who, among them, even had a motive for killing the harmless little man who'd been one of their earliest members.

As the investigation picks up speed, the deepest darkest secrets of each individual Bloodhound is, of course, unearthed by Diamond and his crew.

The plot is complicated by poetic warnings sent to the newspapers, the theft of one of the world's oldest and most valuable stamps, the Penny Black, from a nearby museum and a second murder. Just when things appear to be getting clearer, author Lovesey still has another surprise in store.

My only quibble is the ending in which the killer comes out of left field, though I'd been a bit suspicious of him earlier AND the motive which is not an especially convincing one. But other than that, it's a terrific book and I highly recommend it, especially if you, like me, love the Golden Age mysteries of once upon a time.

To see a complete list of Peter Lovesey's books, please use this link.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday Salon: A Favorite Painting or Two.....or Three!

Self-portrait in Straw Hat


Madame Mole-Raymond

Lady Folding A Letter (Comtesse de Ceres)


Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette

The Duchess of Caderousse

Madame DuBarry

Alexander Charles Emmanuel de Crussol Florensac

Empress Yelitzavita-Alekseyevna

Self-portrait with daughter.

Portrait of a Young Woman.

Theresa, Countess Kinsky (Detail)

Charles Alexander de Calonne

Comtesse de la Charte


Self-portrait (Detail)

Marie-Louise-Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1755 - 1842) was an artist self-trained in the Rococo and neo-Classic styles. Her Self Portrait in Straw Hat (see first painting at the top) is one of my all time favorite paintings, so I thought it was about time to display some of her other gorgeous work.

According to Wikipedia, Vigee-Lebrun was portrait painter to Marie Antoinette as well as the most famous female painter of the 18th century. (I have one of Vigee-Lebrun's Marie Antoinette prints framed in an absurd gold faux rococo frame. It hangs in my living room just for the fun of it.)

Of course it would be nice if Vigee-Lebrun were considered one of the most famous painters - period - but you can't escape categorization, most especially if you're a woman in the arts.

At any rate, by the time she was in her teens, Vigee-Lebrun was already painting professionally. She married in 1776 and eventually came to the attention of Marie Antoinette. She painted many portraits of the Queen and her family and became known as the Queen's official portraitist. Unfortunately, once the French Revolution burst upon the scene, Vigee-Lebrun, a staunch Royalist, was forced to flee the country with her daughter.

She lived and worked in Italy, Austria and Russia where her training and ability to deal with aristocratic clients came in handy.

She was eventually welcomed back to France during the reign of Emperor Napoleon I.

The main thing I like about Vigee-Lebrun's work is her ability to show the spark of life within her subjects. Those faces are anything but bland or blank. Despite the elaborate dress, wigs and outlandish feathers and glitter, these are 'real' people of the time.

The attention to detail in the hair and clothing also tells us a great deal about the look of the 18th century.

To learn more about Marie Elizabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun, please use this link. From there you will be able to link to more of her work as well.