Top Favorite HISTORICAL NOVELS

Below is a current list of my top favorite historical novels: 

 

TOP FAVORITE HISTORICAL NOVELS

1. “North and South” (1982) by John Jakes – This is the first of a trilogy about two wealthy American families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – during the mid-19th century. This superb novel is set during the two decades before the U.S. Civil War.

 

2. “Flashman and the Redskins” (1982) by George MacDonald Fraser – This excellent novel from the Flashman series picks up where the 1971 novel, “Flash For Freedom” left off . . . with British Army officer Harry Flashman stuck in New Orleans in 1849. He eventually joins a wagon train bound for the California gold fields. The story concludes 27 years later, on the Little Bighorn battlefield.

 

3. “The Wheel of Fortune” (1984) by Susan Howatch – This excellent saga tells the story of a wealthy Anglo-Welsh family named the Goodwins between 1913 and the early 1970s.  Filled with family feuds, traumas, insanity, murder and romance; I regard this as the best of Howatch’s family sagas.

 

4. “Love and War” (1984) by John Jakes – The saga of the Hazards and the Mains continues in this story about their experiences during the U.S. Civil War. I regard this as one of the best Civil War novels I have ever read, despite being underappreciated by some critics.

 

5. “Shadow of the Moon” (1956; 1979) by M.M. Kaye – Set against the backdrop of mid-19th century India and the Sepoy Rebellion, this novel tells the story of a young Anglo-Spanish woman named Winter de Ballesteros and her love for British Army officer, Alex Randall.

 

6. “Voodoo Dreams” (1993) by Jewell Parker-Rhodes – The novel is a fictional account of the famous Voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau, in early 19th century New Orleans. Despite a slow start, the novel unveiled a very engrossing tale.

 

7. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1985) by George MacDonald Fraser – This entry in the Flashman series is an account of Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Taiping Rebellion and the March to Pekin in 1860 China. A personal favorite of mine.

 

8. “Centennial” (1974) by James Michner – A superb, multi-generational saga about the history of a small northern Colorado town, between the 1790s and the 1970s. I regard this superb novel as one of Michner’s best.

 

9. “The Bastard” (1974) by John Jakes – The first novel in Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles series, this story is about Philip “Charbanneau” Kent, the illegitimate offspring of a French actress and a British nobleman during the years leading to the American Revolution. A personal favorite of mine.

 

10. “Flashman in the Great Game” (1975) by George MacDonald – This fifth entry in the Flashman series follows Harry Flashman’s harrowing adventures during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58. Another one of Fraser’s best, which features plenty of drama, action and some pretty funny moments. A must read.

 

11. “The Killer Angels” (1974) by Michael Shaara – This Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the Gettysburg Campaign is considered one of the finest Civil War novels ever written. And I heartily agree.

 

12. “Lonesome Dove” (1985) by Larry McMurty – This Pulitzer Prize winning novel tells the story about two former Texas Ranges who lead a cattle drive on a perilous journey from South Texas to Montana in the late 1870s.

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

When news of Twentieth Century Fox releasing its own version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, “Murder on the Orient Express”, many people groaned. In a way, I could understand their reaction. This new movie would mark the fifth adaptation of the novel – the second theatrical version. However, being a major fan of Christie’s story about a murder aboard the famed trans-European train, I was among those who did not groan. 

Directed by Kenneth Branaugh, who also starred as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” begins in Jerusalem 1934, where Poirot has been asked to solve the theft of a valuable artifact from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. After achieving his goal, Poirot boards a boat that conveys him to Istanbul in Turkey. Among his fellow passengers is a British governess named Mary Debenham and a Afro-British former-Army soldier-turned-physician named Dr. John Abuthnot. Poirot plans to remain in Istanbul for a few days of rest. But he receives a telegram, summoning him to London to solve another case. Monsieur Bouc, a young friend of his who happens to serve as a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, manages to acquire a berth in one of the second-class compartments in the Calais coach of the Orient Express.

Both Poirot and Bouc are surprised to discover that the Calais coach is unusually full for the winter season. A day following the train’s departure from Istanbul, one of the passengers – an American “businessman” named Samuel Rachett – informs Poirot that he had received death threats and wants to hire the Belgian detective to serve as his bodyguard. Due to his instinctive dislike of Rachett, Poirot refuses the offer. During the second night of the train’s journey, the Orient Express becomes stranded somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, thanks to an avalanche. The following morning, Rachett’s dead body is discovered with a dozen stab wounds. Bouc asks Poirot to discover the killer’s identity. Since each train car was locked at night, Poirot has focused his suspicions on those who were inside the Calais coach:

*Mary Debenham
*Dr. John Abuthnot
*Hector McQueen, Rachett’s secretary
*Edward Masterman, Rachett’s English valet
*Mrs. Caroline Hubbard, a middle-aged American tourist
*Pilar Estravados, a Spanish-born missionary
*Princess Dragomiroff, an exiled Russian princess
*Hildegarde Schmidt, Princess Dragomiroff’s German maid
*Biniamino Marquez, a Spanish-born automobile salesman
*Count Rudolph Andrenyi, a Hungarian aristocrat/acclaimed dancer
*Countess Helena Andrenyi, Count Andrenyi’s German-born wife
*Gerhard Hardman, a German scholar
*Pierre Michel, the Calais coach’s car attendant

Not long after he begins his investigation, Poirot discovers Rachett’s true identity – a gangster named Lanfranco Cassetti, who had kidnapped a three year-old heiress named Daisy Armstrong two years earlier. After Daisy’s parents had paid the ransom, Cassetti killed young Daisy and fled the United States. It becomes up to Poirot to discover which Calais coach passengers have connections to the Armstrong kidnapping case and find the killer.

What can I say about this adaptation of Christie’s 1934 novel? Of the five versions of “Murder on the Orient Express”, I have only seen four. But I am not here to discuss the other three versions I have seen . . . only this new adaptation.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” was not a perfect movie. Well to be honest, I have yet to see a perfect adaptation of Christie’s novel. But there were a few aspects of this film that I did not like. Most of those aspects had a lot to do with camera shots. I did not like how Branaugh had allowed his passengers to board through the dining car at the end of the train. Honestly? I did not care for that tracking shot of Poirot making his way through the train . . . with the camera focused on him through the windows. I found it rather distracting and slightly confusing. Nor did I care for how Branaugh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shot the scene featuring the discovery of Rachett’s body. From the moment when the victim’s valet discovered the body to Dr. Abuthnot examined it and conveyed his prognosis, Branaugh and Zambarloukos did the entire scene from a high angle shot from above in which I could barely, if at all, see the victim’s body. I found it very frustrating to watch. And rather unnecessary. I have one last complaint and it concerned a character. Namely . . . Count Rudolph Andrenyi. In Christie’s novel, Count Andrenyi was described as a hot-blooded Hungarian and a diplomat. In “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the Count remained a hot-blooded Hungarian. But for some reason, Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green had decided to change his profession from a diplomat to a professional dancer. Why? Other than showing Count Andrenyi in a fight with two men at the Sirkeci train station, I saw no earthly reason to change the character’s profession. Worse, while being questioned by Poirot, the latter brought up the matter of a diplomatic passport. Why would Poirot bring up this matter to a man who was a professional dancer?

Thankfully, I managed to enjoy “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” a great deal, despite its flaws. Thanks to Branaugh and a first-rate crew, the movie radiated a sharp rich elegance that struck me as different as the previous adaptations. And I have to give credit to cinematographer Zambarloukos for this look. There were others who had contributed to the film’s look and style. I especially have to commend production designer Jim Clay for his re-creation of the Orient Express – along with the help of the art direction team led by Dominic Masters and set decorator Rebecca Alleway:

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I doubt that the film’s re-creation of the famous luxury train at Longcross Studios was completely accurate. But I must admit that I was more than impressed by how people like Clay, Masters and Alleway still managed to re-create the style and ambiance of the famous train. My admiration for their work at Longcross also extends to their re-creation of the famous Sirkeci railway station. I found it rich in detail and atmosphere . . . and if I must be honest, slightly mind blowing:

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I suspect that none of crewmen who worked on “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” will receive any recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their work. Pity. As for Patrick Doyle’s score, I must be honest and admit that I did not find it particularly memorable. In fact, I found Doyle’s occasional use of 1930s tunes more memorable than his original work.

How did I feel about Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green’s treatment of Christie’s novel? Aside from my nitpick about the Count Rudolph Andrenyi character, I had no problems with it. Yes, I realize that both Branaugh and Green had made some changes to Christie’s story. But you know what? So did the other versions I have seen. And there were no real changes to the plot, aside from allowing the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping to occur two years previously, instead of more. Most of the changes were made to some of the characters, instead of the plot. For instance:

*Although Hector McQueen had remained Rachett’s secretary, he was discovered to be embezzling from the latter.
*John Abuthnot is portrayed as an Afro-British doctor, who is also a former Army sniper, instead of a British Army colonel stationed in India
*Swedish-born missionary Greta Ohlsson becomes the Spanish-born missionary Pilar Estravados, whose name was borrowed from Christie’s 1938 novel, “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”
*Italian-born car salesman Antonio Foscarelli becomes the Spanish-born salesman Biniamino Marquez
*Monsieur Bouc is portrayed as a much younger man, who profession is dependent upon family connections

As one can see, the changes in characterizations is based upon changes in ethnicity and nationality. Hell, I had more of a problem with the changes made by the Count Andrenyi character than I did with the above changes. And if I must be honest, I found the changes made to the John Abuthnot character rather impressive and interesting. Despite these changes, he remained intensely in love with Mary Debenham and protective of her. Another change I noticed is that Branaugh and Green had allowed Poirot to question the suspects in different parts of either the Calais coach, the dining car, the Pullman lounge car and various spots outside of the stranded train. I must admit that I found this variation in minor locations around the train rather refreshing. Watching Poirot question most of the suspects (with the exception of Princess Dragonmiroff and Hildegarde Schmidt) inside the Pullman coach had struck me as a bit repetitive in the 1974 and 2010 versions.

I would not be surprised if certain Christie fans and film critics had accused Branaugh of political correctness. Not only did the screenplay pointed out Dr. Abuthnot’s race via characters like Gerhard Hardman, but also Biniamino Marquez’s ethnicity via Hector McQueen. Considering that the movie is set in 1934, I did not mind. More importantly, it would have been odd if someone had not commented on Dr. Abuthnot’s race or Senor Marquez’s nationality. In fact, in Christie’s original novel, some characters made a big deal over the nationalities of the other suspects.

The important thing is that despite these changes, Michael Green’s screenplay more or less adhered to Christie’s novel. And he did so with style and a good deal of pathos in the film’s last half hour that I found more than satisfying. I was especially surprised by how the film treated Poirot’s character in the end. In the novel and previous adaptations, Poirot had remained on the train after solving the murder. Not in this adaptation. After exposing the crime and reporting his findings to the police in Brod, Poirot left the train. And I was thrilled. As I have stated numerous times, if I had been Poirot, I would have left that train myself.

I must admit that I had experienced a few qualms when I learned that Kenneth Branaugh had cast himself as the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The large moustache he had utilized for his performance did not comfort me, until I realized that it matched the description of the literary Poirot’s moustache. I have stated in the past that I believe that British actors with a Continental background – like Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina and David Suchet – tend to give more believable portrayals of Poirot than English speaking actors. Branaugh ended up proving me wrong. He gave a very charming and energetic performance as Poirot, without wallowing in the occasional moments of hammy acting. I also enjoyed how he portrayed Poirot’s development in the story from a charming and intelligent man seeking a little peace before his next case to the slightly outraged man who found himself conflicted over how to handle the consequences of Rachett’s murder.

There were other performances that I found very interesting. One came from Johnny Depp, who gave an effectively slimy portrayal of the former kidnapper-turned-murder victim. His performance really impressed me, especially in one particular scene in which Rachett requested Poirot’s services as a bodyguard. Depp displayed his versatility as an actor by conveying his character’s attempt at friendliness and a sinister form of intimidation. I also appreciated Michelle Pfieffer’s portrayal of the extroverted Caroline Hubbard, which I found both humorous and sexy. And yet, Pfieffer’s finest moment came near the film’s end, when Poirot exposed her character’s deep secret. She gave a very emotional and effective performance. Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley portrayed the two suspects that Poirot had first encountered – namely Dr. John Abuthnot and Mary Debenham. It is interesting that the literary versions of this pair proved to be more hostile (and bigoted) toward Poirot than the other passengers. In this version, both are more friendlier toward Poirot, yet both maintained a subtle wariness toward his presence. I also enjoyed how Odom and Ridley managed to convey more complexity into their performances, when confronted with their lies by Poirot and their willingness to fiercely protect each other.

I never thought I would say this, but I thought Josh Gad gave the most complex performance as Rachett’s secretary, Hector McQueen I have ever seen on screen. Thanks to Gad’s first-rate performance, his McQueen literally oozed with moral ambiguity – especially in the film’s second half. Another interesting performance came from Derek Jacobi, who portrayed Rachett’s English valet, Edward Masterman. I was particularly impressed at how Jacobi conveyed his character’s nervousness in being caught in a slip of character by Poirot. And there was Penelope Cruz’s performance as the Spanish missionary, Pilar Estravados. Cruz’s portrayal of the missionary was a far cry from the literary character by portraying her not only as intensely religious, but also intense and slightly intimidating. I found her performance very interesting. Judi Dench gave a very imperious and entertaining performance as the elderly Princess Dragonmiroff. The movie also featured first-rate performances from the rest of the cast that included Olivia Colman, Tom Bateman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Willem Dafoe, Marwan Kenzari, Lucy Boynton and yes, Sergei Polunin. I may not have liked the change made to the Count Andrenyi character, but I cannot deny that Poluin gave an effective performance.

I recently learned that 20th Century Fox given approval for a sequel to “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. It may not have been a major box office hit, but it was financially successful. Personally, I am glad. I really enjoyed this new take on Christie’s 1934 novel. And I was not only impressed by the cast’s excellent performances in this film, but also by Kenneth Branaugh’s direction and his superb portrayal of the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. If a sequel is being planned, I cannot wait to see him reprise his portrayal of the famous literary sleuth.

 

Doberge Cake

Below is an article about the dessert known as the Doberge Cake

DOBERGE CAKE

For years, I have heard about New Orleans, Louisiana being something of a “foodie town”. But after learning about the origins of this latest dish, I am finally beginning to realize that this might be true. And what is the latest dish I just learned had originated in New Orleans? Namely a dessert known as the Doberge Cake.

The Doberge Cake is actually an adaptation of a Hungarian dessert known as the Dobos TorteBeulah Levy Ledner was the daughter of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants who had settled in St. Rose, Louisiana in the late 19th century. By the beginning of the Great Depression, she had moved to New Orleans where she started her own bakery business from her home in 1931. Sometime between 1931 and 1933, Ledner created her own version of the Dobos Torte.

Ledner kick started the Doberge Cake by following the recipe of the Dobos torte with layers of Genoise cake. But instead of spreading each layer of cake with buttercream and topping the whole thing with a layer of hard caramel glaze; Ledner spread each cake layer with a custard filling and iced the whole cake with buttercream and a thin layer of fondant icing. The traditional flavors used for a Doberge cake are chocolate, lemon or caramel. Many times, the cakes are made with half chocolate pudding and half lemon pudding.

A man named Joe Gambino purchased the name of the cake, the recipe and the retail shop from Ledner in 1946. She also promised that she would not reopen in New Orleans for five years. After a few years of illness, Ledner reopened her bakery in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, under the name of “Beulah Ledner, Inc.” As her business and popularity grew, her son, Albert, designed and built a new building for a new machine to mass-produce sheet cakes using his mother’s recipes. Ledner opened another bakery on May 21, 1970 and operated it until she retired in 1981 the age of 87 and sold her business and the Doberge recipe to Maurice’s French Pastries. The latter continues the business of baking and selling Doberge cakes in Metairie.

Below is a recipe for the Doberge Cake from the Genius Kitchen website:

Doberge Cake

Ingredients – Genoise Cake
3⁄4 cup butter
2 cups sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, separated, whites stiffly beaten
1 cup milk
3 teaspoons baking powder
3 1⁄2 cups cake flour (measured after sifting)
scant teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preparation – Genoise Cake
Cream the butter, sugar and salt until smooth.
Add egg yolks, one at a time, and blend until smooth.
Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with milk.
Beat until blended. Add vanilla and lemon juice.
With a spatula, fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Grease 9-inch cake pans.
Pour ¾ cup batter into each pan, spreading evenly over bottom.
Bake in preheated 375-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes.
Repeat process until batter is completely used, to make eight thin layers.

Ingredients – Chocolate Pudding
2 cups granulated sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons cornstarch
2 kitchen spoons cocoa (heaping spoonfuls)
4 tablespoons bitter chocolate
4 eggs (whole)
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon vanilla
4 cups milk

Ingredients – Lemon Filling
1 1⁄4 cups white sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons flour
1⁄8 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1⁄2 cups cold water
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons sweet butter
2 teaspoons lemon peel, finely shredded
1⁄3 cup fresh lemon juice

Preparation – Pudding and Custard
Stir all dry ingredients together in a saucepan, then add the remaining ingredients.
Cook over medium heat until thick, stirring constantly.
Remove from fire to cool.

Ingredients – Chocolate Buttercream Icing
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1⁄2 lb oleo, softened (margarine)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cocoa
1 ounce bitter chocolate, melted

Ingredients – Chocolate Icing
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
4 semi-sweet chocolate baking squares, melted
1⁄4 cup butter
3⁄4 cup cream
1 teaspoon vanilla

Ingredients – Lemon Frosting
6 ounces cream cheese, softened, room temperature
3 cups icing sugar
1 teaspoon lemon peel, finely shredded
1⁄4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1⁄4 teaspoon lemon extract

Preparations – Chocolate Butter Cream Icing
Cream sugar and oleo, then add cocoa, then the melted chocolate and vanilla.
If too thick, add a little hot water, very slowly, until the consistency is right.

Preparations – Chocolate Icing
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and let it come slowly to a boil, then boil about 10 minutes until it thickens.
Beat until thick enough to spread.

Preparation – Lemon Frosting
Beat cream cheese, icing sugar until fluffy.
Add 1 tsp lemon peel, 1/4 tsp vanilla extract and 1/4 tsp lemon extract and beat till smooth.

Cake Assembly
To assemble the cake, place one layer on bottom of a cake platter. Pour 1/2 cup of lemon filling on top of 1/2 of the cake. Spread Chocolate pudding on the other half of the cake.
Repeat the above procedure with the remaining cake layers and filling.
Top with final layer of cake with both the chocolate pudding and lemon filling.
Cover cake with plastic wrap and put in fridge for 2 hours till well chilled.
Spread Lemon Frosting on the sides and top of the lemon half the cake.
Spread chocolate butter cream icing on top and sides of the cake’s chocolate side.
Cover and chill inside the refrigerator.
Then cover the chocolate side with the Chocolate Icing.
Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Favorite Episodes of “A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY” (2000-2002)

Below is a list of my favorite episodes from the A&E series, “A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY”. Based upon the detective stories and novels written by Rex Stout, the series starred Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin as Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe: 

FAVORITE EPISODES OF “A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY” (2000-2002)

1. (1.02) “Champagne For One” – In this adaptation of Stout’s 1958 novel, detective Nero Wolfe investigates the death of a young unwed mother at a charity dance attended by his assistant, Archie Goodwin. The latter had been standing in for an acquaintance, who was related to the wealthy hostess.

2. (2.08) “Before I Die” – A notorious gangster hires Wolfe to protect his real daughter, who is unaware of her father’s identity, and stop the woman impersonating her from blackmailing him in this adaptation of Stout’s 1947 novella.

3. (2.05) “The Mother Hunt” – In this adaptation of Stout’s 1963 novel, a wealthy young widow hires Wolfe and Archie to identify and locate the birth mother of the baby left in the vestibule of her townhouse.

4. (1.08) “Over My Dead Body” – A Montenegro woman claiming to know Wolfe’s adopted daughter is suspected of theft and murder at a prestigious fencing club in this adaptation of Stout’s 1940 novel.

5. (2.09) “Help Wanted, Male” – In this adaptation of Stout’s 1945 novella, Wolfe receives a death threat regarding a past case and hires a look-a-like double to temporarily impersonate him until he can identify the perpetrator.

Honorable Mentioned: (2.06) “Poison à la Carte” – When Wolfe and Archie attend the annual Ten for Aristology, a gourmet society, one of the members is poisoned. Wolfe suspects one of the female servers of the crime.

“ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” (2013) Review

“ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” (2013) Review

It is believed by many that the 1976 novel, “Curtain”, was the last one written by Agatha Christie that featured Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Not quite. “Curtain”, which Christie wrote during World War II, was the last Poirot novel to be published. The 1972 novel, “Elephants Can Remember” proved to be the last Poirot novel written by the author. 

Forty-one years following its publication, “Elephants Can Remember” was adapted as an 89-minute television movie for the last season of ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. Although the movie’s screenwriter, Nick Dear, retained a great deal of Christie’s novel; he embellished the story by adding a present day murder. He also either deleted or merged some supporting characters.

“ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” begins with Adriande Oliver attending a literary luncheon in London, when a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Burton-Cox approaches her. Knowing that Mrs. Oliver is the godmother of her son Desmond’s fiancée, Celia Ravenscroft, Mrs. Burton-Cox wants to know if the young woman’s parents had died via a murder-suicide or a double suicide. Some ten or fifteen years earlier, the bodies of Mrs. Oliver’s close friend Margaret Ravenscroft and General Alistair Ravenscroft were found near their manor house in Overcliffe. The original police investigation revealed that both had bullet wounds and that a revolver found between their bodies bore the fingerprints of the married couple. This made it impossible for the police to prove whether The Ravenscrofts’ deaths were a case of double suicide or if it was a murder-suicide. Following her encounter with Mrs. Burton-Cox, Mrs. Oliver contacts Celia Ravenscroft, who asks her to look into the case.

Mrs. Oliver seeks the help of Hercule Poirot, but he has his own case to solve. The latter is requested by an old friend, a psychiatrist named Dr. Willoughby, to investigate the murder of his father, who operated the Willoughby Institute for psychologically troubled patients. While investigating the elder Dr. Willoughby’s death, Poirot discovers a connection between his case and the Ravenscrofts’ case. Apparently, Mrs. Ravenscroft’s sister, Dorothy Jarrow, had been a patient of Dr. Willoughby senior before the couple’s deaths. Following this discovery, he decides to help Mrs. Oliver with her mystery as well.

Cold cases have featured in some of the most interesting novels that Agatha Christie had written throughout her career. Four of her most interesting novels about cold cases were “Five Little Pigs” (1942)“Ordeal by Innocence” (1958)“Hallowe’en Party” (1969)“Nemesis” (1971) and “Sleeping Murder” (1976). I wish I could say the same about “Elephants Can Remember”. But if I must be brutally honest, I have never read the novel. But thanks to this 2013 television adaptation of the novel and the Wikipedia website, I found myself familiar with its plot. As for the production itself . . . well, it seemed pretty solid to me.

I know what you are thinking. Pretty solid? Why not first-rate or excellent? To be perfectly honest, “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” did not exactly blow my mind. My problem with the film is I feel that Nick Dear’s additions to Christie’s story may have slightly undermined its dramatic impact. “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” had the potential to be a poignant mystery about the past. However, by adding both a murder and attempted murder to the story may have undermined this poignancy.

As I have earlier pointed out, “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” was not the first “cold case” mystery written by Christie. And to be perfectly honest, three of those “cold case” mysteries like “Ordeal by Innocence”“Nemesis” and “Sleeping Murder” did feature additional “present-day” murders to their narratives. But those murders were all about the killers’ attempts to prevent from being exposed after a period of time. In the case of “Hallowe’en Party”, it featured a good number of additional murders – both past and present – that were all about preventing the exposure of the murderer. I thought the addition of another murder and attempted murder in “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” had taken away some of the emotional impact of the Ravenscrofts’ deaths. This addition also made the plot a bit more confusing than necessary.

Despite Nick Dear’s major change in Christie’s story, I still managed to enjoy “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER”. The story managed to remain somewhat intriguing. But there were other aspects of the television movie that I enjoyed. Thanks to Jeff Tessler’s production designs and Miranda Cull’s art direction, “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” proved to be a very attractive looking production. Gavin Finney’s cinematography also added to the production’s attractive look. But there were times when his photography looked slightly fuzzy and ended up irritating me.

“ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” also featured some first-rate performances. David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker were wonderful, as always, as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and mystery writer Mrs. Ariadne Oliver. There were three other performances that also impressed me. Iain Glen gave a very interesting performance as Poirot’s charming, yet adulterous friend, Dr. Willoughby. Greta Scacchi was marvelous as always as the snobbish, yet mercenary Mrs. Burton-Cox. I was also impressed by Alexandra Dowling’s complicated performance as the mysterious secretary, Marie McDermott, who was having an affair with Dr. Willoughby. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Vanessa Kirby, Elsa Mollien, Adrian Lukis, Ferdinand Kingsley, Claire Cox, Caroline Blakiston and Vincent Regan.

Yes, I had a few quibbles about “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER”. My quibbles mainly focused on some of the additions that screenwriter Nick Dear made to Agatha Christie’s plot. But despite it, I still managed to enjoy the teleplay, thanks to John Strickland’s direction and a solid cast led by David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker.

Top Ten Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1960s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1960s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1960s

1. “Mad Men” (2007-2015) – Matthew Weiner created this award-winning series about the professional and personal life of an advertising executive during the 1960s. Jon Hamm starred.

2. “Kennedy” (1983) – Martin Sheen, Blair Brown and John Shea starred in this seven-part miniseries about the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The miniseries was written by Reg Gadney and directed by Jim Goddard.

3. “Tour of Duty” (1987-1990) – Steve Duncan and L. Travis Clark created this television series about an U.S. Army infantry platoon during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Terence Knox and Stephen Caffrey starred.

4. “Pan Am” (2011-2012) – Jack Orman created this series about the lives of four Pan Am stewardesses and two pilots during the early 1960s. The series starred Kelli Garner, Margot Robbie, Karine Vanasse, Mike Vogel, Michael Mosley and Christina Ricci.

5. “Vegas” (2012-2013) – Nicholas Pileggi and Greg Walker created this series about the conflict between Las Vegas Sheriff Ralph Lamb and a Chicago mobster named Vincent Savino. Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis starred.

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6. “The Astronaut Wives Club” (2015) – Stephanie Savage produced this adaptation of Lily Kopel’s 2013 book about the wives of the Mercury Seven astronauts. The cast included Joanna García Swisher, Yvonne Strahovski and Dominique McElligott.

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7. “The Kennedys” (2011) – Jon Cassar directed this award winning miniseries that chronicled the lives of the Kennedy family between the 1940s and the 1960s. Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, Barry Pepper, Diana Hardcastle and Tom Wilkinson starred.

8. “Crime Story” (1986-1988) – Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger created this television series about the bitter conflict between a Chicago police lieutenant and a mobster in the mid 1960s. Dennis Farina and Anthony Denison starred.

9. “Path to War” (2002) – John Frankenheimer directed this HBO movie that dealt with the Vietnam War through the eyes of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Michael Gambon, Donald Sutherland and Alec Baldwin starred.

10. “Public Morals” (2015) – Edward Burns created and starred in this TNT limited series about police detectives who worked for the Public Morals Division of the New York City Police Department.

“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (2004) Review

“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (2004) Review

I have another of my many confessions to make . . . I have never been a big fan of Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel, “The Murder at the Vicarage”. Never mind that it featured the first appearance of elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, in a feature-length novel. I am just not a big fan. 

One could assume that the novel’s setting – in the small village of St. Mary Mead – could be the reason why this particular tale has never rocked my boat. Not particularly. I can think of numerous Christie tales set in a small village – including St. Mary Mead – that really impressed me. The problem with “The Murder in the Vicarage” is that I never found it to be a particularly thought provoking tale. Nor did it include any special circumstances that made it unique. And my borderline apathy toward the 1930 novel even extended to the television movie adaptation that aired in 1986. Some eighteen years later, another adaptation of the novel aired on television. This particular version starred Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. And its running time was at least eight minutes shorter.

In “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE”, the citizens of St. Mary Mead are rocked by the murder of Colonel Protheroe, the local churchwarden and magistrate, whose body was found inside the study of the vicar, Reverend Len Clement. The man was disliked by many; including the vicar, the vicarage’s curate, Protheroe’s second wife Anne, her lover Lawrence Redding, Protheroe’s daughter from his first marriage Lettice, the vicar’s wife Grieselda Clement, and a mysterious new resident named Mrs. Lester who seemed to have produced a strange reaction from Protheroe. Not long after the vicar discovers the body, Lawrence Redding, who is a painter, confesses to the murder. Although he has been clashing with Colonel Protheroe over his painting of Lettice, it turns out that he has been Anne Protheroe’s lover for quite some time. Upon learning about his confession, Anne confesses as well. Miss Marple eventually points out to Inspector Slack that it was impossible for either to commit the murder and suggests that the latter search for the killer among other St. Mary’s Mead citizens.

As I had pointed earlier, I am not a big fan of Christie’s novel or its 1986 adaptation. But for some reason, I enjoyed this adaptation. For example, it is a bit more colorful than the previous version. I am aware that all of the Miss Marple television adaptations of the 1980s and early 1990s tend to look rather faded. But there are more reasons why I find this 2004 version more colorful. I realize that many tend to demand that a movie or television adaptation is faithful to its source novel. But I thought the changes made by Stephen Churchett made the production somewhat more lively for me. One, Churchett changed two characters (one of them an archeologist) by giving them a World War II connection to Protheroe and a reason to want him dead. And two, Churchett included World War I flashbacks of a brief love affair between Miss Marple and a married Army officer. At first glance, these flashback seemed irrelevant to the main story. In the end, they served as a tool in which Miss Marple managed to ascertain the murderer’s identity. But the best thing I can say about “THE MURDER IN THE VICARAGE” is its pacing. This is a well-paced film, thanks to Charlie Palmer’s direction. For me, this is an important element for a low-key mystery like “THE MURDER IN THE VICARAGE”.

But there are other aspects of the movie that I enjoyed. I was really impressed by Nigel Walters’ cinematography. It was sharp, colorful and perfect for the movie’s setting. The photography also enhanced Jeff Tessler’s production designs, which struck me as a perfect reflection of an English village in 1951. He also had the task of re-creating a London railway station circa 1915-1917. And he did a pretty good job. But I really enjoyed Phoebe De Gaye’s costume designs. I found them colorful and very spot-on for each particular character, based upon age, class, personality, etc. By the way, Ms. De Gaye had also served one of the two costume designers for the BBC’s “THE MUSKETEERS” and the 2002-2003 miniseries, “THE FORSYTE SAGA”.

The performances were first-class. I tried to think of one that seemed somewhat off. But . . . I thought they were all well-done. “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” marked Geraldine McEwan’s second time at the bat as Miss Jane Marple. I feel this particular performance might be one of her better ones. I found her performance intelligent, sharp and particularly poignant. Other performances that impressed me came from Janet McTeer and Jason Flemyng, the adulterous couple, who found themselves at the center of village gossip and police inquiries following Protheroe’s murder. On paper, television viewers should have been outraged at their infidelity. But both McTeer and Flemyng gave such poignant and passionate performances that they managed to allow viewers to care about their fate.

Rachael Stirling gave an exuberant performance as the vicar’s outgoing wife, Grisielda Clements. At first glance, it seemed as if Derek Jacobi’s portrayal of the victim, Colonel Protheroe, would come off as a one-note blustering idiot. Thankfully, there were moments when Jacobi infused a good deal of humanity into his performance – especially in scenes involving the mysterious Mrs. Lester. Mark Gatiss’ portrayal of the vicarage’s curate Ronald Hawes, who seemed torn over his past actions involving the embezzling of funds at his previous assignment struck me as rather emotional and a bit sad. I also have to commend Stephen Tompkinson for his complex performance as the irascible Detective Inspector Slack. I enjoyed how he slowly allowed Slack’s character to develop an admiration for Miss Marple’s detective skills. The television movie also featured solid performances from Tim McInnerny, Herbert Lom, Christina Cole, Jane Asher, Robert Powell, Angela Pleasance, Miriam Margolyes and especially, Julie Cox and Marc Warren, who gave affecting performances as the younger Jane Marple and her World War I lover.

I may not be a fan of Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel. But I cannot deny that I rather enjoyed its 2004 television adaptation. Thanks to director Charlie Palmer and screenwriter Stephen Churchett, “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” proved to be a colorful, yet emotional tale about love, passion and ghosts from the past. The production was also enhanced by some eye-catching behind-the-scenes artistry and excellent performances from a cast led by the incomparable Geraldine McEwan.