Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Death Of Saturday Morning Cartoons

It seems as if today is the sad death of the Saturday Morning Cartoon. The CW, the last remaining broadcast network to show cartoons, ended its run this morning, with no other network having plans to continue.

Now, I haven't watched much television lately on Saturday mornings, but even when I was a kid the trend was moving away from cartoons. One of the stations--NBC, I believe, had transitioned away from cartoons to news programs. But still, the concept of the Saturday Morning Cartoon had existed for decades and has been entrenched in our cultural landscape. Most of the cartoons we all watched as kids (by "we all" I mean those of us over 30) originated, in some form, from Saturday mornings.

Learning about the new schedule every year was like a third Christmas (First Christmas being actual Christmas and Second Christmas being when a new series of Garbage Pail Kids unexpectedly showed up at the store). We eagerly anticipated if our favorite toy or comic book or theme was represented in the new block, and we'd map out the schedule amongst the three networks ("OK, at 8:30 we can watch the Gummi Bears, then we can watch the Smurfs, but if it's a rerun we switch over to Slimer! And the Real Ghostbusters. Then after that's done at 10:30 we have to decide whether we want to switch over to Alf or Garfield and Friends.")

Even back then, though, as a wise and precocious kid I knew that some stuff was garbage. Anything noted as "The New" or "...and Son" was probably going to be bad--no new Popeyes or Richie Riches or Archies, thank you very much. The things that make those shows charming and enjoyable are the fact that they are a product of their times and clever writing, not because you introduce a young, hip character who rides a skateboard.

In fact, that said, let's just codify a few Saturday morning cartoon rules for posterity:
  • There's always one character in any group that's dumb as dirt that's necessarily to create that show's main problem to be solved. And yet that person won't be in jail.
  • Any superhero will somehow manage to defeat the bad guys not through the awesome, world-changing power they have, but through the power of kindness or sharing or some other communist BS.
  • There was always that morning when you overslept and you missed an episode of your favorite show and all your friends would call you later to tell you that it was the single greatest episode in the history of visual media. 
  • And your one sketchy friend would insist that it was the episode where Smurfette had her dress fall off and you missed it but he totally saw it happen.
  • After the first season: introduce kids! Or kid-versions of whatever creature you're watching.
  • Don't like writing logical scripts? It's magic!
  • If there's a modestly successful live-action prime time television show that has even a small children's demographic, expect a cartoon of it, and expect it to suck. Along with the addition of some sort of magical creature that makes no sense. I mean, the Dukes of Hazzard and Laverne and Shirley? Come on!
  • There's always going to be a Scrappy, whether you like it or not. He or she will come as different names and different forms, but it will happen. Just prepare yourself ahead of time.
  • When in doubt, start a band. If the resolution of the plot isn't forthcoming, play a song with your band and all will be OK.
  • Everyone is always solving a mystery all the time.
The decline of the cartoon is for many different reasons. The main one is simply that there's a lot more competition out there: at first it was post-school afternoon blocks of high-quality cartoons that garnered greater viewership. Then it was the rise of cable and all-cartoon networks like Nickelodeon. (Well, mostly cartoon, at least at first.) Then Disney and other animation studios started cranking out high-quality feature films after decades of producing modestly-performing garbage. All of these trends started to make Saturday Morning cartoons look like amateur hour, with their cliched plots and subpar writing. Live-action shows also started and were modestly successful (and, of course, cheaper.)

Of course, one can't point to the demise of a cultural institution without pointing a crooked, accusing finger at the government. After voters parents complained, politicians got involved. No more could Saturday Morning Cartoons show commercials to sell kids stuff--so things like cereals, tie-in merchandising, and fast food commercials either were reduced or outright banned, choking off a huge portion of revenue for the expensive-to-produce cartoons. The true death knell, though, was the requirement of the stations that they show a certain amount of E/I programming--that is, educational or informational shows. It quickly became apparent that the best way to fulfill this requirement was to burn them off on Saturday mornings; the increasingly less-profitable cartoons could be chucked in favor of cheap documentaries.

There are other reasons, too--the changing conglomerate nature of the stations meant that they would rather produce in-house shows with their already-existing properties instead of buying them from independent animation houses is a big one--but I suppose that in today's world it can't be too unexpected.

but really, we're really just clinging to a specific time and specific product that was never going to be replicated in the first place. There are more cartoons being shown and made today than ever; who cares when they are airing? And we'll never have another Scooby-Doo or Muppet Babies because those things could only come during the era they were made in--but we'll have new stuff that's just as good.

Still, it's a shame that such a long history of vibrant, creative product is going to be replaced by the likes of a talking head news show and the farm report. Brainy Smurf, I believe, would agree.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: Prisoner's Base to Before Midnight

This is the fifth installment of the Nero Wolfe Project, as I review each of the books in the series as they were published.

In this post, we're going to look at Prisoner's Base, The Golden Spiders, Three Men Out, The Black Mountain, and Before Midnight.

Prisoner's Base: When a young woman offers Archie money to stay at the brownstone for a week, but refuses to give a name or reason, he shows her to a room but advises it's contingent on Wolfe's approval. In the meantime, someone else comes to hire Wolfe to find someone--and that someone is the person they have upstairs. Wolfe, disinclined to take either job out of principal, offers the woman the room for the same amount of the fee he'd lose to the other person; she declines, whereupon Wolfe advises he will take the other job and gives her a half-day's head start. When she ends up dead before the job can be taken, Wolfe dismisses the case since he can no longer earn a fee by either party. Archie, however, feels guiltily responsible, and takes up the case pro bono--which ends up meaning that he is Wolfe's client. As such starts a mystery involving control of a large company, mysterious secret weddings, and old rivalries.

Prisoner's Base is refreshingly complex--not too terribly complex, of course, but a nice change after the much more simplistic short stories. Again, going into the plot will give away too much, but it's a nice, detailed trip through some uncharted territory.

The Golden Spiders: When a child walks into Wolfe's office to report an incident--where a woman wearing earrings shaped like golden spiders told him to get a cop--he instead goes to Wolfe, whom he trusts more than the police. The next day, the kid winds up dead. He had sent his meager allowance to Wolfe to solve his murder, and to not be a jerk about it Archie takes out an ad, using the funds without committing to it. Thus starts a complicated mystery that ends up with two more dead bodies, the discovery of a horrifying blackmailing scheme, and a violent confrontation with all of Wolfe's regular detecting staff.

This story was the first one to be adapted in the A&E version of this show, and for good reason: it's got a lot of action, a lot of vibrant and decent clues, and it showcases nearly all of the regulars in prominent roles: Fritz, Orrie, Saul, Fred, Cramer, Stebbins, and Rowcliffe all get turns; even Lily Rowan gets a mention (although sadly doesn't appear). Only poor Theodore is missing, as usual. While I wouldn't call this the best novel, it's certainly a good way to introduce someone to the series.

Three Men Out includes three stories: Invitation to Murder, The Zero Clue, and This Won't Kill You.

In Invitation to Murder, Archie is hired by a wayward heir to find out if any of the household help has the eye of the rich invalid. The client wants to get in good graces before the rich man's impending death. Of course, the client soon ends up dead, and Archie tricks Wolfe into showing up to solve the murder. A mediocre story.

The Zero Clue is one of the few Nero Wolfe mysteries with an actual riddle--as in, pencils-arranged-in-a-pattern-on-the-dying-man's-desk riddle. A rival detective, whose shtick involves using statistics to solve problems, is found dead. After locating the cryptic clue, it's up to Wolfe to find out which of the statistician's clients killed him. The introduction of the riddle, while it ends up being a little ineffectual, makes this story stand out, and for the better.

In This Won't Kill You--a title, I'd like to add, that is insufficient for the story--involves a World Series game where several players are drugged (and thus unwittingly threw the game) and the star player killed. The highlight of this story is Wolfe actually going to a baseball game, and Stout milks it for all it's worth (to good effect). The mystery itself is pretty standard, but the writing and situation make it a good story.

The Black Mountain is a very unique Nero Wolfe novel. It's not actually a mystery at all, but more like an action thriller. When a few old friends of Wolfe's are murdered (I'll leave out who), Wolfe is sufficiently enraged enough to travel to Montenegro to solve the murder. Wolfe is still Wolfe, but the story ribbons out into Wolfe's personal history, a beautiful description of the area, a lot of flavorful international intrigue (Yugoslavia, at the time, was a battlefield between the communist Tito, the Soviet Union who opposed Tito, and the freedom fighters) and the usual eccentricities of Wolfe transplanted to his homeland make one of the best novels yet. In addition, the role reversal--because Archie doesn't know the language, Wolfe has to report to him instead of the other way around--shifts the dynamic enough to be interesting. While the resolution isn't particularly impressive, it also doesn't matter--the flow and content of the novel is more than able to stand on its own.

Before Midnight details the decidedly non-murderous task of identifying an element in a national million-dollar advertising contest. The contest--where riddles about historical figures are posted, and the contestants slowly winnow down until there are only about five left--is written, with great secrecy, by one individual, who keeps the answers in a safe deposit box. When the finalists are invited to New York, the writer (presumably jokingly) reveals that he has the answers with him--a clear violation of the spirit of the rules. When he turns up dead (and the papers missing), the advertising firm hires Wolfe to find out what happened to the papers.

It's an interesting story, mostly because even though the job is for the contest, not the murder, they clearly intersect--and Cramer and Wolfe have plenty of amicable discussions about it, since their interests cross but aren't the same. It's certainly a differently paced book, and adds enough variation to the formula to be different. It's also uncharacteristic in that Wolfe admits defeat almost entirely throughout the book, even to the point of simply lying down after an eventful meeting and just about giving up. So far, this is probably the closest we've seen Wolfe as admitting defeat, and it's simultaneously humanizing and sad.

This book also has the return of Bill gore, for all of about two lines, his first appearance in...probably 15 books or so. Johnny Keems gets a mention, too, but he never actually shows up.

At this point, the only criticism I have is the relationship between Cramer and Wolfe. For a while it seemed like both men had a decent relationship--Wolfe conceding that the police are better than him in 9 out of 10 cases, and Cramer understanding that Wolfe needs a lot of leeway to solve the murder. And yet at this point every single novel has Cramer and Wolfe butting heads. If this was done for comedic effect, or to grow the characters, I wouldn't mind so much, but it mostly involved them being unreasonable and both forgetting the history of their relationship every time. You see glimmers of recognition--in Before Midnight, when Wolfe is specifically not solving a murder, both men agree to help each other with only some minor friction later in the book--and yet one feels that it will all be forgotten soon. It's a small criticism, but it can get a little old.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Independence Day, Scottish Style

So Scotland officially has said no to independence. It's not really a surprise, given the polling, but it's still a little fascinating how the process worked out.

Back when I had the time and resources for such a luxury, I used to subscribe to The Economist, a well-regarded current affairs publication that is based out of the UK. (It's also painfully expensive, even for print media.) It's nice to get a refreshing perspective from professionals who aren't based within the US, and yet aren't so globally blind as to become its unwavering critic. Anyway, while it offered plenty of US news, by default it focused a lot into European and especially UK/Commonwealth news, and the battle for Scottish Independence has been going on for a while.

Personally, I don't have any skin in the game, so the vote result itself didn't matter too much to be. From a broad historical perspective, I generally think regions should stick together. There's power in being part of a larger coalition, and a confederation (much like the Unites States and the European Union, or, more abstractly and inaccurately, the Commonwealth Nations in general) seems to be the best of both worlds. The big-picture stuff, like defense and treaties and broad economic policies, are handled on the federal level, while the details, such as tax policies, local issues, government structures and the like are handled closer to the ground. Obviously it's not as clear-cut as that (the North Sea Oil issue for the Scots is a testament to that) and there's a lot of stuff that gets warped in the process, but it seems as if the mood of the world is slowly swinigng this way.

Of course, who knows how that will change? The advent of technology and direct democracy becomes closer to reality. The case against direct voting on issues has been the logistical nightmare it posed, and that particular burden is effectively gone. You could literally wake up each day and vote on a few issues before your coffee. That may not necessarily be the best idea, for a variety of reasons, but the big objection of feasibility is closer to being eliminated. This may spark a philosophical discussion about the nature of democracy, but will probably boil down to petty arguments over broadband access.

That said--outside of the theoretical ramblings of anarcho-capitalists--it's still not very feasible if the world slowly breaks down into a series of microstates. Even today, there's probably a few dozen, even a hundred, different regions who wouldn't mind exploring a breakaway. While some may make sense, even more would find themselves doomed to mediocrity (and--to be a realist--a tempting target for conquerors) and the lure of self-governance may not be as strong as, say, the gains from collective defense.

Still, the fact that we've progressed to the point where breakaway nations are handling this through voting and not through violence is certainly a good sign, and the fact that a lot of the major questions (namely, Quebec and Scotland) have ended in defeat without much by way of repercussions is promising. Still, the poli sci major in me wants to play around with the world like a multicolor chess game. Perhaps that's a bit imperialistic for me, but I am alarmingly OK with that.

The Grandmaster

About a week or so ago, something amazing apparently happened in St. Louis, where the 2014 Sinquefield Cup was held. This is, of course, one of the title matches for chess.

Chess has always been a little weird to me. On one hand, it's an ancient game whose rules are reasonably simple but the board and situations open up multitudes of possibilities. On the other hand...well, it's been used from everything from a barometer of nerd martyrdom to an awkward Cold War proxy.

Oddly, for someone who is a board game hobbyist like myself, I was never really all that good at chess. Well, basically I had a plateau: I was a decent enough player up to a point. After that, though, it was either intellectual limitations or simply boredom where I really just couldn't master anything. Thinking two or even three moves ahead makes sense, but to somehow get seven or eight ahead just seems like a waste of time. And memorizing different openings and moves wasn't something I really enjoyed, so studying it like a science just seemed like a chore.

I've always found it weird that chess somehow got tagged as an "intellectual" game. I suppose it makes sense, since you have to conceptualize a lot of abstract movements in your head. But it always seemed like that kid in class who memorized all the facts in the book but couldn't order lunch without jacking it all up; on paper, he (or she) was smart, but actually applying that skill to anything in the real world revealed exactly how much of a disaster that person was. And just like similar games (like Scrabble), a lot of it is less about situational awareness and more memorizing stuff.

OK, maybe that's a little harsh. Every game plays out differently, and I'll admit that watching two skilled players play against each other is fascinating. (Well, watching edited footage of two players. I ain't watching that live because I am a normal human being.)

Add to that the very, very weird modern history of the sport--Bobby Fischer turned into a reclusive  batshit crazy anti-Semite; the current head of FIDE (arguably the most powerful international chess organization, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, insists that he was taken on a joyride with aliens that unlocked the mysteries of chess to him (or something like that, and, no, I'm not making that up); the rise of computer chess players and how that's a thing; and all the weird Cold War shenanigans that basically everyone went through for a few decades. It's just strange that we've taken this honored ancient game and turned it into some odd weirdness sink. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Netflix Series Review: BoJack Horseman

Netflix recently released yet another original series, a cartoon called BoJack Horseman.

Netflix has done a pretty good job of producing original content. I'm not sure if the business model works out--I don't know if having new exclusive shows like this is gaining or retaining many new subscribers after a certain point--but as consumers we certainly can't complain. While I haven't watched all of their material, I've watched most of it, and with the exception of Hemlock Grove they've all been high quality.

Anyway, BoJack Horseman is a series about a washed-up former sitcom star (who also happens to be a horse) and how he handles that life. BoJack was the lead in Horsin' Around, a clear parody of Full House, and has gotten immensely rich from it. (Unlike other stories of former celebrities, he appears to be managing his money well; we see him spend lots of it wastefully with little consequence.) The driving force behind the 12-episode arc is BoJack's memoirs--in order to get him back into the spotlight, he agrees to have a ghostwriter work with him to talk about his past. It's a clever framing device that not only lets us legitimately delve into his past, but also to contrast it with his current life.

And his current life is a mess. The main cast, besides Bojack, involves his roommate Todd, a complete burnout who just sort of hangs around; Princess Caroline, a cat who acts as his agent and occasional girlfriend; Mr. Peanutbutter, a golden retriever who, as another former sitcom star, is a friendly rival to BoJack; and finally Diane, BoJack's ghostwriter. There's also plenty of recurring characters as well, including Sarah Lynn, the now-grown-up co-star of Horsin' Around, and poor Pinky Penguin, the contact at the brink-of-failing book publisher.

I suppose I should point out, if it hasn't been obvious yet, that the world of BoJack Horseman is...well, different. Half of the characters are human, while half of them are anthropomorphic animals of some sort (retaining some sort of human elements). As you can see in the picture above, BoJack is clearly a horse, although he had hands and feet like a human. The same goes for a lot of other characters, both main, secondary, and background.

While the show is clearly a comedy, it deals with some startlingly heavy topics, such as depression. Everyone's life in the rich and fabulous world of Hollywoo is empty and angry.* While this certainly isn't a new insight into the world of celebrities, it does manage to handle it uniquely and with a surprising amount of sensitivity. This isn't Simpsons or Family Guy, full of non-sequiturs and cutaway gags, and there's little by way of shock humor. It plays out probably more like King of the Hill, where dialogue and character development are emphasized more than having a gag a minute. It also has a lot of the "callback" structure of other shows (notably Arrested Development)--there's rarely a reference that doesn't get brought back, to good effect, in a later episode.

The premise seems, well, different enough, but does it hold it together? For the most part, it does, but it's not perfect.

First off, let's look at what is good about it.

*The show manages to balance the writing, the subject matter, and the voice talent pretty well. It's refreshing that the show isn't just about getting away with as much profanity as possible and it's just a series of absurd quick cuts to a bunch of unrelated topics. While obviously it's a show about talking animals, it sometimes feels more real than, say, Family Guy or South Park. That's a little weird, and to its credit.
*While the whole "anthropomorphic animal" gimmick would seem like it would get old or be used as a crutch, the writers manage to get a lot of mileage out of it. Some of them are just throwaway visual gags (a beaver cutting wood like a circular saw with his teeth; Princess Caroline using a scratching post as part of her "workout"); some are a lot more subtle and clever. It takes an episode or two to realize that Mr. Peanutbutter isn't just a nice guy, he's kind of dim, likes everybody, and has a low attention span...just like a golden retriever.** When someone is about to get arrested by the cops, one of the cops is an electric eel--and you suddenly realize that someone's about to get tased. Neal McBeal is a seal, and it turns out he's in the armed forces as a (wait for it)--Navy SEAL. These all seem obvious, but when you watch (especially the background and secondary characters) you realize how much thought was put into each one.
*Some of the writing is just damn clever. A lot of it is well-crafted dialogue, but some of it is just some old-fashioned sketch humor that manages to pull it off. The scene with Dr. Hu and the confusion while shooting the movie (BoJack plays Mr. Peanutbutter and Wallace Shawn plays BoJack and...well, just watch it) are highlights. And even though it's just a stupid joke, I loved it any time Vincent Adultman showed up.
*A point should be made about the voice casting: it's fantastic. You already have Will Arnett as BoJack, who manages to convey the lonely despair with a heaping dose of feigned (and quite real) arrogance. But you also have Aaron Paul (from Breaking Bad) basically playing the same sort of character in Todd; Princess Caroline is voiced by the great Amy Sedaris (Strangers With Candy and various rabbit-related things); Alison Brie (Community and Mad Men) is cast as Diane; and Paul F. Tomkins (every cartoon ever) does Mr. Peanutbutter. Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, J.K. Simmons, and Kristen Shaal also have fairly large parts, and there's also a few cameos from celebrities.

So far we're good. But there are some negative parts to it:

*The show can seem uneven at times. Even though above I said it was balanced, there's quite a few episodes where it's not. For example, the character of Charlotte (a romantic what-if scenario with BoJack) seems interesting, but it doesn't really go anywhere, and it's not particularly dramatic and the laughs come to a screeching halt when she shows up. Other times, the writing simply goes from amusing and whimsical to show-stoppingly awkward, and not in a good way.
*Some of the plot points don't seem to go anywhere, even though it seems clear that they should. Mr. Peanutbutter and Todd's creative adventures together seem like it's going to build up to something, but it really never gets resolved by the end of the series. The character of Wayne looked like it was going to cause some sexual tension with Diane, but it kind of just fizzled out into nothing.
*Speaking of, the character of Diane just seems to be...flat. And it's strange, because the writers go out of their way several times to delve into her background and her personal issues, but it's not written well enough for anyone to care. Her role seemed to matter so little that her biggest impact was creating tension between Bojack and Mr. Peanutbutter. Even when (spoiler alert, I suppose) BoJack looks to her for validation towards the end of the series, one has to wonder why any of us, or even BoJack, would care what she thought?

So, in the end, is BoJack Horseman worth it? I say yes. It can take a little while to get into the swing of things. But the animal-as-human concept was executed surprisingly well, and for an animated series it's very refreshing. However, it does get heavy-handed at times, and I know a lot of people watch a few episodes and just can't get into it, which I can understand. Still, I think it's worth giving it a shot, and at twelve half-hour episodes there isn't much to lose.

*No, that's not a typo.
**And Dave Coulier.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: Three Doors to Death to Triple Jeopardy

This is the fourth installment of the Nero Wolfe Project, reviewing each of the books as they were published.

Let's take a look at Three Doors to Death, In The Best Families, Curtains For Three, Murder By The Book, and Triple Jeopardy.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, we're slowly moving into the time frame where Rex Stout is writing more short stories than novels; in this case, Three Doors to Death, Curtains For Three, and Triple Jeopardy are all compilations. (The "three" theme will continue for the remainder of the series, for better or worse.)

Three Doors To Death includes Man Alive, Omit Flowers, and Door To Death.

In Man Alive, A wealthy fashion designer suspects that her uncle--long assumed to have committed suicide--is still alive, and so she hires Wolfe to prove it if possible. When the uncle turns up dead, Wolfe gains a client. A decent mystery with a little bit too much repetition.

Omit Flowers involves Wolfe's old friend, Marko Vukcic, in clearing his chef of charges as a favor. Again, a solid mystery although ultimately forgettable; aside from the unusual setup (no fee involved), I had to look it up to get the plot.

In Door To Death, Theodore has to leave to stay with an ill relative, and in the meantime Wolfe is on the hunt for a replacement. Of course, the moment he shows up to get the new gardener, the gardener is accused of murdering his fiance, and Wolfe has to solve the case to get his replacement. As opposed to the other two mysteries in this collection, this one is fun and memorable, if for no other reason than it's enjoyable to have Wolfe occasionally out of his element.

This collection is notable in three respects. The foreword notes that Wolfe took no fee for two of the three, and Archie goes through pains to note how unusual this is. (Of course, Wolfe was doing a favor for Vukcic in one, getting some good meals in the process, and in the other he's getting a gardener, so it's not like he's altruistic all the way.) Two: In each of these cases, Wolfe at some point pulls the same tactic: he falsifies evidence to draw the murderer out. It's an effective and often enjoyable mechanic, but one feels that if it's done too often (especially in the short stories, since it's a quick and easy way to reach a resolution) it might get stale. And, finally, even though this book was published in 1950, the stories actually predate The Second Confession, so if you are reading these in order (as I am) you actually want to read these stories first. (It doesn't really matter, although some references in The Second Confession don't make much sense otherwise.)

In The Best Families: The third (and final) book of the Zeck Trilogy, this novel starts out normally enough: a mother wants Wolfe to investigate the source of income from her daughter's husband, who has no job yet still lives lavishly. The source, of course, is soon discovered--Zeck sends a warning to Wolfe to back off the investigation. Wolfe, of course, refuses, sending Archie to the estate to do some investigating. Upon his return, Wolfe is gone--he's relieved Fritz and Theodore of their duties, and gives explicit instructions not to be found. After waiting a while, Archie sets up shop on his own, until events resolve themselves.

By far one of the more interesting stories--this is one of the few novels that delves into the personal lives of Archie and Wolfe, and the "formula" is knocked on its head halfway through the book. Equal parts sad and amazing--Archie, Fritz, and Theodore standing outside the brownstone lamenting the turn of events reads very clinically and yet one can tell is emotionally draining on all of them. I would have preferred this book happened later in the series, if for no other reason than to have the impact a little more, but the novel as a standalone is fairly amazing. While there are nitpicks about the resolution (I won't go into it) overall it's one of the top books so far.

Curtains For Three has The Gun With Wings, Bullet For One, and Disguise For Murder.

In The Gun With Wings, a complicated suicide-turned-murder of an opera singer merits investigation by Wolfe. The victim, who had been punched maliciously in the throat by a rival singer, also managed to irritate a whole host of suspects. An interesting double-reverse whammy of a plot--the gun keeps "moving" due to the motives of various suspects.

In Bullet For One, an industrialist is shot while on horseback, and yet all the suspects have solid alibis. A decent, if overly simple, mystery.

In Disguise For Murder, Wolfe hosts a flower show...only to have one of the garden club members killed in Wolfe's own office. The victim, who had confessed to being a confidence woman but swore to go straight, advised that she had seen a previous "client" at the show and he had recognized her, but before Archie could get the details she was killed. Wolfe's office was thus sealed as a crime scene--in what Wolfe could only surmise was a deliberate act of malice against him by the police department, and solving the murder would be the best way to not only get his office back but also embarrass the cops.

All are good mysteries; The Gun With Wings has an interesting premise, although it sort of peters out at the end; Bullet For One is actually pretty entertaining even if the mystery is incredibly simple; and Digsuise for Murder has a lackluster mystery but is absolutely hilarious.

Murder By The Book: It seems like everyone who has come in contact with a specific book--Put Not Your Trust--meets an untimely end. It's up to Wolfe to link the murders together and find out why the manuscript is so deadly.

OK, that's a short description, but it's actually a very good novel--it's just easy to give too much away. (The whole notion that it's the manuscript connecting a bunch of seemingly random murders takes up the first half of the book.) The highlight of this novel is Archie's entertaining of a roomful of women, including getting them drunk enough to start spilling secrets.

Triple Jeopardy includes Home To Roost, Cop-Killer, and The Squirt And The Monkey. It also has what has to be the single ugliest cover of any book ever.

In Home To Roost, a man claiming to be an FBI informant in the Communist Party is poisoned at a dinner, and all those present there are suspects. Neither the FBI or the local cops are opening up as to whether he was a commie or an FBI agent, and it's up to Wolfe to crack that first.

In Cop-Killer, Archie admits two foreigners--one of which works at his barber shop--to help them evade deportation. He hides them in the brownstone while he investigates (and against Wolfe's initial objections). Unbeknownst to him, a murder--of a cop, no less!--has happened at the stop. Turns out the cop was investigating a murder, not deportation, but now that the foreigners have fled they are the prime suspect. Knowing that they are innocent but unable to tell the cops without revealing how he knows, both Wolfe and Archie hole up at the barbershop to solve the crime.

In The Squirt And The Monkey, Archie is unwittingly framed by a famous cartoonist for murder--well, someone framed him, anyway. This is a monkey mystery, but thankfully the monkey plays only a bit part. (Oh, spoiler alert: the monkey didn't do it.)

None of these short stories are memorable. They certainly aren't bad and have their share of amusement, but none of them are particularly well-crafted.

One thing that has become abundently clear at this point is Archie's status as a ladies' man.At this point, every mystery involves Wolfe stating to Archie, in effect, that since Archie is so good with women he should use his (um) abilities to persuade them to part with information. The aforementioned meal in Murder By The Book is a prime example: Archie literally woos about a half dozen women to the office with orchids, has Fritz feed them and get them drunk, and then takes them each out dancing, one at a time over the next few weeks, until enough information is dropped. It's fantastically funny, but it can get a little tedious, as if Archie's sexiness is enough to melt half the population into confession.