Hollywood Mystery/Detective Movies

Having recently watched Netflix’s excellent adaptation of Lee Child’s The Killing Floor, I’m thankful that we have Netflix (Jack Reacher) and Amazon (Harry Bosch) along with Showtime and HBO to carry the mystery mantel now that Hollywood has essentially abandoned it in favor of endless comic book super heroes.

Where once we had The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, In The Heat Of The Night, Devil In A Blue Dress, and LA Confidential, we’re now left with never ending green screen stunts and super power films mostly devoid of suspense. As Janet Maslin of the New York Times once concluded about LA Confidential: “Curtis Hanson’s resplendently wicked movie is a tough, gorgeous, vastly entertaining throwback to the Hollywood that did things right.”

As in the examples above, mysteries are stories that revolve around a main character(s), often a detective, on a quest to solve a crime. A mystery/detective story reveals the identity of the antagonist at the climax of the story. And while there are thriller elements in a good mystery, in most thrillers the reader is aware of the antagonist and things unknown to the protagonist.

I’ll admit it’s difficult to satisfyingly adapt a lengthy mystery novel within the constraints of a 90-120 minute feature film. A Netflix, Amazon, Showtime, or HBO series allows for more character development while keeping the essence of the mystery novel in tack. But as the above films demonstrate, a terrific movie adaptation certainly can be done––and done well.

So what are some of the few mystery/detective novels of the past decade that have been adapted by Hollywood? Shutter Island (2010) comes to mind as well as Gone Girl (2014), though there were enough plot holes in the book and movie to drive a truck through. Kenneth Branagh has brought us Murder On The Orient Express (2017) and Death On The Nile (2022), though both films have been done before and done better.

Fortunately, we’ve also had some great foreign mystery films, though Stieg Larson’s trilogy beginning with The Girl With The Dragon tattoo and the original Argentinian and far superior The Secret In Their Eyes were released in 2009.

Unfortunately, a Hollywood adaptation of a mystery novel is a thin and ever shrinking number. Here’s to Amazon, Netflix, and the cable channels for giving audiences the opportunity to see some of their favorite mystery/detective novels on the screen.

Groveland Four Exonerated

A judge on Monday officially exonerated four young African American men of the false accusation that they raped a white woman seventy years ago. Administrative Judge Heidi Davis dismissed the indictments of Ernest Thomas and Samuel Shepherd, who were fatally shot by law enforcement, and set aside the convictions and sentences of Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin. The men known as the Groveland Four, who ranged from 16 to 26 at the time, were accused of raping a woman in the central Florida town of Groveland in 1949.

It all began on July 16, 1949, when a 17-year-old white woman and her estranged husband told the police that after their car broke down in Lake County, Fla., the four men had stopped to provide help, then took the woman from the car and raped her.

A posse shot Ernest Thomas more than 400 times after he fled Lake County. A local sheriff, Willis McCall, fatally shot Shepherd and wounded Irvin in 1951 as he drove them to a second trial after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their original convictions. Irvin and Shepherd, both World War II veterans, were handcuffed together at the time. McCall claimed they had tried to escape while he was transporting them from Raiford State Prison back to the county seat of Tavares for the new trial. Shepherd died on the spot; Irvin, who pretended to be dead, survived and later told FBI investigators that McCall had shot them in cold blood and that his deputy, James Yates, had also shot him in an attempt to kill him.

Charles Greenlee, who was 16 when he was charged, was the only one to survive past 1969.

Thurgood Marshall Sr., then with the NAACP, represented Irvin during his second trial, but an all-white jury again convicted him and he was sentenced to death. Governor Leroy Collins later commuted Irvin’s sentence to life with parole. Greenlee, also sentenced to life, was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012 at the age of 78. Irvin died in 1969, one year after he was paroled.

An investigator interviewed the grandson of Jesse Hunter, the now-deceased prosecutor of two of the Groveland Four defendants. According to the grandson, Broward Hunter, his grandfather and a judge in the case, knew there was no rape. James Yates, the deputy who served as a primary witness, likely fabricated evidence, including shoe casts.

Jack Ryan

Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine have all played Jack Ryan on the big screen. Now, Amazon’s Prime Video offers its take with an action-filled eight-part series starring John Krasinski as the CIA analyst hero.

The big-budget production values are first-rate as are the compelling performances by Krasinski, The Wire’s Wendell Pierce as Chief James Greer, Ali Suliman as the terrorist, Mousa Bin Suleiman, and Dina Shihabi as his wife, Hanin.

Season 1 of the series (reportedly, there will be a season 2) is another example of how Amazon and Neflix are producing some of the best series on the small screen.

I highly recommend you check it out. Amazon Prime members can watch for free.

Here’s a peek at the trailer:



Mindhunter, a terrific new Netflix series, is the story of the formation of the FBI’s Behavioral Profiling Unit. The story is adapted by Joe Penhall and based on a book of the same name by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas. Douglas and his partner, Robert Ressler, pioneered the research that led to the psychological profile of the criminal we now classify as a “serial killer.” The new approach to solving crime was unheard of in the 1970s.

The acting in the series is wonderfully creepy, especially Cameron Britton, a soft-spoken giant of a man who plays real-life serial killer Ed Kemper. David Fincher, who directed the excellent films Se7en, Zodiac, and the American version of the The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, brings a cinematic quality to the series that’s missing in network television dramas and cop shows.

Narcos: Season 3

All ten episodes of Narcos: Season 3 will be available on Netflix beginning September 1, 2017. The first two seasons dealt with the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar and Colombia’s Medellin cartel. This season tells the story of the Cali cartel led by the brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, and their partners, Pacho Herrera, and Jose Santancruz Londoño.

Chilean-born Pedro Pascal returns as real-life DEA agent Javier Peña, although Peña actually left Colombia in 1994 after Escobar’s death. Pascal is a wonderful actor, but I wish one of the fine actors in Colombia would’ve been cast in the role.

By the mid-90s the Cali cartel controlled over 90% of the world’s cocaine market. The DEA considered the multi-billion dollar organization, “The most powerful crime syndicate in history.”

For those of you who like gritty, real-life drama, I suggest you tune-in.

Top Ten Crime Stories of 2015

Top Ten Crime Stories of 2015

robert-lewis-dearDeciding which stories to include on my Crime Stories of the Year list was difficult. But the following stories would probably make nearly everyone’s list. The stories are in no particular order.

1. Laquan McDonald is shot sixteen times by a Chicago police officer. When the dashboard video becomes public over a year after the fact, the police chief is fired and officer Jason Van Dyke is charged with 1st degree murder.

2. Bill Cosby, “America’s Dad,” is charged with a 2004 sexual assault. Over 50 women come forward claiming Cosby drugged and raped them.

3. The Baltimore PD arrest Freddie Gray for possessing what they allege is an illegal switchblade. While being transported in a police van, Gray falls into a coma and is taken to a trauma center where he dies. His death is attributed to injuries to his spinal cord and is ruled a homicide. Criminal charges are brought against six Baltimore police officers. The first trial for William Porter, one of the indicted officers, ends in a hung jury.

4. David Sweat and Richard Matt escape from a correctional facility in New York by digging a hole in the wall of their cell and escaping through a pipe just like Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in the Shawshank Redemption. They are on the run for nearly three weeks before Matt is shot and killed. Sweat is captured two days later.

5. Christopher Harper-Mercer, a 26-year-old enrolled at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon, fatally shoots an assistant professor and eight students in a classroom. Nine others are injured. Roseburg police detectives responding to the incident engage Harper-Mercer in a shootout. After being wounded, he commits suicide by shooting himself in the head.

6. Dylann Roof murders nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof later confesses that he committed the murders in hopes of igniting a race war.

7. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik murder fourteen people and seriously injure twenty-one others in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California before they are shot and killed.

8. Robert Lewis Dear enters a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado and starts firing, murdering three people before surrendering.

9. Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez opens fire on two military centers killing four Marines and a Navy sailor before he is killed.

10. Jared Fogle, the Subway Guy, agrees to plead guilty in federal court to possessing child pornography and traveling to pay for sex with minors. He is sentenced to serve fifteen years and eight months in federal prison with a minimum of thirteen years.

DNA Identifies Remains of Murdered Jane Doe

michelle-yvette-busha-michelle-busha-missing-found-dead-death-cold-case-bay-city-texas-solvedblue-earth-minnesota1-665x385The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension announced yesterday that a woman who was murdered 35 years ago in Blue Earth has finally been identified.

Michelle Yvette Busha of Bay City, Texas, was 18 years old when she was murdered in Minnesota and had been missing ever since.

On May 30, 1980, Busha’s nude and decomposing body was discovered badly beaten in a ravine off Interstate 90, east of Blue Earth, MN, in Faribault County. A cord was wrapped around her neck, indicating that she died of strangulation. Busha was reported missing in Texas on May 9.

Nine years later Robert Leroy Nelson, a former Minnesota State Patrol trooper, confessed to her murder. Authorities say Busha was hitchhiking when Nelson picked her up. Nelson was given a life sentence in Texas for Busha’s murder and for other charges stemming from child molestation.

On Aug. 12, 2014, as part of the BCA’s effort to ID unidentified human remains, “Jane Doe’s” body was exhumed. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children created a new sketch based on a new scull scan and x-rays from the original autopsy. BCA forensic scientists obtained a complete mitochondrial DNA profile and a partial nuclear DNA profile, which led to Busha’s identity.

Credit must also be given to her parents who submitted a DNA sample to the FBI’s National Missing Person DNA database years ago. The program was initiated in 2000 to assist in the identification of missing persons and unidentified remains. Without that sample, a match could not have been made.

The message is clear. Parents who have missing children should submit a DNA sample to the FBI’s national database.

Trail of a Serial Killer

UnknownFBI agents finally arrested Robert Durst last Saturday at a New Orleans hotel for the murder of Susan Berman, which occurred 15 years ago.

Better late than never.

Thanks to the HBO documentary about Durst’s links to three killings, the victims’ families will finally achieve some justice from a system that has utterly failed to do its job.

In 1982, Robert Durst claimed that his wife, Kathleen, had suddenly disappeared from their cottage in South Salem, New York. No one was ever charged and her body has never been found.

In 2000, Susan Berman, Durst’s spokeswoman, was killed at her home near Beverly Hills with a bullet to the back of her head just before New York investigators prepared to question her in the disappearance of Durst’s wife.

After Berman’s death, Durst moved to Texas, where he lived as a mute woman in a boarding house until his arrest in 2001 after dismembered parts of the body of his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, were found floating in Galveston Bay. Durst claimed he shot Black in self-defense. Despite admitting that he dismembered Black’s body before dumping the remains, Durst was, unbelievably, acquitted of murder.

But the injustice that allowed a sociopath like Robert Durst to remain free for all these years while he continued to murder is not solely the fault of the justice system.

Durst is the oldest son of the late real estate mogul Seymour Durst whose Durst Corporation manages the World Trade Center and is reportedly worth $4 billion. Robert became estranged from his family when his brother Douglas was chosen instead of him to run the family business.

Despite Douglas’ fears that Robert would kill him, and the restraining orders family members took out against Robert, the Durst family spent thousands on high-priced lawyers that allowed Robert to beat the murder charge against him and to remain free.

People can argue all they want about the right to an adequate defense, but while the family’s money and power protected them, their defense of this sociopath ultimately led to the unnecessary deaths of others. For that they should be ashamed.

Best Crime Movies of 2014

Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as a crazed L.A. crime journalist cements his reputation as one of the best actors working today.

Gone Girl
Based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, the movie is faithful to the book, including the ending that has enough plot holes to drive a semi through.

Kill The Messenger
Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb, Jeremy Renner is superb as a reporter who becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign that drives him to the point of suicide after he exposes the CIA’s role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into California.

In another movie based on a true event, Steve Carell plays against type as disturbed, eccentric, multi-millionaire John du Pont, whose relationship with Olympic Gold Medal winning wrestler Mark Schultz leads to tragic consequences.

The Drop
Based on a screenplay from crime novelist Dennis Lehane, the story follows a bartender through a covert scheme of funneling cash to local gangsters – “money drops” in the underworld of Brooklyn bars. Featuring James Gandolfini in his last role before his sudden death.

The Equalizer
Any movie starring Denzel Washington is worth seeing. Washington stars a man with a mysterious past who helps a young girl under the control of Russian gangsters.

Liam Neeson plays a federal air marshal on a flight from New York to London, who gets a text telling him that unless 150 million dollars is transferred to an offshore account, someone will die every 20 minutes.

John Wick
Keanu Reeves plays an ex-hitman who comes out of retirement to track down the gangsters that took everything from him in this action, revenge thriller.

A Walk Among The Tombstones
Based on the character created by Lawrence Block, Liam Neeson is Matt Scudder, a former cop now a private eye, who is asked by a drug dealer to find the men who kidnapped his wife in this noir mystery thriller.

A Most Wanted Man
In one of his last films, the late Philip Seymore Hoffman gives a wonderful performance in this twisted tale of espionage set in Hamburg, Germany.

la-na-texas-execution-mentally-ill-20141202-001Last Wednesday a federal appeals court stayed the execution of Scott Panetti, 56, a Texas man whose attorneys and supporters have argued is too mentally ill to legally be put to death. Panetti’s attorneys had also appealed to the state district court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, requesting that they stay or delay his execution so his competency could be assessed, however, both appeals were denied. Their appeal for clemency to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles was also denied.

Prior to the stay, Panetti’s execution was scheduled for this Wednesday.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia 36 years ago, Panetti’s was convicted of murdering his wife’s parents at their Texas home in 1992, shooting them with a deer-hunting rifle in front of his wife and their 3-year-old daughter.

His attorneys claim that he still hears voices and suffers from the delusions that prevent him from understanding why he is being executed, which would violate the 8th Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Prosecutors argue that medical records fail to support the claim that Panetti’s mental health had deteriorated. Prosecutors maintain that his bizarre behavior is deliberate. Court-appointed state medical experts have repeatedly questioned the validity of his symptoms.

In 2002, the US Supreme Court banned the execution of the mentally disabled. In 2007, the court reviewed Panetti’s case and found that inmates must be required to not only know that they are being punished, but to have a “rational understanding” of why.

Despite the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling on the mentally disabled, Texas executed Marvin Wilson in 2012. Wilson’s IQ had been measured at 61. He was the 484th person executed in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. Texas Governor Rick Perry has presided over more executions than any other governor in American history.

Whether you’re a death penalty supporter or not, the Supreme Court clearly drew a line in the sand regarding the execution of mentally handicapped individuals. So the key question here is not just whether Scott Panetti has been faking his schizophrenia for nearly four decades––but whether Governor Perry and the state of Texas are subject to rulings established by the Supreme Court.