Murder at St. Anne's Well-Plotted but....



By J. R. Ellis

Thomas &  Mercer, 283 pages





Murder at St. Anne’s is Book Seven of J(ohn) R. Ellis’ “A Yorkshire Murder” series. It takes place in Knaresborough (a real place) and involves the slaying of a Church of England minister in line to become the next bishop of Kendal. That’s bad enough but the victim is a woman, the Rev. Clare Wilcox, and her head was brutally smashed by the pulpit of her parish church. No discernible weapon is in evidence that could inflict such a crushing blow, nor could any human possibly wield such an object.


Making sense of this is the job of Detective Chief Inspector Jim Oldroyd, whose sister the Rev. Alison Oldroyd was Clare’s friend, former mentor, and the last person to whom Clare spoke before she was killed. Wilcox left behind her husband Jeremy, a doctor, and their two daughters away at university, Jenny and Fiona. It’s all the more baffling given that just about everyone thought Clare was a wonderful person and a fine pastor—even those so old-fashioned that they disapproved of female clerics.


It’s no wonder that many at St. Anne’s entertain the idea that the murderer was a ghost. It seems that many parishioners since the 15th century claim to have seen a monk appear and disappear, he presumably one accused of being a Lollard heretic who was hurled from a cliff into the River Nidd gorge. Before his fatal chucking, the monk uttered a curse that would endure until the church (Roman Catholic back then) acknowledged its crime in executing him. Several gruesome murders subsequently took place, though none since the 19th century. Try telling that to parishioners who’ve sworn they’ve heard strange noises inside the church and have seen fleeting glimpses of a cowled figure.


Ellis fashions his murder mystery in the style of M. R. James (1862-1936), one of Britain’s exemplars of Gothic ghost tales, and each new chapter is prefaced with a short excerpt from James' Barchester stories. Oldroyd is a rationalist who takes his queues from his psychologist partner Deborah. His subordinates Detective Sergeants Andy Carter and DS Stephane Johnson also adhere to logic, though Andy’s more squeamish about ghostly matters, as he admits when he and Oldroyd are forced to spend the night in the old stone church when Biblical snowstorms stall their investigations.


Like many U.K. churches, St. Anne’s has an ageing congregation—also an eccentric one. There is no shortage of persons of interest. Clare’s husband automatically goes to the top of the list–they are the ones most often guilty of a wife’s demise–but Jeremy appears to have been shattered by the news. Church warden Donald Avison freely admits he didn’t think women should administer sacraments, but professes he liked Clare. That’s true also of Maisie Baxter, another person who doesn't cotton to female ministers. Avison advises Oldroyd to look into the shabby hobo and heavy drinker seen hanging around the burial ground; if not he, perhaps organist Harvey Ferguson whom Avison is sure is a “disgusting pervert” (gay). Baxter fingers parish treasurer Olive Bryson, who misappropriated funds and had to answer to Rev. Wilcox. There is also busybody Violet Saunders, who cleans the church and can't possibly be as clueless as she seems, and Oldroyd isn’t too keen on other church officials such as the local bishop, the archdean, or Robyn Eastby, the assistant minister who seems overly eager to help out. Two problems: everyone has an alibi and none of them could have inflicted that much physical damage to the victim. Plus, the drunken hobo, Donald Tanner, isn’t such a bad bloke after all.


Even before the body and assault count rises, Oldroyd pays a visit to local historian and secondhand bookseller Austin Eliot to find out more about the ghost and the church. Before the dust settles a lot of things come into play: a cabinet, a bit of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” progressive politics, infidelities, the very modern dark web, and not-new-at-all misogyny and homophobia.


 I would call Murder at St. Anne’s as a well-plotted but stylistically inelegant novel. Ellis wisely kept the book short, as the murder motive seems pretty obvious to everyone except the investigators and readers would soon weary of the strip tease. The novel has thrilling moments and strong characters, but Ellis frames everything in ways that are often as old-fashioned as some of St. Anne’s parishioners. But if you were ask me if I’d like to visit Knaresborough if I get back to Yorkshire, my answer is you bet your chains and belfries I would.


Rob Weir     




The Eyes of Tammy Faye: Look Away!




Directed by Michael Showalter

Searchlight/Disney Pictures, 126 minutes, PG-13 (sexual innuendos, greed)




What is the difference between The Joker and Tammy Faye Bakker? The Joker was honest about his intentions and had better makeup.


I can assure you my cheap joke is better than The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which should not be confused with a revealing 2000 documentary of the same name. Abe Sylvia used the latter to fashion a screenplay for this 2021 turkey, but he burnt the bird.  


In the 1980s, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were the most famous televangelists in the country. Out of curiosity, I tuned in a few times and couldn’t believe anyone would send money to such obvious charlatans. Their empire ultimately crumbled under the weight of scandal, debt, and lawsuits though incredulously, Jim Bakker has gotten a post-prison second act. The Eyes of Tammy Faye traces the rise, pinnacle, and fall of the Bible-thumping power couple.


One of the many problems of the film is grounded in trying to do too much. We see young Tammy (Chandler Head) seeking conversion, but being barred from entering the church because her mother, the pianist, is barely tolerated herself because she divorced her husband, a no-no among evangelicals in International Falls, Minnesota. But when a defiant Tammy enters on her own, falls to the floor, and begins speaking in tongues, she is proclaimed a miracle. From that point on, we are fed a steady diet of how Tammy loves people of all sorts and wants to bring them to Jesus–again not a popular thing among those hueing to the narrow path. And, a straight one; preachers admonished flocks to avoid homosexuals.  


We jump to 1960, when Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) and Tammy Faye LaValley ((Jessica Chastain) are in Bible college. They married the next year but even Rachel (Cherry Jones) pegged Jim as a huckster in pursuit of mammon, not souls. Should have listened to mama, Tammy. After small-time hustling, Jim ingratiated himself into the evangelical power circle of Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), and Jimmy Lee Swaggart (Jay Huguley), an unholy a trinity. After some time as a Hee-Haw-like “act” on Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network–Tammy sang and did a puppet show–the two launched the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club on their own in 1976. At their height (mid-1980s), the Bakkers claimed to reach an audience of 20 million.


The movie casts Tammy as sincere and Jim as a materialistic conman. He was/is, but it’s hard to swallow the notion that Tammy was so naïve or so far under a Svengali spell as to deserve our pity. We do see her have a brief (fully-clothed) fling with record producer Gary Paxton (Mark Wystrach), though the film omits the fact that contractor/real estate developer Roe Messner–who bankrolled and built the Bakkers’ hokey Heritage USA theme park–ended up marrying Tammy Faye when she divorced Jim in 1992. By then, Jim was in prison, for bankruptcy fraud and the news was filled with stories of an affair Jessica Hahn–who claimed he raped her­–and rumors of gay flings—which he denies to this day–with his PTL assistant the Rev. Richard Fletcher (Louis Cancelmi) and a PTL director. Bakker was originally sentenced to 45 years in jail, but it was reduced to eight and he served less than five. (Guess who his parole lawyer was? None other than follow-the-money Alan Dershowitz!) The movie correctly shows how Falwell and Robertson double-crossed Bakker as a way to gain control of PTL. (I know; who could imagine such nice men doing such a thing?) Does it surprise you to learn that Huckster Jim was recently sued in Missouri for peddling fake Covid cures?


The film shows Tammy living in a down-market neighborhood, where she was the butt of jokes because of her red wigs and clown-like eyes. Not exactly! She married Messner but when he also went to jail for fraud, Falwell exiled Tammy Faye to Palm Springs–not exactly a ghetto–to keep her quiet. She died of cancer in 2007, by which time she was considered a champion of LGBT rights.


What in the name of all that is holy was Chastain thinking? She plays Tammy Faye as if she was Minnie Mouse. Memo: When life hands you a parody, don’t tamper with it! The wounded-daughter-seeks-mama’s-approval subplot is positively insipid.  Garfield the Cat could have done a better Jim Bakker than Andrew Garfield, who comes off as a dopier and greedier version of Mr. Rogers. His performance invites adjectives such as incompetent, maladroit, and amateurish.


I’ve written more words than this gobbler deserves. If I see a worse film than this in 2022, I will write down and eat Psalm 38:18: “I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.”


Rob Weir





January 2022 Music Roundup: Dwight and Nicole, Aigua, Elgin, and…


Dwight + Nicole



Dwight Richter and Nicole Nelson
have been nominated for fistfuls of music awards in Boston and throughout New England. Deservedly so. Theirs is a delightful throwback to the age of straight-ahead soul, blues, and R & B of the sort that can actually be played on stage and doesn’t resort to gimmicky attempts at rapping. They have recently dropped a new EP, Further, that pays homage to musical inspirations such as the Staples Singers, Roberta Flack, and Etta James but without being derivative of them. Nelson, who also plays bass and violin, isn’t merely a talented vocalist; she knows how to sing, if you catch my distinction. The reason this is noteworthy is that she’s a natural soprano within genres that have traditionally favored mezzos and altos, so she resorts to her full bag of skills to roam on the range. Richter is also an adept singer, though his Flying-V Gibson is the first thing you’ll notice. They’ve added Erza Oklan, a steady drummer, to the mix and everything is oh-so-fine. Check out “The Next Go Round,” which croons, swoons, and busts out its lo-fi wrapper to soar. Richter takes the mic for the title track and gives it a quasi-Aaron Neville treatment. "Wait" is another muscular treat–and it has a message. Keep your eyes peeled for these folks.   ★★★★





First let’s get this straight. There are two groups called Aigua, one of which is a jazz ensemble. This review is of the folk duo of Lies Hendrix and Joan Pieiró Aznar, he from Belgium (and now living in Sweden) and she from the Valencia region of Spain. Not that nationality matters very much, as most of the vocals are in Spanish from the Belgian-born Hendrix who plays a lot flamenco-style guitar, while Aznar accompanies on melodeon, a diatonic button accordion invented in Germany. Does it work? It sure does; listen to the album’s first single “Décime de la mare terra” and hear it for yourself. Is it a multicultural world or what? Aigua is Catalan for water and that’s a good metaphor for music that flows, cleanses, and takes us on journeys and lets us dance a bit as we go. You might feel like traipsing along the water’s edge to “Bruidsmazurka,” or breaking out the castanets for “Fandango D’Aiora.” Perhaps you’d rather queue up the Nonino and feel a bit melancholic. It’s based on a tango that Astor Piazzolla dedicated to his father, whose nickname was “grandfather, the meaning of noninó. It’s an apt way of thinking of the entire project, which has echoes of Piazzolla and the manouche jazz of Django Reinhardt throughout. ★★★★



Weightless Still


The Irish band Elgin used to be called The Young Folk and there comes a time when that’s the kind of handle you want to lose. It’s really a duo of Anthony Furey and Paul Butler, with a programmer usually sitting in as well. I have mixed feelings about the latter. Weightless Still is what you might get if you blended Clannad, The Low Anthem, and an electronics-heavy indie band. Furey and Butler have soothing voices and when you see them in performance, those voices make for a pleasing effect. You can witness this to good effect on “Cherry Picked,” the first single released from Weightless Still. There is a nice balance between the voices, acoustic guitar, keyboards, and a small dose of computer-generated backing. Matters shift a bit when we hear studio recordings and the electronic portions get bigger. Watch the video of “"Stone’s Throw,” which could be summed as a girl, a swirl, and a whorl. Perhaps there’s a bit too much of the last of these, as the light voices are easily subsumed when too much is going on. Another in this vein is “Sloe,” which uses programmed drum loops. The album is actually terrific as background music, as it’s melody-heavy and unobtrusive. The question is whether this is the vibe they aimed to create. ★★★  






Ro Myra

Nowhere Nebraska


Ro Myra makes no bones about needing to break away from her rural Nebraska roots and sew her own wild oats. She has met a lot of the right people to help her along her musical path, but she might wish to consider really busting out. Although she’s now in Nashville, Nowhere Nebraska feels too subdued and introspective for a town that’s crawling with hungry talent. I watched the video of “She's Not the Road” one of her singles, and immediately thought “folk circuit.” Another song is titled “More Than Just Okay,” but her repertoire needs to establish more distance from that low-bar standard. There’s promise here, but my Spidey-Sense tells me that her songs, arrangements, and presence need to marinate. ★★



Errin Peet Lukes
is from California but she too is now in Nashville. Her EP titled EPL shows that Lukes has a nice voice, but it’s not a clear one and you’ll need a lyrics sheet to unravel them. I wouldn’t bother; there’s not much poetry to them. Her music is informed by a bit of bluegrass, her youthful devotion to Britney Spears, and a lot of indie pop and rock. The melodies are strong, as one would expect from Nashville sessions musicians. Frankly, though, they threaten to overwhelm her. Lukes may have a bright future, but EPL doesn’t establish a unique identity. Try “Catalyst” or “Country Music Breaks My Heart.” If they don’t grab you, she won’t. ★★


apparently has a following in London where she’s a composer, producer, and singer. Her LP Under Cover is, at the title suggests, ten covers of everything from The Beatles (“Yesterday,” “Eleanor Rigby”) and Simon and Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Water’) to Cole Porter (“Night and Day”) and a Christmas song (“Silent Night”). There’s a reason why great performers parsimoniously parcel out covers. After all, you didn’t come to a show to hear someone else. Esbe’s covers are piano-based and so deliberate that somnambulant would not be too strong a word to describe her approach. It doesn’t matter how many candelabra you put on the piano or how many strings you fold in, unless you’re breathing new life into old tunes, you’re a cover band and I can hear really good ones in bars near me. Zero stars.