Celia Wren

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

By this author

Documentary Revisits the Jayson Blair Scandal

A curious shift occurs towards the end of the new documentary “A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times,” premiering on PBS on Monday, May 5. Up to this point in Samantha Grant’s thorough, thoughtful look back at the notorious newspaper scandal, Blair has come across largely as a troubled sufferer—a victim of mental illness who made a series of egregiously terrible judgment calls while coping with intense workplace pressure.

The Victorian Detective Goes to Church

There is something profound in the literary trope of the odd couple. It may be the cliché that has launched innumerable forgettable buddy comedies and cop dramas, but the notion that two drastically dissimilar people—Holmes and Watson; Harold and Maude; Oscar Madison and Felix Unger—can value each other, and even function as a unit, implies an inspiring faith in human affection, loyalty and understanding.

That underlying resonance just adds to the appeal of Will Thomas’s marvelous mystery novels, which center on an oddball pair of Victorian sleuths—or, as they prefer to be called, “enquiry agents”—named Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn. Intensely colorful and atmospheric, filled with remarkably vivid (and sometimes eccentric) characters, and distinguished above all by a vision of a very cosmopolitan, ethnically diverse Victorian London, the series will receive a long-awaited new installment with the upcoming publication of “Fatal Enquiry,” scheduled for May (Minotaur Books).

The series kicked off a decade ago with the publication of “Some Danger Involved,” a high-stakes whodunit that introduced Barker, a former sea captain whose expertise includes encyclopedic knowledge of the Orient, as well as of London, and an intimidating command of weaponry and the martial arts. When he hires the endearing young Oxford University dropout Llewelyn as an assistant, the two make an improbable team. Barker is a tough, hard-headed, multilingual world-traveler whose demeanor tends toward terse intensity; Llewelyn—the narrator of the books—is an amiable, callow, novel-reading romantic who has survived a tragic past with a smart-alecky sense of humor.

Forensic Toxicology and the Inner-Circle Thrill

If, like me, you are counting down the hours to Masterpiece Mystery!’s “Sherlock” Season 3 (launching later this month), you may appreciate the whodunit quotient in “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” a very interesting documentary airing tonight, Jan. 7, 8:00-10:00 pm ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the American Experience series.

Family as Revelation; Theater as Prayer

Could a theatrical performance be a kind of prayer?

Family Guy

Great Expectations
The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens

Robert Gottlieb

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 246 pp.

The Great Charles Dickens Scandal
Michael Slater

Yale University Press, $30, 215 pp.


Minding His Manners

Have good manners ever earned such scorn and tribulation? That question might run through your mind as you watch Parade’s End, the gripping, poignant, and gorgeously filmed miniseries debuting on HBO February 26, 27, and 28. Based on a tetralogy of novels by Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End chronicles the ordeals of a stubbornly honorable young British aristocrat, Christopher Tietjens, in the Edwardian age’s waning years.

Before FEMA

The language of the Bible haunts the latest documentary by Ken Burns. There are descriptions of “plagues” that sound like the book of Exodus. At one point, a camera zooms in on an old newspaper bearing a citation from Ezekiel. At another, a solemn voice-over, reading from the work of a long-ago journalist, alludes to Hosea 8:7—“They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”

Mystical Parables Hit the D.C. Stage

No-holds-barred mysticism rarely finds its way to the contemporary American stage. But this fall, the Folger Theatre, in Washington, D.C., is musing on humanitys thirst for the divine. Through Nov.

Off the Map

When you open City of Bohane, you’re opening not just a novel, but a Fodor’s guide to a metropolis—an eerie, vibrant, murderous domain with its own grittily mythic lore and customs and its own apocalyptic Celtic slang. The Irish novelist Kevin Barry provides a story, too, of course—a saga of gang warfare and ruthless hoodlums vying for power and love—and he infuses it with a memorable jazzy lyricism. But it’s the alluringly seamy geography you’ll remember.

Beguilement from Another Era

A ventriloquist with a Mick Jagger dummy. A rope-lariat artist who hailsfrom the Bronx. A comedian who has been seen on Saturday Night Live.These are some of the artists you may encounter at Travesties of 2012, running July 19-28 as part of the 2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Mounted by the American Vaudeville Theatre, Travesties of 2012 will also showcase a contortionist, a mentalist, a chanteuse, and at least one high-profile clown during its run at New York City's 45th Street Theatre (354 W.