TV mysteries


MURDER IN BATZ. FIT Productions, France, 16 October 2015 (Season 9, episode 2). Original title: Les blessures de l’île. Stéphane Freiss, Flore Bonaventura, François Marthouret, Sophie Le Tellier, Marie-José Nat. Director: Edwin Baily. Currently streaming on the MHz channel (as Season 1, Episode 2).

   It is difficult to obtain solid information about this made-for-French-TV movie. It is that, but it is also an episode of a long-running series with the overall title Murder in… . Each episode has a different pair of police detectives handling the case, almost always (if not always) the pair consisting two members of the opposite sex. (Some couples are on occasion repeated.) Each episode takes place in a picturesque location in France, differing from story to story with the local background generally playing a significant part of the story.

   Take this particular episode. Batz is a small island off the coast of Brittany, France, and when a murder takes place there and the weather is bad, the island is cut off from the mainland until the storm passes by. Taking the trip over before the rain begins is Inspector (?) Grégor Gourvennec, accompanied by a crime scene cleaner named Manon Le Gall. Dead is a real estate woman found in an old abandoned house facing the sea.

   As it turns out, both investigators have issues of their own to deal with. Grégor grew up on the island, but this is his first trip to there in twenty years, even though his mother and his former fiancée still live there.

   As for Manon, she is a medical student who cleans crime scenes to help pay her tuition bills, and once on the scene of the crime, she starts seeing ghosts, primarily that of a very young girl. Even more surprisingly, she also finds a grave with her own name and date of birth on it. Apparently she died there on the island when she was six.

   Naturally this adds a degree of complications not present in most mysteries, causing your typical viewer expecting a straightforward detective story (me) a certain amount of consternation. But believe it or not, the writers knew what they were doing, and by the end of the movie, all is explained to that fully confounded viewer’s complete satisfaction.

   All except for the visions of ghosts that Manon has, but that’s part of the charm of the entirely Gallic tale. One could only wish that the story didn’t have to take place entirely under overcast skies. Batz must look entirely different in the sunshine!

   

DEATH IN PARADISE “The Early Bird.” BBC, 18 February 2014 (Season 3, Episode 6). Kris Marshall, Sara Martins, Danny John-Jules, Gary Carr. Directed by Robert Quinn.

   An organized group of bird watchers is on the island of Sainte Marie looking for a rare green parrot known to exist there and nowhere else. You might not realize that birdwatching is a competitive sport, but it is so in this story. When one of the group is seen getting up early and heading off into the jungle to be first to spot the elusive bird, the others hurriedly get dressed and follow off together in his wake. To their surprise, they find the man dead, with a knife in his back.

   The problem facing the small but highly efficient police force on Sainte Marie is that the area is a restricted region to protect the birds, and all of the people within the sanctuary were in sight of each other between the time the victim was seen and when his body was found. Who could have done it, and more importantly, how?

   I’m usually not very good at puzzles such as this, but I’m going to pat myself soundly on the back by saying that the “how” was easy. I didn’t figure out “who,” but looking back, all of the clues were there. Not all of the episodes of Death in Paradise are “impossible crimes,” but they are all puzzle stories, and they’re awfully good in making sure all of the clues are there for the viewer to see. All you have to do is pay attention!

   What also makes the series so much fun to watch is all of the good-natured camaraderie displayed on the part of the series regulars. Such is the case here.

BOSCH. “Chapter One: Tis the Season” Amazon Prime Video, 06 February 2014 (Series One, Episode One). Titus Welliver (Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch), Titus Welliver, Jamie Hector, Amy Aquino, Annie Wersching, Mimi Rogers. Based on the novels City of Bones, Echo Park, and The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly (also co-screenwriter). Director: Jim McKay.

   As this first episode opens, Harry Bosch, working for the LAPD Homicide division, fatally shoots a fleeing suspect as he reaches for and takes something from his pocket. Although cleared by the department, he still must face civil proceedings in court. Wishing to stay busy at the same time, he finds himself working on a case involving the death of small boy whose battered bones are found by a dog in a heavily wooded area.

   I’m way behind. This is the only episode I’ve watched so far. I don’t know if a serial killer is at work, but it definitely clear that during his short life the boy was badly abused. It is also already clear that Bosch is taking it personally.

   As the actor playing Bosch, Titus Welliver has taken the role and made it his own. I wouldn’t have cast him in the part, but he does it very well. To me he’s a little too craggy and time-worn and subtly too arrogant for my liking. It will be interesting to see when I next read the next book in the series, whether I picture Welliver in the role. (I’ve read only four or five of them.) Either way, I will continue both reading and watching.
   

A QUIET LITTLE NEIGHBORHOOD, A PERFECT LITTLE MURDER. NBC, Made-for-TV, 1990. Teri Garr, Robert Urich, Susan Ruttan, Florence Stanley, Tom Poston, Jeffrey Tambor, Gail Edwards. Director: Anson Williams.

   I agree, it’s a corny title, and if you don’t, it’s still a mouthful, and did you see who the director is? Anson Williams will never live down his role as Potsie on Happy Days. To tell you the truth, though – and you were waiting for me to say this, weren’t you? – I enjoyed this movie.

   There have been quite a few mystery novels published in the last couple of years that have taken place in the suburbs, with bored housewives and/ or widows or widowers (or combinations thereof) doing the jobs solving mysteries they can’t convince the conventional authorities to do that they should be doing.

   And once a trend begins, can TV be far behind? When a newly married couple – committed activists both – move from the big city, inevitably but inexorably, they find themselves settling in and – while they both deny it – becoming (!) yuppies. Not to mention being parents of a three month old daughter. What brings a rekindled degree of excitement to the life of the wife is a conversation she overhears on the baby’s kiddie-com – a clown with a large red lightbulb for a nose. The clown is also a radio transmitted, sending baby cries to the parents’ room, or wherever the second clown is located.

   And the conversation concerns a murder about to be committed. Marsha, the wife (Teri Garr) somehow overhears it, but she cannot convince her husband Ross (Robert Urich) or the police detective (Alex Rocco) that she is not simply going bananas. Urich, who used to play Spenser, is also very good at pretending to be thickheaded, which is just exactly what his part requires.

   Otherwise, this has about the right amount of mystery and suspense, mixed with more than enough comedy, and a little bit of detection as well. I think the bit about Marsha selling housewares door-to-door to aid in her sleuthing activities has been swiped from somewhere else, however, and I don’t really see Tom Poston (one of the two main suspects) as a killer, not that I’m saying he was, in case this movie is ever rerun again, as it surely will be. (He’s described here by one of the other characters, as a “Mr. Potato Head,” and that’s as apt a description of the man and the parts he played as I’ve ever heard.)

– Mildly revised from Mystery*File 26, December 1990.

Reviewed by David Vineyard:
Two Annoying TV Detectives at Work

   

THE CASE OF THE THE DANGEROUS ROBIN.  “Zippered Notebook.” Syndicated, Ziv Productions. 20 December 1960 (Season 1, Episode 10).  Rick Jason, (Robin Scott), Jean Blake. Guest Cast: Susan Cummings, Walter Klemperer. Directed by James Goldstone.

THE CHEVY MYSTERY SHOW. “Enough Rope.”  NBC, 31 July 1960 (Season 1, Episode 10).  Host: Walter Slezak. Cast: Richard Carlson, Joan O’Brian, Bert Freed. Teleplay:  William Link and Richard Levinson. Director: Don Richardson.

   Following the success of Richard Diamond and Peter Gunn a number of cool detectives tried their wares on the small screen, a few interesting like Johnny Staccato and most missing the boat all around like The Case of the Dangerous Robin (that title is moronic).

   The dangerous Robin is international insurance investigator Robin Scott (Rick Jason), a slick buttoned-down sleuth with a regular girl friend (unlike Lola Albright she can’t sing and the byplay is about as sexy as spending Saturday night home with your family).

   Seems Robin’s girl plans to cook him a nice meal, but he has been called out of town, to Belgium, where scientific notebooks his company insures have been stolen from a scientist working for Werner Klemperer and trying to evade his bosses man-eating wife.

   We get a few stock shots of Antwerp, but the footage Jason is in is strictly Southern California architecture and fauna. They do throw a few foreign cars in though and a couple of accents and a phony name on a hotel front.

   Jason, who did his best work as a regular on Combat, is flat here, delivering his lines in what I am sure everyone thought was Craig Stevens Peter Gunn style cool, but which seems almost zombie like even when Robin is being shot at. (I was rooting for the assassin by this point.)

   You know you are in trouble when you wish it was Ray Danton starring instead.

   Nice score by David Rose, but that and the titles are the only highlights.

   It looks, sounds, and feels like amateur night at the dinner theater.

   Robin’s technique is unique though. He just accuses everyone and annoys them until someone confesses. Which will bring us shortly to our next annoying sleuth.

   “Enough Rope” appeared on The Chevy Mystery Show, hosted by Walter Slezak, and appears to have been done live on film, meaning it is pretty set bound and there is little sign of second takes, but it doesn’t quite have the same cachet as real live television. It’s done in color too, which also takes away from the effect.

   You will quickly recognize “Enough Rope” as “Prescription Murder,” the pilot film for Columbo with Gene Barry a psychologist who commits the perfect murder, only to find it investigated by Peter Falk’s Lt. Columbo, the greatest annoying sleuth of all time.

   Here Richard Carlson is Dr. Ryan Fleming who murders his wife with the help of his secretary mistress (Joan O’Brian mostly semi comatose) and Columbo is veteran character actor Bert Freed. Freed was always good, and often played frustrated cops (The Gazebo), but smart as his take on Columbo proves he is just another cop despite delivering some of the exact same dialogue that will shine in the hands of Peter Falk.

   “Enough Rope” wasn’t brand new even then. It was originally written as a vehicle for Bing Crosby (likely inspired by his laid back private detective in Top O’ the Morning), but played on stage by Thomas Mitchell. I’m not even sure this was its first outing on television as it showed up later as a black and white episode of another anthology with Lou Jacobi as Columbo.

   It’s hard to keep a good plot down, but until the magic of Peter Falk it pretty much managed to fail in every medium it appeared in.

   For now these are available on YouTube if you want to see them. I can’t really say much for the Jason entry other than it is only twenty five minutes long and quickly over.

   “Rope”, despite the flaws of the format, is fairly good. Carlson was a capable actor, and like Gene Barry able to be sympathetic, arrogant, and evil all in the same take. Freed is pretty much himself as he was in most roles, but like good character actors that is what you want from them.

   Once in a while in the episode, the plot crammed into fifty minutes, you get a little glimpse of Columbo, though you can’t help but see and hear Falk while watching, missing the cadences and quirks of his performance that made the character into what it became.

   Unlike other Columbo episodes how he traps the killer in this one might even hold up in court if the defense wasn’t very good.

   There is no real tie to these two save they are old television programs and I watched them the same day and thought it unusual both featured such annoying detective characters, both of whose success was blatantly based as much on their ability to annoy suspects as detect crime.

   And to think Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Thorndyke wasted all that time on science and detection when they could just have accused everyone until someone breaks and tries to kill them.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

MANNIX. “The Many Deaths of Saint Christopher.” CBS, 07 October 1967 (Season One, Episode 4.) Mike Connors (Joe Mannix), Joseph Campanella. Guest stars: Linda Marsh, John Marley, David Hurst, Neil Diamond. Created by Richard Levinson and William Link. Developed by Bruce Geller. Screenplay: Barry Oringer. Director: John Meredyth Lucas.

   In its first season, Mannix seemed to have something of an identity crisis. Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) was presented as a tough guy detective who had very little use for the computer systems that his employer, Intertect, relied on to solve crimes. Many seem to credit the show’s lasting success to its ditching the man vs. computer concept and allowing Mannix to have his own firm – and Black secretary (a rarity those days) – beginning in season two.

   To me, there remains something very stilted about the first few episodes of the first season. It’s not exactly easy to pinpoint what doesn’t work. Perhaps it’s the pacing which often seems quite arbitrary. Either things happen very slowly or so quickly that plot lines are seemingly reshaped in a matter of minutes.

   Such is the case for “The Many Deaths of St. Christopher,” the show’s fourth episode. There’s a quite confusing sequence before the initial credits. Then the episode begins with Mannix’s boss Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella), telling him about a new case. Three German businessmen are looking for a former work colleague who has allegedly absconded with a trade secret and is threatening blackmail.

   They want to hire Mannix to find the man in question and suggest using the man’s daughter as bait. Here’s where things get confusing. Why don’t the men just do the job themselves? They seem capable and well financed. Well, that’s never really explained.

   Soon it is revealed, however, that the men are Serbian nationals on a vengeance mission against a Nazi war criminal responsible for the man who massacred civilians in their village. But are the men even being honest about that? That’s where things get a little topsy turvy and Mannix must figure things out.

   All told, it’s not a particularly convincing bit of storytelling. One would think Joe Mannix of all people would be savvier than he ends up being in much of this episode.

   Final point. Although this first season episode of Mannix is nominally about Nazi war crimes in Serbia during World War II and the long shadow of the Second World War, what ends up being far more memorable is the appearance of a youthful Neil Diamond as a nightclub singer. It’s a nice little slice of 1960s LA that nonetheless seems oddly out of place in an episode nominally concerning heavy subject matter.
   

MURDER 101. Made for cable-TV: USA Network, 20 March 1991. Pierce Brosnan, Dey Young, Antoni Corone, Raphael Sbarge, Kim Thomson, Mark L. Taylor. Director: Bill Condon.

   This played on the USA network last week, and if you’re a fan of mysteries about mysteries and mystery writers, I hope you didn’t miss it. Pierce Brosnan is a college professor who is a mystery writer in his spare time. More than that, he has struck it rich (relatively speaking) by writing a true-crime book which has helped put a clever killer behind bars.

   Unfortunately he has also struck out in his married life — a combination of success going to his head, plus a clandestine affair begun with one of his students. Upon his return to academia, he finds his wife in a close entanglement with his new department chairman, a nasty surprise within a surprise, it you see what I mean.

   There’s more. One of the courses he’s teaching is in how to write a thriller, and the first assignment is a paper on “how to commit the perfect murder.” One of his students (female, and on the prowl herself) takes this a bit too seriously, and … well, I’m not going to tell you everything. Suffice it to say, there are lots of suspects and even a few motives, some pretty good twists, and an ending which is a knockout, even if two or three steps beyond the realm of reality, but it worked for me.

   There is even a final twist beyond that, a clever little conceit that I’ll probably remember, even after I’ve forgotten the rest of the movie.

   I never watched Pierce Brosnan in that other TV show he was in, but other than the fact that he constantly needed a shave and a haircut in this movie, he did a fine job. Everyone else, besides the students, who looked too old, looked too young, As a matter of fact, I think everyone in this movie was younger than I am. Is this going to continue to be a trend of some kind?

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.

   

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins

   

   With very little to occupy my time during the pandemic I started to ask myself a less than burning question: What was the worst TV detective series of your childhood? Well, after a few seconds of thought I concluded that there were three that tie for bottom rung of the ladder.

***

All three date from the same period, the very early 1950s when my parents and millions of other Americans were buying their first sets, so I’ll ignore strict chronology and begin with the one whose roots go back farthest in time. CRAIG KENNEDY, CRIMINOLOGIST was based on the scientific supersleuth character created early in the 20th century by Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936).

   There were several Kennedy movies, the last being a cheapjack 15-chapter cliffhanger serial, THE CLUTCHING HAND (Stage & Screen, 1936), which starred Jack Mulhall and Rex Lease as Kennedy and his newsman sidekick Walter Jameson. Fifteen years after that picture and after Reeve’s death, its producer, Louis Weiss (1890-1963), decided to dip his toes into the waters of TV with an equally cheapjack Kennedy series, starring Donald Woods as the scientific guru and Lewis Wilson, the screen’s first Batman, as Jameson

   The first 13 episodes were apparently shot in late 1950 and ‘51, most if not all of them scripted in whole or with a collaborator by B movie veteran Ande Lamb and directed by Harry Fraser (1889-1974), a bottom-of-the-barrel hack if ever there was one. The entire baker’s dozen featured overlapping casts including such long-forgotten thespians as Bob Curtis, Tom Hubbard, William Justine and Stanley Waxman, supplemented by some actors familiar to watchers of Forties B movies and Fifties TV—Ted Adams, Lane Bradford, Stephen Chase, Milburn Morante, Glenn Strange—plus a few who made their mark in TV later, like Phyllis Coates (the small screen’s first Lois Lane) and Jack Kruschen.

   Featured in several casts was none other than Jack Mulhall (1887-1979), who had played Kennedy in that 1936 serial but at several years over sixty was obviously too old for the part in the TV series. In what was apparently the pilot episode, “The Golden Dagger” (1950), the star of the next in our triad of terrible series, Ralph Byrd, played a character known as —remember that name, B western fans?—Rocky Lane. Most if not all of the second set of 13 episodes were directed by the producer’s son Adrian Weiss (1918-2001) and also scripted by Ande Lamb.

   In England at least nine so-called movies, each consisting of two series episodes, were released theatrically by Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors Ltd. “It is to be hoped,” said the British Film Institute’s monthly bulletin, commenting on a member of the ennead, “that even the least discriminating film-goer has the intuition to avoid seeing films as remarkably badly made as this one.” Those masochistic enough to want to sample the series for themselves may check out a few clips and at least one complete episode, “The Case of Fleming Lewis” (1951), on YouTube.

***

DICK TRACY, the second of our terrible trio, also goes back a long way, specifically to the comic-strip cop created in 1931 by Chester Gould. Ralph Byrd (1909-1952) was best known in Hollywood for having portrayed the square-jawed sleuth in four classic Republic serials (1937-41) and two RKO features dating from 1947.

   Three years later, when the TV series was launched, he was the obvious choice for the part. The role of his comic-strip sidekick Sam Catchem went to Runyonesque character actor Joe Devlin. Several other characters from the strip—Tess Trueheart, Junior, Diet Smith, B.O. Plenty, Gravel Gertie—appeared off and on in various episodes.

   Accurate information about the TV Tracy is hard to come by. A number of websites and even Garyn G. Roberts’ DICK TRACY AND AMERICAN CULTURE: MORALITY AND MYTHOLOGY, TEXT AND CONTEXT (McFarland, 2003) claim that the series consisted of 26 episodes whereas in fact there were 39. The first episodes were broadcast on the ABC network in the fall of 1950 but the series soon switched to a syndicated basis. My best guess is that it began with 26 segments, several of them in two installments, one in four, one in five.

   Most of them were scripted by original series producer P.K. Palmer and directed by either of two men, one a nonentity, the other a Hollywood household name. Willard H. Sheldon (1906-1998) was a career assistant director who aside from his TRACY episodes helmed almost nothing else.

   His major contribution, if that’s the word, was “Dick Tracy and the Brain,” a 5-part story in which Tracy pursues an underworld genius (Lyle Talbot) whose real name, true to Chester Gould’s nomenclatural principles, is B.R. Ayne. On the other hand, B. Reeves Eason (1886-1956) had directed some of the most spectacular action footage in film history: the chariot race in the silent BEN-HUR (1926), the climactic CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936), the Burning of Atlanta sequence in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). Even with the rock-bottom budgets and laughable working conditions on TRACY, we might have hoped for more from him. Hard cheese.

   The four-part “Dick Tracy and the Mole,” pitting Byrd against grizzled old B Western sidekick Raymond Hatton in the part of a master criminal who can’t stand light and roosts underground, is next to unwatchable. The two-parter ”Dick Tracy and Flattop,” in which Byrd’s adversary is a hit man hired to kill him by crime kingpin Namgib (another name in the Chester Gould tradition), is no improvement.

   If nothing else, Eason’s TRACY episodes, apparently the only TV work he was ever credited with, confirms the wisdom of Sherlock Holmes’s famous dictum “I can’t make bricks without clay.”

   Later segments including most if not all of the final 13 tended to be complete in 30 minutes. The scripts, written by established pulp crime writers like Robert Leslie Bellem, Dwight Babcock and Todhunter Ballard, included some character names squarely in the Gould tradition, like the murderer Phil Graves in “The Case of the Dangerous Dollars.”

   The directors of these episodes tended to have roots in B Westerns, foremost among them Thomas Carr (1907-1997), who helmed three two-parters and at least five singletons. I got to know Tommy and tape extensively with him when he was in his eighties but I either didn’t know or had forgotten how heavily he’d been involved with TRACY in the dawn years of TV and didn’t ask him to reminisce about the series. (That sound you just heard was a swift kick in the rear, administered to me by me.)

   Watching Tommy’s surviving episodes, I sense him struggling to inject a minim of visual quality under impossible circumstances. “Shaky’s Secret Treasure” is unique in that, thanks to the meticulous records kept by actor Dabbs Greer, who played Shaky, we know precisely when Tommy filmed it: on January 22 and 23, 1952, which means it was one of the final 13 segments. Greer’s salary, in case anyone’s interested, was $75 a day.

   The series ran regularly on various local stations at least through the mid-Fifties, and a number of episodes—the 4-part “Mole,” the 2-part “B.B. Eyes” and at least four stand-alone segments—can be seen on YouTube. Ralph Byrd didn’t last anywhere near that long. While on vacation soon after TRACY wrapped, he died of a heart attack, on 18 August 1952, at age 43. Like Basil Rathbone with Holmes and Bogart with Sam Spade, he’s remembered long after his death for the character he incarnated.

***

   Dating from the same time frame as KENNEDY and TRACY was FRONT PAGE DETECTIVE, a 39-episode series produced by small-screen pioneer Jerry Fairbanks (1904-1995), first broadcast on the short-lived Dumont network in 1951 and rerun times without number on local stations throughout the rest of the Fifties.

   Alone among our trio, this one didn’t have a pedigree. The title came from a pulp true-crime magazine but its protagonist, café-society columnist and amateur detective David Chase—described as a sleuth with “an eye for the ladies, a nose for news, and a sixth sense for danger”—was created especially for TV.

   “Presenting an unusual story of love and mystery!” the unseen announcer would purr in dulcet tones at the start of each episode. His introduction concluded with: “And now for another thrilling adventure as we accompany David Chase and watch him match wits with those who would take the law into their own hands.”

   Starring as Chase was one-time matinee idol Edmund Lowe (1892-1971), a name familiar to moviegoers for a third of a century before his entry into television. During the 1920s he specialized in suave romantic roles complete with waxed mustache, but the biggest boost in his film career came when director Raoul Walsh cast him opposite Victor McLaglen in WHAT PRICE GLORY? (Fox, 1926), first of the Captain Flagg-Sergeant Quirt military comedies.

   His foremost contribution to the detective film came ten years later when he portrayed Philo Vance in THE GARDEN MURDER CASE (MGM, 1936), but he also played a New York plainclothesman of the 1890s opposite Mae West in EVERY DAY’S A HOLIDAY (Paramount, 1938).

   By the early 1950s Lowe had begun to show his age, and in FRONT PAGE DETECTIVE he looked all too convincingly like a man of almost sixty who’s determined to pass himself off as 25 years younger. In many an episode he’d romance the woman in the case, rattle off a few deductions—once he reasoned that a letter supposedly from an Englishwoman was a forgery because the writer used the U.S. spelling “check” rather than the British “cheque”—and then collar the villain personally after a pistol battle or fistfight underscored by Lee Zahler’s background music for Mascot and early Republic serials.

   Supporting Lowe were Paula Drew as Chase’s fashion-designer girlfriend and crusty George Pembroke as the inevitable stupid cop. Appearing in individual episodes were such stalwarts of TV’s pioneer days as Joe Besser, Rand Brooks, Maurice Cass, Jorja Curtright, Jonathan Hale, Frank Jenks and Lyle Talbot.

   As with KENNEDY and TRACY, filming was 99% indoors, on some of the cheapest sets ever seen by the televiewer’s eye except perhaps for those used by the other members of our trio.

   The director of every episode I’ve seen recently was Fairbanks’ production supervisor Arnold Wester (1907-1976), who is not known to have directed anything else afterward. And just as well: apparently his idea of directing was to make sure the camera was pointed at the actors and leave the set.

   Many scripts were by veterans of pulp detective magazines and radio like Robert Leslie Bellem (also, as we’ve seen, a TRACY veteran) and Irvin Ashkenazy, with an occasional contribution by Curt Siodmak, author of the classic horror novel DONOVAN’S BRAIN.

   At least nine episodes of the series are accessible on YouTube. The rest seem to have vanished but their gimmicks can often be deduced from the brief descriptions in crumbling issues of TV Guide.

   In “The Case of the Perfect Secretary” Chase tries to find out why Dr. Owens, the inventor of a synthetic cortisone, didn’t show up for a scheduled lecture. He finds Owens’ laboratory deserted and later discovers that the doctor has been murdered, the letter M imprinted on his forehead. It takes no Charlie Chan to figure out that the M is most likely a W.

   “Honey for Your Tea” finds Chase looking into the claim of a young actress that her fiancé was brutally murdered by her dramatic coach (Maurice Cass), a gnarled and crippled old man whose hobby is beekeeping. Anyone want to bet that this isn’t the old bee-venom poisoning shtick?

   In “The Other Face” Chase investigates the death of a handsome actor who “accidentally” fell from his penthouse terrace shortly after telling his psychiatrist of his desire to fall through space. If the murder victim didn’t turn out to be not the actor but his look-alike understudy, toads fly.

   Other episodes seem to have more intriguing storylines. In “Napoleon’s Obituary” a man named for Bonaparte dies the day after asking Chase to write his death notice, and the trail leads our sleuth to a house whose inhabitants are all named after historic figures.

   In “Ringside Seat for Murder” Chase witnesses a bizarre murder during a wrestling match where one of the athletes (using the term loosely) is stabbed in the back with a poisoned dart while pinned to the mat by his opponent.

   FRONT PAGE DETECTIVE never pretended to be a classic, but for all its clichés and Grade ZZZ production values it was, like KENNEDY and TRACY, a pioneering effort in tele-detection that deserves perhaps a wee bit more than to be totally forgotten.

PERRY MASON “The Case of the Restless Redhead.” CBS, 21 September 1957 (Season 1, Episode 1). Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Hopper, William Talman, Ray Collins. Guest Cast: Whitney Blake, Ralph Clanton, Gloria Henry, Vaughn Taylor. Teleplay: Russell S. Hughes. Based on the novel by Erle Stanley Gardner. Director: William D. Russell. Currently available on DVD and streaming on Paramount Plus.

   When a waitress comes home from work, she finds a gun in her cigarette case sitting on her coffee table. In her shoes, what would you do? I’m sure you would call Perry Mason’s office, the same as either you or I would, am I right? Even though it’s late at night, she heads out by car to meet him in his office.

   She’s followed by a car driven by a man with a pillow case over his head, with holes cut out for his eyes. When he tries to run her off the road, she uses the gun to fire two shots at him. She misses, but one shot hits the car, which seems to swerve off the road. Telling her story to Mason, he decides to drive out to the spot where all this took place.

   Would you be surprised if I told you the police are there first? You shouldn’t be. They are, and they’re trying to find a way to hoist a car up a steep embankment. The driver of the car, found inside, Mason is told, is dead. He has been fatally shot in the head.

   The Perry Mason novels always begin with extremely catchy openings, and this first episode of the Perry Mason TV show follows the pattern to perfection. Other familiar themes follow. Mason is not sure whether to believe the girl’s story or not, but when Lt. Tragg comes calling, he has no recourse but to take her on as a client. Della Street is there to comfort her and provide everyone with coffee. (It is now three o’clock in the morning.)

   As for the gun, Paul Drake soon discovers that is one of a pair, both bought by the same person at the same time. Mason maneuvers himself into the case personally by obtaining the other of two guns, putting a notch in the barrel with a small file, then shooting it a couple of times at the scene of the crime.

   This little trick comes in handy at the preliminary hearing, which ends up with D. A. Hamilton Burger completely befuddled. Now I posit this, if I may. Can you think of a better story line than this to demonstrate to TV audiences everywhere in the country what the rest of the series is going to be like, based on this very first episode? Nor can I.

   This synopsis so far does not include the following: Perry’s client was recently acquitted of stealing some jewelry from a movie star who just happens to be the fiancée of the man who bought the two guns, who is being blackmailed by the former husband of the movie star who claims the divorce never went through, and the husband and wife who run the motel where the theft of the aforementioned jewelry took place act very strangely when Mason comes asking questions.

   And do you know what? You can actually follow the plot, even with all of these players, and without a scorecard.
   

AGATHA CHRISTIE’S PARTNERS IN CRIME “The Affair of the Pink Pearl.” London Weekend Television (LWT), 16 October 1983 (Season 1, Episode 1). Francesca Annis (Tuppence Beresford), James Warwick (Tommy Beresford). Guest Cast: Dulcie Gray, Graham Crowden, Noel Dyson, Arthur Cox. Screenwriter: David Butler, based on the stories “A Fairy in the Flat,” “A Pot of Tea,” and “The Affair of the Pink Pearl,” by Agatha Christie (all three included in her collection, Partners in Crime). Available on DVD; currently streaming on BritBox.

   While this was the first episode of the 1983 series on the BBC, it was preceded the week before by a standalone showing of that same network’s adaptation of The Secret Adversary, starring the same two players as Tuppence and Tommy. (I tell you this because it confused me for a while, but I see no need for you to be, should it ever come up.)

   The first portion of this true first episode serves as an introduction to the characters and their first case, as chronicled in “A Fairy in the Flat” and “A Pot of Tea.” Fairly rich (I am assuming) and bored, the married couple are delighted with the opportunity to take over the International Detective Agency. (It may be that Tuppence is the more delighted of the two.) Their first case is a slam dunk (in today’s terminology), as they are hired by a young man of the upper class whose sweetheart, a shop girl, has gone missing. I will not tell you why it is a slam dunk, though.

   The titular tale is more of a challenge, as it involves a valuable pink pearl which has disappeared after some careless handling of it during a dinner party, which means, luckily for the viewer, lots of suspects, including the servants and other staff, all of whom need questioning as to who was where and when. I didn’t think the showing was quite fair to the viewer, though; perhaps the original story was better in this regard.

   The setting is bright and cheerful, and the dialogue very witty. As it is too long since I have read the books, and then only N or M? within the last ten years, I cannot tell you how well Francesca Annis and James Warwick fit their roles. N or M? was published some twelve years after the story collection, so of course it is natural that I pictured them that many years older.

   One thing I do remember about the books is that each story in its telling parodied another of Ms Christie’s contemporary authors at the time. “Pearl,” for example, used R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke as a model for the pair to emulate. That particular aspect of the stories seems to have been dropped from this particular television version.

   

Next Page »