THE GREAT DETECTIVE. “Train of Events.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 02 January 1980 (Season 2, Episode 1). (11th overall of 30 [or is it 35] episodes.) Cast: Douglas Campbell (Inspector Cameron), James Duggan (Sergeant Striker), Sandy Webster (Dr. Chisholm), Sean McCann (McCarthy, the conductor), Maurska Stankova (Klara Elek, the widow), John Grima (Vilmos Elek, the dead man), Richard Farrell (Conley), Patrick Brymer (the cabbie). Producer: Peter Wildeblood. Writer: Larry Gaynor. Director: Rudi Dorn.

   Ordinarily a ride on the Sudbury to Toronto night train is an unexciting affair, but not this evening. Aboard is Provincial Inspector Alistair Cameron, his assignment being to keep tabs on a gold bullion shipment worth $200,000; there has been much anarchist activity of late, and Cameron is there to make sure they don’t get a chance to subsidize their revolution with other people’s money. An unwelcome addition to the passenger load, at least as far as the Inspector is concerned, is Sergeant Striker, who has been assigned to Cameron as his “bodyguard” in case things get out of hand with the anarchists.

   Everything goes well until the train stops for water; then bullets start to fly from the siding, punching holes in windows and woodwork alike — and, it would seem, one unfortunate man in the passenger car. After everything calms down, with the anarchists breaking off the attack, the Inspector insists on inspecting the gold, which is under armed guard in a specially modified combination car near the engine; satisfied that the bullion is intact, Cameron permits the train to proceed non-stop to Toronto, where it arrives with the early morning sun — but without the railway car, the guards, and the gold! Needless to say, the bank intends to have the Inspector’s guts for garters for this …

   And it’s here that the story turns into an impossible crime, and a well-done one at that. Conundrums abound: How did an entire car disappear from a moving train? When the passenger killed during the ambush is autopsied, how can it be that he was shot from no farther than six inches? And what bearing did his profession have on the robbery? In searching the train, now a crime scene, why can’t Striker find any signs whatsoever of bullet damage?

   And what’s the significance of that forlorn lady’s wig found stuffed under a seat? What about those two rather hefty women who bumped into the Inspector when he left the train? After there’s a gas explosion in a shack in the railyard, why, according to the coroner, did the victims perish the way they did instead of being killed in the blast? What about that piece of plywood Cameron and Striker find not far from an over-river railway bridge? And, finally, how did the widow of the man killed in the ambush get to be such a good shot? (Actually that last one is never asked or answered in the show; we were just wondering.)

   “Train of Events” is a model of how to do an impossible crime story on episodic TV: it’s the right length, not too long and not too short (roughly an hour, unlike the usual overly-padded Banacek episode); every element and scene contributes to forwarding the plot; and the characters and tone are lightly tongue-in-cheek without being a distraction. We especially appreciate how the director took great pains to reconstruct the events, nicely adding to the Great Detective’s Big Reveal of the crime.

   IMDb tells us that this series was “based on the first government appointed provincial detective Alistair Cameron, set during the late Victorian Era. He is assisted by his friend Dr. Chisholm, a pathologist. He relocates from Scotland to Canada for his job, takes in a house keeper, and becomes guardian of his niece. He also has a sergeant who assists on his cases.”

   Wikipedia also tells us that The Great Detective was based on the exploits of John Wilson Murray (1840-1906), who was “Ontario’s first full-time criminal detective with the title Detective for the Government of Ontario. He held the position until his death and solved hundreds of crimes.”

   The big three performers in “Train of Events” are Douglas Campbell (1922-2009) as Inspector Alistair Cameron (25 episodes), Sandy Webster (1923-2017) as Dr. Chisholm (20 episodes), and James Duggan (died in 2013) as Sergeant Striker (9 episodes). Early in his career, Douglas Campbell was a stage sensation, scoring big with Shakespeare in the ’50s (being naturally portly and blustery, he made the perfect Falstaff); he once described himself as a “William Morris socialist,” whatever that means.

   Among a lot of other actors doing one-shots on The Great Detective who have achieved notice elsewhere: Geraint Wyn Davies, John Neville, Megan Follows, Maury Chaykin, Sharon Acker, Nick Mancuso, Len Cariou, Henry Beckman, Alan Scarfe, and James Bradford (who played Inspector Regan in three episodes of the show).

   The CBC seems to have developed amnesia about The Great Detective series; we can’t find anything about it on their website.


NOTE: This episode, which was obviously taped off an A&E broadcast (hence the low quality), is available on YouTube, but the individual who posted it there is not allowing it to be embedded on other sites. You can watch it here, at least for now.