COLONEL MARCH INVESTIGATES. Criterion Films, UK, 1953. Starring Boris Karloff as Colonel March. Screenplay by Leo Davis, based on three stories written by John Dickson Carr. Director: Cyril Enfield.

   The master of the locked room mystery was, inarguably, John Dickson Carr, one of the most popular crime writers of the Golden Age. His masterpiece, The Hollow Man (1935), retains an almost legendary status among crime fiction fans, but he is now sadly forgotten by the wider public. The books have long been out of print in the UK, and I’m always hoping that some publisher will bring them back.

   Perhaps they are so obscure because Carr’s most famous sleuths, Dr Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, never made it to the screen. One of his lesser characters managed it, however, in the early 1950s, with the television series Colonel March of Scotland Yard.

   Carr had used the character only in his 1940 short story collection The Department of Queer Complaints, in which there is a subdivision of Scotland Yard that specialises in crimes of a curious or apparently impossible nature. The series was financed by the Americans and starred international film star Boris Karloff – famous for playing the Chinese-American detective Mr Wong and, of course, even more so, Frankenstein’s Monster.

   At this point in his long career, Karloff was a frequent guest on American radio series and even had his own show for children in which he read stories and told riddles. In 1952, he returned to England and made three episodes for ITV which acted as pilots for a longer series. Eventually, twenty six were produced, all of which were a brisk 25 minutes long.

   The first three made were stitched together for release to cinemas in 1953. This was not uncommon for a TV show at the time and the practice would continue into the next decade, particularly with The Saint.

   Colonel March Investigates is a taut 70 minute anthology of three slight, though entertaining, mysteries with the twinkly-eyed Karloff. He gives the character an eye-patch, which he didn’t have in the stories, but it adds something to the character, as we can imagine he may have lost it in the First World War. This, perhaps, is someone who has witnessed untold horrors and has come to terms with the world by engaging with its more whimsical wonders.

   Unsurprisingly, there is a framing device which helps tie the three tales together, in which March stands in his office and inspects a cupboard stocked with souvenirs of his cases before leading the audience into the corresponding story.

   The first of these, aired as “Hot Money,” revolves around a bank robbery in which a clerk is incriminated. He follows the criminal to an office, where the money is seemingly stored. However, when the place is searched, the money has apparently disappeared. Despite the clerk being framed in the silliest of ways, the resolution is pretty decent, but nothing too special. Joan Sims appears here in an early role, and March reveals a John Steed-like umbrella sword!

   The second story was aired as “Death in the Dressing Room,” which is probably the weakest of the three. Set in a nightclub, it features an exotic dance routine which acts as a clue, while the always reliable Richard Wattis plays the manager. The running time to these is so short that there is virtually no time to set up a number of suspects, so the culprit tends to be the person who has been in it the most.

   No matter, as it’s all about how March gets his man, which he does here in a tense confrontation. As usual, March’s sparring partner is the Scottish Inspector Ames (Ewan Roberts), though you wonder why he’s there as March seems to be a famous genius.

   The third story, intriguingly titled “The New Invisible Man,” features a peeping tom who has apparently witnessed a pair of animated gloves committing murder, and a scene of a crime with no evidence of a crime. It’s the best one, I think, though there are a couple of problems. We get the opportunity to see the gloves in action ourselves, but it doesn’t look much like the way it’s shown to us in the reveal.

   The trick is good, nonetheless, and it certainly had me baffled. The reason behind it all is pretty shaky, however, and involves stolen paintings and, eventually, a kidnapped March. It’s all good fun, though, which is what I’d call the film as a whole. And an interesting peek, as ever, into bygone England. Eight episodes of the series itself are available on DVD. It’s just a pity the complete series isn’t available.

Rating: ***