TV mysteries


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.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

DIAGNOSIS MURDER. “The Last Resort.” CBS, original air-date: 19 November 1998 (Season 6, Episode 9). Dick Van Dyke (Dr. Mark Sloan), Victoria Rowell, Charlie Schlatter, Barry Van Dyke (Steve Sloan). Guest star: Joe Penny. Written by Paul Bishop. Director: Christian I. Nyby II. Series available on DVD. Not known to be currently streaming online.

   I used to love Diagnosis Murder. When I was eleven and twelve years old, my mum would record (on VHS!) the daily afternoon repeat while I was busy enduring institutional betrayal at school. It may not have been the coolest television programme around, but it was light-hearted and often reasonably exciting, with a nifty mystery plot and maybe a bit of action too.

   As I’m sure everybody here knows, the show revolved around ebullient sixty-something Dr Mark Sloan (Dick Van Dyke), the Chief of Internal Medicine at Community General Hospital in Los Angeles, who also doubles as an amateur sleuth and eventual consultant for the L.A.P.D., often working alongside his homicide detective son Steve (a permanently purse-lipped Barry Van Dyke, Dick’s real-life son).

   Assisting Mark are a couple of young, attractive medical colleagues, sensible and assertive Dr Amanda Bentley (Victoria Rowell) and boyishly enthusiastic Dr Jessie Travis (Charlie Schlatter), though all three are often hindered by the fussy, fulminating hospital administrator Norman Briggs (Michael Tucci), who believes they should remain focused on their patients instead of trying to solve crimes.

   The series depended almost disproportionately on its star and the good-will he had accrued from his eponymous sitcom and triptych of big-screen musicals from the early-to-mid 1960s. Like Andy Griffith, that other wholesome ’60s comedy lead who turned to the less demanding mystery genre in old age, Van Dyke was able to carve out a niche, catering to a more mature audience and working as a sort of counter-programming to gritty police procedurals like NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street.

   Stylistically, it was a less twee and ever so slightly more plausible Murder, She Wrote, without ever becoming a similarly solid ratings champion. Indeed, Diagnosis Murder sputtered every year into almost reluctant renewals by a higher-brass who knew how appealing the older demographic was to advertisers compared to the younger, more impecunious generations proceeding them.

   Whereas many episodes had a minor, frivolous subplot to offset all the murder and petty revenge, there was a small shake-up in the sixth season when things occasionally became a little bit darker than regular viewers might ordinarily expect. “The Last Resort” was one such episode, and there’s nary a chuckle to be had in its forty-four minutes, beginning with Steve apparently losing his professional perspective and attacking a suspect during interrogation – even throwing a chair through the one-way glass.

   The sudden meltdown, after five years of watching this wearily workmanlike detective harrumphing his way through a slew of homicide investigations, is surprising, particularly as we’re told that he was supposed to be a calming influence on his new partner Reggie.

   An abrasive, confrontational cop, Reggie Ackroyd (Joe Penny) is constantly on the brink of getting fired or even arrested himself, only justifying his erratic behavior with the dubious assertion that his wife and daughter were kidnapped by a criminal named Sykes. Things get even worse for the pair when Steve inadvertently kills an unarmed rapist and reluctantly allows Reggie to cover it up.

   After further trouble, the men are strong-armed into attending a psychiatric rehabilitation program at Community General Hospital – a “Betty Ford clinic, except it’s for cops” – and struggle through sessions of group therapy led by the bluntly incisive Dr Sinclair (Reginald Val Johnson).

   While Steve is weighed down by guilt of the cover-up, Reggie begins losing all sense of reality, the frustration and anger over his family’s supposed capture uncoiling into a series of vividly disturbing hallucinations.

   Will he find them? Or is there something even more sinister going on?

   A dark story, with one of its biggest surprises being the absence of a breezy tag-scene which typically closes every episode, and the decision to let its grimly unsettling final fade-out stew in the viewer’s mind. Joe Penny, formerly of the now almost-forgotten Jake and the Fatman (a series which originated the Mark Sloan character in a one-episode guest turn, though Penny plays another role here), is excellent as the cold and mercurial Ackroyd, a man driven to insanity from rage, remorse and the pressures of a police career.

   To my eyes, at least, he looks like Sylvester Stallone, with a similar, moodily masculine persona to match. Barry Van Dyke, meanwhile, is subtly effective, though mostly this is due to the unexpected novelty of a more personal plot-line for the character rather than a genuinely compelling performance.

   Elsewhere in the episode, there’s a more conventional mystery sub-plot which keeps the other two regulars occupied as they investigate the locked room murder of a lab technician. For once, Jessie confront the culprit, and in a slyly charismatic manner too, demonstrating how a puppy-ish medical prodigy can lull any criminal into a false sense of security.
   

STAGE 7. “The Long Count.” CBS, 27 March 1955 (Season 1 Episode 9). Frank Lovejoy (McGraw), Joan Vohs, Ted de Corsia, Biff Elliot, Nestor Paiva, Mel Welles, Richard Deacon. Screenplay by Federic Brody, based on a story by John Roeburt. Director: Alvin Ganzer. Currently available on YouTube.

   Research on the early days of network TV is still spotty at best. There is an individual entry for this episode as being shown on Four Star Playhouse, but when you look at the episode list for that series, it is nowhere to be found. Yes, Frank Lovejoy played PI-for-hire McGraw (no known first name) at least twice on that series, but this particular episode (with all of the same stated crew and cast members) is also listed as the ninth episode of Stage 7 for its one and only season.

   These early episodes for both series preceded, of course, the series Meet McGraw, which ran on NBC during the 1957-58 season. For a more on that series, check out Michael Shonk’s overview of it for this blog several years ago. (Follow the link.)

   In “The Long Count,” McGraw is hired by a prizefighter’s behind-the-scenes manager to keep him away from dames before an upcoming bout, but the guy slips out on him and manages to get killed by a hit-and-run driver. The boxing business being what it is, there are a lot of suspects, but McGraw manages to name the killer well within the 30 minute running time.

   The dialogue is fine, the production values quite acceptable, especially for the era, but the plot is a little threadbare and to me, Frank Lovejoy seems a little tired of the whole thing. One bright spot is the suitably sexy Joan Vohs, who both narrates and plays the manager’s girl friend. Only problem with the latter, storywise, is that “Pretty Boy” Mendero (a well-cast Biff Elliot) has an eye out for her, too.

   In any case, there are a few other adventures of McGraw online, either from Four Star Playhouse or the Meet McGraw series itself. Given time, I enjoyed this one well enough to watch some of the others.

   

GABRIEL’S FIRE “Pilot.” ABC, 12 September 1990. James Earl Jones, Laila Robins, Madge Sinclair. Director: Robert Lieberman. Currently available for viewing on YouTube here.

   Gabriel Bird is a former cop who has spent the last twenty years in prison. The details remain fuzzy in this first episode, but it seems as though he killed a fellow officer during a botched raid. When his best friend in prison is killed, Victoria Heller, that friend’s lawyer (Laila Robins), comes calling on him for help, but he refuses.

   Ms Heller, a do-gooder who insists on doing good, manages to get him out of prison, which alienates him even more. It takes a while to persuade the cranky old man to help her solve the case, but he does and even more, by the end of the show, ends up agreeing to become her chief investigator, but only, he warns, “one case at a time.”

   Critics loved the show (well, liked it a lot) but audiences didn’t. It lasted one season (22 episodes) and resurfaced the next year under a new name, Pros and Cons, and lasted 13 more episodes before being cancelled at mid-season.

   Speaking personally, but who better, I found this, the pilot, not particularly easy to like. It’s burdened with a premise that’s confusing (why does this guy want to stay in jail, anyway), and the story line too dark. I have read that in the second season they tried to lighten things up, but there’s no way to independently verify that. Only this, the pilot of the first season seems to exist, and no one seems ready to pick up the rest of the series for streaming or release on DVD.

   

CHANDLER & CO. “On the Job.” BBC1, UK. 12 July 1994 (Series 1, Episode 1). Catherine Russell as Elly Chandler, Barbara Flynn as Dee Tate, Peter Capaldi as Larry Blakeson. Written by Paula Milne. Director: Renny Rye. Available in the UK on Region Two DVDs. This episode can be seen online here.

   Over the course of two seasons Chandler & Co. tells the story of a two-woman detective agency in London, starting of course at the beginning, with “On the Job” being the first episode. There is a little bit of back story that needs to be told ahead of time, though, and while it’s complicated, here it is: Elly Chandler is now divorced from her ex-husband, while Dee Tate is the man’s sister, who suggests to Elly (there are still close) that starting their own agency might help her through the breakup of her marriage.

   They realize that they are rather new at the game, however, so they call on Larry Blakeson to mentor them through the rough patches as they get started. Larry is the PI who Elly hired to get the goods on her now ex-husband. We’ve all been in situations such as this before, haven’t we, so we can relate.

   Their first two cases in “On the Job,” as they test their wings, involve marital infidelities – the kinds of cases that male PI’s always say they don’t take, and after watching this first episode, you can see why. The two ladies decided to take up the PI business because they like helping people, but after getting themselves involved in other people’s lives as much as they do in these two case, they are not so sure how much help they provided. In fact, there is a rift between them at the end of the show that is so severe that it makes the viewer wonder if there will be an episode two.

   But of course there was.

   All three of the main characters were extremely well chosen for their roles, and their roles were extremely well defined — an excellent show all around. It makes you wish that more episodes were available, just to be able to see the three of them in action more often. (In fact Peter Capaldi is not on often enough in this one.)

   It is also an interesting episode in another regard, which is to say that it starts out in semi-comedic fashion. The two women are klutzy at first, and getting some assistance from a real PI is obviously sorely needed. But as the episode goes along, the comedy aspects gradually disappear, as their choices of a new career start to look as though it were a big big mistake.

   Or in other words, very very interesting.

   

SUSPECTS “Alone.” Channel 5, UK, 12 February 2014 (Series 1, Episode 1). Fay Ripley as Detective Inspector Martha Bellamy, Damien Molony as Detective Sergeant Jack Weston, Clare-Hope Ashitey as Detective Constable Charlotte “Charlie” Steele. Director: John Hardwick. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

   If you prefer your standard gritty police procedurals on TV to concentrate on the case and nothing but the case, then Suspects may be the show for you. Of the three main stars and police officers they portray, there is nothing in this first show to explain who they are, what their backgrounds may be. There is even no personal interaction between them.

   They are fellow officers in the same London police station, otherwise not identified. This first case involves a young girl, a toddler only, who has been taken from her bed overnight while everyone in the house was sleeping: her father and her older brother. Other suspects are her mother, now separated from her father, her grandmother, and the clerk at a beverage shop down the street who has a prior record as a sex offender.

   The filming is done documentary style, beautifully photographed, and (I am told) with much of the dialogue improvised. It certainly makes for a forceful, haunting viewing experience, that I can vouch for personally. So much so that I doubt anyone would care to binge watch this show. Certainly not I.

   The show did prove to be popular, though. It consisted of five series, ending in August 2016, with only one major cast change for the final season.
   

MR. & MRS. MURDER “Early Checkout.” Network Ten, Australia, 20 February 2013 (Series 1, Episode 1). Shaun Micallef as Charlie Buchanan, Kat Stewart as Nicola Buchanan, Jonny Pasvolsky as Detective Peter Vinetti, Lucy Honigman as Jess Chalmers. Director: Shirley Barrett. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime (until January 31st.)

   As detective mysteries on TV go, or even books, it’s a premise that’s a natural, but even so, it’s one I don’t recall ever being used before, except maybe in comic books. Who’s job is it to come in and clean up the murder scene after the cops and crew are done with it and the victim removed? Charlie and Nicola Buchanan, that’s who, having set themselves up as specialists who do exactly that.

   Of course it helps to have helped a homicide detective on previous cases, even though “Early Checkout” is the first episode of thirteen of the cases they help solve. In this one a natural hero turned self-help guru (if, as noted, that is not a contradiction in terms) is murdered in his hotel room. As a detective story in and of itself, it’s a good one, with an abundance of clues, suspects, motives and opportunity.

   But what makes the difference between this and other series with same desire to make a successful detective mystery series is the sprightly rapport between the two leading players. Imagine, if you will, a married couple who actually like each other, with plenty of cheerful banter between them and playfully zapping each other and appreciating it when one gets the better of the other, if only for the moment.

   I will do my best to watch the other twelve episodes before Amazon pulls the plug on the series at the end of the month. If there were only 13 episodes in the series, I can only hope it was because the writers ran out of settings for possible stories for murder clean-ups to take place in. If Australian audiences didn’t care for the series and stopped watching it, then boo on them.

   

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