Too Many Suspects, the pilot movie for the 1975-6 Ellery Queen TV series, is based on the 1965 novel The Fourth Side of the Triangle. If it were a straightforward adaptation we could simply note so in passing and move on. But it isn't and we can't, at least not without missing some good stuff. 1958's The Finishing Stroke marked the end of the road, of sorts, for Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee as authors of the Queen series. Lee, always a frustrated literary author, was reluctant to write further adventures of the fictional author/detective.
The two cousins did work on the series for about another dozen years, but with the help of ghostwriters. Dannay would work out the bones of the plot and a third party would elaborate it into a full novel, while Lee would come in and polish so that the end result fit their house style, as such. The ghostwriters they turned to in these last years were Avram Davidson, Theodore Sturgeon, and Jack Vance. All science fiction/fantasy writers, although the fact that they were all prolific wordsmiths working in New York might have been more relevant.
The Fourth Side of the Triangle, which I've most often seen attributed to Dannay, Lee, and Sturgeon, is from about the middle of this period and is a novel of its time. In it a young author named Dane McKell, one of a few characters in the Queen canon who appears as a shadow of Ellery himself, learns that his father has been conducting a relationship with a fashion designer named Sheila Grey. Disgusted at both of them and outraged on behalf of his mother, Dane contrives to worm his own way into Sheila's affections so that he can make a show of dumping her.
But his own heart betrays Dane in this venture. Sheila Grey isn't the woman he thought she was, and he winds up falling in love with her for real. Yet when she won't accept his proposal of marriage, he can't accept her reasons and loses his temper. She throws him out and he leaves her, bruised but alive. Then she's murdered, and things look bad for the whole McKell family.
The story is high Freudian, and also a study of old money in the American postwar scene. The three collaborators produce a well-written book, one that could probably hold reader interest for more than its brief length. Yet it has a glaring flaw as a whodunit. Stepping around spoilers here, but the culprit turns out to be someone who's been the POV character for much of the novel. Now, never having murdered anyone - no, really! - I can only imagine that if I had, it would take up a lot of my thoughts afterward. Yet we spend time in this character's head and find nothing of that nature until the end.
Other aspects of the novel present problems in terms of making a TV pilot to hook new viewers. Ellery Queen himself only enters the picture relatively late, and when he does he's an armchair detective thanks to a skiing injury. That's not really the character that writer producers Levinson and Link were selling, and probably not one that their audience wanted to buy.
Sturgeon and Lee make the McKells sympathetic characters, as sheltered and borderline crazy as they may be. This is an accomplishment. Sheila Grey, the victim, may be even more so. But when you learn that a character you've come to like has taken the life of another, and they have to confess this in front of their loved ones, it's kind of a downer. Start a fledgling TV show with this reveal and your audience might not come back.
Finally, the Queen books take place in a floating timeline. That means that the calendar changes, fashions and technologies advance, but the characters don't age unless it serves the author's purposes. A lot of detective series work like this, as do James Bond and the vast majority of comic book superheroes. So
As to the setting, the time of the tale is 1947. That, of course, allows the production team to trot out Studebakers, fedoras, and the rest of the period film pageantry. It's also a historical parallel with 1975, postwar and kind of recessionary. (One reason why Truman wasn't favored to win full election in 1948,) And it's a sort of liminal time. After World War 2, but before the Cold War had really taken shape. Teenagers forming a culture but without any rock 'n' roll to bug out to.
And a transitional time between radio, soon to lose its hold as more than a purveyor of pop music and instant news reports, and television. The victim owns a TV set, and in the first scene she unplugs it during a weather report. From a somewhat shabby look at TV's origins, we cut to radio in all its glory. Simon Brimmer is recording his show, a full production mystery of the kind that will be decimated in a few short years. Brimmer is a proud, even arrogant man, but he's all too aware of his show's shortcomings. And after recording his part he wakes a napping Ellery. (Ballsy in itself. No one in Looking Glass Land ever dared wake the Red King.) Trying to purchase Ellery's case files for his own show, he recognizes on some level that Ellery Queen is the real thing, the detective he can only aspire to be.
And as the title character, Jim Hutton is a revelation here.Certainly he bases his performance in a boy next door quality, a good fit for him as an actor and kind of a default for tall actors with handsome faces. And yes, the absent minded professor aspect comes to the fore a lot, as when he tries cooking breakfast for his father and himself and winds up burning two eggs while lost in a book.But these are just the starting point of the character, and Hutton runs the gamut. He's fiery and angry when he and his father get into it over the way each is dealing with the case. He's quietly sensitive when ferreting out a secretary's love for the McKell son (granted a new given name, like most characters carried over from the book.) And he's eerily engaged when picking up and piecing together clues. You get the feeling that Ellery just loves observing the world, and murder gives him a somewhat macabre opportunity.
Too Many Suspects juggles several modes and media of storytelling. It refers to literature in the books Ellery buries his nose in and the one he promises himself he'll get back to writing. It both glorifies and satirizes old time radio drama. Television turns out to be a vital clue. And it borrows tricks from the movies, with classic shooting angles and edits that make it look like an early Technicolor film. By contrast, a chase scene involving a red herring could fit in one of today's blockbusters with a little digital polish added. So the nascent series gives itself a good menu of techniques to use.