Saturday, April 30, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of Colonel Nivin's Memoirs"

"The Adventure of Colonel Nivin's Memoirs" establishes its conflicts in the recent-as-of-the-setting vicissitudes of World War Two, as well as the still-building Cold War. When the episode aired, more recent history involved Watergate and the Vietnam War. The episode, consciously or not, injects some of the issues of 1975 into its 1947 setting.

Now with very few exceptions, cop shows and detective shows tend to draw on an older, more conservative audience. That being the case, you might expect a prime time whodunit examining Watergate-era betrayals in a post-WW2 setting to be muddled in some places, simplistic in others. Unfortunately you'd be right, which is why this isn't one of the stronger stories. Has its charms, though.

A secret agent with His Majesty's Secret Service has written a not-quite-tell-all memoir about his service, notably spilling the beans on people he knows of who fell short in some way during the war years. A sometime ladyfriend of Ellery's named Jenny O'Brien is working with publicity with the author, presumably for the publisher. He pressures her to accompany him to the book release cocktail party that night, in a way that's meant to seem charming but is really just heavy handed. (Inappropriate even for a seventies facsimile of the forties. If nothing else this is a show where sexual harassers get theirs.) She ropes Ellery into attending as well as sort of a buffer. Then she goes to see the Colonel at his men's club and finds him dead at his desk.

By what do I mean "not-quite-tell-all"? Well, the Colonel seems to have provided details in his book, but hasn't named names. The implication seems to be that he'll get to the names in a sequel, and that the prospect of being further shamed is what motivated the killer. It makes the book he's currently flogging seem like a thin affair, though, especially for one that we're told sold out its first printing in a day. Another problem with this setup is that while the subjects of the book are unnamed, two of them manage to out themselves by leaving a copy out with the pages that slime them bookmarked. D'oh!

Ellery Queen, throughout its single season, was able to attract an impressive cast of guest stars. This episode is no exception. Oregonian actress Gretchen Corbett is a lot of fun as Jenny O'Brien, and has good chemistry with Jim Hutton. Jenny and Ellery's flaws are complementary: she's impulsive and demanding while he's forgetful and has glaring social lapses. If anyone could have been a regular love interest or just partner on this show, Corbett had the most potential. They didn't go that way, and maybe her similar duties on Rockford Files would have made the scheduling awkward.

Also appearing are craggy character actor Robert Loggia and Rene Auberjonois, then best known as part of Robert Altman's stock company. Auberjonois's French photographer is living a pretty convincing bohemian life. When his interrogation is interrupted by his fiancee there's a definite implication of "if it makes you feel better to call her that."

As for Pernell Roberts, he does what he can with a rather incoherent masquerade of a character. Mild spoilers follow. Roberts first appears as a turban-wearing Indian doorman at the men's club. (You read that right.) Fingerprints reveal that he's actually a petty criminal trying to go straight. But further investigations show that the criminal has been dead for two years, and Roberts' character is an OSS man working deep cover. Left unexplained is why he needed a second alias to pose as a doorman, or who thought it was a good idea for him to go the brownface root when the English members of the club might have met some real Indians.

Further, the spy shop stuff just doesn't pan out. There are hints that everyone in the story is under some kind of surveillance, with cars surreptitiously following other cars and the Queen apartment getting tossed. But it just dissipates with no payoff.

I don't want to be too down here. The Ellery/Richard Queen/Velie interactions are very good, as is Ellery's detection. It just doesn't hold up to scrutiny as well as some of the others.


susan said...

You may have already listened to some of the old radio shows that have been saved from that now distant period when they were the only electronic entertainment available. If not you may be interested in a website called The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio where, among other shows, they have a couple of dozen Ellery Queen programs. Apparently there were five seasons with five different unnamed actors playing Ellery (who was always supposed to be himself). Hearing the actors speak is definitely an odd experience with most of them sounding like raspy New Yorkers. However, the actor playing Inspector Richard Queen in the episode I listened to sounded very much like David Wayne. It was almost a little startling.

The things worth watching for in the tv shows are the nicely done period homages from talented actors who were trying to duplicate the style and feel of the 1940s. I seem to remember Pernell Roberts in his Indian doorman disguise for the simple reason he looked like himself with face paint and a turban. Your opinion that this is one of the weakest of the Queen programs sounds pretty valid to me. Spy vs. spy stories can easily get ridiculous. I remember wondering at one point when we watched the shows why the producers hadn't used more real stories written by Ellery Queen. Even today that still happens with, for instance, the recent Sherlock Holmes series whose stories are pastiches that contain elements of his mysteries rather than staying true to the originals. They certainly can't imagine they're old hat because everyone has read them.

Anyway, before I forget again I want to tell you about a blog written by an anthropologist whose posts are both droll and instructive. The site is called 'Esoterx' and the article that I think you might find especially interesting is about how the English language got so strange - called 'Language is a Bacterium: The Disease Theory of the Great Vowel Shift'. He also comes up with some very remarkable images to illustrate the themes of his (generally medium length) essays, as well as some extremely entertaining passages written by historians of various fame levels.

Once again you've written a very fascinating overview of another Ellery Queen episode. They can start all kinds of interesting thought processes.

Ben said...

Thank you for alerting me to the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio website. I've now bookmarked it in Opera. They don's seem to have the old Orson Welles Shadow episodes, but there's a lot of other good stuff. It's interesting that the father on the Ellery Queen show sounds similar to David Wayne. The character has an interesting speech pattern, gruff yet somewhat courtly, dropping in the occasional "my dear lady." Some of that is from the books. Of course again the TV show didn't stick too close to the books, as their Inspector Queen doesn't have a mustache. But I sometimes think of him as a very gentlemanly Union general.

The mid-seventies, when this show was made, weren't a prime time for spy shows. Even the revived version of The Avengers couldn't quite hit the mark, although Joanna Lumley was a good partner. The sixties seemed to do better with them. Maybe it had started to seem too depressing by that time. When Danger Man and I Spy were made people were having doubts about the Cold War, but may have been able to abstract it more.

Not sure why more episodes aren't adapted from the stories. If we're talking about the present, the assumption might be that people interested in the show - all of which have smaller audiences - will include some obsessives who'd be able to spoil based on their reading of the originals.

Just starting to explore the Esoterx site. It does have great pictures. Of course the header of that post is an interesting reference: William Burroughs by way of Laurie Anderson.

Thank you again, and I'm glad you're enjoying these. There's another rewatch coming up, and this one should be a doozy.