The 1960s were when spies went from being dangerous and glamorous in a kind of grubby way to being fantastic and kicky. The subgenre is sometimes called spy-fi, as it featured gadgets and schemes borrowed from science fiction. Agents wore the latest threads, drove the fastest cars, enjoyed too many partners to keep all their names straight. If the straight business world offered money and toys and the counterculture - at least in the crude news magazine view - offered the chance to break free of convention - spying in pop culture was the best of both worlds.
Movies were a leading source of the fantasy: James Bond, Matt Helm, Derek Flint, and Michael Caine's more relatable Harry Palmer. In the comic strips - and I do mean strips - you had Peter O'Donnell's ironically named Modesty Blaise. Jim Steranko wrote and drew the kinetic Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics. And of course there was TV. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a hit on American TV, although it was best in its relatively austere black and white episodes. The Avengers was more comfortable with the style, adding several layers of British eccentricity. And The Prisoner, a short-lived but indelible maybe-sequel to Patrick McGoohan's earlier series Danger Man added dystopian social commentary.
What does all this have to do with Ellery Queen? Quite a bit in this instance. "The Adventure of the Eccentric Engineer" isn't, properly speaking, a spy story. The plot does, however, contain its share of subterfuge and sabotage. More crucially its central visual motif, an extensive model train set running through a room whose windows have been painted over with a country landscape, would be entirely at home on either The Avengers or The Prisoner. Even the episodes music cues are basically Bond lite.
The aforementioned victim is Lamont Franklin, played by Ed McMahon moonlighting (or daylighting him) from his job on one of NBC's cash cows. Franklin is an inventor who ran his own powerful company. Now he seems to have cracked up: withdrawing to his home, dressing like Casey Jones, and spending all his time on his model railroad, in the same workshop where he was shot to death.
Appearances can be deceiving, though. In what turns out to be a rather poorly kept secret, Franklin's resignation was a ruse, his insanity feigned. The methods he was using to coordinate his trains are part of a company project that prefigure the computer and robotics revolutions that will unfold decades hence. In fact between his paranoid secrecy, his financial wizardry, and his grim determination to turn play into work, he'd be right at home amidst the forced frivolity of modern Silicon Valley. His bad luck that he's destined to die when most of the Valley is still Northern California orchard land.
Adding to the spy-tastic feel of the episode is the fact that Ellery gets a sexy female sidekick. This is Lorelie Farnsworth, a would-be romance novelist looking to Ellery for pointers. At the halfway point, when she demonstrates that she can rock a plunging-back silver dress, it becomes clear that he has a specific pointer that he wants to give her, which the denouement pretty much confirms he'll get to do. Unfortunately Lorelie is godawful annoying. She started rubbing me the wrong way almost immediately, when she praised Charlotte and Emily Brontë but made a conversational side trip to dismiss Anne as "a minor talent." I'll let Kate Beaton speak for me on the Brontë sisters matter.
For me Lorelie is the main flaw of the episode, followed by a domestic servant having what is probably the worst Irish accent ever heard on television. Still, Ellery can't really be blamed for turning their collaboration into a hot date. For one thing she's not a bad looker, albeit not exactly my type. Also it gets him away from his dad for the rest of the night. After the mystery has been solved Inspector Richard Queen is still an awesomely together cop, yes. But after the crime has been solved he's still trying to rationalize how a woman he suspected all along must be responsible, even though she's not the culprit. He takes a weirdly misogynist attitude in this one that might explain why he's never managed to attract a second wife. (Which he eventually did in the books.)
The episode does manage to stay true to its slightly futuristic - or retro-futuristic - milieu, though. The train and its message system make a proud final appearance when Ellery gathers all the suspects together to finger the culprit. Chekhov would be proud.