And so with "The Adventure of the Disappearing Dagger" we find ourselves at the end of the road. The series Ellery Queen ends its perhaps quixotic run, having always seemed a show out of its time, or perhaps its timeline. Almost certainly the producers knew this as well. When you get to the 22nd episode not counting the pilot movie, the writing must be on the wall.
There's a case to be made that "The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep" should have been the season finale, and thus in this case the series finale. After all, the stakes are raised for that episode, with suspicion falling everywhere and Inspector Queen's career on the line. And yet there's a beauty to "The Disappearing Dagger" closing the curtain as well. It tries a few new things, and allows Ellery to solve the death of a man who was a formative influence on his father, and through him Ellery himself.
In a change from routine, the victim is likable, decent, even heroic. One, at least, for there are two murders at play, separated by five years. The victim in the more recent one is Hamilton Drew, formerly chief of the Homicide Division, and subsequently a private investigator.He had been Richard Queen's boss before being forced out of the job due to his age, invited Richard Queen to join him in private practice, and the Inspector seems to partly regret having turned him down. Walter Pidgeon, a Canadian actor who had started in movies during the latter silent era and played Dr. Morbius in The Forbidden Planet, makes the most of his two scene, appearing savvy and determined despite his physical infirmity. He is murdered in his home while running a newsreel of one of his old cases, and his pained dying whimper as the projector runs makes this the most poignant and unsettling of the show's murder scenes.
His other scene is a flashback, a gathering of suspects much like those in which Ellery holds forth at the end of every episode. He is digging through an old case which he was crediting with solving five years before, only now he has doubts, believing he was manipulated in his previous investigation. The man he fingered was acquitted of murder, but convicted of theft, and he's mighty bitter about the time he spent in prison.
The pre-existing case concerns the murder of Stuart Hendricks, a munitions manufacturer contracting with the government during World War 2. One of his company's designs was stolen, an inside job he was looking into when he was killed on a chartered plane. There's an interesting iconoclasm here. The Second World War is supposed to be the Good War, when we were all on the same side. The script reminds us that be that as it may, selfishness and deceit didn't just disappear.
The suspects are all rather dislikable as well. Pilot Buck Nolan, having spent several years in the pen, at least has some excuse, but the chip he has on his shoulder still gets old after a few outbursts. Brandon Childs is a smug jerk who inherited both sole control of the company and Hendricks's widow, who had already been cheating with him. Jerry Hacker dour stuffed shirt of a junior executive, portrayed by Gary Burghoff as the anti-Radar O'Reilly. When Drew calls the suspects together he has the gall to ask "Why the wheelchair?" It's only disappointing that Drew doesn't answer "Because I need one, asshole." or "Trust me, it drive the chicks wild."
The episode has a nonlinear feel, perhaps because the 1942 murder was solved wrongly the first time and reopened by Drew, meaning that Ellery is giving it a third go. There are side-trips, as well. Ellery talks to the remarried widow while she sculpts a new model who, natch, throws herself at him. More interestingly he gets technical advice from a stage magician with a criminal past, one who might have made an interesting recurring character in the second season that never happened. The summation is visually interesting as well, a choreographed restaging of the first murder in the tiny cabin of a grounded plane.
There's a thrill and also a melancholy to seeing Ellery get his brilliant flash and turn to the camera the last time. At the end of it all he extends credit to the fallen drew, a nice gesture to end with.