I picked up this box set containing the first (and only) season of the Ellery Queen TV show over the holidays, and I’ve really been enjoying it. This mid-70s mystery series was The Love Boat of crime, in that it cast older stars whenever it could. In the first three episodes, these luminaries show up, among others: Ida Lupino, Joan Collins, Ray Walston, Orson Bean, Don Ameche, Anne Francis, and Guy Lombardo playing himself in the New Year’s episode.
The only continuing characters were the gawky-cute Jim Hutton as Ellery, David Wayne as his father, the police inspector, and the unknown-to-me Tom Reese as Sgt. Velie. Oh, and John Hillerman played the recurring Simon Brimmer, a criminologist and radio host who obnoxiously interfered in cases but always got the murderer wrong.
These are old-fashioned mysteries, as you’d expect from the crew who brought us Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, producers Richard Levinson and William Link. Motive and characterization take second place to figuring out the clue, often a dying message. Ellery plays fair with us, though, stopping the show just before the final act to tell us when we should be able to figure it out. The episodes reward attention as a result; I’ve found that I can’t watch them while doing other things, as I can so much other television. The clues can be obscure, but the puzzles are fun.
To go along with the more leisurely pace of 70s television, the show itself is set in 1947, so there’s the additional appeal of period clothes, cars, technology, and so on. If you’ve read a lot of the Ellery Queen books, some of the cases will seem familiar, or bits of the setup will, anyway. A one-hour TV show has less time for complicated deductions than a novel. (The pilot episode, “Too Many Suspects“, for example, is loosely based on The Fourth Side of the Triangle, which was ghost-written by Avram Davidson.)
Joseph Maher and Jim Hutton (Donald O'Connor in background)
Anyway, the fourth episode (not counting the pilot movie) may be of particular interest to readers here. It’s titled “The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader“. (All of the episodes were “The Adventure of”.) Tom Bosley stars as Bud Armstrong, a murdered cartoonist who works for “Capricorn Comics”. Suspects include Donald O’Connor as “an ambitious lettering man”, Joseph Maher as “the layout expert”, two guys I didn’t recognize as a “background artist” and a “figure specialist”, and Lynda Day George as a “disillusioned secretary” (she kept getting hit on).
Art done one panel per drawing page
The sample art shown over the intro is interesting. It’s much larger than it should be, with a panel taking up an entire blank board page. The figures are almost Kirby-like in their action and exaggeration, but the fedora-wearing hero reminds me of Eisner. Maybe Ditko’s a good comparison? The lettering is horrible, badly spaced in the balloons and varying in size.
Bad lettering and a Kirby-like bad guy
The cartoonist is planning an action-packed version of Ellery’s adventures, without his permission, and as the detective tries to figure out who to get mad at, he works his way backwards through the craftsmen: from letterer to coloring and shading, then to background artist (who’s wielding a magnifying glass), then pencils. (That artist is holding a knife for inspiration, I guess, or modeling the hand. Note that the flow is almost manga-like, separating figure work from backgrounds instead of separating pencils from inking, which isn’t mentioned in the episode.)
It seems that Armstrong has his own studio, where everyone else does the work and he generates ideas. Ellery is becoming a comic book character (in the Wham! Pow! Zap! style, as Queen puts it) due to an unexpected clause in his new publishing contract. Ellery doesn’t like the idea of being shown as a fist-swinging brawler, so he threatens the cartoonist, who then winds up dead. Uh oh!
Ellery challenges the viewer to solve the mystery; the art has changed size
It’s ok, he was unpleasant to everyone. But Ellery has even better reason to solve the mystery than in most of his cases, since he’s under suspicion. He winds up in jail for a short bit, where he does nothing but read comics, including Captain Cosmos and Future Man, while drinking a glass of milk. Meanwhile, the letterer is working on a funny animal strip called “Swamp Critters” because he wants to be an artist and “there’s growing pressure in Washington against sex and crime in comic books.” Wow, that’s a plot twist I didn’t expect! Sadly, the actual solution doesn’t have much to do with it. I won’t spoil it for you in case you want to check out the set yourself. I recommend it!