10 January 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Mind the doorframe, Boris
John Dickson Carr was a mystery author who specialised in locked-room whodunnits and other 'impossible' crimes: murder mysteries that seemed to defy possibility. Under the pen-name Carter Dickson, he published a series of tales called 'The Department of Queer Complaints', in which a master criminologist is called upon to solve 'X-Files'-type murders.
'Colonel March of Scotland Yard' was a syndicated series, starring Boris Karloff in episodes based on Dickson Carr's 'Queer Complaints' stories. The production budget for this series was laughably low; walls and furniture are clearly flimsy sets, and the actors are obviously taking care not to break anything. When a door opens, the doorframe wobbles. Karloff's splendid professionalism and innate dignity do much to offset this problem.
As the tweedy Colonel March, Karloff wore a patch over his left eye, although the scripts never explained how March lost this eye. I found it plausible that Scotland Yard in the 1950s might retain a one-eyed detective. On the other hand, watching Peter Falk in episodes of 'Columbo' in the 1970s, I find a similar circumstance very implausible. Falk is a brilliant actor, but he clearly has a prosthetic eye ... and I can't believe that the Los Angeles police force in the 1970s would retain a one-eyed detective. In 'Colonel March', the eyepatch obscuring Karloff's vision causes him just occasionally to bump into one of the wobbly sets.
It's no surprise that each episode of 'Colonel March' ends with Karloff tidily solving the mystery. Unfortunately, in some cases the explanation verged on the supernatural. This violates the spirit of the 'impossible' crime, in which the solution (however implausible) must still remain within the laws of scientific possibility.
Karloff was ably abetted by Ewan Roberts, and by veteran character actor Richard Wattis ... who wore hornrimmed glasses here, and gave a performance less effeminate than usual for him. For all its many flaws and its very dated appearance, 'Colonel March' remains enjoyable for mystery fans in general and fans of Boris Karloff in particular.