Colonel March of Scotland Yard: Miraculous Shades of Black and White

"My work in the Department of Queer Complaints is concerned only with the improbable and, well, frankly, the unbelievable."
- Colonel March (The Sorcerer).
John Dickson Carr's Mephistophelean cunning and his incurable romantic disposition proved to be a fruitful union that gave birth to a number of memorable detectives, like the Chestertonian Dr. Gideon Fell and the curmudgeonly Sir Henry Merrivale, but it was his official policeman, Colonel March of Department 3-D of Scotland Yard, who became a regular on the small screen between 1956 and 1957 – finding an explanation for more than twenty cases of the bizarre and impossible.

Col. March has an eye for details
The thirty-minute episodes were (loosely) based on the stories in The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), in which Colonel March is called upon to investigate implausible stories in order to determine whether they are exaggerations, hoaxes or cleverly disguised crimes. Colonel March of Scotland Yard follows the pattern of the short stories, but the inescapable modifications are present as well and the most "eye-catching" one is Boris Karloff as March – who doesn't fit the description of a speckled man with bland eyes and a short pipe projecting from under a cropped moustache (which may be sandy or gray). Inexplicably, March was given an eye-patch, which occasionally causes a collision with one of the sets that wobbled in the background, but Karloff played the amiable detective convincingly and actually gave March more of a personality than he had in the original stories.

I finally decided to watch a few episodes and in spite of the dated production values, retooled stories or forgetting to drop a clue here and there it was a blast to watch. It’s basically a direct ancestor of Jonathan Creek with its locked rooms, bizarre occurrences and light-hearted undertone.

The framework of The New Invisible Man is the same as its eponymous story and has March looking into the unbelievable story of Major Henry Rodman, who witnessed a shooting in the apartment of his neighbors and the only description he was able to give of the murderer is that of a pair of floating, disembodied gloves – filled with invisible hands. However, this amusing yarn Carr spun was merely a subplot in the episode and a layer saturated with criminal intent was added to the story, which, IMO, was a mistake. The story from the collection perfectly demonstrated what kind of unusual problems March's department handles and tossing a common garden variety of crime cheapened the plot. But it was fun to see with my own eyes how the trick looks like in real-life. 

"Piltdown Man" hoax inspired the following episode.

An ancient skull called "Damascus Man," known as The Missing Link, which's also the title that was slapped on this episode and opens with an attempted theft of the skull by two museum employees, Tom Grafton and Evelyn Innes, in order to expose Sir Henry Danier as a fraud – except that the skull does end being stolen but by whom and why? This is more a story of crime and archeological skullduggery than of detection, but an enjoyable one at that.

Over the course of the next episode, The Sorcerer, John Cusby suspect his wife's psycho-analyst, Dr. James Patten, of plotting her demise and fumes with malicious intent, but it's his wife who ends up as a suspect when Dr. Patten is stabbed to death with one of her hatpins inside his, locked and windowless, treatment room – with Mrs. Cusby as its only other occupant. I was afraid the entire episode that the plot would hinge on hypnosis with Mrs. Cusby as a remote-controlled assassin, but the trick used to enter the sealed room was surprisingly good. Simple but effective. 

Death in Inner Space is Carter Dickson as conceived by Clayton Rawson or Fredric Brown, opening with March giving a speech for the Society of Interplanetary Communication, where’s invited by Dr. Hodek to spend a few days at his home – where's working on experiments with suspended animation. He’s convinced that he has been receiving radio signals from Mars and that, one day, we will be able to visit our Martian neighbors and his work is the first step. Unfortunately, one of his experiments goes horribly wrong and his volunteer dies due to a lack of oxygen in spite of a perfectly working alarm system that should've warned Hodek in case anything went wrong. Not all that bad, but the premise was more interesting than the solution and the ending was ambiguous.

The Invisible Knife has an unusual take on the multiple spouse-killers: a man who regularly has to bury business partners. Basil Pennacott had them all over the world, from Bombay to Tangier, and he profited from all of them – especially after they died. Four of them appeared to have died of natural causes, but the fifth, Edmund Hays, was stabbed in the proverbial locked room while attempting to summon demons. Pennacott was there with him, but was never charged because the police was unable to find the murder weapon. But now that Basil has come back to England, he finds himself being threatened by the Hays' brother, who mailed him a dead parrot with a poisoned beak, and asks March to protect his life. This gives the story a nice dual conflict of having to protect an unscrupulous murderer on one hand and trying to prevent an innocent man from becoming one on the other. The trick for the vanishing murder weapon was culled from "The Dragon in the Pool," which was a radio play Carr penned for Appointment with Fear.

You can expect more posts on this series in the not-so distant future, but you can also discover them for yourselves on YouTube


  1. I watched one of these when I read about them on someone's else's blog. Can't remember whose. Maybe Mystery*File. Since I have read all the stories I watched a few of the episodes based on the original March tales. Merely OK, IMO. The first one was dull can't even remember the title. The one about the hypnotist psychiatrist ad it was pretty dull. "Death in the Dressing Room" was one of the better ones I watched but not without major faults. It omitted the pickpocket aspect of the story. Also, the big clue that allows March to solve the crime involving a mask that the exotic dancer wears wasn't even included in the episode. As a result the entire plot had to be re-written changing the clue to an arcane bit about hand choreography differences in Asian dance. As Carr wrote the story it was fair play, in the TV episode the viewer could never solve the crime. I do, however, like the gimmick of showing the murder weapon (or some other tantalizing object) at the beginning of each show.

    1. Yeah. They weren't exactly improving Carr's stories in the ones I saw, either, but then again, I didn't expect them to do that. I had really low expectations going in and was amused by what I found, in spite of their short comings. Besides, I have seen and read about worst adaptations. Remember that version of Murder on the Orient Express Patrick blogged about? Stuff of nightmares, John, nightmares!

  2. I've watched a few of this series (none of those you mention) and enjoyed them, though it has been a while, so I don't remember details. They were definitely produced on the cheap.

    1. One reviewer of this series pointed out that in some episodes you can actually see the actors trying not to break anything on the set. Because the entire set was basically cheap, paper-thin junk.

  3. Allegedly the eye patch came froma mis-reading of 'bland eye' for 'blind eye' - I choose to believe this probably apocryphal story as it really amuses mme ...

    1. I believe it on your authority. That's my excuse, if it turns out to be wrong. ;)