A while back I said that the Columbo TV show was the finest series of inverted-detective mysteries ever. Banacek, another NBC mystery-movie series from the 1970s, isn’t the finest series of impossible-crime mysteries ever, but insurance investigator Thomas Banacek is still well entitled to hoist a glass of his preferred beverage in Detectives’ Valhalla with Dr. Fell, H.M. and Dr. Sam Hawthorne.
Banacek only lasted two years on the air (1972-74), with 17 episodes in all including the pilot. In The Columbo Phile, Mark Dawidziak speculates that the show didn’t stick around longer because while the puzzles were often first-rate, Banacek himself was a little bland compared to Columbo. He contrasts this with Magnum P.I. (I guess I now need to specify the original Magnum P.I.), which didn’t have particularly distinguished plots, but had a lead with charisma coming out of his ears.
(As an aside, this theory would also explain why Levinson and Link’s Murder, She Wrote did so much better than their Ellery Queen series that preceded it by a few years.)
I agree with Dawidziak, except I’d take it further: even as a pre-teen boy watching in 1972, I found Banacek hard to take. Partly it was that he usually seemed a little smug, even if as a brilliant detective he had good reason. Partly it was the silly “Polish proverbs” he quoted (i.e. made up)… but mostly it was his sexist attitudes towards women. No need to go into the details here, but if you’re going to watch the show, you just have to accept Banacek’s misogyny as part of the package. Of course, you can also opt not to watch it at all.
Anyway! The shows always had the same pattern: at the start of the episode, something valuable disappears under apparently impossible circumstances. The insurance company, standing to lose a lot of money, hires freelance detective Banacek to investigate, and after the requisite number of suspect interviews and fistfights, he recovers the item and explains who stole it and how (usually in a voice-over as we see the crime being pulled off in a silent flashback.) The 75 minutes or so between the crime and the explanation offer clues, guest stars who were famous in the seventies, and Banacek’s chauffeur inevitably coming up with a wrong solution, but of course it’s the ending that makes or breaks an episode.
So how do those endings stack up? Well, as with certain classic impossible-crime stories from decades ago, the mysteries may not be as baffling to experienced detective-story readers as they were to the average NBC viewer when the shows were first broadcast. Still, you probably won’t always beat Banacek to the solution, and even if you do, working out the “how” will usually be a lot of fun. So here are my mini-reviews of the first half of Season One:
“Detour to Nowhere”, by Anthony Wilson. Some TV series pilots differ significantly from the series that follows. This isn’t one of them, except that it’s two hours instead of 90 minutes. What seems to happen: an armoured car carrying a load of gold bullion veers off the desert road it was travelling on, leaving a clear set of tracks in the sand that end suddenly with no car or gold in sight… just the murdered bodies of the driver and guard who’d been inside.
Not a bad way at all to start the series, but this is one impossibility the experienced reader is not likely to have much trouble with.
“Let’s Hear It for a Living Legend”, by Del Reisman. What seems to happen: during a televised football game, a bunch of players pile on the opposing team’s star halfback. When they get up again, the halfback’s helmet is still there, but the rest of him has vanished. Soon enough, a ransom demand arrives…
The solution, if not very original, is still clever, and it’s audacious to have an impossibility take place in front of a TV audience of millions… but there is one thing Banacek (or someone who was watching the game) should have spotted right away that would have turned this into a 10-minute-long episode.
“Project Phoenix”, by David Moessinger. What seems to happen: a prototype car is loaded onto a train flatcar, but when the train arrives at its destination after a non-stop journey, both the car and the flatcar are gone.
A good Banacek is one where you can explain the gist of the solution in one sentence. This one is the opposite; even after watching the ending multiple times, I can never remember how the bad guys pulled their heist. One of the weakest.
“No Sign of the Cross”, by Robert Presnell, Jr. and Howard Browne. What seems to happen: in transit between a Mexican monastery and an American collector’s estate, a valuable crucifix disappears from an attache case that was in the care of couriers the whole time.
If “Project Phoenix” is one of the weakest Banaceks, this may be the best one of all, with a solution I didn’t see coming and that can indeed be explained in one sentence. Even if you don’t want to check out the entire series, this is a good one to give you a sample of the show at its best.
To be continued eventually…