DICK BARTON: THE CASE OF THE VANISHING HOUSE (1978) by Alan Radnor

Radnor-Vanishing-HouseIn the 1940s my mum and her sister used to rush home every school night to listen to the next exciting adventure of Dick Barton – Special Agent. Broadcast by the BBC from 6.45 to 7PM, the radio serials debuted in 1946 and were in the main written by Edward J. Mason and Geoffrey Webb. Barton, with his companions Jock and Snowey, smashed spy rings and brought down evildoers by the dozen, becoming a pop culture sensation. There were various spin-offs including comics and movies (I’ll be reviewing those soon) before the series ended in 1951. In 1979 the show was revived for television and Alan Radnor’s book was the third in a series of tie-ins that accompanied the screenings. It all begins when Barton gets a phone call from his Aunt Agatha …

I offer this book and TV review as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – click here for review links. I also submit it as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, this week guest hosted by George Kelley.

“Good heavens!” Barton exclaimed, suddenly.
“In the name of the wee man!” Jock muttered.
“Stone the crows!” Snowey added.

Barton takes his old war pals, the beefy Scotsman Jock and the Cockney mucker Snowey, to his aunt’s house, which has been reduced to rubble. It turns out that all the iron, glass and wood has somehow disintegrated. The tenant, a young scientist by the name of Harold Jenkins, has gone missing so Barton heads off in his trusty Riley Monaco to the research lab where he works. Predictably he is given the runaround, though he does find an ally in Harold’s fiancée, the feisty Shirley Reinham. When Harold’s mother’s house is also reduced to rubble, with no trace of iron, glass or wood, Barton realises that something very dangerous is afoot. It turns out that Jenkins was in fact working on a British secret weapon, the XB19, and that the scarred-but-smooth arch-criminal Dmitri Melganik has fooled Jenkins into handing over a prototype, one of only two in existence.

“If we’d had this a few years ago, old Jerry would have been surrendering to us in no time”

Dick-BartonThis is in every sense a romp and a highly amusing one. The heroes are pure and unsullied patriots while the villains utterly and irredeemably evil – and there are some classic cliffhangers too, including one where Jock is tied up in a house filling up with gas with Melganik (superb name for a villain) planning to detonate with a simple phone call. Best of all though is an extended sequence (in fact it stretches across the entirety of the sixth chapter and half way into the next, about a seventh of the entire book in fact) where Barton and his pals are trapped inside a sealed room swarming with deadly snakes – as this is a book for kids, our hero helpfully stops to gives us a brief lesson about said reptiles:

“Unless I’m mistaken, that creepy-crawly is a member of the genus Eutaenia – the deadly Green Garter Snake, which apart from its other endearing qualities happens to be the most venomous reptile known to man”

The boys ingeniously find a way to stall the snakes and finally make their escape thanks to the timely intervention of Shirley. After cracking a secret code that provides co-ordinates for Melganik’s rendezvous with a secret power (we guess it’s the Russians as it’s the late 1940s), it’s time for the climax, which takes place on the small coastal village of Dymchurch leading to a showdown with an enemy submarine.

The TV version (available in a perfectly acceptable edition from Simply Media in the UK), starring the ultra square-jawed Tony Vogel as Barton, followed the pattern of the original radio series by being shown in fifteen minute episodes, all introduced by Charles William’s immortal theme tune, ‘Devil’s Gallop’ and of course concluding with a cliffhanger. The production, aimed at younger viewers, is a bit low-budget unfortunately but the tone is light without being too tongue-in-cheek or campy, something largely down to Clive Exton and Julian Bond. These two hugely experienced TV writers were steeped in the lore of Golden Age mysteries. Bond adapted many Victorian and Edwardian tales for TV and a huge number of costume dramas too while Exton was the story editor for the first 15 years of the Poirot series starring David Suchet and also adapted the Jeeves and Wooster books for the Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry TV show. The TV serial, a six-parter by Exton, is very faithful to the book – but that is no surprise as the book was in fact (deep breath) a novelisation, something of a dreaded word in some circles.

“It’s like another contemporary American phenomenon that’s truly moronic. The novelisations of movies.” – Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) in Manhattan (1979)

In  Manhattan, Woody’s Allen chides Diane Keaton for novelising movies as she presents herself as such an intellectual heavyweight – he clearly thinks this kind of work is beneath her. But until the advent of home video these were often the only way to revisit a favourite movie or TV show. There are a great many famous examples of novelisations by such well-respected authors as Orson Scott Card (The Abyss), Theodore Sturgeon (Voyage to Dick-Barton-DVDthe Bottom of the Sea), James Blish (Star Trek), Thomas Disch (The Prisoner), Ken Follett (Capricorn One), Walter Wager (I, Spy) as well a great many in this genre by the likes of Michael Avallone, Ron Goulart and, perhaps most famous of all, Alan Dean Foster. In addition there are original tie-in books such as the excellent series of Monk mysteries by Lee Goldberg. Max Allan Collins, a prolific writer of novelisations and film and TV tie-ins as well as many original works too, has with Goldberg founded the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers (http://iamtw.org). For more on this subgenre, visit the Film Novelization blog or read Joe Queenan’s article for The Guardian, here.

Radnor’s book deliberately apes the sanitised old school approach of the original serials adopted by the TV show – there is plenty of humour but, being aimed at children, there is no sex, violence is very limited and otherwise nothing that might be considered in poor taste.  In total four books were published as tie-ins with the 1979 Dick Barton TV series, the second of these later turned into an audio book by the BBC and read by Toby Stephens (BBC radio’s most recent Philip Marlowe). The four books were:

  1. Barton-Formula-BBC-audioThe Great Tobacco Conspiracy by Mike Dorrell (after Clive Exton)
  2. The Mystery of the Missing Formula by Mike Dorrell (after Julian Bond)
  3. The Case of the Vanishing House by Alan Radnor (after Clive Exton)
  4. The Gold Bullion Swindle by Alan Radnor (after Julian Bond)

I didn’t have much in the way of expectations to be honest when I opened up this slim paperback, but this brief revisiting of my past (and my Mum’s) actually proved great fun and I look forward to reviewing the movie adaptations as they were made by Hammer Studios …

*****(2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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43 Responses to DICK BARTON: THE CASE OF THE VANISHING HOUSE (1978) by Alan Radnor

  1. Sergio – There’s something about those (dare I say it) clean-scrubbed, old-fashioned kinds of stories. Even if there’s not a lot of depth, strong characterisation or well-plotted stories, they fill a place in our culture. And during the time of war, I’m sure they kept a lot of people’s spirits up. I’m glad you’ve chosen one of them.

  2. Colin says:

    I don’t know how I missed out on this when I was a kid – I wouldn’t have been far off the target age I guess in 1979. Actually, this kind of Boys’ Own derring-do sounds a bit like Biggles stuff, which I certainly loved as a youngster.

    • Pretty much the same kind of thing – but I’m not 100% certain this was networked by ITV so it may not have made it across the pond mate!

      • Colin says:

        Ah, then that would explain its passing me by.

        • That and the very likely scenario that you had much better things to do :) I watched it slighty uncomprehendingly at the time but it was my Mum who thought I might enjoy Barton as she so loved it as a geL. I used to watch a lot of these sorts of things shown at teatime like Into the Labyrith with Ron Moody, The Clifton House Mystery as well as Dick Turpin and the like – I think we used to get the tie-in editions often as Puffin books, which we could order through the school. I remember really liking Septimus and the Danedyke Mystery with Michael Craig, which it turns out was scripted by Willis Hall … Happy days.
          DANEDYKE

          • Colin says:

            Hah! Yes, I guess I would have had better things to do. Of course then, as now, I probably wasn’t doing them.

            I certainly remember a lot of those TV shows you mention. I can’t say I read much in the way of tie-ins though – much of my reading in and around the late 70s would have been dominated by the likes of AH & the 3 Investigators.

          • Oh yes, definitely read those – turns out they were hugely popular in Germany, even after they removed Hitchcock from them! And then there were those ‘Adventure’ books by Willard Price – still in print by the looks of it …

          • Colin says:

            Yep, read all the Willard Price ones too. In fact I still have all those, the 3I books mostly hardcovers, lots of Biggles, Dr Who Targets and Hardy Boys mysteries all boxed up at my parents’ place. From time to time, I would also take a walk on the wild side and read a Nancy Drew mystery. There seemed to be a huge choice of mystery/adventure reading material available for kids in those days.

          • Never got into Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (though I did watch the TV show from Glen Larson (or ‘Glen A Larceny’ as he was known by some) which had a knock-out theme tune (see below) that was way better than the show ever was. Was it really 31? I thought it was about a dozen or so. Oddly enough I used to read the Terrance Dicks novelisation of WHO but never watched the show at the time (think it clashed with Buck Rogers).

          • Colin says:

            Yeah, I watched that show religiously – great theme indeed but not as good as the books.

            Sorry if I caused confusion there – 3I was supposed be shorthand for the three investigators. I think there were 14 Willard Price adventures in total.

          • Gotcha! Actually, mazing pre-credits for an episode of the show set on the Universal backlot that is probably awful but looks like a hoot:

          • Colin says:

            I remember that one! An amazing cast! Some of those episodes were directed by Joseph Pevney by the way.
            That Hollywood Phantom episode seems to be included on this DVD set: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000QRI4X2%3FSubscriptionId%3D035HRQETZS3GCGBJ3F82%26tag%3Dfindhotelinth-21%26linkCode%3Dxm2%26camp%3D2025%26creative%3D165953

  3. Kelly says:

    If there had been something like that on American TV, I’m sure I would have watched it. I can’t think of a TV spy series for young people, come to think of it, so we had no equivalent.

    • Until the late 80s there was a really strong tradition of TV for kids in the UK that was very imaginative and genuinely something to be proud of (Doctor Who being merely the most visible of them today) – for instance, if you haven’t sen Sapphire & Steel Kelly, you really must as it is quite extraordinary (I went on about it on another site).

  4. Todd Mason says:

    The US correspondents in radio-drama’s height was the likes of I LOVE A MYSTERY…and the HARDY BOYS/NANCY DREW series of the 1970s was well-enough produced but inane, as I remember it as a kid (and this would be when I still could watch THE CHAMPIONS with a reasonably straight demeanor, but still preferred THE AVENGERS, among the ITV/ABC imports). I’m hard-pressed to think of a kid-spy series, as well, till such post-BUFFY productions as the KIM POSSIBLE cartoon, and of course the SPY KID movies. (The horrible, in at least two senses, LANCELOT LINK, SECRET CHIMP series doesn’t count.) Kid members of superhero teams were certainly still about, though, from Robin to the just-post-adolescent ISIS sidekick, the adolescent Billy Batson of the Captain Marvel series SHAZAM!, the kids in THE SUPER-FRIENDS and DynaGirl, Robin to ElectraWoman…though the unworthy successors to I LOVE A MYSTERY were SCOOBY-DOO’s gang.

    I wonder if the international 3 Investigator novels were mostly translations of Robert Arthur’s work (and that he farmed out) or mostly original to their languages…

    Certainly, the degree to which novelizations have been taken seriously by their writers has ranged Enormously…Sturgeon wasn’t doing anything but a buck-hustle with VOYAGE, while Thomas Disch did a reasonably responsible job with THE PRISONER, and Barry Malzberg’s approach to PHASE IV was somewhat ambivalent but professional. Michael Avallone, with a sane plotline (at times) to hew to, could produce some of his more conventionally good work (his PLANET OF THE APES novel is certainly better than those of more talented writers on balance)…and certainly Lee Goldberg, one of the cofounders of the Tie-In writers group iirc, takes his work thus very seriously.

  5. Todd Mason says:

    And, of course, the precis for the novelizations of Woody Allen’s films from around the decade of MANHATTAN would be, “Sure, I’m a putz, Conventionally Beautiful Woman with Tics, but look how stupid you are not to see how wonderful I am Beneath my clownish aspect and inept masher’s demeanor!”

    • Actually, for the sake or keeping up one’s sense of irony, was there a novelisation of Manhattan? Stranger things have happened. Incidentally, saw Blue Jasmine the other week – a wonderful and very dark, almost brutal movie I thought.

      • Todd Mason says:

        Not aware of such a novel…Allen presumably would never allow it, and he was (over-) regarded enough to publish his screenplays in books, along with his sketches and such. Haven’t seen BLUE JASMINE yet, though a comedian the other day was noting on one of the podcasts I listen to, “Remarkable that an 80 year old man can describe the desperation of a 40 year old woman. Well, then again, how Does he manage to tap into the anguish of rich, white people? He certainly can’t ask his wife…well, she can still fill in the rich part…”

        • I suspect I am a bigger fan of Allen than that podcaster – but hell, taking potshots at the wife is surely refuge of the truly desperate … Jasmine is a kind of Eugene O’Neil view of Streetcar Named Desire for the Bernie Madoff era (if that makes sense) – Allen’s handling of the interlocking flashbacks is masterful in my view …

  6. Todd Mason says:

    Never did get into the series-detective books as a kid, but, then, most were so poorly-written. I wanted fantasy and other non-series stories from Arthur, along with his wonderful work as an editor, and the series I did read tended toward the somewhat less pedestrian…Keith Robertson’s Henry Reed and Midge Glass novels, the two Mark Twain novels about Finn and Sawyer and the not-bad novella (ABROAD) and rather dull novelet (DETECTIVE) that followed, the Newbery-Award bait about the family of dogs beginning with GINGER PYE (and, of course, the Dodie Smith dalmatian novels).

    • It is amazing how far the YA market has come since then. Going back to the Three Detectives in Germany, apparently over hundred original novels have been added by local writers (if we believe Wikipedia).

      • Todd Mason says:

        Well, it was already a golden age of YA by the time we were ready for them, Sergio (as you are slightly younger than I am…about four years or a little less). At least in the States…the Newbery Award and other publishing processes…I’ll grudgingly give a nod to Scholastic Book Services and less grudgingly to Dell Laurel Leaf and Yearling books…meant that there was quite a body of sophisticated YA (and the inevitable mediocre stuff that imitated the good stuff) by the end of the ’60s, and just expanded through the ’70s…today’s efflorescence of YA built heavily on the pioneering work we’ve cited, and that of such others as, not least, William Campbell Gault and Marijane “M. E. Kerr” Meaker. In fact, not a few hb folks (Frank Bonham comes to mind) were also doing solid YA work from the 1960s and the falling off of the adult paperback original market.

        I suspected as much, in re local 3 Investigators…

        • I really do want to track down some ME Kerr, as I have never read her (but have read a lot of Highsmith) – is it the Harry Potter factor that has changed the market but pushing YA books on to adult readers, thus infantilising adult readers even further ..?

  7. It’s amazing how books, movies, radio shows, and TV programs we loved in our youth exert such a strong pull on us as adults. I read (and loved) the TOM SWIFT, JR. series as a kid. Later in life, I reread some of the books…and the magic was gone.

  8. Yvette says:

    I loved all this episodic stuff when I was a kid growing up and my family were the last on my block to actually own a television. (An Admiral made in America which lasted about 12 years.) But of course my first intro to cliff hanger episodes was at the movies every Saturday. I must say, Sergio, I never saw any Dick Barton – at least that I remember. But I watched just about everything else. And then later when they were available usually on Saturday morning. Maybe Nioka of the Jungle was my fave. (I think that was the title.) But I also loved the serials where they were always trying to save the government from spies and who knows what and always kept their hats on when fighting.

    Thanks for another great post too. I so enjoy reading all this esoteric stuff you come up with. HAVING SAID ALL THAT, I never read any serialization books that I recall. Does Nancy Drew qualify? I read those religiously. Oh, and The Dana Girls, of course.

    • Thanks so much Yvette – on British TV in the 70s they used to show all kinds of stuff for kids, even old Republic serials like King of the Rocket Men which I loved (though not as much as “Buster” Crabbe as Flash Gordon).

      • Todd Mason says:

        Nyoka the Jungle Girl. Meanwhile, correspondent to the YA fiction, we over here in the ’70s saw some of your better (and cheaper) kids’ movies for television, at least, on the CBS SATURDAY CHILDREN’S THEATER…hosted by the cast of the well-regarded clever puppet show of the 1950s, Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Among the better series aimed at kids then…there was an armload of them.

        • I am so impressed that you got so much British TV then – I suppose it was cheap at that (and probably looked it too) but it’s amazing that it was felt to have any export value!

  9. Great selection, Sergio! I never read or saw Dick Barton though I can’t help thinking of similarities with THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. or vice versa, my knowledge of the latter largely accruing from Dell comic-books and perhaps an episode or two of the television series. I look forward to reading your spin-offs of comics and movies. The comments by Colin and Todd and your responses added to the fun of reading this post. Thanks, Sergio.

    • Thanks Prashant – interesting you mention UNCLE as I did use to read some of the tie-in novels credited to ‘Robert Hart Davis’, a house name used by the likes of John James, Harry Whittington and the ever-busy Michael Avallone and Dennis Lynds. In addition one of them, ‘The Pillars of Salt Affair’, was by a young Bill Pronzini in fact!

  10. TracyK says:

    This series sounds so cool, Sergio. We have too much of a backlog both in series to watch and books to read. I probably won’t be viewing / reading them for a while.

    The extra info about film / TV novelizations was also appreciated. Stuart Kaminsky did some novelizations but I have never tried them. I am too far behind on his other series.

  11. Skywatcher says:

    In the case of SPACE 1999 a trio of sci-fi authors (John Rankine/Brian Ball/E C Tubb) were commissioned to write the novelisations of the first series. The publishers lost the rights to do the second series, but found that they still had the rights to do a few more books connected with the first series. After a few original stories, they had one book left, and asked E C Tubb what he wanted to do with it. He took the basic idea of the show and totally rewrote it. Removing some of the more dodgy science in the show, he wrote a bumper length, proper science fiction novel which concluded the story in a way totally at odds with the second TV series being broadcast at the time. The only other time that I can remember something like this happening was in the case of the BBC series SURVIVORS from the 1970s. The creator of the series, Terry Nation, had a falling out with the producer of the show, and wrote a book which was essentially a novel rather than a novelisation, killing off characters who survived in the TV show, and ending the story in a completely different way to the TV show.

  12. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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