In 1961 Clue of the New Pin became one of the first of the Edgar Wallace Mysteries series made at Merton Park studios to sit on the lower birth of a cinema double bill. Originally released in Britain at a rate of roughly one-a-month between 1960 and 1965, they proved hugely popular (for a complete list of the films, with links to my reviews to be added as I go along, visit my dedicated page here). Based on the 1923 book of the same name, it offers a locked room mystery with an oriental flavour …
The following is offered for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason at his fab Sweet Freedom blog and Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.
“It isn’t a spring lock, you notice,” he said. “So, therefore, it couldn’t have been slammed by a murderer who first shot Trasmere and then made his escape. It has to be locked either from the inside or the outside. If there was any reasonable possibility of Trasmere having shot himself, the solution would have been simple. But he did not shoot himself. He was shot here, the door was locked upon him, and the key returned to the table–how?”
The Book: First published in 1923, the protagonist is Somers ‘Tab’ Holland, a newspaper journalist who gets involved in the death of Jesse Trasmere, a shady businessman said to be worth millions but who only deals in cash, allegedly keeping all his (ill-gotten?) spoils in a massive vault in the basement of his home. The house itself is securely locked up every night in an attempt to make it virtually impregnable. Trasmere, who was born near the Amur River, still has strong ties to Chinese communities on the mainland and also in London, mainly in the shape of restaurateur Yeh Ling. Trasmere’s impecunious nephew Rex Lander is in love with the actress Ursula Ardfern and is also a friend of Tab’s.
The plot kicks in with the unwelcome appearance of Wellington Brown, a drunken old associate of Trasmere, who threatens the old man unless he hands over substantial amounts of cash. Soon after Tab and Inspector Carver find Trasmere shot to death and locked inside his own vault – with the only key inside with him and the gun missing! And then there is the matter of how a set of jewels stolen from Ursula Ardfern also ended up in the strong room. The only clue is a pin found at the scene of the crime …
“A murder lends to the locality in which it is perpetrated a certain left-handed fame which those of its inhabitants who appear most disgusted most enjoy.”
This book is very easy to find for free and has been published online in various places, such as here. As a whodunit it is pretty solid and on the whole I thought Wallace did a pretty decent job of hiding the murderer’s identity. The mechanics of the locked room are a bit on the technical side, which I tend to dislike usually because I find them hard to visualise (same thing goes for the technical info dumps you get in modern techno-thrillers). I am after all a simple man of limited mental powers … However, the 1961 film version brought the locked room murder method front and centre, so that helped me understand it much more clearly! In other respects though the book was not followed very faithfully.
“You are a cheerful little soul, Carver!”
“Better be cheerful than dead,” said the detective cryptically …
The Film: In updating Wallace’s book, screenwriter Philip Mackie turns Holland into a TV presenter and compresses the narrative and roster of characters to suit the requirements of low-budget filmmaking and a one-hour running time (58 minutes to be exact). However, he also made a significant narrative shift, which I am going to have to be slightly circumspect about because he decided to reveal the identity of the murderer, and the complex murder method, very early on.
Absurdly, as was still the custom at he time, the role of Yeh Ling (now turned into Trasmere’s manservant, who unlike the equivalent role in the book, is faithful to his employer and not stealing from him) was played by the Caucasian actor Wolfe Morris, who is subsequently not very convincing. While the Chinese are seemingly the main villains, Wallace proves to be somewhat ahead of the curve I’m glad to say, making this book stand up much better compared with many other titles of the time, with the ‘Yellow Peril; presented as a dubious cliché. However, in he film the elaborate subplot involving Yeh Ling has been largely filleted out, like the part of the story dealing with Ursula Ardfern and her jewels, which now only get a token mention (oh, and her fist name is changed to Jane for good measure).
“You thought I was a very ordinary Chink?” he said. “Possibly I am. I hope I am,” he said.
None the less, despite turning a decent little whodunit into a thriller and a rather clever murderer into a very stupid one, this is still an efficient little movie which at an hour in length is plenty of fun, especially with eternal upper-class character actor James Villiers being given a prominent role as Tab, while Bernard Archard is typically grave and commanding as Inspector Carver. The film is a great way to while away a quiet afternoon, especially in the excellent new edition on DVD. Incidentally, the book is also, in a really marginal way, the source for the Italo-German Giallo-Krimi crossover What Have You Done to Solange? which I’ll be posting about separately quite soon.
The DVD: Network have released all of the Edgar Wallace Mysteries produced by Anglo Amalgamated on DVD across seven box sets, with an omnibus 21-disc box set also available. Extras include liner notes by Kim Newman, stills galleries and another 7 films loosely related to, but not actually part of, the series. Volume 1 includes Clue of the New Pin, and as a bonus Vernon Sewell’s Urge to Kill and John Kruse’s brooding mini-masterpiece, October Moth.
Director: Allan Davis
Producer: Jack Greenwood
Screenplay: Philip Mackie (from the novel by Edgar Wallace)
Cinematography: Bert Mason
Art Direction: Peter Mullins
Music: Ron Goodwin (theme music by Michael Carr)
Cast: Paul Daneman, (Rex), Bernard Archard (Carver), James Villiers (Holland), Katherine Woodville (Ardfern), Clive Morton (Brown)
I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘revolver’ category: