Audio Drama Review: Imagination Theatre: The Investigators

The late Jim French is best remembered for his greatest creation Seattle-based, modern private eye Harry Nile. However, French produced many detective and crime shows during his remarkable four-decades plus in radio.  Imagination Theatre: The Investigators from Radio Spirits is a sampler pack of nine different crime shows that French produced over the years as part of his imagination theatre.

The set kicks off with three episodes of Harry Nile. These shows come from 1999, towards the tail end of run of Phil Harper (the original actor to play Harry Nile.) We’ve reviewed this series extensively before, but for those who haven’t heard of it, Harry Nile is a period piece set in the late 1939 through the late 1950s. Initially, he worked out of Los Angeles, but then he moved to Seattle where French’s research and attention to detail really shine. The episodes are superb. They’re tailored to provide a complete, compelling mystery in just about 20 minutes.

Next is three episodes of The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which isn’t to be confused with the BBC Radio series of the same name.  This stars John Patrick Lowrie as Holmes and Lawrence Albert as Watson. I’d listened to one of these before and hadn’t thought much of it. However, I did enjoy these. While they’re not the greatest Holmes’ pastiches and a few of the British accents are a bit iffy, the stories do have a Doylesque feel to them. While I wouldn’t consider them in the same league as Big Finish’s or the BBC interpretations, it’s better than 1947-49 radio version with John Stanley. If you enjoyed that take, you’ll enjoy this one as well. 

Following that, we’re treated to two episodes of The Adventures of Dameron which I was happy about.  Dameron was French’s first radio detective. The episodes in this set aired in 1972 and were set in contemporary times. Dameron (Robert E. Lee Hardwick) is a freelance troubleshooter who takes on all sorts of cases. He’s like a 1970s Frank Race, though generally with better production quality. There’s a dearth of 1970s radio detectives, so the two in this set are a definite treat.  We also get to hear actress Pat French who later played the role of Harry’ Nile’s secretary and partner Murphy.

We further get two episodes of Mr. Darnborough Investigates starring David Natalie. These are cozy mysteries made in 2005 and 2015 but they could have been done in the golden age of radio or over the BBC in the 1940s. Darnsborough is a gentleman detective who calls to mind Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey. If you enjoy those characters, you’ll like Darnsborough.

Then we get a couple episodes of Kerides the Thinker. This series has a different setting for a mystery series: Third Century BC Alexandria, Egypt. Kerides (Ulrick Dihle) is a travelling Greek student who goes around solving mysteries, accompanied by Adria, a former slave girl (Sarah Schenkkhan) who was freed after Kerides revealed her former master is a murderer. On one hand, I love the idea for the setting and it’s clear the writers did their homework. On the other hand, the mysteries are so-so and the way Adria is written makes her seem insufferably whiny and unpleasant. Instead of being grateful for her freedom, she’s upset she has lost her place in the world and has no idea what to do. It’s an interesting concept, but the way it’s realized doesn’t quite work for me.

Next up are three episodes of Kincaid, the Strange Seeker starring Terry Rose. This one is a series about a TV reporter who investigates mysteries that always have a supernatural cause such as bank robberies that turned out to be done by ghosts. I’m not a fan of supernatural mysteries, and I also wasn’t sure how to feel about these episodes. They weren’t scary and don’t have a Twilight Zone twist. The stories seemed off the wall more than anything else. In addition, I was bothered by how Kincaid got hit with unwarranted skepticism despite a solid track record. Other than that, the production values were still good. This just wasn’t my thing.

Following this, we’re given three episodes of Raffles, the Gentleman Thief starring John Armstrong. These are based on the character of A.J. Raffles, a brilliant gentleman thief created by E.W. Hornung.  These were popular in their time but have faded from public consciousness.  The adaptation does a good job of capturing the spirit of the original stories with good acting and good effects. The first two episodes are adaptations of Hornung’s original stories and the third is a solid pastiche. I’m not a huge fan of Raffles, but I could appreciate the way they handled the character. My only complaint is that Raffles, particularly as portrayed in these stories, isn’t an investigator of any sort, but plenty of people who enjoy detective fiction love Raffles. If you do, you will enjoy these stories.

Then we have the Hilary Caine Mysteries which is my second favorite thing that Jim French Productions put out. It features Australian Actress Karen Heaven as Hilary Caine, an on-staff “girl detective” for the British Tittle-Tattle Magazine. The series was set in the 1930s and finds Hilary stumbling into a crime scene being investigated by Inspector Finn (Randy Hoffmeyer). At first, she seems to be a bit silly, but ultimately she shows her cunning in solving the case. These are fun, light mysteries and Heaven is wonderful in the role of Hilary Caine.

The collection rounds up with two episodes (including one double length episode) of the Anthony Rathe Chronicles which is a modern British drama that follows the career of a guilt-ridden attorney who solves crimes to atone for a case he got wrong. It definitely has a modern BBC feel. It’s a bit soapy for my tastes, but the mysteries are well-written.

Overall, this was a fun mix of programs. While I liked some more than others, it was interesting to hear or re-listen to such a variety of detectives. It’s great to have a chance to appreciate all the audio dramas Jim French put out over nearly half a century, when most people thought audio drama was a thing of the past. I also think the success of this set may help Radio Spirits determine whether they release larger sets for Jim French series outside of the quite popular Harry Nile and Sherlock Holmes series.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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