The Teckman Mystery


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Teckman Mystery
"An enjoyable slice of nearly-noir, the Teckman Mystery is close to being a fossil-record technothriller."

It is, pun intended, a seemingly chance encounter. The novelist, Philip Chance (John Justin) finds himself sitting beside a young lady who is reading his latest. He strikes up a conversation with her (naturally might be too strong) and discovers that she (Margaret Leighton) is sister to the subject of his next book. Except he's not intending to write it, and, more importantly, someone else is. The mystery starts there, but it goes further.

There are some signs that this is from the 1950s. Beyond the smoking on aeroplanes (followed, naturally, by a brandy), there's a line about the youth of the titular Mr Teckman, and the proposed biography "imagine writing a book about anyone so young", he says, but Teckman's an interesting subject nonetheless - a test pilot who "lived for aeroplanes" and went missing when his latest steed (the F109) failed in mid-flight.

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Chance is returning from France, after a cable from his publisher. He discovers that he's been burgled, but it's an Inspector who calls. His publisher tells him that the writer who had the task has become indisposed - more than, in fact - she too has had an accidental encounter, hit by a car.

The F109 (a swooping ray-gun 1950s effort, not immediately recognisable to your correspondent but probably close kin if not direct doppelganger of the Gloster Javelin), the F number a reference to an Air Ministry specification that has no direct equivalent in reality. OR.109 was the Hawker Tempest (a propellor driven Typhoon II, long before the Eurofighter), UB.109T was a prototypical cruise missile, and the Javelin was variously procured under F.4/48 and OR.227, and offered under a few P. for Pursuit designations rather than F. for Fighter. All this is in service to an air of realism, a very particular Cold War paranoia, one of offers from American magazines and mysterious buttons found on floors, and, inevitably, murder.

A spy thriller of a very particular mould, it feels almost inevitably stilted at several decades remove. This is a very particular kind of protagonist, a gentlemanly detective, if one will, and very much amateur in the classic sense. Pearls and cigarettes abound, tea trolleys and housekeepers in bachelorette pads, gentlemen's gentlemen and corpses in bachelor pads, the 1960s just over the horizon with progressive fashion designs and a creeping bakelite modernity - the model of the F109 might be made out of wood, but it's a herald of the jet age. The airliners at the airport might be propellor driven, but their turbine cousins are just over the horizon.

It's the telephone that's harbinger of further revelations - lines of enquiry, and all that - but there's a playfulness in Chance's character that belies the seriousness of the situation. Call it subversive - a label that's thrown around a few times.

Directed by Wendy Toye, there's a comic sensibility that reflects her later work, but it's a wry and arch and knowing humour rather than anything too broad. There's still a sense of danger, stark reminders of the Blitz in some of the exterior shots, the war within immediate memory. There might now be floral curtains, but there's still something lurking behind them.

Co-written by James Matthews and Francis Durbridge, the film would seem to condense a six part teleplay (The Teckman Biography) into a more efficient package. Durbridge's past as a novelist is reflected in a similar sort of wish fulfilment as Fleming's Bond's jet set cocktail consumption, and the film borrows the theme The Shadow Waltz from the longer version. That three-step into darkness is indicative of Chance's dance through espionage.

An enjoyable slice of nearly-noir, the Teckman Mystery is close to being a fossil-record technothriller. Theodore Sturgeon's definition of science fiction was a human problem with a human solution, caused and brought about by science, and Bruce Sterling described a technothriller as a "science fiction novel with the President in it". With a little Westministerial substitution (including a stakeout on London's Tower Bridge) this more than fits the bill. The fate of Teckman and the F109 abounds with small details - from a small nod on the calendar on a mantlepiece to the prototypical nature of young Teckman's flightplan. Technically proficient, gripping throughout, it suffers more from being early than any real flaw, and it manages to keep elements of surprise to the very end.

Reviewed on: 06 Jul 2017
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The Teckman Mystery packshot
A biographer researching a book on a pilot who died during the test flight of a new plane falls in love with the pilot's sister. As he uncovers more about the test flight, people connected with the case begin to die.
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Director: Wendy Toye

Writer: Francis Durbridge, James Matthews

Starring: Margaret Leighton, John Justin, Roland Culver, Michael Medwin, George Coulouris, Duncan Lamont

Year: 1954

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK


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