CHALLENGE TO THE LISTENER: Ellery Queen on the Radio

I have long been a fan of old radio shows, and for me the best show ever to hit the air was . . . not Ellery Queen! It was, without a doubt, Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Jack Benny. Benny hosted a top tier program for nearly his entire career on the radio, and it comes as joyful news that you can hear nearly every episode ever made quite easily. The Old Time Radio website (www.otr.net) is a treasure trove of programs of all sorts, at reasonable prices. And nowadays, you can also hear a great deal online for free!

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Next to Benny, my favorite shows were old mysteries. There were a ton of them of varying quality, but many were quite wonderful, thanks in great part to the amazing writers who created or adapted these stories. John Dickson Carr wrote many of the early episodes of Suspense, and Anthony Boucher created wonderful stories for the Sherlock Holmes series, Gregory Hood, and Ellery Queen.

The biggest tragedy is how few of the 355 episodes that ran from 1939 to 1948 have survived to this day. On the OTR disc, there are around twenty programs, and I don’t think there are much more. This is a pity because, despite the fact that the show was buffeted from station to station and underwent many changes in cast and writing, it contained some of the cleverest mystery writing in radio history.

We members of the Tuesday Night Bloggers have spoken a great deal about the different periods and styles of Ellery Queen, the writer and, consequently, of the changing personality of the detective. The first Ellery, he of the “national” mysteries, resembled a young Philo Vance and focused purely on the puzzle. Then came the romantic Ellery who spent much of the brief Second Period of novels in Hollywood, followed by the Third Period Ellery who was, most many of us fans, the richest and best character.

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The Ellery of the radio was a more generic fellow but perhaps resembled the second period book character the most. He worked with his father, Inspector Queen, the trusted Sergeant Velie and Ellery’s Girl Friday, Nikki Porter, to solve a whole slew of interesting little problems. In keeping with the trends of radio, the tone of the show was often more hard-boiled than in the books, but the puzzle element never varied. This is where the Queen show differed from any other mystery radio program on the air. It maintained the “Challenge to the Reader” element found in the First Period novels and even added a fun celebrity quotient to the proceedings: at a certain point, Ellery would stop the show, and Nikki would introduce one or two “celebrity” guests, who would plug whatever they were currently involved with and then try and solve the puzzle. In one late episode, the guest, actor Kent Smith, plugs his current acting project with Katherine Cornell and then fails miserably at solving the crime. And that was the fun: the guests rarely succeeded, sometimes endearingly but mostly awkwardly. Then the solution would play out, and the guest would receive the latest Queen novel or short story collection and a year’s supply of Anacin or Bromo Seltzer to help with the headache that trying to solve the mystery had brought about.

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The pattern of each program didn’t vary much: a setting was created – sometimes the city itself and sometimes an unusual place like a train carrying circus performers, or a snowbound farmhouse guarded by a scarecrow. Three, maybe four, suspects were introduced, a murder occurred, and Ellery and company were on hand to interview, examine and solve the case. Americans liked hard-boiled mysteries like The Falcon, Sam Spade, and Philip Marlowe. (The Marlowe program, for the most part, also contained clever mysteries.) Consequently, far too many of the characters in the Queen program are named Snitchy or Duke. Yet, despite this, the puzzle element reigned supreme throughout the series.

Many of the cases involved Queen’s stock in trade clue, the dying message. My favorite of these is found in “The Message in Red” (11/7/45), where three women – a stenographer, a manuscript reader, and a French maid – are murdered, and Ellery must find the connection between them and the identity of their killer. The maid’s dying message is classic Queen; fortunately, this episode is one of the few that are available.

The program added to the lustre of the Queen name, especially considering how relatively poorly the sleuth fared on the big screen. An early television show all but wiped out the image of Queen that fans adored, while the later series, with Jim Hutton as Ellery, resembled the radio program in its focus on pure puzzles, and contained the added joys of big name guest stars and high production values.

 

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I want to recommend two books to those of you who might be interested in Queen on the radio. Francis M. Nevins, who wrote the wonderful Royal Bloodline (1974) about the Queens, teamed up with Martin Grams, Jr. to write The Sound of Detection, Ellery Queen’s Adventures in Radio (2002). It gives the whole scoop on the history of the series and includes information on every episode! Must reading!

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And then the inimitable Douglas Greene over at Crippen and Landru published an essential and incredibly entertaining collection of Queen’s radio scripts, The Adventure of the Murdered Moths, and Other Radio Mysteries. Here’s a chance to read some of the scripts that haven’t been saved. I think there are more scripts available in some vault somewhere, and it is my fervent wish that they will someday be made available to those of us who crave the chance to read “new” Queen adventures.

As an added treat, here’s a full radio episode, The Vanishing Magician, for you to enjoy.

Next month, the Tuesday Night Bloggers begin their exploration of Ngaio Marsh. I fear I won’t have much to say, but I will be glued to my fellow bloggers’ entries! I’m thankful to be connected to such passionate and knowledgeable writers. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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2 thoughts on “CHALLENGE TO THE LISTENER: Ellery Queen on the Radio

  1. I don’t think the EQ radio shows ever reached the UK, so this is completely unknown territory to me, and I found it most interesting. I love radio and got that feeling of nostalgia for something I’d never even heard… Thanks, Brad.

    Like

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