There are many ways to get your GAD on! Sure, the purest the literary route, whereby you assemble your own TBR pile (that’s “To Be Read” for those of you who . . . well, I have no idea why anyone who doesn’t have a TBR pile would come visit me!) and whittle it down to a manageable size. (True GAD fans never succeed at the whittling down part.) There are also movies, which consist of a smaller sampling of mystery titles where most of the best were adapted from the books you should have read in the first place, but some of them \ successfully extend beyond the books themselves. (Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan and The Thin Man come to mind.)
We find even more good examples on TV. Perry Mason brought a whole new sensibility to the character than what we find in the novels. Suchet’s Poirot, Hickson’s Miss Marple, Jim Hutton as Ellery Queen, all sprang from the pages of the finest GAD. But there were some fine original characters that sprang from minds of TV writers, including Amos Burke in Burke’s Law, Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, rumpled, lovable Lieutenant Columbo, and of course . . . Scooby Doo!
Any examination of the artistic depiction of classic detectives must include the Age of Radio, which coincided with the Golden Age of mysteries and favored crime dramas over almost any other genre. Listening to a radio program required a good ear and a lively imagination, and the best crime shows stimulated both with effective acting, suspenseful music and special effects, and, if one was lucky, excellent writing. It wasn’t enough that many of the greatest classic sleuths were the inspiration of this or that program. If the writing didn’t sparkle, if the puzzle wasn’t strong enough or the mean streets where a P.I. wandered wasn’t effectively rendered, then a program would fall flat and soon be cancelled. This was the sad fate of Hercule Poirot in 1946 – perhaps relocating M. Poirot to New York and eschewing solid puzzle plots for riotous gangster fare was nota good idea.
This month, the Tuesday Night Bloggers are discussing our favorite great detectives to coincide with the upcoming release of Eric Sandberg’s 100 Greatest Literary Detectives. Comb through Sandberg’s table of contents and you’ll find several sleuths who ended up on the airwaves, some of them with great success. Unfortunately, Sandberg’s strictly literary list could not include a few of my favorites because they were radio originals. Here I present a half dozen of my favorite programs. Not all of them were great all of the time, so I’ll discuss the seasons or aspects of each that I particularly liked and recommend to you. You have no excuse not to listen. Not only are all of these shows available to hear online, but the wonderful website otrcat.com (and other sites as well, I imagine) is a treasure trove of old time radio. You can purchase hundreds of programs on mp3 discs for little more than loose change!
- The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
“The Petri Family – the family that took time to bring you good wine – invites you to listen to Dr. Watson tell us another exciting adventure he shared with his good friend, that master detective, Sherlock Holmes.”
From 1939 to 1950, you could tune in on Monday nights to hear Sherlock Holmes solve another mystery. My favorite radio Holmes was Basil Rathbone, who opened the series and left in 1946 when he grew fearful of being typecast as Holmes due to the popularity of both this show and the Universal film series. Throughout Rathbone’s tenure on the radio as Holmes, his radio Watson was his film Watson – Nigel Bruce. This will always be a controversial choice for true Holmes fans. I fully acknowledge that Bruce was horribly miscast in the role, although I think making Watson such a dunderhead was, even unconsciously, a nod to the tendency in 1930’s mystery novels for the Watson figure to appear more or less a fool. It made the reader feel so much smarter and provided some levity to the proceedings.
But I love the lovable dunderhead that Bruce made of Dr. Watson, and his grunts and murmurs were particularly effective on the radio. When Rathbone left the series, Bruce stuck it out for one more year, opposite Tom Conway, but the magic was missing (partly because the sprightly announcer Harry Bartel left and took his Petri Wine with him, replaced by a new sponsor – Kreml Hair Tonic), and Bruce left in 1947. Other actors took on the role of Holmes, perhaps most notably John Stanley, but the show went dark in 1950.
As good as Rathbone and Bruce were together on the radio, the real reason this show was so damn good – and counts as one of my favorites – was that most of the episodes were written by Anthony Boucher, who really knew his way around a puzzle mystery. With his writing partner Denis Green, Boucher both adapted Doyle’s original stories and created hundreds of original puzzle mysteries that challenged our wits far more than Doyle ever had.
As is often the case with these programs, far too many episodes are lost forever. The great news that coincides with this post is that Purview Press has unearthed a number of lost scripts and has compiled twelve of them in a new book (which arrived at my excited abode yesterday and will be reviewed in the near future.) The dozen original cases found in Sherlock Holmes, The Lost Radio Scriptswere written not by Boucher and Green but by Green and Leslie Charteris, the creator of The Saint. It’s an exciting find for both fans of Holmes pastiches and old radio hounds!
- The Casebook of Gregory Hood
“Well, it’s Monday night in San Francisco, and we have a date with Gregory Hood and his friend and attorney, Sanderson Taylor. Tonight’s rendezvous is at that delectable backwater –the Happy Valley room at the famous Palace Hotel. Let’s keep our date, shall we?”
Like most radio stars, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce demanded summer’s off to keep other engagements and to rest from the weekly grind of a radio show – actually, it wasn’t that much of a grind for these actors, who only worked two or three days a week – so Petri Wine had to come up with a summer replacement. Different shows filled the bill on the Mutual Broadcasting Network, and the selection for 1946 was The Casebook of Gregory Hood. Hood was a wholly original character created by Boucher and Green, and they applied the same expert ability at crafting a puzzle to these modern-day stories featuring Hood, a wealthy importer of all manner of objects, a consummate ladies’ man, and a fellow accomplished in as varied a set of skills as Sherlock Holmes himself. The program was so successful that summer that it continued in its own time slot in the fall and reappeared several times over the years on different networks.
I have only heard the episodes featuring Gale Gordon, most famous to American audiences as Osgood Conklin, the principal of Our Miss Brooks’high school, and as Mr. Mooney, the temperamental banker in The Lucy Show. Other actors, like noted radio star Elliot Lewis, also played the role, and I am slowly discovering a few episodes that have been released on podcasts or Lewis’ work. The episodes I have read are highly clever, well-clued mysteries that challenge the reader to solve them before the final commercial. Berkeley California resident took advantage of his knowledge of the Bay Area by setting the show in San Francisco, and this native son always enjoyed hearing in which city landmark each episode would begin.
- The Adventures of Ellery Queen
“I mean, Dad, that now I know the identity of the ghost of Dead Man’s Cavern!”
One of the greatest tragedies of radio for those of us who love a good mystery was that all but a handful of one of its best mystery series seem to be lost forever. Ellery Queen ran on various networks, and with many changes of cast, from 1939 to 1948. For much of its run, the series was written by none other than the books’ creators, Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. In 1945, Dannay’s responsibilities as an editor and publisher prevented him from continuing in a weekly capacity as a writer. When the team searched for a replacement to work with Lee on the series, they found the best, none other than . . . Anthony Boucher!
Ellery Queen was the purest puzzle mystery program every created for the airwaves. Each week, a new case was tackled by Ellery, his Inspector father, the harried Sergeant Velie, and Ellery’s secretary and non-girlfriend, Nikki Porter. Evidence of the popularity of the series can be found with Nikki, the only character created wholly for the radio. Audiences liked her so much that Ellery Queen introduced her into the pages of their books; plus, she appeared in several movies based on Queen’s character.
In each episode, a case would be presented, chock full of clues, often of the “dying message” variety. (One of my favorite of these is “Mystery of the Message in Red” – maybe it’s because I solved this one!) At a certain point, Ellery would announce that all the facts were before the audience, and a celebrity guest would be invited to match wits with the detective. A wide variety of people from the world of arts and letters came onto the show to act as armchair sleuths . . . and invariably failed at the task. I loved matching wits with the Queens; sometimes I even solved the crime!!
Again, only a handful of episodes survive for your audio pleasure, but you can get a sense of the program in a number of other ways. Check out one of the Queen’s best short story collections, Calendar of Crime: many of these tales were adapted from the radio. In addition, in 2005 the incredible publishing company Crippin & Landru published The Adventure of the Murdered Moths and Other Radio Mysteries, a collection of fourteen scripts from the Queen program, many of them not available to hear. I only hope someone will uncover and publish more of these one day.
- The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe
“Ladies and gentlemen, the ringing of that phone bell brings you mystery! Adventure! It’s that genius who is the bulkiest, balkiest, most ponderous and most brilliant detective in the world – yes, none other than that chairborne mass of unpredictable intellect, Nero Wolfe, created by Rex Stout and brought to you in the new series of adventures over this NBC network in the person of Mr. Sidney Greenstreet.”
Wolfe was adapted for radio a couple of times. The most successful program lasted only one season (1950 – 51) and was largely successful due to the casting of Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca) as the rotund sleuth. It was another successful puzzle-oriented program: all the cases were original, and admittedly none of them matched the flavor and relative complexity of the novels. But it did succeed at playing the game with the listeners, and, best of all, it got the relationship between Wolfe and Archie just right . . . despite the revolving door of actors who played Mr. Goodwin over the course of one season. These included Harry Bartel, the Petri Wine spokesman, whose voice was heard frequently in nearly all the shows mentioned in this article, and Gerald Mohr, who scored great success as the finest personification of another famous sleuth, Philip Marlowe.
- Broadway Is My Beat
“Broadway’s my beat, from Times Square to Columbus Circle – the gaudiest, the most violent, the lonesomest mile in the world.”
Hard-boiled mysteries were more popular in the U.S. than the classic British mystery because they were easier to write, more atmospheric . . . and because Americans couldn’t get enough of gangsters. Many otherwise staunchly cozy detectives transformed into action heroes on the U.S. airwaves, folks like Philo Vance, Hercule Poirot and Charlie Chan! This program was about actual cops, the Homicide division that covered the Broadway area of Manhattan. (The Richard Rodgers song “Manhattan” was the theme for the series.) For most of its run, the leading detective, Danny Clover, was played with Method intensity by Larry Thor. The cases he covered were decidedly downbeat, usually featuring the dregs of society, but the scripts were packed with a haunting poetic tone.
The sound effects for this show were amazing, requiring the services of three technicians. It was easy to imagine covering the beat with Lieutenant Clover as he tried to clean up the streets from organized crime or sort out the personal tragedies behind the walls of cheap tenements, gaudy theatres, and the occasional penthouse apartment. Clover could be tough as guns when called for, but he also had a bleeding heart and the soul of a poet. Often you would find him down at the morgue mourning the loss of another denizen of the mean streets of the Big Apple or tussling with the most viciously nihilistic forensic surgeon in all of crime fiction.
The show was daringly multicultural for its day, presenting the lives of African American and Latino characters with refreshing sympathy. Danny and his team usually got their man (or woman), but not without great loss. A bit of humor was supplied by Charles Calvert as Sergeant Gino Tartaglia, but even Gino could be hit in the solar plexus when the loss was great. I can’t listen to too many episodes of this one at one sitting without wanting to join Clover, Gino and Sergeant Muggavan at the local bar to tie one on after a particularly tough case.
- Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar
“Tonight and every weekday night, Bob Bailey as the man with the action-packed expense account, America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator – Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar!”
Johnny Dollar was the last great radio hero, and the final airing of the program on September 30, 1962, marked the literal end of American radio, at least as it had been conceived in its heyday. For most of its twelve-year run, it was a typical half hour drama about an insurance investigator who traveled extensively around the country (and even hit some foreign climes) pursuing the truth about suspicious claims. A half-dozen actors played the part, including in the pilot the noted film actor Edmond O’Brien. By far, the best Johnny Dollar was Bob Bailey, who had earned much love for starring in the radio crime series Let George Do It.
I’m going to narrow this down even more. The 1955 – 56 season retooled the series, introducing Bailey as Dollar and changing the format. Instead of one half-hour episode a week, each weekly adventure took place over five fifteen-minute episodes. This allowed the writers to develop the story and characters to an unprecedented degree. Bailey was absolutely charming as our hero, and a stable of fine actors – including Harry Bartel, Virginia Gregg, and Howard McNear – took on different characters each week.
The format would go like this: Johnny would receive a call from an insurance company, asking them to take on this or that “matter” (the word appeared in every title). You never knew what you were going to get each week: one case would plunge Dollar into an action adventure, the next into a legitimate traditional mystery. The twists would keep coming in the form of cliffhangers, and many cases ended with a surprise villain and few survivors. Johnny often fell in love with a woman in the case; it almost never ended well.
On the other hand, Jack Johnstone and the other writers of Johnny Dollar also had a sense of humor, and some of the cases were quite funny. My favorite is “The Laird Douglas Douglas Matter” where Johnny is hired by a nutty society matron to guard her prized Scottie terrier from a killer.
I can’t recommend this season highly enough. It was brilliant storytelling, some of the best in the history of radio. Sadly, the creators couldn’t sustain it, and in 1956 they returned to the weekly half hour format and the series became more ordinary. Still, Bailey remained a charmer and played the role until 1960.
I hope this has given you a taste to try one or more of these programs. Check out YouTube where much of this work has been posted. Better yet, go to otrcat.com and see the hundreds of great shows, including some really rare detective dramas, that are available for your listening pleasure.