Radio liked Private eyes. Beginning with America's love affair with pulps such as True Detective magazine in the twenties and combining with our love of mystery, especially in the forties and continuing into the fifties, radio's love affair with private eyes brought us many good series. Crime drama has always translated well into our imaginations and radio took advantage of that.
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One of the earliest was sponsored by the National Surety Company and featured one of its operators, a Detective Harkness. Based on the company's case files and solved by the fictitious Harkness, stories were presented as first person narratives. This show appeared on NBC in 1930 under the title Secret Cases and moved quickly from the opening announcement to the story as told by Harkness:
"I'm not going to waste any time or words getting into tonight's story. One day, not so long ago, I entered my office in the National Surety Company's building as the phone was ringing."
Harkness wasted no time getting to the story immediately; a story told in his own words. The first person narrative in detective fiction reached its zenith with a series such as Sam Spade and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Use of this technique for telling a story worked well in radio drama and especially in the detective genre where an interior or narrative voice was often used. It allowed the listener to relate immediately to the main character and pulled the audience directly into the story. The success of much of the detective fiction born out of the pulps is attributed to the type of character created by pulp authors. The private detective tended to operate outside of the law in order to bring criminals to justice. They lived and worked among the seamier side of life, and there was definitely a class society where the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. In his essay on The Simple Art of Murder Raymond Chandler describes the (mostly hardboiled) detective and his qualities:
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
In much of this genre we constantly read the detectives own thoughts. Radio's use of the first-person narrative allowed us to hear those thoughts. Whether we listened to Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, their opinions were always forthcoming, usually through their narration of the story. Through this stream-of-consiousness, we get both the detectives own thoughts and opinions as well move the storyline along. Some radio drama will use a more objective outside "other" voice for narration of a story such as what you hear in The Whistler or The Shadow. But the radio detective genre, especially from the mid-forties onward, used the stream-of-consciousness method. It strengthened the character as well as gave us insight into the character.
Most radio detective series also used the sidekick character as a foil to the detective and as a means to ensure dialogue. Within the history of detective fiction, probably one of the first though not well-defined, was the narrator cum sidekick in Edgar Alan Poe's The Purloined Letter. He was a sort of sidekick to the detective Dupin:
“There can be no doubt of that,” I replied unwittingly, and not at first observing (so much had I been absorbed in reflection) the extraordinary manner in which the speaker had chimed in with my meditations. In an instant afterward I recollected myself, and my astonishment was profound. “Dupin,” said I, gravely, “this is beyond my comprehension. I do not hesitate to say that I am amazed, and can scarcely credit my senses. How was it possible you should know I was thinking of --?”
The radio sidekick was usually not as able as the detective in deductive power. Using a sidekick also helped the listener focus on the abilities of the main character. Among the various detective shows, Lamont Cranston The Shadow had Margo Lane, Sherlock Holmes The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes had Watson, and Joe Friday Dragnet his Ben Romero. The sidekick in radio detective stories was there partly to allow the main character, the detective, to have someone to talk to other than himself. This was the opposite of a program using the previously mentioned stream-of-consciousness approach. It was the pulp, noirish, detective for whom radio scripters used the latter approach. The sidekick approach was intended more to bring out the "brilliance" of the main detective character. Margo Lane was in awe of Lamont Cranston's abilities; John Watson also was in awe of his friend's deductive abilities, but he also served to act as a foil to his partner in detection; Joe Friday's sidekick was more due to the realities of actual police work and also to give Friday someone to react toward as he worked to solve a crime. Where Friday was rather laid back, Romero usually spoke his mind, sometimes to his own embarassment.
Many detective programs of the mid-forties onward on radio featuring a key character as a private eye were of the hardboiled type. Historically, the hardboiled detective began showing up in writing in the stories of Emil Gaboriau at the turn of the century. Gaboriau based his detective upon a real life cop who was in fact a criminal before he turned. But also the American hardboiled detective was born from the pages of the dime novels, or pulps, which were the entertainment for many juveniles and others prior to radio. Early stories featuring Nick Carter had such an edge. But it wasn't until the 1920's that the hardboiled detective took on a more solid form. This genre sprung from the writings of James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. All published stories in the pulps of the day; all moved the concept of the loner, hardboiled detective into high gear.
Dashiell Hammett's character, Sam Spade, came to radio in The Adventures of Sam Spade starring Howard Duff. Publishing in magazines such as Black Mask, Hammett's written character was the classic hardboiled detective: ruthless, making no moral claims, but not without scruples, yet without sentiment for criminals. Hammett's detective model was born out of his Continental Op, who remained unnamed until Spade came along. Though Spade only appeared in one novel, he was the Continental Op. Sam Spade could not be bribed even though he appeared to be low enough to accept a bribe. However, he was not opposed to the occasional bonus which might not be totally on the up-and-up. Yet he was without pity for crime. In The Maltese Falcon, where appearance and reality are not always the same, he turns Brigid O'Shaughnessy, whom he could love, over to the police because she was responsible for the death of Spade's detective partner. Miss O'Shaughnessy was first introduced as Miss Wonderly. Again goodness is not always what it seems - it can be deadly and a detective needs to "hardboil" himself against corruption. Still, the morality involved in the killing of someone whom Spade felt essentially a good man could not go unpunished.
The Sam Spade of radio could be brutal as well as a loveable character as reflected in the eyes of his secretary, Effie. Duff plays the character with some tongue-in-cheek while still maintaining an aspect of the grittiness from the novels. Compare Duff's Spade, to that played by Humphrey Bogart, who is probably closer to the Hammett creation and is usually considered the definitive Sam Spade. Bogart appeared on radio in the Screen Guild Players version of The Maltese Falcon.
Raymond Chandler was another one of the triumvirate of hardboiled fictioneers whosecharacter appeared on radio. Chandler created a detective, Philip Marlowe, who, as with Spade, was tough but usually fair. Marlowe seemed more loyal than Spade, more easily trusted. Radio's Marlowe was first portrayed by Van Heflin with a tough but fair attitude. Gerald Mohr created a wonderful Marlowe who sounded tougher and grittier than Heflin's
portrayal. Van Heflin's Marlowe appeared over NBC, but later, CBS produced The Adventures of Philip Marlowe. Directed by the great Norman MacDonnell, the punch-in-the-face opening set the mood immediately. Chandler's Marlowe was of a higher moral plane than Hammett's detectives and though tough, they sometimes fell victim due in part to their sense of morality getting in the way.
Probably the radio detective whose genealogy in the private detective development most came from the branches of writers like Carroll John Daly's Race Williams, was Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. Like Race Williams, Hammer was brutal and was equally brutalized. This branch is closer to the brutality one sees in today's video game heroes where the world is more dog-eat-dog, survial of the fittest in tone. Radio's Hammer was toned down by censorship, but still his tough world can be heard in this episode from the radio version called That Hammer Guy.
Beyond the harboiled detective, radio produced detective characters with more intellectual deductive powers and less brute force. One of the earliest (1932) was the Honolulu detective, Charlie Chan. In The Adventures of Charlie Chan , the detective as portrayed by Ed Begley and others was much more cerebral in solving crime, relying less on brute force. A little earlier in 1930, came one of the most famous detective's of all time, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Holmes was known chiefly for his deduction; the dramas featured very little action. Basil Rathbone was the best known radio Holmes, but probably not the most definitive. Scripts were by Edith Meiser, but she often did not stick to the Holmesian Canon. Later when Anthony Boucher and Denis Green took over the scripting, the stories tended to stick to that Canon. Back on the American side, was the character created by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. Ellery Queen was a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, using his deductive powers to help his police-detective father solve crimes. Finding clues that no one else noticed and mentally arranging the pieces, Queen was able to solve the crimes. The radio Queen first stepped up to the microphone in 1939. (Download an Ellery Queen script). This series also used a unique device to involve the audience by stopping the action to solicit possible solutions to the crime.
Probably the epitomy of detection through deduction was a rather curious and corpulent private eye created by the mystery writer Rex Stout. Nero Wolfe is described in the Oxford Companion to American Literature as a "gourmet and connoisseur who solves crimes without leaving his desk." Wolfe in fact was an obese lover of beer and orchids. His sidekick, Archie, did all the legwork, but it was Wolfe who solved the crimes; sometimes even without Archie providing the clues. Portrayed in radio in The Adventures of Nero Wolfe by the actor Sydney Greenstreet, who is best known as one of the criminals who wants to get his hands on the Maltese falcon, Greenstreet had a gritty, smoker's voice that described an overweight man.
The most often remembered radio detective among Old Time Radio fans, though not born of the pulps is easily, Johnny Dollar. Dollar was of the hardboiled school, but as portrayed, varied in style over the life of the radio series. Strictly a creation for radio, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was based on the concept of the insurance investigator with an expense account. The series always totaled the costs at the end of each play. Beginning with Charles Russell as the first detective "with the action-packed expense account" the series got off to a shaky start. By the end of the first season, Russell was out, replaced by the popular film actor Edmund O'Brien. O'Brien's portrayal was tougher more hardboiled, less sophisticated. When O'Brien left, John Lund stepped in for a couple of seasons, but he soon left allowing probably the best Dollar portrayed to come into the role. That actor was Bob Bailey, fresh from his role as George Valentine in Let George Do It (another detective, by the way). Bailey created a sensitive, but equally tough detective in Johnny Dollar. This period was the best for the series also thanks to its producer, writer, director, Jack Johnstone, though when Bailey left after the series moved to New York, eventually Mandel Kramer, another excellent Dollar starred.
Had radio drama survived, it is without question that the detective genre would be one of the more popular themes. But most likely the characters would be tough but with a greater sense of humor. The depression 30's followed by the War years were perfect for the more cyncial detectives, but as prosperity gained so too did the detective character become less concerned with the sense of class struggle. The tradition is carried on with varying quality in the likes of Otherworld Media's Goldfish, a Raymond Chandler mystery. Or in the Tom Lopez tradition of Ruby, the Galactic Gumshoe, or even Jack Flanders, though the ZBS productions are less about crime than about mysticism and magic. Others, such as the Radio Repertory Theatre have chosen to create humorous detectives as heard in Garson Krebs, Private Detective. Probably only Jim French with his Harry Niles from Imagination Theatre carries on the noirish theme of a modern detective in the audio medium.