"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 just 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 fiction 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. But the radio detective genre, especially from the mid-forties on, 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 in opposition to 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, 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 real police work and also to give Friday someone to
react toward as he worked to solve a crime.
Most of the 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. 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. 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.
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, which 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 whose character 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.
Beyond the harboiled detective, radio produced detective characters with more intellectual deductive powers and less brute force. One of the earliest 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. About this same time, came one of the most famous detective's of all time, 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. 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. (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 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, less sophisticated. When O'Brien left, John Lund stepped in, 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 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 concept of a modern detective in the audio medium.
Created: Friday, June 06, 1997