The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio The great ones are back in action.


EP0417: Rogue’s Gallery: Murder in Drawing Room A

Dick Powell

A woman is murdered on board a train and Rogue searches for the killer.

Original Air Date: October 11, 1945

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EP0416: I Deal in Crime: The Abigail Murray Case

William Gargan

Ross Dolan is hired to guard a New England matron as she travels across town. She needs protection as someone shoots in them and a dead body is found in the truck.

Original Air Story: September 27, 1946

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The Five Best CBS Old Time Radio Detective Shows

Previous post in this series include multi-networkABC, NBC, and Mutual Detectives.

CBS enjoyed radio dominance throughout much of the golden age of radio. Its line up was anchored by long-running anthologies: The Columbia Workshop, The Lux Radio Theater, Suspense, Escape, and (on the West Coast) The Whistler.

In the late 1940s, CBS established dominance in the detective and crime drama genres with shows like Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Gangbusters, and The FBI in Peace and War.

Most of the shows on this list began during that period, but lived on after it had passed. As always, I asked our Facebook friends to vote and forty-two shared their favorites.

5) Casey,  Crime Photographero starring Staats Cotsworth

Aired: 1943-50, 1954-55

Staats CotsworthOne of radio's most enduring shows, Casey has a rich history that dates back to the pulps, which is reflected in the show's titles.

Casey never was considered more than a "B" detective show. However, it has staying power because of the show's fun and it's great characters. While the Blue Note and its faithful barkeep Ethelbert are not usually in the thick of the mystery, they add a lot of enjoyment to show. Ethelbert (John Gibson) brought the comedy with his mangling of the language and love of quotes. It was often at the Blue Note that Casey would solve the case thanks to a random conversation in the relaxed atmosphere.

Casey went through many titles: Flashgun Casey, Casey, Press Photographer, Crime Photographer (twice), and Casey: Crime Photographer, but all are considered part of the same franchise. Cotsworth was also not the only actor to play Casey, as he was preceded briefly by Matt Crowley (eps. 1 and 2) and Jim Backus (eps. 3-13)  but his seven seasons in the lead made him the definitive Casey in the eyes of the public.

In 1950, Casey left the radio and a widely panned television version aired over CBS TV. In the mid-50s with CBS struggling to keep its radio operations, it revamped or looked at revamping several dormant franchises which lead to Casey being brought back for one final season in 1954. In 1957, ABC produced a series with a crimefighting cameraman called, Man With a Camera which was thought to have partially been inspired by Casey.  (Photo: Courtesy of the Digital Deli.)

Fan Vote:  14%

4) Broadway's My Beat
Aired:1949-53, Summer 1954

Broadway’s my beat. From Times Square to Columbus Circle, the gaudiest, the most violent, the lonesomest mile in the world

Broadway's My Beat began being broadcast from New York with Anthony Ross in as Larry Clover in February 1949.

In the Summer,  the series was produced from Los Angeles by Elliot Lewis with Danny Clover played Larry Thor, who was better known as an announcer for programs like Rocky Jordan than as an actor in his own right.

Broadway's My Beat was unusual in that while Clover was a police detective, the show has the same feel of a hard boiled PI program. Clover was the most world-weary of all radio detectives. Thor's narration and descriptions of Broadway and it's characters had a melancholy poetic rhythm to it.

The show also did a good job portraying the diverse population of New York, including featuring black actors in serious dramatic roles as witnesses and crime victims.

Broadway's My Beat did not make it to television, although writers David Friedkin and Mort Fine did have successful careers in television. In 2010, Friedkin's son, Gregory produced a pilot for a Danny Clover TV show based on a   1950 radio script and set in Los Angeles.

Fan Vote: 7%

3) Rocky Jordan starring Jack Moyles
Aired:1945-50, 1951-53

Jack MoylesRocky Jordan is a radio series that evokes memories of the Humphrey Bogart classic, Casablanca. Rocky Jordan, after all was an American expatriate living in the Middle East, running a cafe, and encountering adventure and mystery along the way.

The character of Rocky Jordan hit the air in 1945 as a daily serial with Jordan based in Instanbul. Much as we would have imagined Rick from Casablanca doing, Jordan was engaged in cloak and dagger operations against the Nazis and their sympathizers in North Africa. Only two of these episodes survive and don't form a complete story line.

A Man Called Jordan continued airing through 1946 and 1947 as a 30 minute program, but none of these episodes survive.

In 1948, the program returned as simply, Rocky Jordan with Rocky now running his Cafe Tambourine in Cairo. Jordan encountered danger and mystery. While not a detective by trade, Jordan was forced to play the part as a matter of survival.

Rocky Jordan may be one of the best examples of the power of radio to stir the imagination. It creates such a rich atmosphere that it succeeds in making listeners who've never left the U.S. feel like they're in Cairo.

Through 1950. the role of Rocky Jordan was played by Jack Moyles. The show went off the air for 9 months and returned with George Raft in the lead. According to legend, Raft turned down the lead in Casablanca, so his starring in Rocky Jordan is an interesting note. However, in the minds of most fans, Moyles remains the definitive Rocky Jordan. CBS clearly agreed with them, as when they made a pilot for a new Rocky Jordan fifteen minute serial  in 1954 (that did not end up being picked up), it was Moyles they cast in the lead.

Rocky Jordan never came to television, which was good as 1950s Television couldn't come close to replicating the magic of the Cafe Tambourine.

Fan vote: 5%

2) Yours Truly Johnny Dollar
Aired:1949-54, 1955-62

Charles RussellYours Truly Johnny Dollar was one of the most flexible detective shows in radio's golden era as it followed a freelance insurance investigator as he travelled across the country and around the world investigating a wide variety of insurance cases including life, fire, and theft claims. In a way, the show resembled the syndicated program, The Adventures of Frank Race which featured an international troubleshooter and insurance investigator and began production around the time of the first Dollar series.

Johnny Dollar's gimmick was that the stories were told as Johnny filling out his expense account. Thus Dollar was advertised as, "The man with the action packed expense account."  In the Russell episodes, the expense account not only helped to forward the action, but served as a source of comedy as Johnny would pad the expense account with frivolous items out of pique at the client or just because he could. During the O'Brien years, they often became more compact and almost an afterthought with several expense accounts having Johnny list Items 1 and 3 as travel expenses to and from the scene of the investigation, and Item 2 being listed as miscellaneous. Under Bob Bailey, they took on renewed importance with some expense accounts during the five part serial era reaching more than 20 items.

The show was noteworthy for its longevity as well as the six actors who played Johnny Dollar on the air (plus two auditions by Dick Powell and Gerald Mohr.) Each lead brought his own interpretation to the character from Charles Russell's poor man's Sam Spade to Edmond O'Brien's cynical hard boiled eye to John Lund's more bland take right through Mandel Kramer's tenure as the last Dollar in the early 60s.

Edmund O'BrienIn early seasons, the show struggled to survive. It disappeared from the schedule for most of 1952 and the show was absent for the entire 1954-55 season and appeared to be cancelled for good after a respectable run.

However, in then mid 50s CBS had decided to meet the new challenge of television by returning to an older style of radio program. The 15 minute serial had went out of favor for everything other than juvenile serials and soap operas, but CBS wanted to put a detective serial on the air. To that end it either piloted or aired serial versions of Rocky Jordan, Mister Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, and Mr. and Mrs. North. The show that made it was Yours Truly Johnny Dollar. While Mohr had auditioned for the role, it ended up going to Bob Bailey, who had stared in Mutual's Let George Do It.

Bob BaileyBob Bailey's Dollar was a multi-faceted character. He was capable of being touch, hard-nosed with suspects, and cynical. On the other hand, he often showed kindness and compassion, as well as a great sense of justice. He usually made friends with the local police and worked alongside them.

His Dollar had a life and interests beyond detective work. Johnny was an avid fisherman who developed a liking for the fishing up at Lake Majove. The series added recurring guest characters. Rather than bland throw away insurance men who called Johnny up for jobs, he had several recurring callers, most memorably, Pat McCracken. He also had a girlfriend named Betty Lewis in the final year of the series.

Under producer Jack Johnstone (Superman and the Man Called X), for 58 weeks, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar ran every weeknight with a complete story told each week, with the exception of one six and one nine part serial. The format allowed for more character development and more complicated plots. Each complete serial has as much story in it as many mystery movies of the same era.

Coming up with these complex plots was a huge challenge. Writers such as E. Jack Neumann  took old scripts they'd written for Johnny Dollar or other programs such as Jeff Regan and Sam Spade, tweaked details such as location and names, and expanded the story. However, the pace was unsustainable. In November 1956, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar resumed as a weekly half hour program.

Mandel KramerThe show did continue to be entertaining, but the writing suffered in its later years as they couldn't afford to pay writers as much as television. In addition, CBS, to keep the show profitable,  began acquiring multiple sponsors, and running up to four different commercial breaks in a single program, leaving less than 20 minutes for the plot.

In November 1960, CBS moved its radio operations to New York, but Bailey declined to follow due to family considerations. The show continued with Bob Readick and later Kramer in the lead. While they did an able job, radio's dominance had passed and on September 30 1962, Johnny Dollar turned in his last expense account.

Fan Vote: 62%

1) The Adventures of Philip Marlowe

Aired: 1948-50, Summer 1951

"Get this and get it straight. Crime is a suckers road, and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison, or the grave. There's no other way, but they never learn."

Many men have played Raymond Chandler's signature sleuth: from Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart to Danny Glover and James Caan. Before  Mohr played the role, up and coming star Van Heflin took a turn at the role in a 1947 NBC Summer replacement series.  None has ever done it better than Gerald Mohr's radio version.

Mohr was unmatched in his ability to portray Marlowe's combination of cynicism and optimism. His Marlowe was the best example of the hard boiled private eye as the knight in tarnished armor. He was unquestionably tough, smart, and as able as any detective on the radio. More importantly, he remained an unquestionable force for good in a seedy Los Angeles that was often dominated by greed and corruption. He was the type of hero that every one in trouble, whether real or fictional, wants on their side.

Each episode of Philip Marlowe began with a teaser that would set the stage and make you want to listen and would close with next week’s teaser, so you’d be sure to tune back in:

"When I started, I thought one man was in trouble and three were trying to help him. But after I found two pounds of tobacco, two pieces of brass, and a boat without a pilot heading straight out to sea, I knew they had all been in trouble. And all had taken the hard way out!"

"I walked into it smiling, because it had all the corny elements: the weird doctor, the beautiful girl, the gloomy house on the windswept cliff, even the hulking menace. Only one thing was missing, the body. And that’s when I stopped smiling, because I turned out to be the corpse myself... almost."

In the middle of first season, before the intriguing teaser, Marlowe started the show with the quote referenced at the start of the article, which would become one of the most memorable radio quotes from the golden age.

The body of the episode lived up to the hype with plenty of fist and guns, some quick thinking, and plenty of great acting from an always-fine supporting cast. Marlowe’s lines often had a poetic cadence about them, and usually at the end of the dark adventure, Marlowe would often have an almost inexplicable hopeful thought.

The show left the air after the 1949-50 season as Mohr pursued his television career and worked at NBC for a while, serving as one of the six Archie’s on Nero Wolfe. Mohr returned to the role of Marlowe for a Summer replacement series. The show then went off the air, never having jumped the shark.

Since that time, Marlowe has proved his timelessness spurring numerous television, movie, and BBC radio adaptations. Still, the best way to enjoy Marlowe remains this unforgettable radio version.

Fan Vote: 10%

Honorable Mentions:

Jeff Regan, Investigator: This hard boiled private eye series was filled with classic radio noir lines, particularly the first series that aired in 1948 with Jack Webb in the lead. The later series was also good but with a different flavor to it. It was a fun and memorable show that deserves more notice than it gets for its clever story lines and rough hewn heroes.

Pursuit: Another Elliot Lewis produced program that’s worth a note. The series was set an entirely in Great Britain with British Characters. The entire cast did a great job of creating a remarkable degree of authenticity that actually took listeners across the Ocean in a well-done original series.

Next week, we’ll rap our series with a look at syndicated radio detective shows.

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EP0415: Yours Truly Johnny Dollar: The Malcolm Wish, MD Matter

Edmond O'Brien

Johnny heads to San Francisco to investigate the disappearance of a doctor.

Original Air Date: June 20, 1951

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EP0414: Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Scarlet Worm

Tom Conway

Watson goes undercover to catch a femme fatale, but will he have the heart to trap her.

Original Air Date: March 24, 1947

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EP0413: Let George Do It: Needle in the Haystack

Bob Bailey

A florist from Mexico City hires George to find a dozen roses in Pasadena...during the Tournament of Roses. Murder follows.

Original Air Date: January 2, 1950

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EP0412: Rogue’s Gallery: Blondes Prefer Gentlemen

Dick Powell

Richard Rogue takes on the case of a kindly old lady who is concerned about her granddaughter. When Rogue goes to visit the granddaughter, he finds a dead body and the murderer hiding.

Original Air Date: October 4, 1945


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EP0411: I Deal in Crime: The William A. Davis Case

William Gargan

Ross Dolan is hired to bring back his client's runaway 17-year old daughter, but someone doesn't want her found.

Original Air Date: April 5, 1946

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The Five Best NBC Old Time Radio Detectives

Previously, we've done multi-network, ABC, and Mutual Programs in this series.

NBC's best detective shows are clumped between 1949 to the mid-50s.  NBC had fallen behind CBS which had raided much of its talent.  Well-known is the raid on NBC's comedy teams including Jack Benny and Burns and Allen, but Mr. and Mrs. North had also moved to CBS.

Several great detective dramas had stopped in at NBC for Summer runs including Rogue's Gallery (1945-47) and The Man Called X (1945 and 1946) before heading off to other networks.

This changed in 1949, Richard Diamond was introduced in April,  Dragnet in June and Dangerous Assignment in July. In the fall, NBC brought Sam Spade over from CBS and in 1950, The Saint came over Mutual.  Other shows would follow that would give NBC a place in the mystery market. While NBC never produced anything that rivaled CBS' anthology franchises, this era saw NBC turning out some of the most memorable detective shows of the golden and silver era.

As always, we asked our Facebook fans their opinions and received 53 votes which we'll share below.

5) The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe

Aired: 1950-51

Sidney GreenstreetThis series was marked by the inspired casting choice of Sidney Greenstreet as Nero Wolfe. There were also seven different Archies during the show's 26 episode run. The show's difficulty in finding an Archie as well as its  digressions from the traditional Wolfe characters.

The show remains beloved by fans and characters due to Greenstreet's characterization of Wolfe, decent mysteries, and the chance to see Wolfe-Archie interplay over the radio. While the show had trouble keeping Archie's, the list of actors who played the role was impressive including three actors who had played leads in other detective shows (Wally Maher of Mutual's Michael Shayne, Larry Dobkin of Ellery Queen, and Gerald Mohr of Philip Marlowe) which meant listeners got to enjoy a variety of Archie Goodwin interpretations.
Fan Vote:  32%

Timothy Dunning said, "I have to vote for Nero Wolfe because I loved the books and the radio shows were good adaptations."

4) Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator

Aired: 1951-55

Barrie CraigBarrie Craig was a different kind of detective show and Craig as played by Gargan was a different type of detective: a big gentle easy going guy who always believed his clients until evidence proved otherwise.

In some ways, it poked fun at the private detective genre by giving Craig police-type powers and duties such as filling out making arrests and filling out paperwork. This played off the wide variety of functions and investigations that other PIs took on that were really police functions.  Another time, Craig began his voice over narration by saying, "Manhattan's my beat," a clear reference to CBS' Broadway's My Beat.

Other episodes took a serious turn such as Craig's poignant caper with a mentally ill young woman.

Gargan's light and easy going style make each episode of Barrie Craig is like a visit with an old friend talking about his detective adventures. Listeners were more than happy to visit for four years.

Fan vote: 4%

3) Dangerous Assignment with Brian Donlevy as Steve Mitchell

Aired: Summer 1949, 1950-53

Brian DonlevyDonlevy reportedly told his agent that he wanted to play nothing other than unambiguous he-man roles. Certainly, the role of Steve Mitchell was cut from that cloth. Mitchell was an international troubleshooter working for an unknown government agency. Each week he'd go to the office of the Commissioner (played by Herb Butterfield) who would end the interview by saying something like, "Well Steve, you've got your assignment. Good luck."

Mitchell would then be off to an exotic location where he'd usually be undercover as a journalist. He'd encounter mystery and adventure as he protected U.S. interests and peace. Much like The Man Called X,  Dangerous Assignment had a similar feel to other detective shows but with higher stakes, although Dangerous Assignment steered clear of Cold War plots that were popular on The Man Called X.

Dangerous Assignment came to television in 1952 with Donlevy in the lead. The television version wasn't as good. Donlevy was sliding towards 50 and not looking the action hero part. More importantly, early television could not capture the richness of foreign locales that the imagination of radio listeners could conjure up.

Fan Vote: 8%

2) Nightbeat starring Frank Lovejoy as Randy Stone

Aired 1950-52

"Stories start in many ways..."

Brian DonlevyWith these words, Randy Stone begins telling how he came to write his latest Nightbeat column to the Chicago Star about his late night adventures searching for news. The show starred radio veteran Frank Lovejoy who had been the second choice for the lead, with Edmond O’Brien auditioning for the part in 1949.

Nightbeat stories are full of suspense and mystery, but unlike traditional detective shows, the solution is far more likely to be psychological and driven by the human element. While most traditional detective shows focused on finding murders, Stone would be more likely to try and prevent a murder or a suicide. In one episode, Randy has to find a businessman who decided to commit suicide after being falsely diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Nightbeat didn't require a body to get a story. In one episode, Randy investigates an apartment building where everyone is terrified due to threatening notes they've received with the words, "I know your secret," in them.

Randy Stone did make it to television in one episode of Dick Powell's Four Star Playhouse. Frank Lovejoy starred in two TV detective series, Meet McGraw
and a mid-50s revival of the show, Man Against Crime, but neither achieved the depth or quality of Nightbeat.

Fan vote: 6%

Said Kent in support of Nightbeat, "The show has a captivating quality as Randy has many insights into the people with whom he is involved moving toward his story. SO REWRITE--C O P Y B O Y as music fades until another episode."
Fan Vote: 6%

1) Dragnet starring Jack Webb as Joe Friday

Aired: 1949-55

Jack WebbDragnet began out of conversation that radio detective star Jack Webb had with a police officer who objected to the lack of realism in the portrayal of police on the radio.

Webb remembered this conversation when he needed a summer project when ABC put Pat Novak for Hire on Summer hiatus. What Webb produced was a masterpiece that would redefine crime dramas and the treatment of police in popular media,

Webb made a study of the police: how they talked, worked, and solved cases, and used this knowledge to create the framework for Dragnet.

Dragnet was based on actual police cases. At first, there was nothing new about this as several other crime dramas such as, This Is Your FBI, Gangbusters, and Calling All Cars.  What made Dragnet different was that most prior procedurals spent as much if not more time following the criminals as it did the police. Dragnet's took you "on the side of the law" from start to finish which meant that most episodes of Dragnet were mysteries as all we knew was what the police knew.

More than just mystery, Dragnet gave a feel for what life was like for the working policeman and it introduced us to the resources they used in a way that was captivating to audiences across America.

Dragnet also created compelling and real characters: victims, witnesses, or perpetrators, they all demanded the audience's attention in unique ways. From the fiancé of a dead traffic officer, to an 8 year old boy who saw his best friends die from a gun shot wound, to a train-loving hijacking victim, no show ever did better at characterization.

Dragnet also sounded better. Webb's dedication for details didn't stop with the finer points of police procedure, when Webb used five sound effects men on this show.  They made every scene come alive, so that whether the show was taking place in a warehouse or at a grocery store, you were transported there. Webb's policemen interact with people in their daily lives and those sounds don't stop because a policeman wants to ask a question.

Dragnet also served the public by taking on topics that were often taboo such as child abuse and drug use.  In addition, Dragnet's practice covering multiple departments gave powerful lessons to the public on how to remain safe and avoid con games.

Dragnet came to television for eight seasons in the 50s and staged a four season revival from 1967-70 and became a motion picture in 1954.  Dragnet's realism has shaped crime dramas to this day. It gave the police a new level of respect that carried over to other networks and even to the private detective genre. For most of the 1950s, the old stereotypes of domineering, corrupt, or stupid cops were replaced by smart cooperative cops. The Radio,Crime and Peter Chambers and Television's Lock Up were good examples of this, both featuring intelligent and sincere police officers who were friends with the hero. Also, new programming begin to air that chronicled the work of law enforcement such as Treasury Men in Action and Man Behind the Badge.

Fan Vote: 51%

Honorable Mentions:

Tales of the Texas Ranger: This police procedural followed the adventures of Ranger Jayce Pearson and were based on real case files from the Texas Rangers. This was probably the best of the Dragnet imitators.

A Life In Your Hands: This fascinating series came from the mind of Erle Stanley Gardener, the creator of Perry Mason. The series focused on Jonathan Kegg, a lawyer who had already made his fortune. He inserted himself into cases by acting as an Amicus Curiae, a lawyer who represented neither the prosecution or the defense, but rather cross-examined or called witnesses with the sole goal of getting at the truth. Each case would pivot on Kegg calling a disinterested witness whose memory of a seemingly inconsequential fact. The series was meant to teach the public to be good and observant witnesses as they could stumble on to a crime at any time and they could have "a life in your hands."

Next week, we take a look at CBS.

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EP0410: Yours Truly Johnny Dolllar: The Arthur Boldrick Matter

Edmond O'Brien

A man is shot in tenement neighborhood but won't give Johnny or the police a straight story as to who did it.

Original Air Date: June 16, 1951

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