Category: Golden Age Article

Audio Drama Review: Imagination Theatre: The Investigators

The late Jim French is best remembered for his greatest creation Seattle-based, modern private eye Harry Nile. However, French produced many detective and crime shows during his remarkable four-decades plus in radio.  Imagination Theatre: The Investigators from Radio Spirits is a sampler pack of nine different crime shows that French produced over the years as part of his imagination theatre.

The set kicks off with three episodes of Harry Nile. These shows come from 1999, towards the tail end of run of Phil Harper (the original actor to play Harry Nile.) We’ve reviewed this series extensively before, but for those who haven’t heard of it, Harry Nile is a period piece set in the late 1939 through the late 1950s. Initially, he worked out of Los Angeles, but then he moved to Seattle where French’s research and attention to detail really shine. The episodes are superb. They’re tailored to provide a complete, compelling mystery in just about 20 minutes.

Next is three episodes of The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which isn’t to be confused with the BBC Radio series of the same name.  This stars John Patrick Lowrie as Holmes and Lawrence Albert as Watson. I’d listened to one of these before and hadn’t thought much of it. However, I did enjoy these. While they’re not the greatest Holmes’ pastiches and a few of the British accents are a bit iffy, the stories do have a Doylesque feel to them. While I wouldn’t consider them in the same league as Big Finish’s or the BBC interpretations, it’s better than 1947-49 radio version with John Stanley. If you enjoyed that take, you’ll enjoy this one as well. 

Following that, we’re treated to two episodes of The Adventures of Dameron which I was happy about.  Dameron was French’s first radio detective. The episodes in this set aired in 1972 and were set in contemporary times. Dameron (Robert E. Lee Hardwick) is a freelance troubleshooter who takes on all sorts of cases. He’s like a 1970s Frank Race, though generally with better production quality. There’s a dearth of 1970s radio detectives, so the two in this set are a definite treat.  We also get to hear actress Pat French who later played the role of Harry’ Nile’s secretary and partner Murphy.

We further get two episodes of Mr. Darnborough Investigates starring David Natalie. These are cozy mysteries made in 2005 and 2015 but they could have been done in the golden age of radio or over the BBC in the 1940s. Darnsborough is a gentleman detective who calls to mind Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey. If you enjoy those characters, you’ll like Darnsborough.

Then we get a couple episodes of Kerides the Thinker. This series has a different setting for a mystery series: Third Century BC Alexandria, Egypt. Kerides (Ulrick Dihle) is a travelling Greek student who goes around solving mysteries, accompanied by Adria, a former slave girl (Sarah Schenkkhan) who was freed after Kerides revealed her former master is a murderer. On one hand, I love the idea for the setting and it’s clear the writers did their homework. On the other hand, the mysteries are so-so and the way Adria is written makes her seem insufferably whiny and unpleasant. Instead of being grateful for her freedom, she’s upset she has lost her place in the world and has no idea what to do. It’s an interesting concept, but the way it’s realized doesn’t quite work for me.

Next up are three episodes of Kincaid, the Strange Seeker starring Terry Rose. This one is a series about a TV reporter who investigates mysteries that always have a supernatural cause such as bank robberies that turned out to be done by ghosts. I’m not a fan of supernatural mysteries, and I also wasn’t sure how to feel about these episodes. They weren’t scary and don’t have a Twilight Zone twist. The stories seemed off the wall more than anything else. In addition, I was bothered by how Kincaid got hit with unwarranted skepticism despite a solid track record. Other than that, the production values were still good. This just wasn’t my thing.

Following this, we’re given three episodes of Raffles, the Gentleman Thief starring John Armstrong. These are based on the character of A.J. Raffles, a brilliant gentleman thief created by E.W. Hornung.  These were popular in their time but have faded from public consciousness.  The adaptation does a good job of capturing the spirit of the original stories with good acting and good effects. The first two episodes are adaptations of Hornung’s original stories and the third is a solid pastiche. I’m not a huge fan of Raffles, but I could appreciate the way they handled the character. My only complaint is that Raffles, particularly as portrayed in these stories, isn’t an investigator of any sort, but plenty of people who enjoy detective fiction love Raffles. If you do, you will enjoy these stories.

Then we have the Hilary Caine Mysteries which is my second favorite thing that Jim French Productions put out. It features Australian Actress Karen Heaven as Hilary Caine, an on-staff “girl detective” for the British Tittle-Tattle Magazine. The series was set in the 1930s and finds Hilary stumbling into a crime scene being investigated by Inspector Finn (Randy Hoffmeyer). At first, she seems to be a bit silly, but ultimately she shows her cunning in solving the case. These are fun, light mysteries and Heaven is wonderful in the role of Hilary Caine.

The collection rounds up with two episodes (including one double length episode) of the Anthony Rathe Chronicles which is a modern British drama that follows the career of a guilt-ridden attorney who solves crimes to atone for a case he got wrong. It definitely has a modern BBC feel. It’s a bit soapy for my tastes, but the mysteries are well-written.

Overall, this was a fun mix of programs. While I liked some more than others, it was interesting to hear or re-listen to such a variety of detectives. It’s great to have a chance to appreciate all the audio dramas Jim French put out over nearly half a century, when most people thought audio drama was a thing of the past. I also think the success of this set may help Radio Spirits determine whether they release larger sets for Jim French series outside of the quite popular Harry Nile and Sherlock Holmes series.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

Book Review: The Case of the Crime King

The Case of the Crime King was Richard Deming’s second original Dragnet tie-in novel for the original 1951-59 TV series.

The book focuses on Lt. Joe Friday and Sergeant Frank Smith’s efforts to break up a robbery ring. The case begins with the arrest of a clever criminal who Friday and Smith catch and send to prison.

Word begins to leak out of prison that about a new statewide gang with plans to accumulate a fortune and use the money to get one big score that will leave them living like kings. Friday and Smith are sure their man is behind it, but proving it is another matter.

The stakes have never been higher in a Dragnet case file as the lives of thousands and the freedom of millions depend on Friday and Smith stopping this criminal gang’s plot.

Like in his first effort, The Case of the Courteous Killer, Deming manages to capture the spirit of Dragnet, only telling a more complex case. In many ways, the case calls to mind the 1954 Dragnet film which focused on a gang-related investigation, only there are no out-of-character moments for Friday or Smith and we get a more satisfying resolution. The criminal is genuinely clever and the narrative remains at a strong level throughout. Unlike The Case of the Courteous Killer, there’s not really a sag in the story.

Worth noting is that The Case of the Crime King acknowledged the existence of steamier sides of life and Los Angeles that the 1950’s series avoided as it includes references to prostitutes and the criminals use an adult movie theater as an alibi. Neither aspect is written about in a salacious manner, but it does signal a slight shift that would be seen in the 1960’s revival.

On October 5, 2019, a review was held in the City of Boise, in and for the County of Ada. In a moment, the results of that review:

Verdict:

I will say that while this book was a fun read, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the Case of the Courteous Killer. That case had a killer who came after Sergeant Friday and put him in peril. Here the criminals are dangerous but far more methodical. It also had less of Smith’s humor, which disappointed.

If you love Dragnet and you like mysteries of this era Dragnet: The Case of the Crime King is a worthwhile read and at $2.99 in the Kindle Store, it’s a great deal. It’s a well-written case that was probably better than most of the episodes aired during the original series’ final season.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: Sid Guy, Private Eye

This 2010 release features two feature-length audio dramas from Siren Audio Studios featuring the adventures of Sid Guy, Private Eye. Sid Guy is a private investigator in an unnamed American city.

The story is the definition of obscure with its no-name cast and little-known company. However, the story is pretty enjoyable. If you liked Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective, or Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, then this production was created with you in mind.

Sid Guy is a typical private eye, though with many quirks including a secretary who warns (without effect) when a woman asking for his help is  a femme fatale. Sid always discusses his cases with a bird and reaches the same conclusion every time: You are a pretty bird!

I enjoyed the first story more than the second. The first one worked as a good send-up of the directive genre. While it wasn’t directly parodying or playing off of The Maltese Falcon, it did have several nice nods to that and other stories. The second was fun, but it did have a few running gags that didn’t quite, some repeated gags from the first story, a little too much fourth wall breaking, and an ending that was a little too absurd for my tastes.

The acting and production values were on-par with the modern major North American radio/audio drama production companies I’ve heard such as Jim French Productions, Colonial Radio Theatre, and Decoder Ring Theatre except on sound design where Colonial is clearly better.

While it’s not a must-listen classic, it is the type of production that merits a cult following among those who love zany detective comedies.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Book Review: Night Watch

Note: A version of this review originally appeared in 2009:

What would happen if the immortal detectives, Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown met with a brutal murder to solve?

This is the fascinating question posed by Rev. Stephen Kendrick’s 2001 Book, Night Watch. The plot of the story is that Sherlock’s Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, the British’s government’s most indispensable man as Sherlock Holmes described him, calls his younger brother in to investigate a murder. The rector of an Anglican Church is found dead in his church, with his body mutilated. The prime suspects: leaders of the world’s major religions who’d gathered in Britain for some inter-religious dialog. Father Brown is serving as an interpreter for a visiting Italian Cardinal.

The murder and its solution are fantastic. However, the story is dragged down because of some errors in Kendrick’s writing mechanics and also because Kendrick’s story was frequently derailed from the story to Kendrick’s religious agenda. In part, the book was written to back up Kendrick’s assertions in Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes which seems to suggest that in Holmes later days in became someone who could best be described as “spiritual and not religious.” Unfortunately, the author seemed to work too hard on this angle, which distracted from the main point that readers who weren’t enthusiasts of Universalism picked the book up the for: a murder mystery.

Kendrick’s treatment of Holmes, Watson, and Brown was good, but in places uneven. I found some of the conversations between Holmes and Watson not entirely believable and out of place in a mystery novel. Kendrick’s Holmes was a cut below Doyle’s in solving the case, and Kendrick tried a cheap out by simply saying that Doctor Watson’s accounts had been exaggerated or unrealistic. To be fair, Kendrick is hardly the first author of a Holmes pastiche to use that out. What Arthur Conan Doyle created in Holmes was a bit of a mental Superman, and like Superman, it’s very hard to come up with a worthy opponent for him. So, it’s far easier to move the character closer to reality.

His portrayal of Brown, while not having the flair of G.K. Chesterton, and leaving the character a little flat was still essentially the same orthodox Catholic priest that readers have come to know and love. Given that Kendrick, as a Unitarian Universalist, comes from a completely different theological perspective than Chesterton, he deserves to be commended for not trying to tamper with the character, as some interpretations have tried to change Brown into their vision of what a Christian should be rather than the character Chesterton created.

Of course, in a two-detective story, one detective usually draws the short straw, and Brown clearly has the back seat to Holmes. However, in Chesterton’s books, Brown off hung around in the background until coming forward to the solution to the crime.

Kendrick’s deserves credit for the audacity of it all. He’s the first author I know of to try and bring these giants of detecting onto the same stage. And he produces an interesting, albeit not completely satisfying tome. Here’s hoping that others will follow Kendrick, and this isn’t the last Holmes-Father Brown crossover we see.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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Radio Series Review: Your Hit Parade

Your Hit Parade was one of the most successful music programs of radio’s golden age, running from 1935-53 on radio and then continuing over television until 1959.

The series evolved into playing the top tunes of the week (often in no particular order) with each song sung live on the air by one of the series’ vocalists. There are more than 100 episodes in circulation, and you can hear a little of the evolution of music over two decades. However, it should be note there’s only handful of recordings from the 1930s and even fewer episodes of the 1950s. The sweet spot for circulating episodes is between 1942 and 1949, so if you love 1940s pop music, Your Hit Parade is for you.

It’s probably my favorite era in popular music with popular music being influenced by old time country western and jazz, along with some great sentimental songs for crooning, World War II patriotic hits, and love songs that were actually about love and marriage.

There were of different vocalist who sang on the series but the most famous was Frank Sinatra, who had two stints as the show’s male vocalist. One of the delights of listening to the series is hearing Sinatra sing some songs that you wouldn’t associate with him like “The San Fernando Valley.”

Of course, Sinatra and the others had to sing some of the lesser songs including the most bizarre song to make the hit parade, “The Woody Woodpecker Song. “

This song stayed on the charts for months, including weeks as the top tune in the country. You can hear Sinatra’s frustration with having to sing this song over and over again. Most bizarre is that Your Hit Parade was based in part on what people were asking the bandleader to play and I strain to imagine adults in the 1940s asking the bandleader to play, “The Woody Woodpecker Song.”  Still, while it’s bit annoying,  it’s not offensive, it’s just bizarre that this tune was this popular with adults.

However, despite a few clunkers, there are a lot of forgotten musical treasures, and some fun performances.  In addition, the series has some episodes that will surprise you such as one episode from 1938 when comic legend W.C. Fields was performing comedy with Baby Snooks “Daddy” Hanley Stafford as the announcer/straight man. In addition, there are some episodes in circulation dated after the show ceased broadcasting a radio version which I assume were the soundtracks of the TV version which were often broadcast over radio.

Overall, I enjoyed listening to the circulating episodes and I would recommend them to any listener with a taste for the pop music of this area.