Category: Golden Age Article

The Zeck Trilogy: A Review

 

Holmes had Moriarty, but who did Nero Wolfe have?

For three books, crime boss Arnold Zeck served as an antagonist for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

And Be a Villain

A man who writes a horseracing tip sheet is poisoned on a radio talk show while drinking the sponsor’s product. Wolfe is hired to solve the case by the sponsors and the show’s star.

On the positive side, this mystery had many twist and turns as to who was even the intended victim. At one point, Wolfe gets so disgusted with the show’s staff for lying to him and wasting days of his time that he turns a key piece of information over to Inspector Cramer in hopes that Cramer will find the killer and earn Wolfe’s fee for him. When this plan fails, Archie executes a daring move to get Wolfe back on the case.

This particular volume had a few moments where it became a tad tedious. It takes until Chapter 4 for an exact agreement to be reached as to who will be paying Wolfe and how much. Then we have pages consumed by detailing when the staff came in to be interviewed in what turned out to be pointless and fruitless and interviews because they had all agreed to conceal a vital fact. Perhaps, this helps us sympathize with Wolfe when he walks off the case as we’re tempted as well.

But, no one ought to walk away. The book’s look at the world of 1940s radio is worth the read for fans of old time radio. Also, when Wolfe does get back  on the case, the mystery continues to twist and turn as we wrestle with who was the target and who had opportunity commit the crime.

In And Be a Villain, Zeck plays a minimal role. He threatens Wolfe to be careful where he treads in investigating the case. Wolfe figures out what Zeck’s role in the crime the lead to the murder he’s investigating, but as the fact isn’t essential to the police investigation, he leaves Zeck out of it.

Perhaps, this is the one of the great challenges with the Zeck trilogy. While Holmes and Moriarity were driven by ego and intellectual vanity ever closer towards a fatal confrontation,  Wolfe would rather not deal with Zeck if he had to and all things considered, Zeck would rather not rid the world of Wolfe because it would make the world less interesting. Not, that they’re not willing to do what they have to do, but as I finished listening to the audiobook of  And Be a Villain. I knew it was going to take something big to get this rivalry off the ground.

Rating: Satisfactory

The Second Confession

Something would come in The Second Confession. Wolfe takes a case for a rich industrialist who suspects his daughter’s girlfriend is a communist. Zeck calls Wolfe and makes it clear that he doesn’t want the case investigated and punctuates his demand by shooting up Wolfe’s plant room and destroying thousands of dollars in plants.

However, when the young man is murdered, everything is reversed. Zeck wants the man’s killer caught and brought to justice. Wolfe begins an investigations with plenty of caveats offered to everyone involved. Along the way,  Wolfe takes on the American Community Party to get information needed to seal his case. The Second Confession shows both the anti-communist leanings of the Montenegrin-born Wolfe as well as Stout. With plenty of twists and a nice bit of political intrigue thrown in, this was a fun and multi-faceted Wolfe story.

Wolfe begins to realize that a confrontation with Zeck may be unavoidable and so he begins to make preparations just in case. However, all things being equal, he’d still rather leave Zeck alone.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

In the Best Families

As The Second Confession ended with Zeck congratulating Wolfe on solving the case and Wolfe once again reiterating his independence, readers have a sense that this can’t go on forever.  In The Best Families things at last come to a head. Wolfe agrees to help a woman who merely wants to know where her husband gets his money. Zeck shows his disapproval of Wolfe taking on the case, by intercepting a package of expensive sausages and putting tear gas in its place.

After yet another menacing phone call from Zeck, Wolfe and Archie confer on what to do. Archie figures that since their last encounter with Zeck, they’d taken 40 cases, and Wolfe thinks that running in Zeck every forty cases is quite likely. Wolfe and Archie had to decide whether to oppose Zeck or to acquiesce to him and back off whatever case he didn’t want them on. Archie thought that without the other, either one of them might have given in to Zeck, but neither wanted to be seen as cowardly by the other. So their course was set, though Archie didn’t know what that course would entail.

Archie goes to spend a weekend with the client and her family to get a feel for her husband, and while he’s there, the client is murdered. He calls up Wolfe and fills him in. True to that old saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” Wolfe got going, fleeing the Brownstone, setting up alternate arrangements for his orchids and servants, placing the house on the market, and ordering Archie not to follow him. as he leaves his old friend Marco as Power of Attorney.

The next few chapters after Wolfe’s disappearance are fascinating for fans of the Wolfe stories as we get an idea of what the characters would be like in Wolfe’s absence. Theodore sulks, Fritz shows almost maternal concern, and Cramer shows up to offer some friendly advice.  Cramer’s appearance is noteworthy as it begins with Cramer showing that he’s a smart cop and ends with him taking a swing with Archie when the latter suggests Cramer is on the take.

Archie takes center stage in these chapters. Wolfe’s disappearance in a bad spot as the DA believes that Wolfe knows who committed the murder and that Archie knows where Wolfe is. Due to Archie’s reputation as  a skillful liar, no one believes him when he insists he has no idea where Wolfe has disappeared to.

In addition to this, while Archie is allowed to collect his salary and  stay in the house until a sale occurs, he has been left with nothing to do other than follow up on unfinished cases and collect payments from clients on payment plans. Wolfe left instructions for Archie with Marco that are incredibly vague, “You are to act in the light of experience as guided by intelligence.”

Archie is clearly miffed by Wolfe not leaving him holding the bag. He also  misses working with Wolfe. However, unlike a more modern assistant, Archie follow Wolfe’s command not to search for him.

The Zeck series does a good job showcasing the complexity of the Archie-Wolfe relationship, with its various elements that are understood by the two, even if they are never spoken.  At times, the relationship seems close to Father-Son or a Mentorship.

Wolfe can be protective of Archie. Indeed, when Archie first learned of Zeck in And Be A Villain, Wolfe ordered Archie to forget he’d heard the name. And there’s a sense that Wolfe was continuing that protective behavior by leaving Archie out of the loop during the dangerous preliminary stages of his plan against Zeck, only bringing Archie in when it was absolutely necessary.

Archie doesn’t care for being protected, nor was Nero Wolfe’s legman meant to sit around for months waiting for Wolfe to make a move.  So, therefore Archie stops taking a salary from Wolfe and opens his own private detective agency.  He hopes his first case will be to solve the murder of Wolfe’s last client. When he fails to get cooperation, he drums up business and prides himself on clearly more than Wolfe paid him. Still, when Wolfe comes back, there’s no question of staying on his own.

Given that there were 25 years of Wolfe books after In The Best Families, it’s not a spoiler to say that Wolfe returns and triumphs over Zeck.  However, I will say that the final showdown is anti-climatic after the fascinating character drama that drives the middle of the story. The final showdown between the two (if we can even call it that) is disappointing.

In the final analysis, Zeck disappoints because he is really not equal to the task in going against  Wolfe. To be sure, he is a dangerous technocrat, but he’s  still a technocrat. Zeck builds systems that keep him safe: a network of B, C, and D operatives that shield him while turning a profit. The original racket that incited the murders in And Be a Villain.It seems that nearly every racket that Zeck is involved in is one where Zeck thinks he’s figured how to avoid any danger.

In the midst of his foolproof systems, and risk-free crimes, Zeck seems weak at anticipating human behavior, expecting it to fall into neat patterns. Zeck handles Wolfe with typical mafioso style and forces a confrontation that he can’t win. Wolfe’s understanding of human behavior and his ability to see the flaws in Zeck’s systems assured the outcome as soon as Wolfe stepped out of the Brownstone.

The actual mystery of who killed Wolfe’s client is relatively simple. And indeed, it’s surprising that it remained a secret for so long as the police and was given the key clue early in the book.   Readers could be excused as Stout directed our attention to the character driven story and Wolfe’s dealing with Zeck.

So on one hand, In the Best Families had  a weaker mystery and a disappointing villain, but it also offered some insights into Archie and the characters in Wolfe’s world. The middle part of the book is interesting enough to carry the rest of the book. So, overall I’ll give the book:

Rating: Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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The Five Best Syndicated Old Time Radio Detective Shows

We’ve already looked at detective shows on every major network including multi-networkABC, CBS, NBC, and Mutual Detective shows.  Now we turn to programs that were aired in  syndication.

Syndicated programming allowed radio stations to fill blocks of programming not filled by network shows and allowed local and regional businesses that couldn’t afford to sponsor network programs.

While network shows were aired once and often lost, syndicated programs aired in different markets for decades after their original creation date which explains why many syndicated shows survive with almost entirely complete runs.  One challenged with syndicated programs is that it’s very hard to determine when shows were first aired, as any number of radio stations may have been the first to play the program.

As always, I asked our Facebook friends to vote and forty-eight  shared their favorites.

5) Mystery is My Hobby

Produced: 1947-49

Glenn LanganMystery is My Hobby starred Glen Langan as Barton Drake, a mystery writer who solves crimes. Each episode was a lighthearted whodunit aided by the upbeat suave performance of Langan as the sleuth. Langan was practically the opposite of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled sleuth. You can’t get much further opposite of “Trouble is my business” than “Mystery is my Hobby.” At the end of each episode, Barton Drake would remind us that “mystery is my hobby.”

The show was originally called, “Murder is My Hobby” but while the staff thought the original name was funnier, the sponsor who paid for the show’s national run didn’t. The sponsor was Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company of Omaha.

The show features perhaps the most compliant police officer assistant for a sleuth in Inspector Noah Danton who is apparently allowed by his department to serve as the nearly full-time sidekick of Barton Drake. The two are rarely apart and Danton even accompanies Drake when he’s out of town.

Sixty-five years later, the episodes still make for fun and relaxing listening as for twenty-five minutes, mystery becomes our hobby.

Fan vote: 4%

4) The Adventures of Frank Race

Produced: 1949

Paul DubovThe war changed many things – the face of the earth and the people on it.

This exciting syndicated series focused on an Attorney whose World War II service brought him into the O.S.S. After the war, rather than returning to the practice of the law,  he became a freelance troubleshooter. The cases that Race took on ranged from insurance cases to international spying. Thus, Frank Race’s adventures were  a mixture  of Johnny Dollar and the Man Called X.

The show was well-written with a fantastic theme by Ivan Ditmars. Frank Race was played first by Tom Collins (Eps 1-21) and then by character actor Paul Dubov (22-43). Tony Barrett throughout the series provided the voice for Cabbie Marc Donovan, one of radio’s most able sidekicks.  The show also featured some of radio’s best players as guest stars including Gerald Mohr, Frank Lovejoy, and Virginia Gregg.

Fan Vote: 0%

3)The New Adventures of Michael Shayne with Jeff Chandler

Produced: 1947-48

Michael ShayneAfter the Mutual Network’s comedy mystery version of Michael Shayne ended, Bill Rouseau took his turn with the character. The result was one of the most sterling of the hard boiled detective shows.

While in the novels, Shayne lived in Miami, Rouseau placed Shayne in New Orleans, a city full of mystery and a perfect place for a Noirish radio series. Jeff Chandler played the role of the two fisted tough guy private eye. The show was also noteworthy, featuring Jack Webb in the recurring role as Lieutenant LeFevre, Shayne’s policeman foil.

The mysteries would never win an Edgar, with often simplistic solutions. However, during its 26-episode run, the show offered plenty of first fights, excitement, Mickey Finns, and femme fatales.  The New Adventures of Michael Shayne continued to be resold and resyndicated well into the late 1960s.

Fan Vote: 4%

2) Boston Blackie with Richard Kollmar

Produced: 1945-50

Richard KollmarBoston Blackie was an epic character for around half a century with silent films, talkies, radio, and finally television. In 1944, Boston Blackie first came to radio with Chester Morris playing Boston Blackie,  the role he was most remembered for in films.  A syndicated version was launched by Frederick Ziv with Richard Kollmar, who was otherwise best known for the live morning radio show he did his wife, Breakfast with Dick and Dorothy.

When Boston Blackie made his first appearance, he was a thief. But by the mid-1940s, Blackie had abandoned his life of crime and was completely law-abiding.  He was “enemy to those who had no enemy and friend to those who had no friend.” Blackie’s problem was that someone hadn’t let Inspector Farraday of the police force in on the development. Practically every week, Inspector Farraday tried to arrest Blackie for a crime, usually murder, only for Blackie to escape  and present Farraday the real criminal, thus clearing his name and guaranteeing his freedom until next week. Over the years, Farraday does begin to ease up and have a more cordial relationship with Blackie. Hearing this development in the relationship between the two characters is one of the noteworthy characteristics of Boston Blackie.

Kollmar played the character as smooth, suave, and wise-cracking. Blackie could handle himself with a gun or his fists, and was a tough man for either the police or criminals to hold onto.

The show’s mysteries are a mixed bag of clever stories and somewhat obvious ones. The score uses a relatively light organ score which fits the mood of the show. It also didn’t have the high profile guest actors that other programs did, but it was still very popular with listeners.

While it wasn’t unusual for a syndicated show to have a second season of episodes, there were nearly 300 individual episodes of Boston Blackie produced, and if you have any doubts as to why the show lasted that long, you only need to take a listen to find out why.

Boston Blackie came to television for two seasons, in a mostly forgotten TV series that didn’t make anyone forget the movies or the radio show.

Fan Vote: 33%

1) Box 13 starring Alan Ladd
Produced: 1947-48

Dan Holiday, a reporter turned mystery writer comes up with an original way to come up with plots his stories, placing an ad in the paper, “Adventure Wanted: Will go anywhere, will do anything. Write Box 13 c/o of the Star Times.”

With Alan Ladd as both star and producer,  Box 13 became one of radio’s most exciting shows. As Ladd was not a professional detective, writers had a free hand in writing adventures for Holiday. His many adventures included infiltrating a car theft ring, going to the bayous of Louisiana to help a man who believes he’s under a voodoo curse, intrigue with a jewel thief in Paris, and encountering a murderous psychopath who has chosen Holiday as his next target.

Ladd’s acting was spot on and his resonant voice was perfect for radio. Ladd was able to draw some of the finest guest actors in radio including Gerald Mohr, Frank Lovejoy, and Alan Reed. Sadly, the program didn’t include credits, so for many guest appearances, we can only take educated guesses.

While the show had numerous writers, the scripts were usually good, though occasionally uneven.

Box 13 continued to be resyndicated into the 1990s. The program also helped Ladd to increase his popularity with the American public with Box 13 being a fantastic showcase for his talent. In 1954, Land reprised his role as Dan Holiday on television,  adapting the radio episode, “Daytime Nightmare” as an episode of the G.E. True Theater, “Committed.”

Fan Vote: 58%

Honorable mention:

Dr. Tim, Detective: This was one of the few mystery shows made for kids. The 13 episode serial is a pleasant mix of education and entertainment and education as Dr. Tim’s medical mysteries educated kids about such interesting facts as the uses of blood in vaccination and the treatment of tuberculosis. These 15 minute shows are well-done for both kids and adults.

This concludes our series. Thanks so much for following along.

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Below is a recap of both my rankings  in each category as well as how fans on Facebook voted:

ABC

My Pick Facebook Pick
Pat Novak for Hire Pat Novak for Hire
The Fat Man Sherlock Holmes
Defense Attorney The Fat Man
Sherlock Holmes (Tom Conway) I Deal in Crime
I Deal in Crime Defense Attorney

CBS

My Pick Facebook Pick
Adventures of Philip Marlowe Johnny Dollar
Yours Truly Johnny Dollar Casey
Adventures of Rocky Jordan Philip Marlowe
Broadway’s My Beat Rocky Jordan
Casey Crime Photographer Broadway’s My Beat

Mutual

My Pick Facebook Pick
Let George Do It Let George Do It
Nick Carter Hercule Poirot
Casebook of Gregory Hood Michael Shayne
Hercule Poirot Nick Carter
Michael Shayne (Wally Maher) Gregory Hood

NBC

My Pick Facebook Pick
Dragnet Dragnet
Night Beat Nero Wolfe
Dangerous Assignment Dangerous Assignment
Barrie Craig Night Beat
Nero Wolfe Barrie Craig

Multi-network

My Pick Facebook Pick
Richard Diamond Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) Richard Diamond
Sam Spade Sam Spade
The Saint The Saint
A Man Called X A Man Called X

Syndicated

My Pick Facebook Pick
Box 13 Box 13
Boston Blackie Boston Blackie
Michael Shayne (Jeff Chandler) Michael Shayne
Frank Race Mystery is My Hobby
A Man Called X Frank Race

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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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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Audio Drama Review: Two Perry Mason Radio Cases

You’ll find that I’m a lawyer who has specialized in trial work, and in a lot of criminal work. … I’m a specialist on getting people out of trouble. They come to me when they’re in all sorts of trouble, and I work them out. … If you look me up through some family lawyer or some corporation lawyer, he’ll probably tell you that I’m a shyster. If you look me up through some chap in the District Attorney’s office, he’ll tell you that I’m a dangerous antagonist but he doesn’t know very much about me.-Perry Mason self-description.

When an actor so well defines a character, it’s easy to forget the character predated him. Such is the case with Raymond Burr and Perry Mason. Before Perry Mason came to television, the character was in Erle Stanley Gardener’s novels and in six movies.

In their adaptations of Perry Mason for the radio, the Colonial Radio Theatre on the Air seeks to faithfully recreate the novels from the 1930s rather than the Television program. The first to be released are Perry Mason and the Case of the Velvet Claws and  Perry Mason and the Case of the Sulky Girl.

The Case of the Velvet Claws was the first of the Perry Mason novels. A woman comes to Perry under an assumed name to get him to stop a scandal sheet from publishing the fact that she was at a dive with a married congressman when a murder went down.  She’s willing to pay $5,000 in blackmail money to keep it quiet.

When the newspaper’s editor wants $20,000, Perry focuses on funding the secret source of the magazine’s funding. Perry finds out the secret owner of the scandal sheet is a Mr. Belter. He confronts him and warns him in a very lawyerly way not to print the story as there will be consequences. Just then Mrs. Belter walks in and Perry’s surprised to find his client is Mrs. Belter.

Later that night, Mrs. Belter awakens Perry from his sleep to tell him her husband has been shot and asks for Perry to come right away to meet her. When Perry presses her for details as to what happened, she says that she heard a man arguing with her husband and that man was-Perry Mason.

Mason has to represent his client while she is all too willing to leave him hung out to dry for the murder rap he’s supposed to protect her from. Perry’s belief in never giving up on a client is severely put to the test as Mrs. Belter makes one for the most unsympathetic clients any detective or lawyer has taken on. We don’t get a courtroom drama in this episode, but we get to see Perry Mason at his best: resourceful, tough, and clever.

In Perry Mason and the Case of the Sulky Girl, a 23-year old spoiled rich heiress (Kimberly McCord) whose father left everything to her and put it in a spendthrift trust managed by her tightwad Uncle  and with a prohibition on marrying before turns to Perry Mason to get help breaking the trust. Mason suspects that she’s not telling him everything and learns she’s been secretly married which could give her uncle reason to cut off the trust immediately and leave her with only $5,000. Without telling the uncle about the marriage, Perry tries to reason with him but to no avail.

Then, that same night, the uncle is murdered and his client lies to him and the police, giving her a false alibi.  His client is charged with murder, along with her secret husband. Mason has to prove she’s innocent and find what really happened.

This was a very good murder mystery with a lot of twists and a focus that rested almost completely on Mason, who was in every scene.

Both mysteries were well-paced thrillers with a more hard-boiled portrayal than Burr.  This Perry Mason does bend the rules. In some ways, his tendency is reminiscent of the various stunts pulled by Nero Wolfe. In Velvet Claws, Mason fights fire with fire by blackmailing the blackmailer editor of the scandal.  In Sulky Girl, he has his client fake a nervous breakdown to send her to a sanitarium, so he can have time to plan. His client also stupidly took $38,000 off of her uncle’s body to pay off a blackmailing and to give Perry a retainer. Mason stuffs the $10,000 retainer in an envelope and mails it to a fictitious address.

However, Mason is in a tough game against lawyers who are very seedy. In Sulky Girl, The murderer makes a clumsy effort to frame a chauffeur who was passed out drunk by planting $2,000 on him. The chauffeur’s lawyer offers to get his client to plead guilty to manslaughter–in exchange for a $50,000 fee. Rather than the ethical honest Burger (who would not be introduced for four more novels), Mason draws the crookedest prosecutor around.  To top it all off, in this case, the client is not forthcoming which means he has to find what she’s hiding from.

Against such odds, Robbins’ Mason is tough and smart, as he tries to represent the interests of his client. Robbins’ is supported by a solid cast, McCord in particular does a great job as the bratty heiress. The Courtroom scenes are slightly stiff by everyone but Mason, but I think this was to create a sense of realism.

This was a nice beginning to the series and I look forward to hearing the next installments.

Overall Rating:

5.00 out of 5.00 for The Case of the Velvet Claws

 

4.0 out of 5.00 for The Case of  the Sulky Girl

 

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