Last night, as the winds were yowling and pushing against the window panes with autumnal ferocity, I dug deep into our video library and retrieved the threadbare but engaging Dressed to Kill (1946), the final entry in Universal’s long-running series of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. I dropped off toward the end, truth be told; but, as my eyes closed in spite of myself, I thought what a fine radio thriller this particular picture would have made. Not that there wasn’t anything to see or worth watching; but the plot, involving a treasure hunt for three plain-looking music boxes whose tunes contain secret messages, is ideally suited to audio-dramatization.
I was reminded of a discussion I had a few years ago with a friend of mine who starred in the off-Broadway production of Perfect Crime. To what extent does or should a mystery depend on the medium in which it is played out? How much does its unraveling rely on visual clues, how much on the spoken word? Hush now, here comes the third installment of Carlton E. Morse’s radio thriller “The Thing That Cries in the Night” (originally aired on 2 November 1949).
Jack is in conference with Mrs. Randolph Martin, the formidable matriarch who previously confessed to “granddaughter trouble” but is unwilling to expound on the subject. “The Martin girls can do no wrong,” she declares. Yet one among her troubled charge prefers plain talk to false pride and etiquette. She is Faith Martin, the self-professed “vulgarian” of the family. And when she’s through flinging her nasty little character sketches at Jack, we can no longer doubt that the Martins are virtuous in name only.
According to Faith (who, eager to drop the misnomer, insists on being called Fay), the other members of the household are Hope, “the family wench,” and Cherry (Charity), a “plain dope, afraid of her own shadow”; there’s also a brother, Job, who seems to drown his sorrow in a steady stream of potent liquor. They are all very devoted, Fay explains—just not to staying on the path of righteousness:
. . . one day Job found out about firewater, and now he’s devoting his life to it. And one day I found out that there are some wonderfully disgusting words in the English language for self-expression. I’m devoting my life to them. And Hope discovered chauffeurs, and she’s devoting her life in that direction.
And Cherry, the “whispering mouse”? According to her sister, she “hasn’t discovered much of anything yet. So, she’s devoting her life to being afraid.
The “stench of a decaying family tree” which Jack senses to be “permeating the environment” is released at last in a barrage of epithets; but are these labels the real article? Are they any more apt than the names they denounce as ill-fitting, any more precise than the pronounced “they”—the menacing entities Cherry claims to be slashing her skin.
Even Fay feels compelled to revise her candid assessment of the Martin clan when she notices those marks on her sister’s arms. The wounds, at least, are concrete signs of danger; but how much value can we give to “ocular proof” if it only proves that someone is suffering?
Jack insists on evidence, on verifiable facts: “Who is the parent of the baby we heard crying?” he inquires. “Nonsense,” old Mrs. Martin protests. “There’s not a baby in this house. There hasn’t been for years,” Fay adds. Yet they all heard it—the eponymous “Thing.” And, as Cherry tells them in a tremulous whisper, “every time it cries, something horrible happens.”
What a way to end a chapter! Charity Martin’s prophetic tease leaves us dangling, defying us not to hang on; it undermines the certainties we thought we were dealt by Fay’s refreshingly plain talk. Now, this airing of family secrets, the gossipy revelation of a multitude of sins, makes way for a mystery decidedly more dreadful and dark . . .
Say, do you prefer your mysteries hard-boiled or gothically embroidered?