Well, I am generally slow to catch up. As the broadcastellan maxim—”Keeping up with the out-of-date”—suggests, I am forever belated in my response to the news of the world, food for thought I tend to chew more slowly than the dinner on my plate. Having just learned from a fellow web-journalist that the mind of ousted American Idol finalist Mandisa might be considerably less broad than her frame, I thought of other occasions on which the message of a voice seems out of tune with the messenger, moments in which timbre and text, sound and image, appear to be at odds. One such occasion was “A Moment of Darkness,” a radio play by noted mystery writer John Dickson Carr that aired on this day, 20 April, in 1943.
“A Moment of Darkness” is one of Carr’s ambitious but far from satisfying attempts to make up for the inadequacies of the medium by complicating the kind of plots that radio is least successful in rendering: the “whodunit.” The murder mystery is a genre best suited to novels, page-turners that permit the confounded to do just that: turn the pages, forward and back. On the air, such puzzles are often marred by a lack of pieces, or red herrings, due to the limited number of suspects and clues a listener can be expected to tell apart and pick up within the short time allotted for the drama.
In the fall of 1942, when Carr became the head writer for a fledgling US radio program titled Suspense, he devised alternate ways of mystifying his audience, of casting doubt about the outcome of his thrillers.
As I discuss it in Etherized Victorians, my study on so-called old-time radio, Carr not only asked listeners “whodunit,” but “how done,” by presenting posers involving locked rooms, less-than-obvious weapons, as well ingenious acts of committing and concealing crime. Unlike the reader, the listening audience is rarely equal to this double challenge of guessing the “who” and “how,” considering that there is no chance to recap or retreat in order to evaluate the (mis)information provided. The likely response is that of utter dumbfoundedness, a puzzlement of the least intellectual sort that, in turn, may trigger feelings of exasperation or indifference.
Later Suspense dramatists well understood and expertly solved this problem by emphasizing the “most dangerous game” of the manhunt or exploring the mental state of criminal and victim. Determined to trick his audience with surprises rather than tease them with suspense, Carr decided to heighten the element of doubt and suspicion, to exploit the prejudices of the listener in ways that sounded entirely radiogenic: foreign accents suggesting fiendish acts. In “The Moment of Darkness,” as in Carr’s “Till Death Do Us Part,” such a foreign-tongue twist was delivered by the enigmatic Peter Lorre.
During World War II—and for many years thereafter—harsh Germanic tones often sufficed to taint or undermine a speaker’s message, to make listeners question the sincerity of the utterance or the motives behind it. His Teutonic tongue made Lorre a formidable wartime villain; and his voice, which could be disconcertingly oleaginous, sly, or sinister, inflected with hysteria and madness, only fueled the imagination of Americans prejudiced against foreign influences.
Given the diversity of US culture, however, the networks did not altogether endorse the exploitation of accents—particularly European accents—as reliable signposts of a certain, unmistakable nationality, a mother tongue bespeaking the fatherland of the enemy. Radio writers like Carr were advised not to use voices as a means of identifying—and disqualifying—a speaker as un-American. According to the logic of pre-Political Correctness, Lorre’s character, a sham shaman, is not at all what he sounds, a vocality/locality mismatch that not so much teaches the audience to question their prejudices but to distrust their ears altogether.
There is no such thing as accent-free speech, of course; but those, like me, whose first language is not the one in which they primarily speak are often self-conscious about the sound of their voice, or at least keenly aware of the doubt and derision it might provoke.