There is an air of mystery about the house. The atmosphere is charged with criminal endangerment, and the sounds are clews to the nature of the offence that threatens harm. The rustle of leaves, distant rumblings, the shiver of the umbrella under which I had sought shelter from the sun. I am sentenced to retreat indoors; and before I lose the wireless connection that allows me to communicate with the outside world, I am going to report a murder. Dr. Fabian told me about it. He is a ship surgeon of a luxury liner docked at Southampton. Alone on the ghostly vessel, he has opened his cabin—Cabin B-13—to air his memories of bygone crimes.
Cabin B-13 was the creation of noted mystery writer John Dickson Carr. An anthology of radio thrillers produced by CBS, the series had its premiere on this day, 5 July, in 1948. Carr had been writing plays for the wireless since the beginning of the Second World War, first in England, where he had moved from the US in 1931, and then in America, to which he returned after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Like many storytellers, Carr was called upon to contribute to the war effort by writing propaganda plays for radio; most of the thrillers he wrote or adapted for Suspense in late 1942 and early 1943 tempered escapism with indoctrination.
Cabin B-13 borrows its title from one of the plays heard on Suspense; it might very well have been an extension of the latter series. Like many of Carr’s wartime stories for Suspense, which emphasized the alliance between the two nations, “A Razor in Fleet Street” features a team of American and British characters. An American married to an Englishwoman, Carr frequently explored the relationship of the two cultures—the supposedly old world and the new. The thriller that opened Cabin B-23, was no exception, even though the story is set prior to the war and was produced thereafter. You might say that it stages the revenge of nostalgia.
Bill, an American diplomat, visits London with his British wife, Brenda. He is fascinated by this aged metropolis, which, to him, conjures up memories of Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu, of “Hansom cabs rattling through the fog”—”It’s put a spell on my imagination ever since I was a boy so high.” There is even an old barrel organ under the window of their hotel room, which doesn’t seem to have been refurbished since the 1860s. Brenda is amused by this attitude toward her native country. “[O]f all the Americans I have ever met, you have the most absurd and fantastic ideas about England. You don’t really expect to find Scotland Yard men in bowler hats trailing you every step—now, do you?”
Yet Brenda, too, is looking at her birthplace with the eyes of a romantic. “When you think about it, just remember the barrel organ: safe, stodgy, comfortable—that’s London,” she insists. Such romantic notions soon turn into some very real melodrama for the young couple, who become caught up in a murder plot right out of Sweeney Todd, that Victorian thriller about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Bill is not too keen on facing “one of those bowler hats in real life”—but that is precisely what happens when Scotland Yard informs him that he is the spitting image of a “ripper” (a killer who “uses a razor . . . and likes it”) now on the loose in that “safe, stodgy, comfortable” town.
It is a solid opener for the series, even though, like most of Carr’s work for the aural medium, it is not altogether radiogenic. Generally, Carr was rather too ambitious in his dramatic works for radio, most of which were mysteries that not only asked “whodunit,” but “how was it done.” The results are often confusing or disappointingly simplistic. The ear is not attuned to complex puzzles; unlike the reader, the listener back then could not turn back the pages or close the book to consider the clews at leisure. Nor does the scope of a 20-minute play match that of a mystery novel with its assortment of suspects and red herrings.
After Carr left Suspense in 1943, the series fared very well with plays more deserving of the term; cat-and-mouse thrillers like the aforementioned “Sorry, Wrong Number,” which prolonged their thrills by building tension rather than counting on last-minute surprises.
“A Razor in Fleet Street” improves on those puzzles by casting Bill in the role of the wrong man, an innocent if imprudent adventurer in pursuit of his doppelganger, the criminal he will be accused of murdering. Granted, the idea of the doppelganger is rather wasted on radio; and the case is solved by an onlooker who, unlike the listener, can describe in detail how the crime was committed. How promising, by comparison, is the title of the subsequent thriller: “The Man Who Couldn’t Be Photographed.” That fellow has not be captured on recordings, either; so, like most of the tales told on Cabin B-13, his story remains locked in the memory of Dr. Fabian . . . or some archive yet untapped.