There has always been an air of mystery about radio. It has been called the “blind medium,” which, while not quite accurate, suggests that its audiences are left in the dark, drawn in by sound and left out by silence. That is why the airwaves are so well suited to mysteries, the art of holding back and filling you in, deliciously piecemeal—the art of fascinating by frustration. The very word “mystery” is said to have its origins in the Greek verb meaning “to close the eyes,” as well as a noun denoting a faint sound made with one’s mouth shut. Mum, apparently, is the word in this sophisticated game of blind man’s bluff.
Now, this business of withholding information and frustrating those who are itching to know is somewhat less magical when it comes to collecting so-called old-time radio programs. So many transcriptions have disappeared over the years, leaving us clueless as to the nature and quality of a thriller series, aside from a few notes or a list of tantalizing titles. The Thin Man is one of those shows that have almost entirely vanished; only a small number of episodes have been preserved.
On this day, 20 October, in 1944, the Charleses, as impersonated on the air by David Gothard and Claudia Morgan, solved “The Case of the Tattooed Thigh.” That illustrated gam has gone missing; but, an unexpected aid in its recovery presents itself in form of an issue of Life magazine, which turned the script for the upcoming broadcast into a photo novel, shot at Manhattan’s Versailles Restaurant.
However disappointing it might have been for those eager to listen in back then to find not only the thigh but the entire case laid bare by this tell-all spoiler of a picture shoot, the magazine now comes in handy for those who would like to get a load of that elusive limb, or indeed any missing link in the rich history of American radio drama.
Having read the story, which involves an inked kooch dancer who is poisoned by a curare-coated dart while performing her routine with her partner and lover, I wonder how it might have played out on the air. The terse synopsis makes plain how simple radio whodunits were, and needed to be, considering that the twenty-odd minutes allotted to such plays does not allow for a great number of plot twists, suspects, and red herrings. Yet, as I said, there is an air of mystery about the sound-only medium, which can enhance the most prosaic picture and lend charm and intrigue to the dullest text. Sure, I saw the “Thigh,” but I’d much rather wrap my ears around it.