Once Over “Lightly”?

My blood is running cold tonight; and the chiller responsible for it is no mere work of fiction. Our house has all the comforts of a mausoleum. The faucets are spouting glacial water; and “daylight savings,” which went into effect last night, meant no appreciable gain in solar heat. We ran out of oil, and, except for the benefit of a fire blazing in the living room, are feeling the want keenly, as hail the size of chickpeas pelted our conservatory roof this afternoon. So, reaching for a certain volume in my library with hands in gloves, like a thief anxious not to leave incriminating fingerprints, was quite beyond playacting. Never mind the melodramatic embellishment. Warmth was the effect I was after.

There is something comforting (and very British besides) about sitting by the fire while contemplating cold-blooded crimes as perpetrated by the villains of a cozy whodunit. The aforementioned John Dickson Carr is the man of this frigid hour. His “Dead Sleep Lightly” was first broadcast on this day, 30 March, in 1943, with noted theater actor Walter Hampden, screen star Susan Hayward, and Lee Bowman (who would play opposite Hayward in Smash-Up) in the leads. As I picked up the script (published in an anthology of the same title), I wondered how its production would measure up to the words on the page. As it turns out, the published script differs significantly from the play as broadcast in the United States. Revising it for a British audience, the author did not simply go once over “Lightly.”

To begin with, as Carr biographer Douglas Greene points out in his foreword, the BBC script (produced on 28 August 1943 as part of the series Appointment with Fear) is considerably longer (about thirty percent). Carr struggled with twenty-odd minute frame allotted for his puzzlers when they aired on Suspense, a brevity that forced him to be simplistic or otherwise render his plots overly complicated. Like most Carr thrillers, “The Dead” invites listeners to figure out not only whodunit, but how it was done. On the air, the mysteries could not be quite as confounding yet fair as they appear on the page, where, undisturbed by the ticking of the studio clock, readers may gather clues and ponder them at leisure.

That said, the lengthened script is not any more intricate in its construction than the shorter dramatization. Removed from the romantic mist of atmospheric sound effects, its clues are strewn in plain sight. Nor does the provision a guide (Gideon Fell, Carr’s serial killer-catcher) enhance the thrill of the hunt. The US version does without such a voice of authority, a detective who examines the facts for us and solves the mystery in due course; instead, those tuning in find themselves in the company of the parties most immediately affected.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” With these apposite words the Suspense drama gets underway. We are at a funeral on a rainy spring morning; but the buried body is not the one referred to in the title. We are being misled or meant to stumble upon something along the way, just like crotchety Mr. Templeton (or Pemberton, as Carr renamed the character in his revised script). The man has just been confronted with his none too comforting past, a moral blot that the British version darkens to the point at which American broadcasters generally draw the line, in fear of offending the puritanically overzealous among the public they were meant to serve. The victim, you see, is no honorable fellow and might well deserve persecution. In the more sentimental original, he may just have the ghost of a chance at redemption.

Fair play or foul, “The Dead” is made for airplay. There is a disembodied voice at the cold heart of it all. What I appreciate most about listening and not having to turn the pages on a day like this is that, while taking it all in, I can keep these icy digits up my sleeves . . .

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