Loving Mysteries: Between the Martin Mansion and Bleak House

Well, I am still hoping other internet tourists will join me in rediscovering I Love a Mystery beginning this Halloween (see previous post for details). I know, it might seem sacrilegious to ignore the anniversary of that most famous of all Halloween pranks, “The War of the Worlds,” in favor of Carlton E. Morse’s serial thriller. Actually, “The War” was waged on the night before Halloween (30 October 1938), which means that I can listen forward without remorse to reviewing the first installment of “The Thing That Cries in the Night,” a neo-gothic mystery starring Mercedes McCambridge (as the tortured Charity Martin) and Tony Randall (as Reggie Yorke, one of the three intrepid investigators, pictured above, who are called upon to examine the Martin’s rotten family tree). So, consider tuning in and coming along for the ride.

In the meantime, I am also looking forward to the new adaptation of Bleak House starring Charles Dance (as Mr. Tulkinghorn) and Gillian Anderson (as Lady Dedlock). It has been nearly ten years since last I read the novel, my favorite among Dickens’s works; so perhaps I won’t notice the liberties taken with the original. Beginning this Thursday on BBC One, the complex melodrama will be played out in fifteen parts, just like Morse’s “Thing.”

Not that the comparisons end there. There are deadly secrets, the proverbial skeletons in the closet, and a curse on both of those decidedly bleak houses, the Martin mansion and Dickens’s eponymous edifice. The overused label “soap opera” has been attached to the BBC production, along with other disclaimers, such as the introduction of new characters; whatever the terminology, serialization and bowdlerization are quite in keeping with Victorian practices.

I might put aside my copy of Don Quixote for the duration and reread Bleak House, now that the days are getting shorter and the winds are a-wuthering, if only to re-encounter the carefree Harold Skimpole and the careworn Richard Carstone, two characters of whom I once fancied myself some kind of composite.

Perhaps I’m someone else among the dramatis personae now; that’s one of the pleasures of rereading. As long as I won’t turn into Mr. Turveydrop. . . . Say, what kind of Dickensian character are you?

An Invitation to Murder by Installments!

Last night I was in on Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936). If somewhat deficient in atmosphere, this old whodunit has many of the key elements of early twentieth-century mystery melodramas like Seven Keys to Baldpate and The Cat and the Canary. Let’s see: there’s a large family fortune and plenty of heirs who’d like to lay claim to it; bogus visitations from the realm the dead; murders ingeniously plotted but thwarted; and a wealthy elderly matriarch in a neo-gothic mansion who is in desperate need of a detective to sort out the family closet.

Come to think of it, that sounds rather a lot like “The Thing That Cries in the Night,” one of the sequences of Carlton E. Morse’s radio thriller I Love a Mystery. Now, there’s a serial I wouldn’t mind reviewing . . . again.As I said previously, I don’t have anything against radio serials, if only they did not insist on such a commitment on my part to be intelligible, let alone enjoyable. Of course, I Love a Mystery is not one of those open-ended daytime serials that go anywhere, and nowhere fast. By the way, I did follow up what happened to Mrs. Goldberg and her chicken venture, but still couldn’t make much sense of the not-going-ons over at Molly’s house.

Morse’s storytelling is byzantine, to be sure, but it is not interminable; each cliffhanger takes you closer to a solution, even though the inevitable conclusion is never as satisfying as our journey and gradual advancement toward it.

On 31 October 1949, the East Coast revival of I Love a Mystery began its investigation of “The Thing That Cries in the Night.” For fifteen nights, listeners were invited to follow the bizarre adventures of three soldiers of fortune—Jack, Doc and Reggie—in an old house whose closets were filled with the proverbial family skeletons. Even though I devoted a lengthy chapter to it in my dissertation, I have never enjoyed this serial as it was offered to the radio audience—as a mystery whose solution is purchased on an installment plan.

So, inspired by the shared viewings going on over at the Charlie Chan Family Home, I am proposing a shared listening experience of “The Thing That Cries in the Night.” It would require little more than ten minutes each day to listen to each of the fifteen episodes (available online here) and a few minutes more to exchange ideas about it on this blog. If you miss an episode, you can always catch up with the convoluted plot here. I will even continue my reviews while away for a visit to my former home, the Big Apple.

Anyway, let me know whether you accept my invitation to go in search of the mysterious “Thing,” starting this Halloween . . .

On This Day in 1930: Old Sleuth Re-emerges in New Medium

Well, before taking a moment to give my page a bit of a makeover and getting all gimmicky by setting up a poll to encourage reader participation (despite my own difficulties with such surveys), I tuned in again to BBC 4 last night and watched another fine British thriller: Edward Dmytryk’s Obsession (1949). Sufficiently motivated by the experience, I promptly cast my vote at IMDb, which is something I am just getting into the habit of doing.

Obsession is told mainly from the perspective of the criminal, a jealous husband determined to do away with his wife’s lover; eventually, Scotland Yard is on his case, and the storytelling loses some of its focus as the inspector keeps calling and occasionally takes the camera along with him. Still, with its emphasis on the execution and prevention rather than the detection of a crime, Obsession is a psychological thriller as opposed to a whodunit, the genre revolutionized in the 1880s by Conan Doyle and his famed Sherlock Holmes stories.

I have always enjoyed a solid whodunit, even though I prefer them in print instead of visualized on the screen or dramatized for radio, as I explained previously. I nonetheless put aside my copy of Agatha Christie’s Poirot puzzler The Clocks to commemorate a milestone in radio mystery drama. It was on this day, 20 October, in 1930, that master detective Holmes and his sidekick-chronicler, the logic-deficient Dr. Watson solved their first mystery on the air.

The mystery, “The Speckled Band,” was a familiar one, to be sure, as was the actor who assumed the role of the brilliant if conceited armchair detective. The performer before the microphone that night was none other than William Gillette, who had not only played Holmes more than a thousand times before but had rewritten some of his adventures to create a stage melodrama that was to serve as his star vehicle for over three decades.

As a Theatre Magazine critic pointed out, Gillette “himself cut the radio score, arranged by Edith Meiser [. . .], directed his cast, and spoke into the microphone from the special glass-curtained stage of the National Broadcasting Company’s Times Square studio” atop the theater that had been “the scene of Gillette’s farewell return to the footlights” earlier that year.

Gillette was already in his late 70s and did not return to the microphone for subsequent episodes; but, being described by a New York Times reviewer as standing “erect and unbending” and as having a “clear, precise, vibrant” voice, the aged thespian was lured out of retirement now and again to play the part for several years longer, returning to the airwaves once more for the 18 November 1935 Lux Radio Theatre production of his stage success.

Holmes survived Gillette’s death in 1937 and continued for another decade to solve mysteries on US radio, even though he had to face plenty of competition on the blood-speckled bandwidths. Like the motion picture series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the Holmes adventures on the air also played an important role in home front motivation, endearing Americans to their at times veddy peculiar and snobby sounding allies in Britain. After the war, the British reclaimed Holmes and continued to dramatize his adventures on BBC radio.

Although I was not immediately taken by such pastiche, the American dramatizations eventually won me over with their charm. Retaining Watson as the narrator added much to the cozy atmosphere of these miniature mysteries; the banter between Holmes and his friend supplied the wit; and the thrills were not wanting either, as aforementioned writer-adaptor Meiser managed to keep the guessing game going despite the challenge of making the short plays intelligible by reducing the number of suspects and dropping fairly conspicuous hints.

So, as the sun is setting earlier or refuses to appear altogether on these gray autumn days, I will sit back more often to join Dr. Watson at his fireside, listening attentively to his tales of intrigue and murder. Just don’t call it an obsession . . .

On This Day in 1953: Business as Bloody Usual on the “gaudiest, the most violent, the lonesomest mile in the world”

Well, Broadway is no longer the stuff of romance; having cleaned up its act in the dull spirit of corporate greed, it no longer is the “gaudiest, the most violent, the lonesomest mile in the world,” as it was once eulogized in hard-boiled and slightly over-cooked prose on the US radio thriller series Broadway Is My Beat (1949-54). Still, since I am returning to the Big Apple next month, having just booked my flight, I am going to rekindle my own romance with Manhattan by following Detective Danny Clover on his beat somewhere between or around Times Square and Columbus Circle.

On this day, 14 October, in 1953, Clover walked once again past “the hawkers, the gawkers, the ‘hurry up’ boys and the ‘slow down’ girls” to find himself confronted with some suitably sordid business of jealousy and murder—the “Cora Lee” case.

It’s “party time” on East 63rd. The shrill laughter of a drunken woman and the breaking of glass tells us at once that this ain’t a black tie affair. College graduate Cora Lee is in hot water; anyway, her head’s in a tub filled with it. The young woman very nearly drowned, and the bruise on her head suggests that she didn’t take the dive on her own free will. Now, the woman who reported the incident resents being thought of as a suspect. “You’re a stinker,” she tells Clover’s assistant. “And that’s the word I use in mixed company.” Cora comes to, eventually; but everyone around her, including her husband and her father, is too drunk to be of any use to her or the police.

A few days later, the “wild dame” celebrates her recovery with a few drinks in the company of husband and friends, party people who keep living it up while Cora is stretched out dead on the floor with a knife in her heart. Good-natured bunch, ain’t it?

“I was in college with Cora,” one of the drunken guests, a gal with feathers in her hair, tells Clover without a hint of compassion. “I knew her for two weeks, and I said to myself: there’s a classmate who’ll never see thirty. One way or another, she’ll never make it.” The deceased, she claims, was “the most, jealous, vicious, detestable, beautiful girl in the class of 1950.” Who might have killed her? Well, “anyone with a knife,” she sneers, especially the young woman who is so eager now to take Cora’s place as hostess of the merry gathering, offering highballs and sandwiches to the detective while threatening to do “damage” with her “high heel” if the feathered one doesn’t keep her mouth shut.

With all that talk going on, there isn’t time left to weave much of a mystery; but the thrill of listening to realist crime dramas like Gangbusters, Dragnet, or Twenty-first Precinct is not generated by suspense or surprise anyway. The criminal, whoever it happens to be, will in all likelihood be apprehended somehow. The excitement lies in going along for the ride, in the privilege of being in the presence of criminal elements, of witnessing the tawdry and treacherous, the vile and violent from a comforting distance.

With a dash of purple prose and a helping of humor, Broadway Is My Beat is as gaudy and violent as the formerly “lonesomest” mile it evokes in word and sound. As white as the Great White Way is nowadays, you just won’t get that kind of kick out of strolling past the Olive Garden or watching the out-of-towners going around on the Toys “R” Us ferris wheel. Let Detective Clover take you on a tour . . .

On This Day in 1937: “Saints preserve us,” Here Comes Mr. Keen

Well, I just attended a touring production of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, a critique of which will have to wait until tomorrow; for tonight I am going to acknowledge, however half-heartedly, the anniversary of a radio program preposterous enough to be deemed food for foolery by noted on-air lampoonists Bob and Ray (pictured). I am referring, of course, to Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, whose melodramatic excesses were first endured on this day, 12 October, in 1937.

Sure, radio drama chronicler Jim Cox has devoted an entire volume to the story of the “kindly old investigator”; and considering that the program managed to stay on the air for eighteen years, it must have had its unfair share of admirers. Each week, Keen was unabashedly announced as “one of the most famous characters of American fiction” in “one of radio’s most thrilling dramas.” To me, however, the theme music—”Some Day I’ll Find You”—always seemed taunting, a hollow promise at best. Find that last missing person already and begone, old tracer!

Keen eventually changed his line of business, cornering criminals instead of countering disappearing acts. Still, whether apprehending miscreants or retrieving the missing, his methods of deduction rarely changed and were not of the most sophisticated sort. As Cox points out in his Radio Crime Fighters, Keen’s cases were poorly constructed, their solution relying on “minimal logic,” mere coincidences or abject slip-of-the-tongue-shodness.

None of this bothered me as much as the condescension with which the sanctimonious hero interfered in the lives of those who sought his help or came under his scrutiny. He was an officious, moralizing snoop who went about what was often none of his business at all.

I am usually not one to embrace camp, which, to me, is a cavalier act of willful misreading; but I was greatly amused when a recreation of a Mr. Keen episode—”The Case of the Inherited Fear”—was performed and greeted with irreverence at the 25th Friends of Old Time Radio Convention in Newark, New Jersey.

The case involved a young naval officer who, as the narrator puts it, “disappeared after he’d been discharged from the navy for medical causes. He was obsessed with a fear of being in confined places.” I could identify with the runaway right away, for what could be more stifling than being clap-trapped by old Mr. Keen?

The ever successful tracer manages to get hold of the claustrophobe in a mining town in Pennsylvania, engaged in an attempt to overcome his anxieties by toiling underground. Just when he is about to make his first descent, an alarm is sounded and his efforts are temporarily thwarted: a cave-in has occurred, endangering the lives of 140 miners.

Keen has “seized the occasion” to lecture the fearful man, insisting that he go below to rescue the workers. The old fellow single-handedly (or, make that, single-mindedly) unlocks the mystery of the ex-officer’s phobia by unearthing its true cause: “Your fear is nothing more than a symbol in your subconscious mind, a symbol of what happened the day you were locked in the closet with your mother.”

Well, such pop-psychological drivel could only trickle from the busy pen of radio melodramatists Anne and Frank Hummert, who decreed that, thanks to Mr. Keen, sanity be restored and social ties mended as the thoroughly rehabilitated young man rushes to the aid of the miners with the “same calm, untroubled expression” his mother has when she turns to her bible.

“Saints preserve us” (as Mr. Keen’s sidekick would put it), the aged tracer has done it again, dispensing another dose of sentiment when suspense might have sufficed. Now, if only we could stuff him into that closet . . .

On This Day in 1950: Stand-in Saint Saves Pooch, Solves Puzzle, Then Stumbles to Pulpit

Well, today I am taking the opportunity my “On This Day” column offers to revisit one of my favorite radio sleuths—the most debonair adventurer to go on the air, the mystery man about town known as . . . the Saint. When I discovered the thrills of old-time radio back in the early 1990s—while listening to Max Schmid’s Golden Age of Radio on WBAI in New York City—the Saint was the first behind-the-mike crimefighter that caught my ear. Voiced for several years by the inimitable Vincent Price, The Saint did not only crack cases—he also solved the conundrum of radio whodunits. He did so again on 24 September 1950 in a routine romp titled “Dossier on a Doggone Dog.”

As I remarked previously, radio mysteries are rarely as engaging as murder puzzles in print. There simple aren’t enough culprits to be dragged into a small studio reading a sufficiently twisted yet clue-strewn script worthy of the term “whodunit.” The way out never found by stodgy detectives like Mr. Keen (Tracer of Lost Persons) was a solid dose of tongue-in-cheek humor. On screen, Nick and Nora Charles did wonders with that approach to the rather predictable Thin Man mystery. Ill-suited to no-nonsense flatfoots like Philip Marlowe, wit and whimsy worked well when delivered by the urbane and nonchalant Simon Templar (alias the Saint).

Though initially involved in the adaptation of his thrillers for radio, Saint creator Leslie Charteris (above, on the back cover of a rare radio thriller anthology) had little more to do than to collect the royalties as his “Robin Hood of Modern Crime” went through a series of reincarnations. Listeners tuning in to the 24 September 1950 broadcast were in for another metamorphosis. They were told that Mr. Price had been “delayed in Paris,” and that film actor Barry Sullivan would be heard instead in the title role. Well, the delay had already been announced in the previous broadcast (17 September 1950). Not that the Parisian detour was quite so prolonged; the shows were transcribed, as was common for post-WWII radio, and apparently taped in pairs for economy and convenience.

“The Dossier” is a zany caper involving the shaving of a Pekinese, a jewel robbery, a screwy industrialist with a fortune in nuts (nuts and bolts, that is), his self-absorbed wife, ne’er-do-well offspring, and haughty butler-turned-stiff; as well as a smart-aleck ten-year-old skilled in judo. While not much of a mystery, the episode, penned by Jerome Epstein, is thoroughly diverting, an irreverent deflation of bourgeois values and assumptions about the anchor of family life, the innocence of childhood, and the nobility of capitalism. As if to curtail such light-hearted tomfoolery, however, an incongruously sober appeal was appended in the form of a curtain call.

Having donned the undoubtedly smart suit of Simon Templar, Barry Sullivan was asked back before the microphone to read the following message:

Ladies and Gentlemen.  A long time ago it was written that man shall not live by bread alone. In this often-quoted line from the Bible, bread is merely a symbol of all material values.  And although we in America have the greatest material advantages in the world, they are not enough to bring us complete happiness.  We must find that happiness in our spiritual as well as our material lives, in faith as well as bread.  In America one of our most precious heritages is the right to worship as we please, to know the spiritual pleasures of our churches and synagogues.  The doors of your places of worship stand open to you and your religious leaders will welcome you to their services.  They also offer you personal and family guidance and the opportunity to become a firm part of your community.  Through our churches and synagogues that community and the families within it can find stability.  And as an individual you can find the peace that only religion can bring.  Thus the religious organizations in America invite you to find yourself through faith.  And come to church this week.  This is Barry Sullivan inviting you to join us again next week at the same time for another exciting adventure of The Saint.  Good night.

In this and similar public service announcements we find compacted the troubled story of the McCarthy era, an era of consumerism, bigotry, and xenophobia; an age of picket-fence dreams, witch hunts, and manufactured menaces—double standard times no more innocent or enlightened than our own terrifying present.

The “Dossier” closed, the Saint stepped down from the pulpit, leaving listeners to grapple with the implications, to examine the state of their spirituality, or to reach for a cool drink and twist the dial in search of further immaterial pleasures.

Agatha Christie and Mutual: The Case of the Airlifted Detective

Well, my gray cells had little to do with it, mes amis. Once again, coming up with the facts merely required some amateur sleuthing inside the ever-widening web. Both Agatha Christie (the Dame who gave birth to Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple) and the Mutual Broadcasting System (the network that delivered The Lone Ranger and The Shadow) came into being on 15 September, albeit decades apart. It was in the stars that the two would team up some day, but the meeting itself proved a not altogether fortuitous one.

Christie, whose Mousetrap opened in 1952 and just won’t shut, is still the most widely known exponent of the British whodunit. Her novels, particularly those involving her two most celebrated detectives—Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot—are frequently adapted for television. Such page-to-screen transfers rarely turn out to my satisfaction. A cleverly convoluted whodunit is best enjoyed at one’s own leisure, allowing ample time for the careful consideration of clues and an occasional consultation of one’s own roster of likely suspects.

Dramatizations dictate the duration of this experience, turning the reader-detective into a mere observer of the fictional one at work. Sure, there are pause and rewind buttons to be touched if one is not pressed for time or pressured by fellow viewers; but technological gadgetry gets in the way of the pleasures derived from being absorbed in the chase for the culprit. This was hardly the only problem mystery lovers faced when Hercule Poirot was airlifted to America back in 1945.

Listeners tuning in to the premier broadcast (22 February 1945) were greeted with the following promise:

From the thrill-packed pages of Agatha Christie’s unforgettable stories of corpses, clues and crime, Mutual now brings you, complete with bowler hat and brave mustache, your favorite detective, Hercule Poirot, starring Harold Huber, in “The Case of the Careless Victim.”

The Poirot impersonated by Huber, a character actor who had screen-tested his affected French accent in Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo, was far removed from the “unforgettable”—and very British—stories conceived by Christie. Indeed, this Poirot, sent overseas for a series of “American adventures,” was nothing but an impostor. And the very authority who was called upon to offer her endorsement, the famed authoress herself, acknowledged as much in her peculiar shortwaved message from London:

I feel that this is an occasion that would have appealed to Hercule Poirot. He would have done justice to the inauguration of this radio program, and he might even have made it seem something of an international event. However, as he’s heavily engaged on an investigation, about which you will hear in due course, I must, as one of his oldest friends, deputize for him. The great man has his little foibles, but really, I have the greatest affection for him. And it is a source of continuing satisfaction to me that there has been such a generous response to his appearance on my books, and I hope that his new career on the radio will make many new friends for him among a wider public.

So, who then was being washed onto America’s shores if the great detective was engaged elsewhere? As I put it in Etherized Victorians, Christie’s preface attempted at once to sanction the broadcast fraud and to distinguish such ersatz from the authentic portrait only the artist friend of the “great man” himself could render. It was a case of careless writing—but listeners to the spurious, anonymously penned misadventures that followed refused to be victimised.

Suffice it to say that the series died quickly, quietly, and largely unlamented, whereas the happily separated partners in crime—Mutual and Christie—continued their respective careers for decades to come.