Maureen O’Hara Sounds Matter-of-fact about Murder

I can’t seem to get through this romance. It is tempestuous, steeped in mystery, and features a fierce heroine who bears a vague resemblance to Jane Eyre. Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, I mean, one of the novels I picked up to set the mood for my trip to Cornwall. That was in April—and I am still not done with Mary’s adventure among the smugglers. I do like Mary, though. She is not the fainting kind, despite the danger she’s in:

A girl of three-and-twenty, in a petticoat and a shawl, with no weapons but her own brain to oppose a fellow twice her age and eight times her strength, who, if he realised she had watched the scene tonight from her window, would encircle her neck with his a hand, and, pressing lightly with finger and thumb, put an end to her questioning.

Now, the woman who portrayed her Hitchcock’s film version of Jamaica Inn, Maureen O’Hara (pictured above, during the production of the 1938 film), was a few weeks from turning twenty-three when she played another character of that mettle. On this day, 6 July, in 1943, she was heard on the US radio series Suspense in a thriller titled “The White Rose Murders.” An adaptation of a story by Cornell Woolrich, it is the sort of yarn Suspense came to be famous for.

“You’ve been reading too many of those romantic stories,” Virginia tells her fiancé, a police officer with so little self-esteem that he thinks he needs a promotion to deserve a well-to-do debutante like the young woman who’s so devoted to him, she sets out to get what he thinks is in the way of their connubial bliss. This woman is serious about marriage. You might say that she’s dying to get hitched. To achieve just that, she sets out to catch the White Rose murderer, a serial killer who strangles young women, apparently incited or inspired by the “Beer Barrel Polka” (also known as “Rosamunde”). As a token of his perverse affection, he leaves behind the bud of a white rose, the symbol, Virginia explains, of “purity, loyality, devotion.”

Virginia carefully dresses to resemble the victims and “tours the low dives,” searching in each “dingy bar” where “Rosamunde” plays, hoping to attract the man the police has been looking for in vain. As it turns out, the tune is practically everyone’s favorite, just as roses prove popular with the men she encounters. She has to smell a lot of red herrings before she meets the one who is eager to offer her that certain rose. It’s the one she least expected, of course, who is out to do her in.

Despite the names attached to this project—O’Hara, Woolrich, and composer Bernard Herrmann—”The White Rose Murders” is less lurid than it is ludicrous. The situation is suitably creepy—the kind of tale of entrapment and prolonged peril fully deserving of the label Suspense. Even the cheerful “Rosamunde” begins to sound ominous as, in the mind of the listener, it becomes associated with impending horror. Yet instead of relying on a suspenseful mood, the producers of the series insisted on adding an element of surprise—a last minute twist meant to startle the audience. It is a surprise, all right, but one that is psychologically so unconvincing as to reduce the play to mere melodramatic claptrap.

Nor does O’Hara fit her voice to the performance. Perfunctory in her reading of the script, she sounds very much like a sophisticated businesswoman out to get a job done. Perhaps, Virginia’s only adventure was to put an end to all thrills by going through the mill of matrimony. Perhaps, O’Hara had “been reading too many of those romantic stories” not to know which ones were played strictly for the money.

Ship Surgeon Opens His "Cabin" to Spill Some Blood

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.

Carr’s radio play “Cabin B-13” was published in the May 1944 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine

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 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.

On This Day in 1943: Peter Lorre Gives Voice to "A Moment of Darkness"

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.

Review by Request: “The House in Cypress Canyon”

Recently, I was asked to write about the “The House in Cypress Canyon,” a radio play first heard in the US on CBS’s Suspense program on this day, 5 December, in 1946. Robert L. Richards’s neo-gothic thriller has received some scholarly attention, but it is rewardingly suggestive enough to accommodate multiple readings.

In her essay “Scary Women and Scarred Men: Suspense, Gender Trouble, and Postwar Change, 1942-1950,” Allison McCracken refers to “The House in Cypress Canyon” as a play that “amply demonstrates the particular kinds of domestic horrors that radio thrillers could convey.” Indeed, Suspense specialized in homegrown violence, in the terror of jealousy and the horror of revenge, in the manifestations of greed and green-eyed monstrosities.

“… without even knowing …”

Like the film noir, whose first-person voice-over narrations are reminiscent of and influenced by radio storytelling, many 1940s radio thrillers comment on the threat posed to men by independent females in the workplace, by shoulder-padded career women who, rather than being kept contentedly within white picket fences, appeared ruthless enough to impale their male counterparts upon them. At least their assertiveness was portrayed in such a light by the men who fictionalized this very real change in the position of women in wartime America as well as their forced retreat into the home. The first year after the Second World War was in many respects an uneasy period of adjustment.  It was a time out of joint—and “The House in Cypress Canyon” reads the signs of the times by forcing past, present, and future into a bewildering confrontation.

The titular abode is seemingly “ordinary” and “undistinguished.” Part of a pre-war housing complex whose construction was put on hold for the duration, the house was completed after VJ-Day and now awaits occupancy. No doubt, some who might have wished to live here are no longer alive, while those who remain—alone and robbed of future happiness—have no need for it at present. Lives have been put on hold so that life might go on; blood has been shed so that future generations may dwell here. Can any home built under such circumstances truly be ordinary? Not according to the real estate agent who is about to make the house available for rent, who has evidence that something extraordinary is going on inside. That is . . . has it already happened? Is it yet to happen? Is it bound to happen?

Confiding in his detective friend, the agent relates how the construction workers found a manuscript in the as yet unfinished house. It appears to be a diary—an account of life within the house after its completion, the story of how it was rented to Jim Woods (played by Robert Taylor), a chemical engineer, and his wife Ellen (Cathy Lewis), a former schoolteacher; how the “reasonably happy” couple moved in and found one of its closets locked; how the two were awakened by strange howling; how they investigated and found “oozing” from under that closet door something that was “unquestionably blood”; how they left the house in “something very close to a panic” and returned with the “moral support of two stalwart Los Angeles police lieutenants”; and how the couple, having received no assistance from the officers, found their lives forever altered.

Like the title character of Arch Oboler’s “Cat Wife,” Richards’s Ellen undergoes a destructive change; she becomes bestial and predatory but seems entirely unaware of her second nature. That side of her quite literally emerges from a secret closet, a locked room of which she had been unconscious. “If that isn’t a commentary on the housing problem, huh? A woman moving into a house without even knowing where all the closets are,” Ellen laughs.

The opening of that closet is a “commentary,” too, namely on the uncertain boundaries of marital relations, on what lies beyond as the uncommunicated, that realm where the social and the biological converge. Whereas the “den” is being advertized to Jim and Ellen as an “attractive little room, particularly for a man,” there is no such “attractive” nook for the woman of the house. Instead, the blood-oozing closet becomes the scene of Ellen’s transformation from mate to monster. Once it is unlocked, domestic stability as defined by the male architects of heterosexual relations are shattered. Men become Ellen’s vampiric prey.

According to a newspaper clipping attached to the found manuscript, Jim committed suicide after doing away with his spouse, an event said to have occurred on the night after Christmas, the year being unspecified. The real estate agent once again emphasizes that the journal was discovered in the unfinished and as yet uninhabited house. However impressed by the story, the detective does not consider it further and leaves his friend as he puts up the “for rent” sign. The first people to express interest in the place appear almost immediately after the detective’s departure. They are none other than Jim and Ellen Woods.

“Do you know what time it is?” Jim at one point reprimands his wife as she continues to rearrange the furniture while the midnight hour approaches. Do we know what time is it? Is the manuscript found in the “House in Cypress Canyon” a blueprint for a new phase in the battle of the sexes? Will the events described therein play themselves out with the same inevitability that brings Jim and Ellen to the doorstep of their doomed abode? Are the two rehearsing a text that Jim has already written for them, a domestic play that casts the wife as fallen angel in the house?

The dischrono-logic of “The House in Cypress Canyon” drives home the gender role confusion in which men and women found themselves in postwar America and the uneasy future anticipated by skeptics of the seeming consumer comforts of Leave It to Beaverdom.

On This Day in 1930: Murder Trial Broadcast Summons Millions to Court

Well, it is Black Friday here in New York—the stores are opening at preposterously early hours and shoppers are lured away from their leftover turkey with promises of early bird specials and nest egg busting savings. Too lazy after a sumptuous Thanksgiving meal, I am not partaking of any 5 AM bargain debasements. Instead, I am going to celebrate yet another milestone in radio drama history—The Trial of Vivienne Ware, which opened on this day, 25 November, in 1930 and ushered in a new age of cross-promotional multimediacy.

“There’s murder in the air,” the New York Times had announced in its Sunday radio section, predicting that The Trial of Vivienne Ware would “occupy the attention of listeners over WJZ’s network for six consecutive nights beginning Tuesday.” Considerably more enthusiastic was the New York American, which declared the six-part serial to be “one of the most stirring mystery radiodramas ever presented,” quoting NBC president M. H. Aylesworth as saying that its script “established a new standard in the creation of radio plays. The simplicity and fidelity of the theme, together with the colorful word and character pictures, stand out in this new field of adaptive writing.”

The New York American—the Hearst “paper for people who think”—had good reason to eulogize the as yet unaired serial as “one of the best radio dramas ever written,” given that the program had been conceived by one of its own feature writers.

Every effort was made to prevent the program from appearing like a cheap marketing ploy and to convince WJZ, New York—the flagship station of NBC’s Blue network—to produce the series in its glass-curtained Times Square studio atop the New Amsterdam Theatre and to broadcast the event locally instead of making the required six half-hour spots available to national advertisers.

Certain to impress NBC executives was the fact that—along with Ferdinand Pecora, Assistant District Attorney of New York, and prominent New York attorney George Gordon Battle—none other than US Senator and Supreme Court Justice Robert F. Wagner had agreed to participate in the mock trial by assuming the role of the presiding judge. The titular heroine was played by Rosamund Pinchot, a stage actress who had appeared in Max Reinhardt’s celebrated staging of The Miracle, and the entire spectacular was supervised by well-known Broadway producer John Golden.

“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Radio Jury,” Wagner addressed the audience during the inaugural broadcast:

You have been called to one of the most trying tasks which befalls the lot of a citizen. You are to try a fellow being on a charge of first degree murder.  It is the more difficult for you in that this defendant has everything which would make life for any young woman most desirable.  Yet it may become your solemn duty to deprive her of her enjoyment of that life.

Standing to gain cash prizes for the most convincing verdict, readers of the New York American were advised to prepare themselves by taking in the published “information” daily, since they might miss “important loop-holes” if they did not “carefully follow the testimony and the evidence” as presented on the radio. “By reading the New York American every morning” throughout the trial and by “tuning in on WJZ each night at the specified time,” readers should be able to form their verdict as to Miss Ware’s guilt or innocence—“just like any other juror.”

According to Radio Digest, verdicts, letters of congratulations, and demands for a sequel were received from places as remote as Canada and Virginia, as well as from ships at sea; an estimated 14,000 listeners eventually acquitted the fictional heroine on trial, with about 2000 arguing the “society girl” to be guilty. More significant for the publisher was that the serial had increased the circulation of the New York American “far in excess of expectations,” as a result of which Hearst papers in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, and Omaha sponsored the trial with different casts of local luminaries.

A follow-up trial involving the murder victim’s less privileged “friend,” nightclub singer Dolores Divine, was staged a few weeks after the acquittal of the first defendant. A generic version of the radio scripts for both serials, prefaced by excepts from the printed reports and concluding with the audience verdict, was subsequently published by Grosset and Dunlap, which marketed Kenneth M. Ellis’s The Trial of Vivienne Ware as the “first radio novel, an innovation in both the radio and publishing worlds.”

Unfortunately, no recordings of this interactive multi-media event seem to have survived. I sure would have enjoyed tuning in . . .

Listening to “The Thing That Cries in the Night”; (Chapter Fifteen): Radio Is a Deserted Home

Well, Heavenly Days! This morning, I caught a glimpse of the Great Gildersleeve and the McGees (Fibber and Molly, that is), who were featured in a triple bill of radio-takes-the-pictures comedies on Turner Classic Movies. Of course, radio always takes the pictures, provided the audience has a mind’s eye keen enough to develop them. Soon I’ll head out to pay a visit to the Museum of Television and Radio. As I noticed yesterday, the bookstores, second-hand or otherwise, are not exactly well stocked with radio-related publications; the late-1990s resurgence of interest in radio dramatics and pre-TV broadcasting here in the US seems to have died before it could mature as an independent, sustained, and regenerative field of study.

My own study on the subject of old-time radio, Etherized Victorians, doesn’t have much of a chance in a market that caters to people with short memories or nostalgic longings, instead to those who, like me, think of audio drama as alive if largely abandoned.

Today, my rather unsuccessful attempt at creating enthusiasm about Carlton E. Morse’s I Love a Mystery must come to an end. On this day, 18 November, in 1949, “The Thing That Cries in the Night” stopped bawling at last.

In his fifteenth and final chapter of “The Thing,” Morse keeps on postponing the prosaic business of making sense, until he eventually explains away the mystery of the voice without a body and solving the case of the name without a face.  Not that Jack Packard, one of Morse’s trio of adventurers, finds pleasure in lifting the veil.

“The House of Martin has fallen,” he concludes, soberly; the collapse has proven too devastating and deadly to call for celebration.  The story of a house under the corrupting influences of Hearst and Hollywood, “The Thing That Cries in the Night” is also a chapter in the history of radio, the medium for which Morse chose to write. Exposing the double life of the not-so-sweet Charity, the secret career and inglorious demise of a radio voice and its bodied double, Morse turns ventriloquism into a metaphor for the depersonalizing business of commercial broadcasting and its body of tongue-tied artists and scribes who, generally barred from speaking their mind and forced to mind their speech, stomached ignominy while devising various modes of indirection.

The dark art of casting voices, narrowly or broadly, is exposed as a duplicitous act, an impersonation in whose impersonal nature we can descry the corruption of communication and the unwholesome fragmentations of modern life.

Thus concludes my adventure in radio listening. Had it met with a more favorable reception—or just more of a reception, for that matter—I might have fixed my mind’s eye on a longer serial, such as Chandu the Magician. Instead, I will listen to the sounds of the city for a while as I mingle with the more tangible multitude. Perhaps you’ll be here when I return.

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 . . .