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.