“Uneasy Threshold”: Secret beyond the Door (1947), Room(s) for Doubt and Therapy for Bluebeard

‘I remember, long ago I read a book that told the meaning of dreams.  It said that if a girl dreams of a boat or a ship she will reach a safe harbor.  But if she dreams of daffodils, she is in great danger.’

Delivered by Joan Bennett in a low, velvety voice capable of turning balderdash into portent, those opening lines, from Secret beyond the Door, are the stuff of romance.  If you are otherwise inclined, and not amenable to gothic excess, they might strike you as stuff and nonsense.  And yet, whether you are buying it or not, what you are getting is not simply dreaming but rationalising. What you are getting is a man’s idea of family romance, packaged as what has been termed ‘ gothic romance film.’ Secret beyond the Door is a ‘women’s picture’ that frames a woman’s perspective so shrewdly that female audiences might believe they are the subject.

Just wherein lies the danger of daffodils? Not since Katherine Hepburn got to utter once more, quite out of context but now for posterity, that much derided declaration about the strangeness of ‘calla lilies’ did florid inconsequence have such an impact, the mystery surrounding ‘Rosebud’ excepting.  

There is only one other mention of daffodils in Secret beyond the Door, which has a rather less varied flora than Ophelia got to monologise about in Hamlet, shortly before drowning, even though lilacs play a prominent role. Yes, as Celia Lamphere discovers, ‘lilacs have something to do with it.’

‘[E]verything in romance seems potentially meaningful because its conventions evoke that stage of development where everything is perhaps meaningful,’ Anne Williams writes in Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (1995).  The opening voiceover sets us up for the kind of dreamworld you might expect from Frank Borzage, not from Fritz Lang, even though being Bluebeard’s wife, whatever the headcount, is no Seventh Heaven.

‘Like the Freudian uncanny,’ Williams says of the literary Gothic, ‘the conventions of romance reinstate primitive, pre-Symbolic modes of significance.’  Natalie Schafer’s comic relief aside, that fairy tale mood of romance is sustained in Secret beyond the Door until Celia exists, presumably murdered, and we learn that what we were being told, and what she gets to tell us, is not the story of Celia Lamphere but the story of her husband, the Bluebeard she, according to whatever logic there is in this post-war Hollywood fantasy, is expected to cure.

Daffodils belong, of course, to the genus ‘narcissus’ – and, not to soft-pedal matters, Celia’s husband is a narcissist preoccupied with the image he created for himself.  Unlike Ophelia, he is saved from drowning.

In Secret beyond the Door, gothic romance meets psychoanalysis, and Hollywood’s idea of a woman’s picture is revealed to be a psychological melodrama about the psyche of the emasculated male.  No doubt, men could relate to this picture, as they were reassured that what ailed them was not the trauma of war but the threat of being usurped by the women who were expected to wait for them once the fighting, at the front, at least, was over.

[T]he female protagonist tends to be both victim and investigator,’ Jerrold E. Hogle writes in the Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (2002), citing as examples the ‘1940s cycle of “paranoid woman’s films” (e.g., Rebecca or Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door [1948]),’ films, he claims, in which ‘a wife invariably fears that her husband is planning to kill her.’  Yet despite Celia’s wedding day jiggers – ‘Suddenly I’m afraid.  I’m marrying a stranger, a man I don’t know at all’ – this does not describe the narrative that becomes central. 

Celia Lamphere remains in control for most of the story – at one point, she even offers to carry her new if frayed husband over the threshold – until she collapses in the fire set, by another woman, to her husband’s extravagant collection of felicitous ‘murder rooms.’  Celia’s role is to cure the man who might kill her.  She is his nurse, loving to the end even if it is the ending he, driven by an idée fixe, has in mind for her.

What Celia has to do – according to the perverse logic of Secret beyond the Door – is to sacrifice herself so that he may gain control of his life, which is also hers.  ‘[W]hereas the noir protagonist, and hence the subject of paranoia, is male, in the female Gothic paranoia is feminized,’ Hogle argues.  In Secret beyond the Door, which defies genre classification, the husband-killer is ‘feminised,’ a man dominated throughout his life by women, and his wife needs to surrender control – even at the risk of her life – to restore the manhood as Hollywood defines it.

On the surface of it, narratives like Secret beyond the Door improve on gothic romance films such as GaslightSuspicionExperiment Perilous or Sleep, My Love, in which women are tormented by the thought, justified or not, that the men to which they are married may not be the men they thought they wed.  However, when post-war films present us with stronger women – even professionals such as Ingrid Bergman’s character in Spellbound – those women only get to play doctor to their male patients if they are prepared to turn nurse once the treatment they administer is successful.  Scheherazade got a better deal.

The true secret beyond the door is that men hold the key, even though, in the 1940s, women are given the (wax) impression that they have temporary access to the corridors of power in Bluebeard’s patriarchal mansion.  After all, the book that once told Celia the meaning of dreams – and that promises a ‘girl’ that she ‘will reach a safe harbor’ when her supposed dreamboat comes in – was written by a heterosexual male.

”Uneasy Threshold”: Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) and the Demise of the Gothic

Just what is ‘gothic’? And how useful is the term when loosely applied to products of visual culture, be it paintings, graphic novels, movies or the posters advertising them? Aside from denoting a literary genre and a style of architecture, in which usages I recommend setting it aside by making the ‘g’ upper case, the term ‘gothic,’ understood as a mode, can be demonstrated to take many shapes, transcend styles, media, cultures and periods.  It can also be demonstrated not make sense at all as a grab bag for too many contradictory and spurious notions many academics, to this day, would not want to be caught undead espousing.  Those are the views I take on and the potentialities I test out with students of my module Gothic Imagination at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.

As the gothic cannot thrive being crammed into a series of seminars, let alone been exsanguinated or talked to death in academic lectures, I created an extracurricular festival of film screenings to explore the boundaries of the visual gothic beyond genre and style.  The fourth film in the chronologically arranged series, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943), demonstrates that the gothic struggles to thrive as well when its sublime powers are expended in a game of wartime chess.

The fourth entry in a series of Universal B-movies that began in 1939, prior to the end of US isolationism, as feature films, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is a formulaic whodunit in which the gothic is an accessory to crime fiction, and in which suspects, some more usual than others, are lined up like cardboard grotesques for deployment in a mock-Gothic extravaganza executed on a budget.

Now, as a lover of whodunits and epigrams, I do not object to formula or economics.  I can appreciate budget-regard even when I long for that rara avis.  For the gothic, however, a cocktail consisting in measures equal or otherwise of solvable mystery and final-solution mastery is a cup of hemlock. Granted, the attempt to serve it and make it palatable to the public creates a tension of intentions that may well give motion picture executives and censors nightmares.

I discuss such messaging mixers in the context of radio plays in a chapter of Immaterial Culture I titled “‘Until I know the thing I want to know’: Puzzles and Propaganda,” in which Holmes and Watson also feature.

After all, at the same time the pair set the world aright in twentieth-century wartime scenarios, Holmes and Watson continued to solve crime in the gaslit alleyways of late-Victorian and Edwardian London, or suitably caliginous settings elsewhere in the British Isles, in pastiches in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were heard on the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio program that aired in the US at the same time:

As Sherlock Holmes director Glenhall Taylor recalled, the series was one of several sponsored programs whose “services were requested by the War Department.”  The charms of an imagined past were to yield to visible demonstrations of the responsibilities broadcasters and audiences shared in the shaping of the future.  To promote the sale of defense bonds during the War Loan Drives, Bruce and co-star Basil Rathbone appeared in “special theatrical performances,” live broadcasts to which “admission was gained solely through the purchase of bonds.”  (Heuser, Immaterial Culture 189)

To be sure, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is less overtly propagandist than the previous three entries in Universal’s film series, all of which are anti-fascist spy thrillers.  Adapted, albeit freely, from a story by their creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the case they took on subsequently recalled the titular detective and his faithful sidekick from Washington, DC, and released them back into their fog-shrouded habitat in and for which they had been conceived.

And yet, whatever the setting, in motion pictures Holmes and Watson continued to face adversaries that were recognisably anti-democratic – stand-ins for the leaders of the Axis.  The villain of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, diagnosed as egomaniacal by Holmes, is no exception. 

Much of the action of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death takes place in an ancestral pile that has been temporarily converted into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers.  Those inmates may have their idiosyncrasies, as all flat characters do, but, to serve their purpose in a piece of propaganda, they cannot truly be plotting murder, unless there are exposed as phoneys, in which case the reassurances of wartime service honored and government assistance rendered would be called into question.  

The unequivocal messages the Sherlock Holmes films were expected to spread in wartime did not allow for such murky developments.  A post-war noir thriller might sink its teeth into corruption; but the Sherlock Holmes series did not exhibit such fangs.

Variety thought this entry ‘obvious stuff.’ Less obvious to me, reading Variety, was
how much Ella Fitzgerald contributed to the success of the film at the box office.

Nor could the recovering soldiers be shown to be so mentally unstable as to kill without motive; according to the convention of whodunits, even serial killers like Christie’s Mr. ABC follow a certain logic that can be ascertained.  The heiress of Musgrave Manor may be momentarily distraught, the butler may be exposed as an unstable drunkard – but the soldiers, whatever horrors and shocks they endured on the battlefield, can only be moderately muddled.

Most of the recovering servicemen – in their fear of unwrapped parcels or their fancy for knitting – are called upon to provide comic relief, bathos being a key strategy of the domesticated gothic. In the Sherlock Holmes series, that is a part generally allotted to Dr. Watson, a role he performs even in this particular installment, in which his expertise as a man of medicine is put to use for the war effort. Inspector Lestrade serves a similar purpose, which is probably what made the ridiculing of military personnel seem less objectionable to sponsors, as it made them look fairly inconsequential to the crime caper unfolding. Aligning those men with Watson and Lestrade assists in eliminating them from the start as potential suspects.

While missing legal documents and cryptic messages are certifiably Gothic tropes, the gothic atmosphere in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is fairly grafted on the proceedings with the aid of visuals. There are genre Gothic trimmings aplenty in – secret passages, a bolt of lightning striking a hollow suit of armor, and pet raven assuming the role of harbinger of death – but there is no real sense of menace as, guided by the infallibly capable hands of Sherlock Holmes, we negotiate with relative ease the potentially treacherous territory of a mansion as makeshift asylum and contested castle.

The climax, which tries to cast doubt as to Holmes’s perspicacity, plays out in a dimly lit cellar. It is here that the gothic could potentially take hold if the plot had not preemptively diffused the dangerous situation hinted at in the film’s title. The trap for the killer below has already been laid above-ground on the newly polished surface of a giant chessboard, in a display of strategy choreographed by Holmes himself. By the time the game moves underground, it is no longer afoot; rather, it is fairly limping along.

Gothic and propaganda can mix; genre Gothic fiction often served political purposes. Gothic and whodunit are less readily reconciled. Although John Dickson Carr tried hard to make that happen, often in an antiquarian sort of way, the Victorian Sensation novelists and the had-I-but-known school of crime writers come closer to achieving that.  But the handling of all three of those form or raisons d’être for writing – Gothic, whodunit and propaganda – by the jugglers employed here, at least, is not a formula designed to make the most of mystery and suspense. As I concluded in my discussion of the “identity crisis” of the wartime radio thriller, “propagandist work was complicated by the challenge of puzzling and prompting the audience, of distracting and instructing at once.”

Sherlock Holmes faces death, all right, but the demise he encounters is that of the gothic spirit.

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Cat and the Canary (1927), Mammy Pleasant and the Outsider Inside

Nothing is innately trifling.  As I put it once, when I had the nerve to make a public display – in a museum gallery, no less – of the mass-produced ephemera I collect, ‘Trivia is knowledge we refuse the potential to matter.’  Now, some products of culture are more resistant than others to our realization of them as worth more than a fleeting glance, if that.  Exerting the effort to make them matter may feel downright perverse when there are claimed to be so many more deserving candidates for appreciation around.

When looking out for something to look into, I invariably draw on my own sense of otherness, of queerness.  It is not altogether by choice that I am drawn to the presumed irrelevant.  My perceived marginality is both the effect and the cause of my attraction to the margins.  What matters – and according to whom – is always worth questioning.  That is why I created Gothic Imagination, an alternative art history course I teach at Aberystwyth University.

To augment the weekly lectures and seminars, I created a series of film screenings for my students further to explore the territories of the visual ‘gothic’ beyond literary genre Gothic and the Gothic as an architectural style.  The second film in the chronologically arranged series, The Cat and the Canary (1927), is, for all its technical and cinematographic achievements, a rather undemanding old chestnut.  In part, such a view of it is owing to our belatedness of catching up with it, now that much of it strikes us as a grab bag of narrative clichés.

Well, those clichés were up for grabs even back in 1927, as the film draws on its audience’s familiarity with murder mysteries and stage melodramas.  Like Seven Keys to Baldpate before it, The Cat and the Canary is parodic and self-reflexive.  It play with conventions and our awareness, even our weariness, of them.  The Cat got our tongue firmly in cheek; and as much as we may feel sticking it out at the derivative claptrap to which we are subjected, we are encouraged to appreciate that the film anticipates our response, that it is one step ahead, dangling our tongue cheekily in front of us like a carrot intended to keep us playing along.

Is it only a single step ahead? Ahead of what? Is it ahead, retro or perhaps even reactionary? The Cat and the Canary is postmodern before there was a word for it.  Like any adaptation of a text I have not caught up with, it also makes me wonder just how what we get to see has evolved and how the film, in addition to interpreting its source material cinematically, questions, edits and revises that material as well.

One revision draws attention to itself in the credits – and it made me aware of the consequences the seemingly inconsequential can have.  I am referring to the character Mammy Pleasant, a housekeeper played in the film by the scene-stealing Martha Mattox.  Given that The Cat and the Canary was released in the same year that The Jazz Singer stridently hammered a sonic nail in the coffin of silent film – at times simply by dragging said nail screechingly across the surface of an eloquent body of work shaped over a quarter of a century – the reference to the ‘Mammy’ legend stood out like a discordant note.

A slide from my introduction to the screening

What is ‘Mammy’ about Mammy Pleasant, particularly when the role is performed by a white female actor? The 1922 stage melodrama by John Willard, who also acted in the play on which the film is based, describes the character as an ‘old negress.’  Not that Blanche Friderici, who originated the part on the stage, was black.  She performed it in blackface.  

As The Jazz Singer and other early sound films such as the ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ vehicle Check and Double Check (1930), blackface and minstrel shows were very much part of Western popular culture at the time, and they were not effectively challenged – that is, were not permitted effectively to challenge – until decades later.

And yet, the film does not partake of that tradition, retaining the character’s name only.  In the play, Mammy Pleasant is a servant who has gained enough independence to choose whether or not to serve the future heir to the fortune of her deceased employer, as is clear from this exchange with the family lawyer, Roger Crosby, prior to the reading of the will:

Crosby.  Six! All the surviving relatives.  By the way—Mammy—your job as guardian of this house is up to-night.  What are you going to do?

Mammy.  It all depends.  If I like the new heirs—I stay here.  If I don’t—I goes back to the West Indies.

There is no such exchange in the film, and the ethnicity of Mammy Pleasant is not made central to the characterisation, which in the play is rooted in stereotypes surrounding superstitions to be rooted out in the act of ratiocination.  The Cat and the Canary is, after all, not a Gothic romance but a whodunit in which weird goings-on are shown to have a logical, albeit preposterous, explanation.  

The name Mammy Pleasant, in Willard’s play at least, carries with it a reference to an actual person – the businesswoman and abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant, who, by passing as white, managed to become the first African American millionaire.

In the stage play, produced nearly two decades after Pleasant’s death in 1904, the reference is facetious and derogatory.  Mary Ellen Pleasant, who lost the fortune she had made and shared as an activist, and whose character was destroyed when her passing as a white cook and landlady was exposed, is misremembered in the film as a not altogether trustworthy and slightly threatening outsider operating on the inside of a dead white millionaire’s mansion.

Why did the reference remain? How many viewers back in 1927 would have recognised it as a reference to Mary Ellen Pleasant? And how many would have found comic relief in what might have been some sort of white revenge fantasy that renders Pleasant odious while keeping her in her supposed place?

It is a gothic reading, as opposed to a reading of the gothic, that refuses to privilege the center and, imagining alternatives, lets the canary chase the cat for a change.  An unlikely scenario, to be sure; but to expose what is cultural it is useful to conjure what is unnatural.

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Lodger (1927), Trespassing and the Unhomely

I am not an academic.  I am a human being.  That’s not just me misquoting The Elephant Man.  It is a cri de cœur expressive of what is at the core of my identity as a creative person who happens to have transmogrified into an art history lecturer. To interrogate what that even means, I teach “Gothic Imagination” at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. 

As part of that class, I present an extracurricular series of film screenings exploring the boundaries of the ‘gothic’ beyond the furnishings of the genre ‘Gothic.’  That ‘gothic’ is a term so broadly applied and ill-defined as to render it practically useless is a by now thoroughly predictable way of opening a debate about its practical uses.  Then again, the gothic has little to do to with practicalities.  

I have no intention to make the term, “salonfähig,” that is, reverting here to my native German, to make it acceptable or viable in an academic setting.  Rather, I use the word, which I am applying to visual culture instead of literature, to contest progress or avant-garde narratives traditionally espoused by academies in order to suggest alternative histories and alternatives to the teaching of art history.  Attention to the popular, presumably lesser arts is essential to this strategy.

The first series of screenings, coinciding with my previous iteration of “Gothic Imagination,” was titled “Treacherous Territories.” The phrase was meant to capture that challenge of defining and the dangers of inserting a mutable term such as ‘gothic’ into the lecture theaters and seminar rooms that cannot quite accommodate, let alone confine it. 

The current series, “Uneasy Threshold,” continues that playful investigation.  What, for instance, carries a mystery or a romance over the threshold of ‘gothic’? What is that threshold? And what is the ‘gothic’ interior – the environment in which ‘gothic’ may be contained both as a subject for discussion and as an experience to be had by the viewer of, say, a crime drama, a thriller, a film noir or a horror movie?

As a literary genre, the Gothic began in and with a house – in Strawberry Hill and with the Castle of Otranto, both conceived by Horace Walpole long before Frankenstein, Jekyll/Hyde and Dracula came onto the scene.  Those names are on the letter box of the Gothic mansion of our imagination, and I do not mean to evict their bearers; but might there be room as well – be it a closet, a cellar or a boudoir – for a few hundred other, less usual suspects, such as the title character of The Lodger (1927)?

The Lodger insists on moving in on the party assembled at the Gothic castle, just as the Lodger – who may or may not be a serial killer called The Avenger – emerges out of the fog. edges himself into the home of the Buntings, and comes to preoccupy their thoughts and nightmares.  Invited, perhaps, but deemed suspect or queer all the same.

When the Lodger first made his appearance, in 1911, in a short story by Marie Belloc Lowndes, the figure was already lodged in the collective consciousness of urban dwellers who, like the author, were old enough to recall the Whitechapel Murders of 1888 or else were raised with the legend of Jack the Ripper, an alternative to a nursery rhyme all the more terrifying for having neither rhyme nor reason.

The Lodger transforms the story, which Belloc Lowndes turned into a novel, by pouring more sex into the mix.  That the layered cake did not quite rise to Hitchcock’s satisfaction was, legend has it, due to the casting of Ivor Novello in the title role: a queer Welsh matinee idol who, Hitchcock argued, was not allowed to get away with murder but was to be pronounced blameless by virtue of his status as a star. 

Whether or not that is the true reason for the direction the movie adaptation takes, it does not make the story any less intriguing – or gothic.

The Lodger is the story of a home that becomes “unhomely” – German for “uncanny.”  The lodger is no architect or bricklayer; rather, he transforms the dynamics of the group of people dwelling in the house he enters.  Blameless he may be, but he is an Avenger all the same, as Sanford Schwartz points out in “To-Night ‘Golden Curls’: Murder and Mimesis in Hitchcock’s The Lodger” – not the killer, but the victim of the killer avenging her death, a victim-turned-vigilante who, misunderstood, dreaded and feared, becomes the subject of her other lover’s revenge. 

 It is the other, ostensibly sane and safe lover, a police officer, who trespasses – who abuses his power – to trap the innocent man who threatens his supremacy as a prospective husband. The handcuffs he suits to his own pursuits prove harmful to his lover’s trust and nearly cause the death of his rival even after that rival is proven innocent of crime.

The Lodger is gothic as James’s Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is Gothic.  It is a story of injustice and sanctioned tyranny.   Like Frankenstein’s creature, the Lodger is hunted and tormented. Law, reason and morals are being questioned; and the pillars of civilisation are proven to be unsafe as houses.

The next time I am (re)viewing The Lodger, the film will be accompanied by Neil Brand at Gregynog Hall, 6 Nov. 2021, when I shall be in conversation with the playwright-composer about silent film music and the language of pre-talkie cinema.

Marsh, Not Mellow: A Clutch of Constables (1968) and a Pang of Conscience

“We are not a starry-eyed lot.”

Mystery-and-detective fiction, in Britain at least, has been experiencing a decided revival since the mid 2010s, in part owing to – and evidenced by – the re-release of so-called golden-age whodunits by the British Library.  What the public’s readiness to soak up all that blood of yesteryear might tell us about the mores of the present day I shall leave to sociologists to unravel.  I, for one, welcomed that reopening of landmark trials and half-forgotten cases, not only as a chance at armchair detection – especially during pandemic times standing eerily still – but as an opportunity to reflect on my murderous past by returning to those crime scenes in middle age, knowing full well and being quite relieved that, by catching up, I could never go home again to what did not feel like home to begin with.  

That said, picking up the clues and piecing together the puzzle we are to ourselves, I feel a queer consistency – or consistent queerness – at the racing, bleeding or prematurely failing heart of it all.

My transition from children’s literature to ostensibly grown-up fiction did not happen via the young adult section of a lending library.  Fictions about growing up rarely spoke to me, as, back then, they were largely silent about desires that, while no longer criminalized, were deemed unfit for titles on general display.

Murder mysteries, in their indiscriminate pronouncements of death sentences, were reassuring in that respect.  Anyone could be a suspect or victim, and eventually the act of victimization would be disclosed.  Murder, at least, will out.  The most formulaic mysteries were the most agreeable to me.  I did not care for social realism that did not match my felt reality.  Agatha Christie whodunits, in particular, I appreciated for the perfunctory relentlessness of their nursery rhyme catechism in counting down and categorical settling of accounts.

Returning now to detective fiction via some of Christie’s notable but lesser-known contemporary competitors, I look for and find a renewed relevance.  Ngaio Marsh’s Clutch of Constables (1968), a copy of which I spotted in a local charity shop, makes considerable efforts to encourage such a reassessment. 

To begin with, those Constables referred to in the title are not officers of the law: they are patches of the outdoors featured in landscape paintings by the artist of the same name.  I would not have been alive to Marsh’s wordplay that all those years ago, when I was reading A Clutch of Constables in a German translation, removed from the culture in which they were produced and of which they speak.  To be sure, the German title of Marsh’s mystery – Mord auf dem Fluss – is so generic as to leave neither a hint of its origins nor a trace in my memory; I had to consult an old diary to discover that I had indeed read it some thirty-five years earlier.  

Significantly, the Constables in question are not the real thing – and, as I know now, being a reader and writer of art’s histories, even the real thing was not a true picture of parts of Britain but a commentary on changing times.  The same can be said about A Clutch of Constables.

The action of Marsh’s novel takes place aboard the “pleasure-craft Zodiac” as it leisurely cruises on a meandering river.  “For Five Days you Step out of Time,” the operators promise in their advertising – but there is no sidestepping the sign of the times.  And however picturesque the scenery, the river has not escaped pollution, with “detergent foam” muddying the waters and our image of an England steeped in history and yet somehow untouched by it.  Want your murders “cozy”? No soap, says Marsh.

By the time Clutch of Constables was published, Marsh had been in the guessing game for decades, and the whodunit was well past its prime.  Her aim, clearly, was to make her later work resonate with a new generation of mystery readers while remaining within the established boundaries of the genre.

What caught my attention was the self-consciousness with which Marsh’s mystery, for all its adroit plotting, reflected on its grappling with social relevance.  Marsh’s portrayal of two American, er, tourists, at once conservative and conniving, both reflects and reinforces changing attitudes towards the United States during the Vietnam War.  One of the characters, the surgeon Doctor Natouche – black and British – is the subject of harassment, stereotyping and suspicion.  And while readers are not encouraged altogether to rule out his guilt, those who judge him based on the color of his skin – the visiting Americans among them – are proven wrong both morally and intellectually.  

Marsh’s narrative also enables the spouse of her series detective, Inspector Alleyn, to assume center stage.  Agatha “Troy” Alleyn is an exhibiting artist and an astute observer reporting from the scene of the crime.  Even though, eventually, she is unceremoniously dismissed so her husband can take over and solve the crime, that position is justified by Marsh, and a reference to a popular franchise character serves as a reminder that latest developments in crime fiction are far from advanced: “In the Force our wives are not called upon to serve in female James-Bondage and I imagine most of you would agree that any notion of their involvement in our work would be outlandish, ludicrous and extremely unpalatable.”

In A Clutch of Constables, Marsh was making a plea for whodunits as a force for good, capable of making a difference by exposing prejudices rooted in the widely held but erroneous notion of a homogenous British society.  Take this passage, for instance, in which Inspector Alleyn – who is also an educator in and of the police force – reflects on the task of detection:

The moral is: that it takes all sorts to make a thoroughly bad lot and it sometimes takes a conscientious police officer quite a long time to realise this simple fact of unsavoury life.  You can’t type criminals. 

Detective fiction need not be removed from the lives and causes that matter, Marsh seems to say, anticipating the debates of the present day.  Taking the policing genre to task, A Clutch of Constables releases it from the grasp of those clinging to the false memory of a none-too-golden past.  “We are not a starry-eyed lot,” Alleyn insists:

But at the risk of getting right off the track – a most undesirable proceeding – I would like to say this.  You won’t be any the worse at your job if you can keep your humanity.  If you lose it altogether you’ll be, in my opinion, better out of the Force because with it you’ll have lost your sense of values and that’s a dire thing to befall any policeman.

That “dire thing” may also “befall” the writer of cleverly crafted whodunits.  To avoid such failings, Marsh not only communicates her values but, in those asides, advises her peers to not to let go of their fellow feeling at the profitable drop of another clutch of lifeless bodies.

“. . . a dam’ good shake-up”: Death at Broadcasting House

“Snobbish nonsense!” says one shabbily dressed young Londoner to another as they observe a man in a starched shirt and dinner jacket enter Broadcasting House.  The man, they reckon, is an announcer about to go on the air, unseen yet meticulously groomed and attired.  At the sight of which pointless and paradoxical propriety they sneer: “That whole place wants a dam’ good shake-up.”  A “dam’ good shake-up.”  That, in a coconut shell (to employ the most sound-effective nut in the business of radio dramatics), is what Val Gielgud and his collaborator Holt Marvell (the fanciful penname of fellow broadcaster Eric Maschwitz) set out to perform in Death at Broadcasting House (1934), a murder mystery set in and temporarily upsetting the reliable, predictable and frightfully proper BBC.  Although I had know about it for quite some time, I just finished reading it;  turns out, it’s a “dam’ good” page-turner, and a compelling commentary on the marginality, the relative obscurity of radio dramatics besides.

“There’s not a drop of good red blood about the whole place.  Robots engaged in the retailing of tripe! That’s broadcasting!” one of the above sidewalk critics of the tried and generally trusted institution declares.  It is clear, though, that Gielgud and Maschwitz did not side with the two self-styled “communists.”  The authors were BBC employees and not about to stage a revolution.  The “shake-up” was strictly a matter of maracas, a means of making some noise for their own undervalued accomplishments rather than spilling the beans without which those maracas would become utterly useless as instruments of ballyhoo.

Sure, broadcasting plays—minutely timed, meticulously rehearsed and intensely scrutinized—were far more mechanic than any other form of dramatic performance.  Yet, as Gielgud insisted in one of his many articles on radio drama, “[i]n spite of [its] machine-like qualities” and “in spite of the lack of colour and applause, the work has a fascination of its own.” That the multitude for whom these performances were intended showed so little gratitude was frustrating to an actor-director like Gielgud, who sarcastically remarked a few years earlier that dismissive reviews in the press suggested, at least, that the broadcast play had “passed the first and most depressing stage of development—the stage of being entirely ignored.”  By 1934, it had clearly not advanced to a stage that could be deemed legitimate.

What better way to gainsay those naysayers than to spill some of that “good red blood” or to stir it properly and to make it run hot and cold by turns.  “A killing! In Broadcasting House, of all places! Good God!” is the response of General Sir Herbert Farquharson, the corporation’s fictional Controller.  He has just been informed that an actor was done away with during the production of a live broadcast.  “My god, sir,” the director of that play exclaims, “do you realize that everyone who heard that play must have heard him die? That makes it pretty unique in the annals of crime.”

That most folks tuning in thought little of it—that they believed it to be part of the drama—is owing to the fact that the murder was committed right at the moment when, according to the script, the character played by the victim was scheduled to breathe his last.  A crime at once prominent and inconspicuous—like most radio dramas, performed as they were without a studio audience.  After all, even the Controller, at the time of the murder, was attending a variety program staged in the specially designed Vaudeville Studio instead.

Death at Broadcasting House is the self-conscious performance of two radiomen, Gielgud and Maschwitz, fighting for the recognition that, for the most part, eludes those working behind the scenes—especially the folks behind the scenes of a largely invisible business.  Their book, as they so slyly state, was “dedicated impertinently … to those critics who persistently deny that the radio pay exists, has existed, or ever can exist.”  Radio plays existed, all right, but, for the most part, they died as soon as they were heard, if they were heard at all.

Unless, of course, they were blattnerphoned. “Blattnerphone?” the puzzled inspector exclaims.  “Yes,” the BBC’s dramatic director, Julian Caird, explains:

“It’s a way of recording a programme on a steel tape so that it can be re-transmitted.  We have to do a good deal of it for Empire work.” […]

“You mean we can hear that actual scene over again?”

“We can hear that scene,” said Caird, “not only over again, but over and over again.  As often as you like.  I wonder if the murderer thought of that?”

Probably not.  Unless he numbers among the initiated few, folks like Caird—and Gielgud—who have their fingers at the controls, conjurers who don’t mind revealing some of their tricks to demonstrate just how powerful they are.

“The curious thing about the case what that it was both extremely simply and extremely complicated,” the inspector wraps up the business of detection.  “It was extremely complicated only because it took place under very remarkable conditions—conditions which you wouldn’t find repeated anywhere else, and for which, of course, there was absolutely no precedent.”  The same applies to Gielgud and Maschwitz’s fiction. However witty and engaging, the whodunit is entirely conventional. It is the setting, the broadcasting studio, that makes it unusual.  The setting, thus, becomes the star of the production—a star without whose presence the show simply could not go on.

Indeed, the crime depends on the complexity of British radio production to be in need of detection.  In American broadcasting, by comparison, all actors gathered in the same studio, a congregation that would render the unobserved strangling of one of them not only improbably but impossible.  At the BBC, however, plays were produced using a multiple studios, a complex approach Gielgud’s stand-in explains thus:

[T]he chief reasons why we use several studios and not one, are two.  The first is that by the use of separate studios, the producer can get different acoustic effects for his scenes….  Secondly, the modern radio play depends for its “continuity” … upon the ability to ‘fade’ one scene at its conclusion into the next.  You can see at once that there must be at least two studios in use for these “fades” to be possible.  In an elaborate play, therefore, the actors require as many studios as the varying acoustics of the different scenes require, while … sound effects have a studio of their own, gramophone effects one more, and the orchestra providing the incidental music yet another separate one.

Anyone who has ever listened to an American radio play of the 1930s, such as the ones produced by the Columbia Workshop, knows that no such complex arrangements are needed for the effective use of multiple fades and changes in acoustics.  Death at Broadcasting House is a defense of the British system.  It turns the multi-studio approach into something to be marveled at—an arcane system fit for a mystery, a puzzle whose solution requires the expertise of the initiated and thus vindicates the existence of the men masterminding the business with their hands firmly on that most complex of all pieces of broadcasting equipment: the dramatic control panel, which, Gielgud enthused elsewhere, enabled the director “to move at will, both in time and space, as simply as if he were travelling on the fabled magic carpet, and to take his audience with him.”

A Voice in the Wave: Carl Brisson at the Golden Oriole

Carl Brisson

“42 Men Killed Every Week,” the headline read. Those who had already heard as much on the radio would likely have felt the impact of this crime wave; but, unless they were pining for the likes of Rudy Vallee, they would have relished it as well. Religious leaders, child psychologists, and a few popular entertainers aside, hardly anyone would have been the least bit alarmed. After all, the headline appeared in the 27 July 1946 issue of Billboard and the tally of fatalities was not meant to reflect the hebdomadal wrongdoings in one of America’s urban jungles. Instead, it referred to the “[l]opsided preponderance” of crime dramas that, after the killings at the front had come to an end, hit the airwaves so hard as to wipe out much of the competition.

Perhaps, “swallow up” might be a better way of putting it, as the zingers and songs previously heard elsewhere were subsumed by thriller programs that, in a desperate attempt not to sound cookie-cutter, were becoming increasingly kooky. Take Voice in the Night, for instance. Mentioned in the Billboard report as a contributor to the body count—yet rarely ever mentioned elsewhere or thereafter—it was one of the most baffling mysteries ever devised for the sightless medium, all the more so for having been green-lighted to begin with.

Folks tuning in to Mutual on Friday nights back in the summer of 1946 were told that Voice in the Night was something new under the moon—“a musical mystery story starring the internationally famous stage, screen and supper-club star Carl Brisson.” Never mind the hyperboles, the fact that Brisson had not appeared on the screen in well over a decade. At the time, he was indeed a successful act on the hotel circuit, although even favorable reviews would point out that “his pipes [were] no longer the same” and that he suffered from “a lapse of memory” (Billboard 30 March 1946). Indeed, such setbacks may have made crooning behind a mike with sheet music in his hand sound like an attractive alternative to the middle-aged baritone.

Not that Brisson would have appreciated being called an “Engaging Grandfather”—as a less than subtle Newsweek review had done two years earlier; but, if his voice or appearance did not suggest as much already, there was that prominent son of his (Rosalind Russell’s husband), then in his early thirties. Such telltale signs could be airbrushed away with the aid of a microphone. On the radio, by which even seasoned voices in the night penetrated many a chambre séparée, Brisson could yet be Carl Brisson, a detective who sang for his private suppers.

True, Brisson had experience playing romantic leads, having starred in two melodramas helmed by Alfred Hitchcock; but that was in the silent era, when his Danish accent posed no obstacle to a career in British or American film. In 1934, he had even mixed music and mayhem and “Cocktails for Two” in Murder at the Vanities (pictured above); but a duet with Kitty Carlisle could not have prepared him for the challenge of carrying anything other than a tune, least of all a dramatic radio series of his own. For, no matter how many times he would perform his signature song “Little White Gardenia” (“You may wear it if you care / Or toss it away”), a crime had to be related and solved within each half-hour allotted to Voice in the Night. And on this night, 14 June, in 1946, it was a case involving the theft of a necklace that “once cost two men their lives.”

We meet Carl Brisson at the Golden Oriole, a nightclub where he takes requests and performs standards like “All of a Sudden My Heart Sings” to an appreciative proxy audience, sit-ins for the listeners at home, some of whom would have seen Brisson in person and may well have resented being drawn in by the performer only to be short-changed as he, having invited the diegetic (or built-in) crowd to stand up and dance, walks over to one of the tables for a tête-à-tête with a female and no doubt attractive newspaper columnist whom he feeds his stories of crime and romance.

Old-time radio encyclopedists John Dunning and Jim Cox, who merely quotes and paraphrases the former without giving him proper credit, would have you believe that Brisson dashes off to solve a crime before resuming his nightclub act. Don’t take their word for it, though. In the only two extant episodes, at least, he merely takes a break to relate one of his adventures.

“You’re never more beautiful than when you’re angry to me,” Brisson tells his private listener. Now, I am not sure whether the script or the interpreter is responsible for the way this comes out, whether, as the linguists put it, the problem is structural (“beautiful . . . to me”), or lexical (“angry at me”); but the performance is riddled with such incidents, which become rather distracting. Indeed, forget the largely frisson-free mystery of the stolen “neggless.” It is Brisson’s delivery that will puzzle you. Perhaps, Mutual had hoped for a second Jean Hersholt; but Brisson, though closer in age to his fellow countryman than he would admit, was not called upon to play another Dr. Christian here. Nor would he have been content to be a kindly old Mr. Keen with a trace of a hard-to-lose accent. The romance-filled mysteries were meant to be fast-paced—but the “Great Dane” kept tripping over his tongue.

Having performed “Bells of St. Mary” for a lovely young “corple” at the club, Brisson admits that he “may have lost Mary Morgan”—but the one he was supposed to pursue was a guy named Larry. Perhaps, it was that “lump on [his] head like the size of an egg” that caused Brisson to fluff his lines or else to render them all but unintelligible.

A few weeks later, an episode titled the “Case of the Worried Detective” self-consciously worked what was problematic about the program into a rather more light-hearted script. “I placed you by your accent immediately,” Brisson is told by a hotel clerk. “You are that new long distance runner from Sweden, aren’t you?” A “long distance singer from Denmark,” Brisson corrects. Neither fame nor ready money could get him a room, though, what with the post-war housing crisis going on. “Not even if I promise not to sing?” the performer inquires. If only he had promised not to speak.

While the tongue-in-cheek approach somewhat improved on the tedious double-cross romance contrived for the earlier episode, Brisson was less convincing as a wit than he was as a womanizer. He simply could not get his tongue around certain English words, at least not quickly enough to deliver snappy one-liners.

Besides, anyone alerting the “Voice in the Night” to his glossal obstacle may have received a response similar to the one Murder at the Vanities director Mitchell Leisen got when he tried to correct Brisson’s diction. The singer-actor “was supposed to say ‘She’ll’ and kept pronouncing it ‘Seel,’” Leisen told David Chierichetti.

I thought he was having language problems, so I enunciated it very carefully for him. He said, “Oh, I know how to say it, but don’t you think it’s cuter the other way?”

Rather than being called upon to talk sense or crack wise, Brisson should have been permitted to give his target audience—“the fair, fat and 40 trade,” as Billboard (5 April 1947) called them—what they really wanted, which is just what he did when he returned to his successful club routines. His Voice in the Night was an early casualty of radio’s post-war crime wave, the riding of which tempted and drowned many a hapless performer.

“You Were Wonderful,” Lena Horne

When I heard of the passing of Lena Horne, the words “You Were Wonderful” came immediately to mind. Expressive of enthusiasm and regret, they sound fit for a tribute. However, by placing the emphasis on the first word, we may temper our applause—or the patronising cheers of others—with a note of reproach, implying that while Horne’s performances were marvellous, indeed, the system in which she was stuck and by which her career was stunted during the 1940s was decidedly less so. No simple cheer of mine, “You Were Wonderful” is also the title of a radio thriller that not only gave Horne an opportunity to bring her enchanting voice to the far from color-blind medium of radio but to voice what many disenchanted black listeners were wondering about: Why fight for a victory that, of all Americans, will benefit us least? As title, play, and cheer, “You Were Wonderful”—captures all that is discouraging in those seemingly uncomplicated words of encouragement.

Written by Robert L. Richards, “You Were Wonderful” aired over CBS on 9 November 1944 as part of the Suspense series, many of whose wartime offerings were meant to serve as something other than escapist fare. As I argued in Etherized Victorians, stories about irresponsible Americans redeeming themselves for the cause were broadcast nearly as frequently as plays designed to illustrate the insidiousness of the enemy. Despite victories on all fronts, listeners needed to be convinced that the war was far from over and that the public’s indifference and hubris could endanger the war effort, that both vigilance and dedication were required of even the most war-weary citizen. “You Were Wonderful” played such a role.

When a performer in a third-rate nightclub in Buenos Aires suddenly collapses on stage and dies, a famous American entertainer (Horne) is rather too eager replace her. “I’m a singer, not a sob sister,” she declares icily, thawing for a tantalizing rendition of “Embraceable You.”

The very name of the mysterious substitute, Lorna Dean, encourages listeners to conceive of “You Were Wonderful” in relation to the perennially popular heroine Lorna Doone, or the Victorian melodramatic heritage in general, and to consider the potential affinities between the fictional singer and her impersonatrix, Lena Horne, suggesting the story to be that of an outcast struggling to redeem herself against all odds.

One of the regulars at the nightclub is Johnny (Wally Maher), an seemingly disillusioned American who declares that his country did not do much for him that was worth getting “knocked off for.” Still, he seems patriotic enough to become suspicious of the singer’s motivations, especially after the club falls into the hands of a new manager, an Austrian who requests that his star performer deliver specific tunes at specified times. The absence of a narrator signalling perspective promotes audience detachment, a skeptical listening-in on the two central characters as they question each other while all along compromising themselves.

When questioned about her unquestioning compliance, Lorna Dean replies:

I’m an entertainer because I like it.  And because it’s the only way I can make enough money to live halfway like a human being.  With money I can do what I want to—more or less. I can live where I want to, go where I want to, be like other people—more or less.  Do you know what even that much freedom means to somebody like me, Johnny?

However restrained, such a critique of the civil rights accorded to and realized by African-Americans, uttered by a Negro star of Horne’s magnitude, was uncommonly bold for 1940s radio entertainment, especially considering that Suspense was at that time a commercially sponsored program.

“[W]e are not normally a part of radio drama, except as comedy relief,” Langston Hughes once remarked, reflecting on his own experience in 1940s broadcasting. A comment on this situation, Richards’s writing—as interpreted by Horne—raises the question whether Horne’s outspoken character could truly be the heroine of “You Were Wonderful.”

Talking in the see-if-I-care twang of a 1930s gang moll, Lorna is becoming increasingly suspect, so that the questionable defense of her apparently selfish behavior serves to render her positively un-American. When told that her command performances are shortwaved to a German submarine and contain a hidden code to ready Nazis for an attack on American ships, she claims to have known this all along.

The conclusion of the play discloses the singer’s selfishness to have been an act. Risking her life, Lorna Dean defies instructions and, deliberately switching tunes, proudly performs “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” instead.

About to be shot for her insubordination, Lorna is rescued by the patron who questioned her integrity, a man who now reveals himself to be a US undercover agent. When asked why she embarked upon this perilous one-woman mission, the singer declares: “Just to get in my licks at the master race.”

“You Were Wonderful,” which, like many wartime programs was shortwaved to the troops overseas, could thus be read as a vindication of the entertainment industry, an assurance to the GIs that their efforts had the unwavering support of all Americans, and a reminder to minorities, soldiers and civilians alike, that even a democracy marred by inequality and intolerance was preferable to Aryan rule.

Ever since the Detroit race riots of June 1943, during which police shot and killed seventeen African-Americans, it had become apparent that unconditional servitude from citizens too long disenfranchised could not be taken for granted. With “You Were Wonderful,” Horne was assigned the task of assuring her fellow Negro Americans of a freedom she herself had to wait—and struggle—decades rightfully to enjoy.

Had it not been for this assignment, Lena Horne may never have been given the chance to act in a leading role in one of radio’s most prominent cycles of plays. Yes, “You Were Wonderful,” Lena Horne—and any tribute worthy of you must also be an indictment.

They Also Sell Books: W-WOW! at Partners & Crime

Legend has it that, when asked what Cecil B. DeMille was doing for a living, his five-year-old grand-daughter replied: “He sells soap.” Back then, in 1944, the famous Hollywood director-producer was known to million of Americans as host and nominal producer of the Lux Radio Theater, from the squeaky clean boards of which venue he was heard slipping (or forcefully squeezing) many a none-too-subtle reference to the sponsor’s products into the behind-the-scenes addresses and rehearsed chats with Tinseltown’s luminaries, lines scripted for him by unsung writers selling out in the business of making radio sell.

No doubt, the program generated sizeable business for Lever Brothers; otherwise, the theatrical spin cycle conceived to bang the drum for those Lads of the Lather would not have stayed afloat for two decades, much to the delight of the great (and only proverbially) unwashed. For all its entertainment value, commercial radio was designed to hawk, peddle and tout; and although the spiel heard between the acts of wireless theatricals like Lux has long been superseded by the show and sell of television and the Internet, old radio programs still pay off, no matter how freely they are now shared on the web. In a manner of speaking, they still sell, albeit on a far smaller and downright intimate scale.

Take W-WOW! Radio. Now in its fourteenth season, the opening of which I attended last month, the W-WOW! Mystery Hour can be spent—heard and seen—on the first Saturday of every month (July and August excepting) from a glorified store room at the back of one of the few remaining independent and specialty booksellers in Manhattan: Partners & Crime down on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village. The commercials recited by the cast are by now the stuff of nostalgia, hilarity, and contention (“In a coast-to-coast test of hundreds of people who smoked only Camels for thirty days, noted throat specialists noted not one single case of throat irritation due to smoking Camels“); but the readings continue to draw prospective customers like myself.

Whenever I am in town, I make a point of making a tour of those stores, even though said tour is getting shorter and more sentimental every year. There are rewards, nonetheless. Two of my latest acquisitions, Susan Ware’s 2005 “radio biography” of the shrewdly if winningly commercial Mary Margaret McBride and John Houseman’s 1972 autobiography Run-through (signed by the author, no less) were sitting on the shelves of Mercer Street Books (pictured) and brought home for about $8 apiece. The latter volume is likely to be of interest to anyone attending the W-WOW! production scheduled for this Saturday, 3 October, when the W-WOW! players are presenting the Mercury Theatre on the Air version of Dracula as adapted by none other than John Houseman.

As Houseman puts it, the Mercury’s “Dracula”—the series’s inaugural broadcast—is “not the corrupt movie version but the original Bram Stoker novel in its full Gothic horror.” Indeed, Houseman’s outstanding adaptation is a challenge worthy of W-WOW!’s voice talent and just the kind of material special effects artist DeLisa White (pictured above, on the right and to the back of those she so ably backs) will sink her teeth into, or whatever sharp and blunt instruments she has at her disposal to make your hair stand on end.

Rather more run-of-the-mill were the scripts chosen for W-WOW!’s September production, which, regrettably, was devoid of vamps. You know, those double-crossing, tough-talking dames that enliven tongue-in-cheek thrillers like The Saint (“Ladies Never Lie . . . Much” or “The Alive Dead Husband,” 7 January 1951) and Richard Diamond (“The Butcher Shop Case,” 7 March 1951 and 9 March 1952), a story penned by Blake “Pink Panther” Edwards and involving a protection racket. The former opened encouragingly, with a wife pretending to have killed a husband who turned out to be yet living, if not for long; but, as it turned out, the dame had less lines than any of the ladies currently in prime time, or any other time for that matter. Sure, crime paid on the air; but sex, or any vague promise of same, sells even better.

That said, I still walked out of Partners & Crime with a book in my hand. As I passed through the store on my way out, an out-of-print copy of A Shot in the Arm caught my eye and refused to let go. Subtitled “Death at the BBC,” John Sherwood’s 1982 mystery novel, set in Broadcasting House anno 1937 and featuring Lord Reith, the dictatorial Baron who ran the place, is just the kind of stuff I am so readily sold on, as I am on browsing in whatever bookstores are still standing offline—if only to give those who are still in the business of vending rare volumes a much-deserved shot in the open and outstretched arm.

Related recordings
“Ladies Never Lie . . . Much,” The Saint (7 January 1951)
“The Butcher Case,” Richard Diamond (7 January 1950)
“The Butcher Case,” Richard Diamond (9 March 1951)

” . . . the way of all flesh, material or imaginary”: Conan Doyle at 150

“Had Holmes never existed I could not have done more, though he may perhaps have stood a little in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.” That is how Arthur Conan Doyle, not long before his own death in 1930, announced to his readers that he would put an end to his most robust brainchild, the by now all but immortal Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, the figure continues to overshadow every aspect of Dr. Doyle’s career, literary or otherwise. Perhaps, “upstage” is a more precise way of putting it, considering that the venerable sleuth was to enjoy such success in American and British radio drama from the early 1930s to the present day.

“One likes to think that there is some fantastic limbo for the children of imagination,” Doyle assuaged those among his readers who found it difficult to accept that Holmes’s departure was merely “the way of all flesh.”

To be sure, the earlier incident at the Reichenbach Falls suggested that Holmes was impervious to threats of character assassination, that he could reappear, time and again, in the reminiscences of Doctor Watson. Still, Doyle’s intention to do away with Holmes so early in the detective’s literary career had been no mere publicity stunt. Rather than feeling obliged to supply the public with the puzzles they craved, the author felt that his “energies should not be directed too much into one channel.”

One of the lesser-known alternative channels considered by Doyle has just been reopened for inspection. Today, 22 May, on the 150th anniversary of Doyle’s birth in 1859, BBC Radio Scotland aired “Vote for Conan Doyle!” a biographical sketch “specially commissioned” to mark the occasion. In it, writer and Holmes expert Bert Coules relates how, in 1900, Doyle embarked on a career in politics. He decided to stand for parliament; but the devotees of Sherlock Holmes would not stand for it.

Coules’s play opens right where Doyle had first intended to wash his hands of Holmes—at the Reichenbach Falls. No matter how sincere Doyle was in improving the Empire’s image and the plight of the British’s troops during the Second Boer War, the push hardly met with the approval of the reading public. “How could you!” “How dare you!” “You brute!” the public protested.

Although it was not this perceived case of filicide that did him in, Doyle proved unsuccessful in his campaign—and that despite support from Dr. Bell, who served as an inspiration for Holmes. After his defeat, Doyle “bowed to the inevitable—and back the man came.”

When the The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1927, Doyle dropped the man once more, albeit in a gentler fashion. To assuage loyal followers, he fancied Holmes and Watson in some “humble corner” of the “Valhalla” of British literature. Little did he know that the “fantastic limbo” in which the two were to linger would be that in-between realm of radio, a sphere removed from both stage and page—but nearer than either to the infinite “O” between our ears.

It hardly surprises that, Radio Scotland’s efforts to get out the “Vote for” and let us walk “In the Footsteps of Conan Doyle” aside, most of the programs presumably devoted to Doyle are concerned instead with “The Voice of Sherlock Holmes” and the “Game” that is “Afoot” when thespians like Cedric Hardwicke, John Gielgud, Carleton Hobbs and Clive Merrison approach the original. It is not Doyle’s life that is celebrated in these broadcasts, but Holmes’s afterlife.

True, to the aficionados of Doyle’s fiction, Sherlock Holmes has never been in need of resuscitation. Yet, as Jeffrey Richards remarked in “The Voice” (first aired in 1998),

[r]adio has always been a particularly effective medium for evoking the world of Holmes and Watson. The clatter of horses hoofs on cobbled streets, the howl of the wind on lonely moors, and the sinister creaks and groans of ancient manor houses steeped in history and crime.

The game may be afoot once more when Holmes returns to the screen this year; but, outside the pages that could never quite contain him, it is the “fantastic limbo” of radio that kept the Reichenbach Falls survivor afloat. It is for the aural medium—the Scotland yardstick for fidelity in literary adaptation—that all of his cases have been dramatized and that, in splendid pastiches like “The Abergavenny Murder,” the figure of Sherlock Holmes has remained within earshot all these years.


Related writings
“‘What monstrous place is this?’: Hardy, Holmes, and the Secrets of Stonehenge”
“Radio Rambles: Cornwall, Marconi, and the ‘Devil’s Foot’”
Old Sleuth Re-emerges in New Medium for American Ho(l)mes