FROM PAGE TO (SOUND)STAGE: Classic Mysteries on the Radio

Here’s what it feels like to grow old:

A few years ago, I had to acknowledge the fact that I had not owned a record player for a decade and that the hundreds of albums I owned had caused the top shelf of my upstairs closet to buckle and that I had replaced all that I could replace with CDs anyway. So I packed the records into my car, went to my school and stuck them in the prop room, just in case someone ever wanted to direct a play that took place in the 1950’s or ‘60’s. 

And then, about eighteen months ago, I started to realize that whenever I spoke about my vast CD or DVD collection, people laughed at me or shook their heads in gentle bemusement. So I packed up half of the DVDs and brought them to my favorite local used bookstore for trade. (The CDs were absolutely worthless. Nobody would take them. I can’t remember where I abandoned them, but I hope they found a good home with somebody more technically hopeless than me.) 

And then I joined Spotify and learned to stream the music and podcasts that I wanted to hear and most of the movies I wanted to watch. (I still own about five hundred DVDs of mysteries, old TV series and favorite films, but since I can’t figure out how to connect my old DVD player to my smart TV – I’m not that smart – I have to watch them on my laptop, using a peripheral player that I stole from school have no memory of purchasing.

I shudder to think of the thousands of dollars I used to spend on media; I could have probably bought my condo five years earlier. And don’t even get me started on the time a burglar chopped through my front door with an axe with the manic energy of Lizzie Borden (allegedly, folks, allegedly!) and stole all my films and music. While some of my property was recovered and returned, I had to spend another small fortune to replace that which had been lost. 

Things became even more expensive for me when I discovered what a fan I am of old radio. First and foremost, there will always be Jack Benny, whose radio program – which ran for over three decades and continued even after he crossed over into television – has to be one of the top ten sitcoms of any type in any era. 

And then there were the mysteries. I have often waxed nostalgic here for how the movie industry used to pour out whodunnits by the ton. The same goes for radio, where dozens and dozens and dozens of programs dedicated to crime-solving in all its incarnations filled the airwaves through the heyday of radio right down to its bittersweet end. Most of the famous sleuths of literature were adapted to radio: Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Charlie Chan, Hercule Poirot, Mike Shayne, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, the Saint . . . the list goes on. And then there were the original sleuths, like the fabulous freelancing insurance investigator, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, the tense, poetic homicide detective Danny Clover on Broadway Is My Beat, the wise-cracking PI Richard Diamond (played by Dick Powell), the San Francisco antiques collector and ladies’ man Gregory Hood, or kindly old Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. That list goes on and on as well!

Sidney Greenstreet as that rare exception, an actor who looked exactly like the radio detective he played!

In the early times when classic radio was rediscovered by the modern masses, I spent a fortune on cassettes. Then I spent a pittance on MP3s, which could deliver a hundred episodes where a cassette afforded me two. But then cars stopped installing MP3 players in their innards, and I found myself at a crossroads. 

Luckily, all sorts of podcasts have sprung up that cater to the classic radio mystery fan. Now you can subscribe to your favorite supplier and listen to Johnny Dollar’s exploits from start to finish (and there are a lot of them – unfortunately, I prefer the short period where the program was divided into five-part mysteries where you listened from Monday to Friday for 15 minutes. Also, while several actors played Dollar, the only one who really counts for me is Bob Bailey.)

Not every radio mystery was created equal, and some of them are pretty bad. If you can’t solve the case at least fifteen minutes before Mr. Keen, there’s something wrong with you. And while Philo Vance is a gentleman detective in the novels of S.S. Van Dine, on the air he is a hard-boiled mug. And the Perry Mason radio series was really just a soap opera (a successful one, though, that inspired the most mystery-centered soap in TV history, The Edge of Night.) Plus, there are plenty of “mysteries,” like The Shadow and I Love a Mystery, that are really more thriller adventures than exercises in ratiocination. (The Shadow is a blast, however!)

Today, I’m waxing nostalgic about radio mysteries because my friend Mike Linane recently posted a comment about a new collection of old mysteries by his favorite author, Francis Durbridge, who created the British sensation Paul Temple for the radio and film. The publisher Williams and Whiting Books has been printing the scripts from Durbridge’s series for a while now, and Mike let everyone know about the latest publication. It’s called Five Minute Mysteries, but it’s really a collection of two rare series by Durbridge: Michael Starr Investigates and The Memoirs of Andre D’Arnell. Essentially, these were super-short cases that were featured within larger entertainment programs during World War II that allowed listeners to play armchair detective, a highly popular pastime in the age of radio. 

I am completely unfamiliar with the casebook of Paul Temple, which you can listen to via BBC Radio drama on YouTube. I might give them a try one of these days. The Five-Minute Mysteries do not seem to be available (I searched Michael Starr on YouTube and learned more than I ever wanted to know about some band called Steel Panther?!?), so this book is especially nice to have. The cases contained therein remind me a great deal of my beloved Minute Mysteries (1949) by Austin Ripley or even Encyclopedia Brown. Ripley’s sleuth, Professor Fordney, is an intellectual, while Michael Starr is a playboy (he is often interrupted on the dance floor with the latest comely miss by Scotland Yard’s Inspector McCraw, who desperately needs his help in solving a murder.) NB: I suppose Encyclopedia Brown could go either route, depending on how deeply his friendship goes with Sally Kimball! All three sleuths essentially figure out a case because of a simple slip made by the culprit. Most often, it involves a slip of the lip, as in the killer tossing off a piece of information they could only have discovered through the act of murder. Sometimes, for McCraw, at least, the information is specific to wartime England (as in how far a taxi will take you or the point where petrol leaves off and paraffin begins). Since I don’t know half this stuff, I can’t say that my armchair sleuthing has been 100% successful. But since each case is about four pages long, I am happily along for the ride and ready to face the next challenge at the turn of a page. 

If the subject of classic radio interests you, there is a lot of reading you can do, even if nothing beats actually listening to the myriad of series that are out there (and not for an exorbitant fee any more, thank goodness!) I am always on the lookout for printed scripts of these programs. Some of our finest mystery authors excelled at radio drama, men like John Dickson Carr (who wrote for SuspenseAppointment with Fear, and the all-too-shortlived Cabin B-13), Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee (aka Ellery Queen), Anthony Boucher, Leslie Charteris, and others. And some small publishers have blessed us with collections of some of their plays. The problem is that these small presses seem to sell out of copies quickly, and then these books become a rarity.

Below are some of my favorites:

The Adventure of the Murdered Moths by Ellery Queen (Crippen & Landru)

Between 1939 and 1948, the Ellery Queen program was the purest incarnation of a program that catered to the desires of armchair detectives sitting in front of their radios. Every week, Ellery, his Inspector father, Sergeant Velie, and secretary Nikki Porter would tackle a mysterious case and then – before the solution could be presented – invite a celebrity guest or panel to try and solve it. More often than not, the guest(s) was/were flummoxed, and then Ellery would present the correct answer to everyone’s delight. 

Sadly, most of the 350 or so episodes are lost forever, a true tragedy for classic radio mystery fans. But many of the scripts remain, and in 2005 Crippen & Landru gathered fourteen of these scripts together for our unadulterated pleasure. That collection has long since sold out, but there seem to be a few reasonably priced used editions floating out there. These, to me, are the epitome of quality scripts and well worth having. 

One bit of good news: if you are interested in this series, Queen biographer and scholar Francis M. Nevins put together a great book with Martin Grams, Jr. called The Sound of Detection (2002, OTR Publishing) that chronicles the history of the radio program and offers brief synopses of nearly every episode, including some that never made it to the air. It is currently available for purchase. 

Sherlock Holmes: The Lost Radio Scripts by Leslie Charteris and Denis Green (Purview Press)

Holmes enjoyed a long presence and many incarnations in radio on both sides of the Atlantic. My favorite episodes are those that featured Basil Rathbone, arguably the best Holmes of film, and Nigel Bruce, hopelessly miscast perhaps but more entertaining than all the other film Dr. Watsons put together. The best of these were written by Anthony Boucher and Denis Green, and they are pretty easy to listen to online. Rathbone played Holmes on the radio from 1939 to 1946 (coinciding with his film appearances and beyond them) and then threw up his hands and said, “Enough!” Bruce lasted another season as Watson opposite Tom Conway (George Sanders’ brother), who made a perfectly okay Holmes – but the magic was diminished. 

This collection contains an introduction by editor Ian Dickerson that chronicles the history of the series in more detail than I can offer here. It also presents a dozen of the cases from the Rathbone/Bruce years that are not available for listening. Despite the fact that Leslie Charteris was a fine mystery author in his own right (creating The Saint), I don’t think these episodes are nearly as clever as mysteries as the Boucher/Green collaborations. But they provide great fun and a chance to read what we can no longer listen to. (What fun it would be to read these aloud with friends!)

Sadly, this must have been a small printing, and copies are already rare. On Amazon, a used copy of this is listed for over $294. Purview Press also published a follow-up collection of “More Lost Radio Scripts,” and you can pick up a used copy for a piddling $280. I don’t own this sequel, so if you all want to chip in for my birthday gift on December 16 . . . 

The Casebook of Gregory Hood by Anthony Boucher and Denis Green (2009. Crippen & Landru)

In the spring of 1946, Anthony Boucher and Denis Green were firing on all cylinders, with Boucher crafting clever mysteries for Sherlock Holmes to solve and Green writing the scripts. And then, Basil Rathbone decided to end his association with the series and the character. But Petri Wine, the sponsor for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, was not done. They wanted to continue putting out radio mysteries, with or without Holmes. That’s when the writers came up with a wholly original character, the debonair San Francisco antiques dealer, raconteur, and amateur sleuth Gregory Hood. Despite the thoroughly “modern” setting of the cases, Boucher and Green applied the same cunning logic and clueing to the mysteries Hood tackled with which they had imbued the Sherlock Holmes series. 

The summer show was a big success, and one of its hallmarks was having famous San Franciscans and other folks serve as on-air authorities when Hood needed to gather specific information about this or that topic. Unfortunately for Gregory Hood (if good for Sherlock Holmes), Boucher and Green were contractually obligated to continue writing for the Holmes series, even without Rathbone, and the Gregory Hood series suffered in quality for several more years with lesser writers. Although several performers played Gregory, my favorite is easily Gale Gordon, who went on to play Mr. Mooney in the The Lucy Show with Lucille Ball. 

This collection gathers fourteen of the Boucher/Green episodes together and is a worthy addition to any radio mystery fan’s library. Sadly, like so many Crippen & Landru classic, it is out of print, and the used copies that currently circulate will set you back forty dollars or more. 

The Island of Coffins and other Mysteries from The Casebook of Cabin B-13 by John Dickson Carr (2021, Crippen and Landru)

I wrote a review of this one when it came out last year and proved to be one of the most exciting classic mystery publications of 2021. Carr was one of the best and most prolific writers of radio mystery; the high volume of his output, combined with all those books her wrote, nearly killed him. The Island of Coffins is a boon to Carr fans and those who love classic radio mystery – and it’s still available in a limited edition, so I urge you to avail yourself of a copy before it goes the way of so many C&L publications. It is a beautiful book, containing two dozen scripts, most of which we cannot listen to anymore. The only warning I would give is that, like every mystery writer before or since, Carr had a habit of recycling or slightly altering certain tricks, and some of the solutions to the plays here would later be incorporated into other stories and novels. 

Finally, if you enjoy The Island of Coffins, it isn’t impossible to find used copies of The Door to Doom and Other Mysteries (1980, Harper & Row) or The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983, Doubleday). Both of these collections come to us courtesy of Douglas Greene, the foremost authority on Carr. The former compiles several stories and a half dozen of Carr’s best radio plays together, while the latter is pure radio bliss in nine adventures. So much gratitude goes to Greene and Clarice Carr, the author’s wife, for making these available to Carr fans. To read him without discovering and acknowledging his contributions to the late great medium of radio drama is to have a sadly incomplete relationship to JDC. 

I hope I’ve provided you with some useful information about yet another path to getting your mystery groove on, as well as suggestions for potentially costly holiday gifts for the mystery fan in your life. If you have suggestions of other such collections for me, please deposit them in the comments below. Or, better yet, send the books to me directly!

21 thoughts on “FROM PAGE TO (SOUND)STAGE: Classic Mysteries on the Radio

  1. Bruce, I love this! I’ve been a fan of old-time radio since the early seventies when the nostalgia boom brought lot of material back into circulation. SUSPENSE, NIGHT BEAT, THE ADVENTURES OF HARRY LIME—these and other shows captivated me then, and they still do. (non-mystery favorites include INFORMATION, PLEASE and THE GREAT GILDERSLEEVE). And those of a certain age will also remember THE CBS RADIO MYSTERY THEATER, also a part of that 70s surge of interest in radio.

    Liked by 2 people

    • My mom fondly talks about the family gathering by the radio to listen to their favorite programs, so there’s THAT lovely image to hold in my head when I listen to my programs. I loved the early days of SUSPENSE when Carr wrote a lot of the episodes and the show felt more GAD-centered. I also enjoyed a lot of the dramatizations of classic films on LUX PRESENTS, with Cecil B. de Mille presiding! Good times.

      Incidentally, Bruce is my brother’s name, so you’re close!


      • Brad—my apologies on the name mix-up! A sign of advancing age, I guess, on my part. My family (all of whom are now gone) also remembered gathering around the radio in those pre-television years. And now—speaking of advancing age—I’m nostalgic for the era I first learned about nostalgia.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Looks like my comment got nixed as I included an Amazon link – get yourself a Scart to HDMI converter and you can watch DVDs on TV. You gotta keep the discs for the extras – plus they won’t be cut or formatted to faux widescreen!

    Love OTR – I have most of those books glad to say and thousands of radio mysteries, including most of the Paul Temple serials by Durbridge. Great fun, By Timothy! (Temple’s catchphrase)

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  3. I remain a huge fan of physical media, at least for film and TV (CDs are a pain though I collect a few favorite artists just for the packaging). In a few cases it can be the only way to see some stuff – I think we talked a while ago about the missing Jonathan Creek stories on streaming.
    I definitely share your love of radio drama as well, though I have barely dipped my toes into crime drama. These titles are a great place to start so I will have to check some of them our (and yes, the Carr collection was one of the highlights of last year for me too).

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    • Streaming is highly flawed. I spent years collecting rare musical theatre LPs and then had to deal with their relative scarcity on disc. And now I’m lucky if Spotify contains half of what I used to own. When your tastes are more “niche,” like musicals or old murder mysteries, sometimes you suffer!!!


      • I’m curious Brad (and this is way off topic for the post) but are there many examples of mystery musicals? I know of The Mystery of Edwin Drood with its audience-selected ending and The Woman in White. Are there any others you know of (and, if so, are any of them any good)?

        But yes, it’s flawed and in our neighborhood internet will routinely go out at spots in late December, early January. It is great to be able to pull out a disc copy of an old favorite. Plus sometimes something you ‘own’ on digital media will disappear with rights issues, etc. if it isn’t downloaded and I think we have all had the frantic ‘which streaming service has this show now’ scramble…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for pointing out the new Durbridge book, which I was unaware of. And thanks also for the kind words about the Holmes scripts. I would offer to send you a copy of the second book but I’m afraid UK to US postage would probably make the $280 look piddling…!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well I thought I was bad for hanging on to all 15 VHS tapes, yes I still have my player, of the mystery ( yes it is a mystery) of The Prisoner!!
    Now I feel encouraged! But no one wants them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The problem, Kay, is that nobody needs them! The Prisoner is on one of our streaming services and can be watched simply by turning in the set! What I used to think of as my “marvelous collection” of films and TV shows is now taking up valuable space in my little home.


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