Detective Programming
and the
Search For Law and Order

The detective story is one of the most compelling and well-received forms of creative expression in the American popular arts. With its emphasis upon plot, character, and method of detection, this genre has enjoyed broad success in literature, film, television, and radio. As a format specifically in radio, the detective story emerged in the late 1920s and within two decades was one of the most prolific types of evening broadcasting. Attesting to its popularity, one critic deduced that by 1945 there was an average of ninety minutes of crime programs broadcast daily, and each show was heard by more than five million listeners.

The strength of the detective drama was twofold: it was relatively inexpensive to produce and it was attractive to listeners. Detective shows were much less costly than the comedy and variety programs which abounded in radio. Furthermore, they returned a significantly higher homes-per-dollar-invested figure than other genres. In 1950, for instance, Variety estimated the weekly costs of The Jack Benny Program and The Bing Crosby Show to have been $40,000 each, while the production costs on all but a few detective dramas ranged from $4,000 to $7,000.

Although detective shows seldom entered the higher ranks of the Hooper or Nielsen ratings, these less expensive programs delivered more listeners per sponsor's dollar than did prestigious comedy and variety series. The average evening mystery program in 1950 garnered 267 homes per dollar, while musical variety shows gained 215, general drama 187, comedy variety 163, and concert music 123.

The inexpensive nature of detective series was notable in terms of the acting talent they utilized. Comedians like Eddie Cantor or singers like Al Jolson received lavish contracts before agreeing to perform, but detective dramas did not need costly "name" actors. What was necessary was a clear and distinctive voice and an ability to read fluidly and to inject emotion into the performance.

Producers and advertising agencies had scores of skilled radio actors from which to choose. This situation ensured relatively low wages and obscurity for most chosen performers. Thus, favorite detective series such as The Shadow, "Mr. District Attorney", and Nick Carter, Master Detective might enjoy lengthy popularity, but actors, such as Bret Morrison, Jay Jostyn, and Lon Clark, had to expect lower salaries and much less publicity than other broadcasting personalities.

This is not to say that the creators of radio detective series were so frugal as to ostracize big-name talent. Edward G. Robinson in Big Town and Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both commencing in the late 1930s, enjoyed great success for several seasons. Yet, not until the threat posed by television was clearly understood by network and agency producers was there an effort to lure Broadway and Hollywood celebrities into detective programs. Then, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, such luminaries as Dick Powell in Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Joel McCrae in Tales of the Texas Rangers, George Raft in Rocky Jordan, and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Bold Venture appeared in their own successful series. By this date, however, the future of radio as a significant source for drama was already doomed Rather than a period of flowering in which stage and motion picture personalities became an integral part of radio production, this was a terminal phase in which radio sought to survive by artificial methods.

In terms of entertainment, detective shows afforded listeners the opportunity to mix the deductive process of intellect with the emotional intensity of fantasy. These programs came in various wrappings. But whether it was a traditional private investigator; a detective from a local, state, or federal police agency; an amateur sleuth; or an international crime-solver, the heroes of these series engaged the imagination and transported listeners along a deductive route toward a solution of the crime.

On one level, the process was simply resolving puzzles: the writers had hidden clues within the story, and the detective and his audience moved inexorably toward fitting those clues together to name the guilty person or persons. The detectives, however, were more than diverting logicians; and the audience was more than simply listening.

Several scholars have suggested convincingly that detective heroes in the popular arts must be viewed as social and cultural symbols, that more than pure entertainment, such characterizations are important reaffirmations of the moral values at the base of American civilization. Sociologist Orrin E. Klapp contended that heroes were of singular importance because they possessed certain socially-desirable attributes (courage, devotion, prowess, etc.) and they pursued significant goals (overcoming evil, championing justice, etc). Klapp noted that even in this secular era when religious faith was declining, the belief in temporal champions continued to thrive. In this way, heroes in American culture assumed semi-divine personalities, operating in place of the traditional saints and demi-gods of Western civilization.

Charles J. Rolo took the religious implications of American heroes even further, contending, "The detective story is modern man's Passion Play." The detective, he pointed out, is akin to the average man with all his shortcomings: Nero Wolfe overeats, Sherlock Holmes uses cocaine, and Michael Lanyard is a reformed thief. Yet, in Rolo's view, all detectives have "The Call," all are Saviors, possessing the saving Grace that would bring all their observers to the Light. As he argued:

The hero suspects everyone, for the murderer is Everyman; the murder is the symbol of the guilt, the imperfection that is in all of us. In his search for the hidden truth the hero is exposed to danger, thrashes about in darkness, and sometimes suffers in the flesh, for it is by his travail that the Savior looses the world of its sins. In the detective's hour of triumph, the world is, for a moment, redeemed. Unconsciously, we die a little when the murderer meets his fate, and thus we are purged of guilt.... We exult that Truth has been made known and that Justice has prevailed.

The detective story in general and its radio dramatization in particular, functioned as more than a form of diversion. Throughout its story and structure, the detective program communicated important moral lessons to American society. The essence of those messages lay in the fact that within each drama the villain never won and the hero never lost. Whether or not a program openly declared that "crime does not pay," this was the message expounded in all broadcasts. In a civilization established upon the principle of private ownership of property—be it land, money, or life—such a proclamation is a functional necessity.

It is an imperative that can never be communicated too often. Those who would achieve private property outside the socially-approved methods must be shown to fail. Such villains must become objects of scorn and contempt, marked as Cain so that owners within society might be on guard when in their presence, and would-be emulators might learn from their example. Radio detective series, in this manner, served as theaters in which to blend this serious lesson within a diverting context, illustrating repeatedly that antisocial villains must be reformed, incarcerated, or executed so that the society of the propertied might be secure and enduring.

The actions of radio's crime-solvers also presented a significant personal message to listeners. This communication was related both to psychological stability and social prosperity within American civilization. When Sam Spade, Johnny Dollar, Sgt. Joe Friday, Lamont Cranston, or any of the numerable detectives encountered crime, it was within a familiar pattern. At the beginning of a broadcast the central character was usually found peacefully and calmly uninvolved. With the introduction of other characters, he or she inexorably found himself or herself enmeshed in trouble and was physically and intellectually challenged.

Accepting this new reality and eventually resolving the dilemma, the detective inevitably ended his weekly adventure with a sense of self-confidence and achievement. As these champions of justice acted out their formulaic lives, they actually provided a paradigm for effective social existence. Like the challenges which routinely confronted the fictional detectives, developments which threaten order in the personal lives of listeners had to be faced and overcome. The route to stability, emotional and material, was to be found only in such triumph. Detective programs, therefore, supplied millions of Americans with understandable stories of achievement within a competitive mass society.

In this perspective, detective drama attains the status of a secular Passion Play in which the heroic savior suffers and nearly dies for the sins of our fellow citizens. Such a model strengthens both the civilization and its citizenry. In an earlier time and place, such stories would have been woven into sacred scripture and exegesis. But in the United States in the twentieth century—where the victory of State over Church, and of This-World over Other-World is strongly achieved—citizens must find models in their own popular culture. Because they reached far more citizens than did detective literature or film, radio detective programs performed a strategic role in strengthening the tenor of organized existence within the American commonwealth.

Despite the omnipresence of social lessons within detective programming, it would be incorrect to consider this radio genre as monolithic. There was, in fact, a great deal of variation in the series as they ranged from the documentary frankness of True Detective Mysteries to the comedic cuteness of The Thin Man, and from the intellectual precision of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to the brutality of Pat Novak for Hire.

Significantly, there are three strategic criteria which appeared in all detective radio shows:

  1. the attitude of the program toward crime and its solution;
  2. the function of the central character's personality; and
  3. the view of life and society presented in the story—
and depending upon the emphasis within each series, radio detective programs can be divided into three distinctive types: Realistic Detective, Glamorous Detective, and Neo-Realistic Detective. From a study of these typologies, it is possible to gain a clearer comprehension of detective drama on the air and its relationship to American life.


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