The Realistic Detective

The first crime solvers in radio were Realistic Detectives. Traditional, conservative, and ploddingly rational in their approach to solving crimes, these detectives emerged in local and network broadcasting in the late 1920s. Their popularity was such that they remained an integral part of broadcasting until the end of creative programming.

The stress in the Realistic Detective series was upon the logical process by which the crime was solved. In these programs crime was an undesirable dimension of social reality, and the emphasis on solving the mystery in an organized, dispassionate manner suggested to listeners that through such a deliberate methodology the forces for Good within society were forever at work eradicating irrational criminality. Everything in such programs, from the personality of the investigator to the trivialities of social life, was incidental to the principal focus of the story, spotlighting the police procedure used to find the villain and thereby carry out justice.

Typical of the early programs in which the Realistic Detective operated was the local series Unfinished Play. This series appeared in late 1929 on WMAQ in Chicago. In this program the emphasis upon the rational process in solving crimes was transformed into a gimmick. Each week the drama would end before the actual solution was revealed; then the sponsor, a local furniture store, would offer $200 as a prize to the listener who could provide the most acceptable ending. Writing a fitting conclusion to dramas with such titles as "The Solemn Murder," "The Mystery of the Vieux Carre," and "Murder in Studio A" certainly demanded literary talent to be judged "the best solution," but inevitably listeners had to demonstrate almost mathematical precision in solving the crime according to the clues cryptically woven into the plot.

As awkward as this format might appear, it was a popular style. One of the most successful variants of this approach was the network series, The Eno Crime Club. The program was sponsored by the manufacturers of Eno antacid salts, and for five seasons, 1931-1936, was broadcast in two half-hour installments weekly. Described in one show as a "thrill-a-minute radio riddle challenging your detective ability," the scheme of The Eno Crime Club was to present in the Tuesday drama all the clues to the solution of a crime. The following day the chief characters, a somber police investigator named Spenser Dean and his assistant Dan Cassidy, relentlessly acted out the solution to the problem. The program was slow and monotonous by later radio standards, and the clichés and atmosphere of the series were reminiscent of gangster movies of the early 1930s such as Little Caesar and Public Enemy. Nevertheless, The Eno Crime Club was an immensely popular series, one fan magazine in 1934 terming it "the oldest, largest and most successful detective show in radio."

The strength of The Eno Crime Club lay in its relationship to the criminality which was glaringly a part of American reality in the 1930s. This was the period in which romanticized desperadoes such as "Machine Gun" Kelly, Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker, and John Dillinger, as well as the countless hoodlums who made their fortunes from the sale of illegal alcoholic beverages, created in the United States a massive and well-publicized crime wave. Although antagonists on The Eno Crime Club, such as Finney the Slug and Pretty-Boy Gregory, were only fictional characters, listeners were certainly aware that their real-life counterparts were operating with impunity throughout the country. And when one character in a broadcast in February 1934, declared, "We need all the help we can get to catch these crooks," many listeners could readily interpolate this appeal from a fictional to a realistic context.

In a sense, then, when listeners sought clues in a Tuesday broadcast and tested their results with the program the next evening, they were vicariously participating with investigative forces in the apprehension of America's criminals. In this manner, radio fostered in the impotent, potential victims of gangsters—the members of the radio audience—a sense of self-confidence and power in the face of crime.

Still another Realistic Detective series which utilized the device of suspending the conclusion was The Adventures of Ellery Queen. Drawn from the successful stories written by two cousins, Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee, the program definitely presented strong personalities. This was especially noticeable in the social and professional interaction between Queen, a writer of detective stories, his father, who was a police inspector, and Queen's female assistant, Nikki Porter. The thrust of the program, however, was upon the deductive procedure utilized in discovering the perpetrator of the crime. To underscore the importance of the intellectual process, during most of the ten years in which Ellery Queen was on the air (1939-1948), the broadcasts were stopped before Queen named the actual criminal, and a studio panel of renowned "armchair detectives" was asked for opinions as to the identity of the guilty party. This pattern compelled listeners to rely on their own intelligence, matching answers with such guest celebrities as playwright Lillian Hellman, film writer Harry Kurnitz, and musicologist Deems Taylor. Listeners who successfully solved the mystery, especially when the armchair detectives failed, might take justifiable pride in their intellectual accomplishment.

With their deep commitment to rational process, programs in the Realistic Detective format demonstrated and popularized what might be termed the "science" of detective investigation. Such shows transmitted the notion that scientific methodology, as embodied in deductive reasoning, could solve the problems of social crime as readily as it was solving the problems of physics.

By the 1920s widespread faith in science had become an integral part of the mentality of many Americans. Newly surrounded by the technological fruits of its processes—commodities ranging from electric refrigerators and transcontinental airplanes to the sophisticated motion picture and automobile industries—Americans hailed science and its applied methods as the answer to solving the quandaries besetting modern life.

Such a mentality was all the more expectable in radio listeners since the invention and mass manufacturing of radio equipment were the results of rational research. Thus, as it was with scientific reality, with the Realistic Detective all mysteries could be solved. Essentially, these detectives were scientists. And because of this, no criminal went undetected, no puzzle was unsolved. Once the most baffling radio crime was submitted to a rational analysis by human intellect—be it that of the fictional detective or the listener at home—its solution was assured.

There was no better hero of crime programming who underscored this faith in scientific investigation than Sherlock Holmes. Based upon stories and incidents in the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes began as a series in 1930 and ran intermittently until the 1950s. There was definite warmth and human character to Holmes and his assistant, Dr. John H. Watson. This was especially evident when in the early 1930s the program was sponsored by G. Washington Coffee. As a regular part of each program, the narrator was cordially invited into Dr. Watson's study, there to share a warm cup of the sponsor's product while Watson related another adventure with his friend and companion, Sherlock Holmes.

There were also charming personalities in the portrayals of Holmes and Watson when in 1939 Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce adapted their successful movie characterizations to a radio series lasting six seasons. Bruce portrayed Dr. Watson as well-meaning, likable, yet awkward—a character who was both assistance and hindrance to Holmes. Rathbone, however, developed his character as a pillar of reason who was not so smart that he lacked wisdom. Writing in 1940 about his role as the British sleuth, Rathbone noted that his Holmes "was a man of the people. He belonged to the man in the street." In further defining this character, Rathbone remarked:

There have been other great detectives in fiction, of course, but somehow they have never been able to get hold of the imagination as has Holmes. There is Philo Vance, for instance, whose exploits have been read by millions in the books of S. S. Van Dine. I played him once on the screen, but somehow, I had the feeling he was a little too smart, that he belonged to Park Avenue and not Main Street. He didn't have the common touch which Sherlock, in spite of his erratic brilliance, manages to convey Despite such embellishments of the plot as were found in the personalities of Holmes and Watson, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes must be categorized with the Realistic Detectives. These radio dramas always placed their emphasis upon the mental processes needed to solve the puzzle presented each week. In these radio versions, Holmes retained the skills of reasoning which he possessed in literature. A chemist, physicist, mathematician, and logician, Holmes relied heavily upon the sciences in coping with crime.

His abilities were nowhere better illustrated than in those situations in which he, after a short interview with a total stranger, was able to tell a great deal about that person's background. In such scenes, a spot on the clothing, a personal mannerism, or a subtle accent could be interpreted by Holmes' scientific mind to reveal the truthfulness of the stranger's statements. The world of Sherlock Holmes lacked those cumbersome personal accoutrements which often confused the operations of other radio detectives. There were no women of romantic importance in Holmes' radio adventures, no flirtations, no girlfriends, no wife. There were also no fantastic disguises he had to assume in order to utilize his powers, and there was no prepossessing profession from which detective work was only a diversion. Holmes opposed crime because he was a professional consulting detective and because crime was destructively irrational within the social order. In a sense, then, his vocation was the logical outgrowth of his disciplined mentality which, like science, understood everything in order and harmony.

The Realistic Detective series relied upon a style or formula. The clues were integrated into the plot, and the hero and audience were challenged to uncover them and solve the mystery. Some might suggest that repetition of this arithmetical pattern for weeks and years might exhaust or bore radio listeners. Yet, it was the success of these early detective dramas that would lead to a fuller development of investigative heroes. The stylized approach of the Realistic Detectives, moreover, achieved great popularity. According to the ratings from January 1932, The Eno Crime Club was heard in more homes than were such giants of broadcasting as Paul Whiteman, Walter Winchell, or Lowell Thomas. And in 1933, the Sherlock Holmes programs were more attractive to listeners than the shows of either Al Jolson or the Marx Brothers.

With its emphasis upon investigation and the inevitability of apprehension, the format of the Realistic Detective series lent itself easily to dramatizations of the activities of police departments. In this way radio, as a medium of entertainment, became a salient disseminator of information regarding the achievements of law enforcement agencies. In fact, the first network detective series of importance was True Detective Mysteries, a series which began on CBS in late 1929 and continued on radio in various forms until the mid-1950s. Dramas in this series were taken from True Detective Magazine and, like this popular and stark publication, related stories which glorified the operations of police departments. These dramas, moreover, followed an effective semi-documentary style which, with its emphasis upon realism in the reenactment of actual crimes, justified its claim to be "a real story of a real crime, solved by real people, with a real criminal brought to justice."

True Detective Mysteries featured another dimension which tied it closely to law enforcement agencies. Beginning in 1934 the series broadcast as a postscript to each program the description of a wanted criminal, To encourage listener cooperation, the program offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to his arrest and conviction. The first such description was of Charles "Baby Face" Nelson. Although the program was not responsible for apprehending Nelson, this feature strongly linked the series to the real world of its listeners. In fact, as Variety reported, by 1949 True Detective Mysteries was responsible for having captured three criminals through its weekly descriptions of wanted offenders.

The realism that could be achieved within this Realistic Detective format was demonstrated strikingly in the fall of 1932 when Lewis E. Lawes, warden of Sing Sing Penitentiary in New York, began broadcasting detective stories under the title 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. With Lawes acting as the narrator, each week the program dramatized the crimes and punishments of selected inmates of the prison. This was a serious and altruistic undertaking for Lawes. He had written a popular book of the same title that in 1933 inspired a motion picture that starred Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis.

With the radio series, Lawes commenced an avocation in broadcasting that would last into the next decade. As late as the 1946-1947 radio season, he was dramatizing crime on Crime Cases of Warden Lawes. He used his earnings from these activities to fight the evil he exposed on the air. Believing that crime was often the result of poverty or the deprivation resulting from poverty, Lawes stated that most of his radio salary went into such projects as the construction of a gymnasium within the walls of Sing Sing, and the financing of the prison welfare fund used to assist needy relatives of the prisoners.

With Warden Lawes' programs and other series in the 1930s, radio detective shows became a popular weapon in the social struggle against crime. This was especially noticeable in the number of non-network programs where, in cooperation with local, state, and federal investigatory agencies, many stations aired series which reiterated the futility of criminal activities. For several years KEX (Portland, Oregon) produced Homicide Squad, basing its dramas on the exploits of the local police department. Calling All Cars, directed on KFI (Los Angeles) by William N. Robson, as early as 1933 featured not only stories from the Los Angeles Police Department, but utilized Chief of Police James Davis to introduce its weekly stories. Tales of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, broadcast in 1937 on WKY (Oklahoma City) , and State Police Dramas on WHAM (Rochester, New York) dealt with state agencies. And G-Men in Action on WNAC (Boston) in 1939 became one of the first series to focus upon activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

National broadcasting, however, most effectively entered the war on crime through the creative efforts of Phillips H. Lord. A radio actor and producer in the early 1930s, Lord captured popular imagination in 1933 with his program of folksy wisdom and warmth, Seth Parker. Following this triumph, however, he turned his talent to creating series which blended entertainment with a glowing tribute to the law officers protecting America from criminality. For more than twenty years he enjoyed unparalleled success in such programs as G-Men, Gangbusters, Counterspy, Mr. District Attorney, Policewoman, and Treasury Agent.

All of Lord's shows were, as was stated so often in the introduction of Gangbusters, presented in conjunction with "America's crusade against crime." In them were to be found simple reaffirmations of trust and confidence in the American system. More than dedicated civil servants, however, his heroes demonstrated a paternalistic attitude toward America and its citizenry. His characterizations of male and female police officers showed them risking life and limb to keep the common people secure. This philosophy was made obvious, for example, in the Counterspy broadcast of April 20, 1950, when a patriotic ex-spy told an enemy agent why, since defecting to the United States, he no longer dealt in espionage: "America has been good to me. I've found out what sense really is.... See all those people down there—peace of mind and a feeling of trust in belonging to a great and good country like theirs is more than even money can buy."

Phillips H. Lord underscored the realistic nature of his productions by employing police officers to act as commentators during the broadcasts. Gangbusters, which premiered in 1936, was narrated for most of its first decade by Col. Norman A. Schwartzkopf, former superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. In 1945 he was replaced by the retired commissioner of police of New York City, Lewis H. Valentine. In addition to impressive narrators, Gangbusters also featured interviews with a police official from the locale of the story being broadcast.

The use of actual police officers continued in Lord's Policewoman series. This program was broadcast 1946-1947, and concerned events in the career of Sgt. Mary Sullivan of the New York City Police Department. At the conclusion of each show, the real Sgt. Sullivan added personal comments, thereby making the broadcast even more realistic for listeners. Later, perhaps out of budgetary exigencies, professional actors were used in Lord's series, Treasury Agent, to portray Elmer Lincoln Irey, retired coordinator of law enforcement for the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Most of Philips H. Lord's police series enjoyed popularity with American audiences because they presented a compelling mixture of action, topicality, and morality drawn from actual police cases. One of his productions, Gangbusters, actually entered American vocabulary because of its distinctive noisy opening which prompted the phrase “coming on like Gangbusters” to describe aggressiveness in pursuit of a goal.

Still, Lord was most successful in appealing to the basically liberal, law-respecting, and compassionate spirit of the American people in Mr. District Attorney. In its premier show in April, 1939, Lord established the spirit of dedication to justice and altruism that marked the history of the series. In that broadcast the District Attorney, who was never given a name except "Mr. District Attorney", was elected to office and then pledged to exterminate all gangster elements within his jurisdiction. The essence of this oath was reiterated in the opening of each broadcast for the next fourteen years:

And it shall be my duty as District Attorney not only to prosecute to the limit of the law all persons accused of a crime perpetrated within this country, but to defend with equal vigor the rights and privileges of all its citizens.

With a reassuring and paternalistic voice, the District Attorney methodically went about his crime-busting activities. While others in the programs might have demonstrated humorous or fallible personality traits, the central character was always unflappable and rational in his approach to thwarting criminals. Even though the stories and characters were fictional, it could not help but be reassuring to listeners to assume that in reality all District Attorneys were the equal of the character introduced as "champion of the people, defender of truth, guardian of our fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." As proof of the widespread acceptance of this series, "Mr. District Attorney" in the period 1941-1949 was the top-ranked mystery program on radio.

In broadcasting stories laudatory of American police agencies, radio exercised a powerful influence in the maintenance of law and order in a time of great social tension. In European this period of economic depression and international warfare—both cold and hot varieties—precipitated momentous social upheaval as forces from the political right, left, and center struggled to gain and maintain ascendency. Within the United States, however, such patterns failed to develop as the traditional governmental forces were successful in convincing the citizenry that it best could sustain law and order.

No law enforcement official better recognized the potential of entertainment radio in communicating this message than did J. Edgar Hoover. While director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hoover cooperated with many producers eager to highlight the activities of the Bureau's agents. As early as 1935 he opened his files to Phillips Lord's short-lived G-Men series. He also provided authentic Government Men to speak on local radio stations on topics such as "The G-Men and How They Do It," the title of a lecture delivered by agent N. Stapleton in June, 1936, over WNOX (Knoxville).

During World War 11, and in the postwar years, Hoover saw the FBI honored in other radio series. The FBI in Action debuted in 1943 as a local series on WGY (Schenectady), but Hoover obviously approved the show for the narrator was an agent from the Bureau office in Albany. The FBI in Peace and War debuted in 1944 and presented images of his agents dealing with a wide range of criminal activities. In 1952 the transcribed series I Was a Communist for the FBI featured Dana Andrews as the actual double-agent Matt Cvetic, whose pose as a member of the Communist Party supplied the FBI with information on potentially subversive elements in the Cold War era. Top Secrets of the FBI, a postwar series which weekly praised the Bureau as "the most efficient, the most scientific law enforcement organization in the world," featured opening and closing comments by Melvin Purvis, a former agent who was famous for having shot John Dillinger.

Hoover became so committed to radio programming that during World War II he supervised the creation of an "official broadcast of the Federal Bureau of Investigation." This resulted in April 1945 in the premier of This Is Your FBI, a laudatory series which ran for eight seasons on ABC. Hoover was so pleased with this program that he delivered a lengthy statement on the opening broadcast, praising the FBI, American troops fighting overseas, and even the sponsor of the series, the Equitable Life Assurance Society. Importantly, in this speech Hoover touched upon the relationship between detective radio drama and the real world:

It is my sincere hope that the broadcasts will enable you to know more about how to cooperate with your local police officials and every branch of law enforcement in your community. I also hope that you will come to know your FBI as a group of men and women who seek no personal glory, and who are part of a great team serving you, your family, and the Nation.

In the waning years of radio drama, producers and sponsors turned increasingly to the Realistic Detective format, and specifically to stories of police investigation, to fill the void left by departing variety and comedy programs. Thus, the formula developed in the 1930s to promote respect for law and order was being exploited in the late 1940s and 1950s to resuscitate radio. The activities of local police departments received honorific treatment in series such as Squad Room and Under Arrest. Criminals still at-large were dramatized, and their descriptions broadcast in Wanted, Somebody Knows, and $1000 Reward. The efficiency of Scotland Yard was praised in Whitehall 1212; and the intricacies of courts and the law were the subjects of Up for Parole, Indictment, and A Life in Your Hands. Patterned after the efficacious hero of "Mr. District Attorney", several series also were produced in praise of traditionally-overlooked service professions. In this mold were shows like Special Investigator and Dr. Standish, Medical Examiner. Similarly, the series Roger Kilgore, Public Defender was so imitative that the opening oath of "Mr. District Attorney" was refashioned and appeared as Kilgore reciting part of the Declaration of Independence.

The Realistic Detective pattern exercised a powerful influence in maintaining popular faith in vital American institutions. By allowing listeners to investigate vicariously with the series hero—be he a fictional character like Sherlock Holmes, or an anonymous police official on Gangbusters—radio made Americans feel a part of the process of law enforcement. From such a feeling grew trust and support for all levels of legal organization. This was a singularly important result, for in the 1920s many police agencies had lost the public's confidence due to the scandals involving inefficiency, bribery, and collusion with criminals. This skepticism was aggravated in the next decade by the pressures of the Great Depression.

Yet, beginning in the 1930s, by means of the most popular entertainment medium, the mass of American citizens began hearing of the heroic undertakings of private and public investigative agencies. Strong, positive images emerged of these self-sacrificing detectives who pitted reason, science, and technique against underworld treachery. Such characters, then, functioned as role models, suggestive to children and reassuring to adults. This facet of the Realistic Detective format was clearly comprehended by a listener writing to a fan magazine in 1939. Developing the idea of how radio helped to combat juvenile delinquency, she commented:

We are a nation of sometimes lax extremes. For a long while the gangster, racketeer and petty criminal, without interference—swayed the follow-the-leader emotion of our youngsters from movie screen and magazine page. Then came the reckoning. Crime gained an appalling headway. The nicest boys in the neighborhood were forming gangs; turning, despite their parents' efforts, into swaggering little hoodlums. Suddenly America took stock of herself and began tearing down in a frenzy of self-reproach the mockery of manhood she had allowed thoughtless men to erect. The movies turned an about-face, but though they have done a fine job in rectifying a grave mistake, it is really the radio we must thank for such splendid character formers as—Wanted by the Law and Gangbusters. Taken from life, these worthwhile programs give credit where credit is due. To the man with the badge. The protector of lives, home, and property. More than all the preaching in the world, these programs have taught eager little copy-cats that—Crime Does Not Pay.

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