Monday, May 18, 2015

"It's a Smile of Death"

Radio plays by Anthony Boucher (1911-68) and Denis Green (1905-54).
Edited by Joe R. Christopher.
Crippen & Landru Publishers.
2009. 257 pages: 14 plays.
For sale HERE.
Ah! Radio, the theater of the mind, where a word or two could evoke night and fog and danger in a city of two million, manifesting an entire universe for just a few dollars; where the unwitting listener actually did most of the work for the writers and performers, and was all the better for being an active participant rather than a passive observer.

Along with mystery maven John Dickson Carr, Anthony Boucher was in the thick of radio drama in its heyday. An experienced author and critic, Boucher knew the ins and outs of detective fiction, so that when he came to write for radio he knew what would and wouldn't work in this unique medium.

As Joe R. Christopher tells us in his introduction to The Casebook of Gregory Hood, Boucher already had plenty of experience writing for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (with the definitive radio Holmes, Basil Rathbone) when, in the summer of 1946, Rathbone declared he'd had enough of The Great Detective and the series faced cancellation. Boucher and film actor Denis Green hurriedly devised a replacement when the sponsor indicated a willingness to have a mystery series, any kind at all as long as it involved detection. Boucher and Green's response was a show premise not too far removed from Sherlock Holmes: two men who would solve crimes primarily through cerebral effort — but with fisticuffs if necessary (and it did prove necessary on occasion).

Gregory Hood would be the independently wealthy owner of an import company based in San Francisco, and his trusty companion, Sanderson (Sandy) Taylor, would be his attorney. They would seldom seek out mysteries but rather have them unexpectedly fall into their laps uninvited.

Over time, Boucher and Green dreamed up some pretty wild situations for Hood and Sandy to become embroiled in; this book collects 14 of the earliest cases which evince Boucher's sure hand with plotting. (If you're not accustomed to reading radio scripts, don't be concerned; after a few moments it becomes almost second nature.) Indeed, compared with other radio mysteries of the time, thanks to Boucher the plots were stronger and more clever than most; only his colleague John Dickson Carr's scripts could boast stronger plotting. Thus we have one locked-room situation, a dying message, impersonations — all staples of Golden Age detective fiction.

There are "Fascist" plots, killer clowns, diamond switching, hollowed-out coins, murder by bow and arrow, a disappearance in the fog, a highly mobile corpse, a Mission: Impossible-style deception, a stolen violin, mad Russians, psychotic ballet dancers, a medicinal murder plot — like we said, pretty wild situations. But despite all the obstacles they encounter, Hood and Sandy always emerge triumphant.

Crippen & Landru is a specialty publisher devoted to saving for posterity those shorter, more ephemeral works — stories, plays, and scripts — that offer an insight into an American culture — indeed, a world culture — that is now gone away. By recovering these neglected nuggets, C & L helps us understand the concerns of previous generations and how they dealt with them in their popular entertainment media.


1. "The Three Silver Pesos":
    "Magruder, what do I have to do to make you realize there's been a murder?"
    "Show me a murdered man."
    "But we had him. His corpse was in the stolen car."
    "Sure. And before he was stiff you thought he was going to jump off the bridge — then that he had a heart attack — then that he was going to shoot himself — and finally a doctor told you he'd been knifed. And to cap it all a blonde babe steals your corpse and your car. Who are you trying to kid?"
    "I admit it sounds unlikely, but it's true, Magruder."
    "Prove it."

2. "The Black Museum":
    "I am an Aztec princess. I warn you: others follow you. While you own the knife — you die!"
    "If you must threaten me, I do wish you'd sit down. We'd all be more comfortable."

3. "The Adventure of the Beeswax Candle":
    "I may have to book her on suspicion of murder, Mr. Hood."
    "Suspicion . . . ! Lieutenant, are you crazy?"
    "No, but your wife may be. We found her fingerprints on the dagger that was sticking in the dead man's chest."

4. "Murder in Celluloid":
    "Stay where you are, Lou. And the rest of you. Don't you see that I'm still carrying my revolver?"
    "Yes, a revolver containing blanks. You've just used it in the scene."
    "Oh no. I have another one in my pocket — a revolver containing live shells. I've switched 'em. And I shoot expertly through the pocket despite the tailor's bills. You're not getting me arrested. I'm clearing out."

5. "The Derringer Society":
    "I wish you'd let me come over, Mr. Felton. We don't like to take any chances."
    "Look, Silvers, it's nearly midnight. My wife and I are going to bed. If anyone murders me during the night I'll get in touch with you first thing in the morning."

6. "South of the Border":
    "I will swear upon any convenient stack of Bibles that I am not King Grigoru the sixteenth."
    "Of course. I know that."
    "At last! — someone who's making sense."
    "Who should know better than I that you are not the king?"
    "I'm delighted, Marya, but what makes you so positive?"
    "For the most obvious reason. Did I not help you murder him?"

7. "The Red Capsule":
    "We've come in to report a murder."
    "Sounds as if you said 'murder,' son."
    "That's what I did say. A girl was murdered last night in the mountains. My friend and I saw it happen."

8. "The Double Diamond":
    "What's happened?"
    "A girl sitting three seats behind you has been robbed as she slept."
    "The honey-colored girl with the diamond pendant?"
    "Yes — only her pendant no longer contains a diamond."
    "Well, it's probably still on the plane. I doubt if the thief dropped it overboard with a tiny parachute."

9. "The Mad Dancer":
    "There's a clearly defined pattern to this case — a pattern as definite, and as subtle, as a choreographer's arrangement of a ballet. I think it'll take a choreographer to give us the key to that pattern."

10. "Gregory Hood's First Case":
     "Look here, Sandy! The man who was being threatened accidentally left us a clue to his identity!"
     "Greg, I know you're a Sherlock Holmes fan, but I'm no Doctor Watson. Will you take off the deerstalker and return to normal? You're going into your father's importing business — not criminology."

11. "The Elusive Violin":
     "I have a premonition where you're concerned, Greg. I know that your generous impulses are very laudable . . . but when you start to get mixed up with violinists . . . of both sexes . . . and reformed jewel thieves . . . I have a strong hunch that a sizeable pot of trouble is just starting to come to a boil."

12. "Gregory Hood, Suspect":
     "Hood, I've waited a long time to catch you out on a limb. Now I've done it."
     "Why d'you hate me so much, Magruder?"
     "Because you're an amateur dick who thinks he can make monkeys out of the police. We don't tell you how to run your business. Why d'you mix yourself up with ours?"
     "I don't — consciously. It mixes itself up with me."

13. "The Adventure of the Sad Clown":
     "Great Scott! His mouth's frozen into a ghastly smile!"
     "Yes. But it's a smile of death . . . and that smile is characteristic of a certain kind of poison — strychnine!"

14. "The White Masters":
     "You haven't said a word all evening. What's the matter with you? . . . Hey! Put that gun away! You don't think you can get control of the organization that way — put it down!"
     Revolver shot, followed by a door slam.
     "Come on, Sandy — that sounded like a distinct case of murder!"

- There's a biographical sketch of Anthony Boucher by William F. Nolan HERE, while David Langford profiled him HERE; see also the Wikipedia article HERE. Some of these plays have been preserved on audio HERE.

Category: Radio mystery plays

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