Sunday, January 18, 2004

”…that most famous of all manhunters…”

I know what you’re thinking, but no, it’s not Jack French. It’s Nick Carter—master detective—who was the most popular fictional detective during the dime novel era (1860-1915). He made his debut—more than a year before the celebrated Sherlock Holmes—in John Russell Coryell’s “The Old Detective’s Pupil,” published by Street & Smith in their New York Weekly pulp. He would go on to appear in more than 1,000 dime novels, followed by a pulp magazine in the 1930s and comic books in the 1940s. He even made it to the silver screen in a trio of films produced by MGM starring Walter Pidgeon—Nick Carter – Master Detective (1939), Phantom Raiders, and Sky Murder (both in 1940).

In March of 1940, Carter reappeared in the inaugural issue of Shadow Comics, a compendium of the some of Street & Smith’s popular pulp heroes—and both the success of this and the movies prompted Nick Carter, Master Detective to premiere April 11, 1943 over the Mutual Broadcasting System. Though it was difficult for the program to build an audience at first (the program was bounced around 11 different times between 1943-46, and even underwent a brief name change to The Return of Nick Carter before switching back) it eventually became one of the network’s longest-running shows, ending a twelve-year run on September 25, 1955.

The series began with one of radio’s most memorable openings: an unknown individual knocking on the door to Carter’s brownstone office (bang-bang-bang-bang-bang!). No response. A second series of knocks, but still no answer. Finally—BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG!!! Then Nick’s girl Friday Patsy Bowen would yank open the door with a started “What’s the matter? What is it?” A male voice would reply in rapid-fire fashion: “Another case for Nick Carter, Master Detective!

The role of the skilled sleuth was played for the series’ entire run by Lon Clark, a veteran actor who had once worked alongside Red Skelton (Clark did the Clem Kadiddlehopper character before Skelton, in fact) and also appeared on such programs as Bright Horizon, Lights Out, and The Mysterious Traveler. Helen Choate originated the role of secretary Patsy, and Charlotte Mason inherited the part in mid-1946. Other characters on the program included “demon reporter” Scrubby Wilson (John Kane)—who must have been an unnerving presence at press conferences (I’m kidding, Jim Cox in Radio Crime Fighters assures us that he “really wasn’t a demon after all”)—and Sergeant “Matty” Mathison (Ed Latimer), Nick’s friendly nemesis on the police force, who was reluctant to admit that the detective was chiefly responsible for his success in the department. Fortunately, Patsy took the extra time to remind him and his superior, Lt. Riley (Humphrey Davis).

Nick also had an adopted son named Chick (Bill Lipton) who was still wet behind the ears when he jumped ship to his own radio spin-off—Chick Carter, Boy Detective—beginning on the same network July 5, 1943. Chick’s show was a little different from that of his old man’s in that it was a 15-minute, five-days-a-week serialized program. (Nick himself briefly flirted with the same format in 1944, and occasionally there would be an attempt to join the storylines of the two shows.) But the boy detective only lasted a couple of seasons, leaving the airwaves July 6, 1945. (I don’t know if he ever went back to his father’s program, however. If I were his dad, I wouldn’t even let him in the house—the little ingrate.)

Earlier on this evening, I sampled a couple of episodes from Nick Carter, Master Detective—it’s not a great show, but it does have its entertaining moments. The first broadcast, “The Witch of Donderburg Mountain” (April 29, 1945), is a better-than-average outing; I thought the script was unusually sophisticated (I don’t hear “Walpurgis Night” mentioned in too many OTR crime dramas) and it wasn’t until the closing credits that I discovered the script had been penned by Edith Meiser, who also worked on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Author-lecturer Roger Winthrop—who’s researching a book on superstitions and folklore in the Catskills—wants Nick to probe into the death of his servant Jacob, who was apparently “hexed” by a local witch in the area. The solution to the servant’s murder is actually kind of nifty, plus there’s this choice exchange of dialogue (Nick, Patsy, Winthrop and servant Peter are investigating a well on Winthrop’s property that is rumored to be a “gateway to Hell.”):

WINTHROP: This is the cistern, Mr. Carter—or whatever it is…
NICK: I thought you said it was padlocked, Winthrop
WINTHROP: It always has been…
NICK: Not now…the lock’s lying on the ground…and the staple’s all bent and twisted…it looks as if someone has broken it…
PATSY: The cover’s been removed recently, too…look here, Nick…these scratches on the stone…
NICK: Patsy, I do believe you’re finally beginning to notice things…
PATSY: You know where you can go, don’t you?
PETER: Yah…dat’s chust vere you vill go…if you get too interested in dat vell…

Granted, it comes across as incredibly tame today, but I’m still curious as to how the bluenoses at Standards and Practices allowed that one to slip by. (Perhaps they did read it and, shrugging their shoulders, cracked: “Aw, hell—it’s Mutual…who’s gonna hear it?”)

The second episode, “The Case of the Phantom Shoplifter” (broadcast December 25, 1949), lacks the sophistication of the first’s script but is still good fun—Nick and “Matty” pay a visit to a shoplifting suspect and find her strangled with one her own nylons in her apartment. “Phantom Shoplifters” has one of those megalomaniacal villains who always expounds at great length on the fiendish plans they have to dispose of our hero, only to be caught before they can carry out the plan.

For some unknown reason, neither of these two programs have the famous opening—the first episode has an announcer who intones: “This is the story of a man known the world over as one of the most daring and resourceful characters in the history of detective fiction…” (That put a picture in my head of a certain “masked rider of the Plains” getting in touch with his lawyer and asking if he has grounds for a lawsuit.) But as dated as the show is, it’s still downright entertaining—so I’m certain that there’ll be “another case for Nick Carter, Master Detective” in my future.

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