Wednesday, March 24, 2004

“…masters of the art of murder…”

One benefit to listening to old-time radio is finding a program that may have gone unnoticed during its original run, but through the convenience of electrical transcriptions and recordings provides a pleasant surprise when listening with modern-day ears. I experienced a nice example of this type of show last night with Murder By Experts, a better-than-average mystery anthology broadcast over Mutual from June 11, 1949 to December 17, 1951,

Now, I’m not trying to diss the Mutual Broadcasting System (touted at that time as “the world’s largest network”), but a lot of their product during the Golden Age of Radio had a sort of…oh…cheapish quality to it. (Or “economical,” if you prefer.) Mutual certainly had its share of successful programs—The Shadow, Nick Carter, Master Detective—but more often than not the network seemed to serve either as a launching pad for shows that would achieve greater success (The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet) or the final rest home for those programs who had filled out the paperwork for an old-time radio pension (I Love a Mystery, Information, Please). This is why Murder By Experts is such an unexpected delight; for starters, it eschews the usual overdone organ music prevalent in many Mutual programs (I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the organists on those shows were paid by the note) in favor of an muted but impressive score composed and directed by Richard Dupage and Emerson Buckley. Much of the usual New York radio talent is also present and accounted for on this series, and they’ve discarded the trademark “Mutual melodramatics.”

The Murder By Experts programs I previewed last night were culled from the Radio Spirits collection Old-Time Radio’s Greatest Radio Mysteries. In the booklet accompanying the set, authors Anthony Tollin (the mastermind behind The Shadow Scrapbook) and Jim Widner (a frequent commenter and good-will ambassador for this blog) quote the series’ co-author, David Kogan, as to the program’s origins:

Murder By Experts came about because Mutual had an opening in its schedule and its programming director Jules Seebach asked us to come up with something to fill it. We came up with a series dramatizing detective stories selected by famous mystery writers. Bob [Arthur] already knew most of the major mystery authors because of his background as a pulp writer.

Kogan and partner Robert A. Arthur had been churning out scripts since 1938 for shows like The Shadow, Nick Carter, Master Detective, The Sealed Book and Dark Destiny. They're probably best-known for writing, producing and directing The Mysterious Traveler, a popular Mutual program from 1943-52. But Murder By Experts was truly in a class by itself; so much so that the show was honored with the Edgar (named for Edgar Allan Poe), the prestigious award of the Mystery Writers of America, presented on-air by the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. (Hitch briefly hosted Murder By Experts in 1951; the program’s original host was John Dickson Carr, a frequent contributor to Suspense and creator of radio’s Cabin B-13. Dorothy Sayers and Brett Halliday also took turns as the show’s “master of mystery” from time to time.)

Of the four shows I listened to, my favorite was probably “Two Coffins to Kill” (7/4/49), adapted by Kogan and Arthur from a story by Robert Foster. Roger Thornton (played by Karl Weber of Dr. Sixgun fame) is a scumbag of a husband who owes a gambler $30,000 and plans to repay the debt by arranging to have his wealthy wife (Eleanor Phelps) rubbed out by the gambler’s henchman (Jimmy Stevens). There’s a nice twist ending on this one, but the program’s strength is the performance by Weber, who plays the husband as a really loathsome louse. Another good entry is “Big Money” (7/25/49), in which an amnesiac (James Stevens) forms an alliance with two confederates (Wendell Holmes, Ann Shepherd) to pose as a missing heir in order to collect $7 million. Stevens has sort of a John Garfield-quality to his voice, which is probably why I enjoyed this episode.

“Prescription For Murder” (7/11/49) is an okay affair; an escaped killer (Ken Lynch) masquerades as a doctor he’s snuffed out while on the lam but ends up having to hold another doctor (Roger DeKoven) and his niece (Kathy McGregor) hostage. I think the one that I was disappointed with the most was “Summer Heat” (6/13/49)—but I should point out that it’s not because it’s a poor episode (it isn’t) but just prejudice on my part; it reminds me a lot of an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode (“Beta Delta Gamma”), so I sort of knew how “Summer Heat” would wrap up.

Although only a dozen or so episodes of Murder By Experts have survived, it’s definitely a series worth checking out. The stories on the program do away with the usual mystery gimmickry, relying on the “masters of the art of murder” to “hold tensity at its highest.” I think you’ll enjoy it.

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