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The Evolving Eye 3: Radio Drama Detectives by Joe Posner
Gumshoe Review  
Date: 01 March 2011 /

Joe Posner is back with an essay on radio drama detectives. This is his third essay for Gumshoe Review. His first was The Evolving Eye: Big Screen Private Eyes which discussed the changes in the male private detective over time. His second essay, The Evolving Eye 2: Female Movie Investigators, was a similar examination of the the female detective in movies and TV.

The Evolving Eye 3: Radio Drama Detectives

by Joe Posner

I'm sure you've enjoyed detective movies and TV shows over the years. But, before Bogart played detective on the big screen in the '40s, and WAY before Jim Garner, as Jim Rockford, raced his Pontiac Firebird across TV screens in the '70s, another medium presented thrilling adventures of intrepid detectives: radio.

Charlie Chan debuted in book form in 1923 in "The House Without a Key." Created by Earl Derr Biggers, its lead character was a Chinese-American detective based in Hawaii. The book was a hit. More popular books were published. By 1926, Charlie Chan movies were out. Warner Oland, in 1931's “Charlie Chan Carries On," scored a success. He made 15 more Chan movies. After his death, both Sidney Toler and Roland Winters played the role.

Chan debuted on radio in 1932 in The Adventures of Charlie Chan. It ran till 1948. Various actors voiced Chan including Walter Connally, Santos Ortega and Ed Begley. Radio audiences couldn't get enough of the wise, aphorism-spouting detective.

Sherlock Holmes is considered by some to be the first modern detective. Holmes first appeared in 1887. The story, written by Arthur Conan Doyle, was titled "A Study in Scarlet." Eventually, 56 short stories and four novels were published. In the '30 and '40s, movie audiences watched Holmes and Watson on the big screen. Basil Rathbone was Sherlock; Nigel Bruce was Dr. Watson. Although some Holmes purists decried Watson's devolution into a bumbling comic foil, the movie audiences didn’t care.

Holmes first appeared on the radio in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which debuted in 1939. Starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, it was a half hour show that ran 222 episodes with the original cast. Since Rathbone and Bruce were already making Holmes/Watson movies when the radio show debut, it surprised no one that Conan Doyle's tales worked just as well as audio dramas.

Edith Meisner, an actress who loved the Holmes stories, helped sell the show to the NBC radio network and found a sponsor. She wrote the show by herself for twelve years, both adapting Doyle's classic tales as well as writing new adventures in the Holmesian style.

In 1930, The Maltese Falcon was published, introducing tough private eye Sam Spade. Its author, Dashiell Hammett, had spent time as a Pinkerton detective. It showed. The book was an instant hit. In 1941, Humphrey Bogart played Sam Spade, a tough yet moral private eye. This is the film that transformed Bogie from a bad guy to a leading man.

in 1946, The Adventures of Sam Spade debuted on radio. Starring Howard Duff, it took a lighter approach than Hammett/Bogie. Lurene Tuttle was Effie Perrine, Spade's adoring secretary. The post-World War II audience ate it up.

The show ran till 1951, racking up 76 episodes. This show was very popular in its time. Star Duff even held a mock press conference to mourn the passing of Sam Spade.

Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe first appeared in The Big Sleep in 1939. More books followed. Because Chandler was in his fifties when he wrote these books, Marlowe has a depth few fictional private detectives share. Bogart, who had previously scored as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, also wowed audiences as Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep.” Although others have played Marlowe, including Dick Powell and Robert Mitchum, none seemed quite as natural in the role as Bogie.

In 1947, Marlowe came to the radio in The Adventures of Philip Marlowe. Although Van Heflin originally played the role, briefly, it was Gerald Mohr who captured just the right tone as the tough yet sensitive Marlowe. Inspired by Chandler’s stories, the show had various writers including Mel Dinelli, Robert Mitchell, Milton Geiger, Gene Levitt and Kathleen Hite.

Ironically, Mohr was sometimes thought of as a kind of Bogart knockoff in his day, despite his unique look, voice, and delivery. The show went off the air in 1951.

Mike Hammer debuted, in 1947, in Mickey Spillane's book I, the Jury. Although critics were disgusted, '50s readers ate it up. In addition to more books, the Mike Hammer industry generated movies and TV shows as well. Various actors portrayed Hammer over the years including Darren McGavin, Stacy Keach, and even Hammer creator Mickey Spillane himself.

In the '50s, a Mike Hammer radio show came out. Starring Larry Haines, it only ran 14 episodes. Hammer, in audio, apparently lacked the punch of the printed page, or the big and small screens.

Starting in the '70s, a tough private eye named Harry Nile roved the streets of LA and Seattle. He was created by writer/producer Jim French. The show, The Adventures of Harry Nile, first debuted in radio in 1976 and ran for 24 episodes. In 1990, while working in Seattle radio, French was asked to bring the series back.

To date, nearly 200 episodes have aired. Phil Harper played the role from '76 to 2004. Larry Albert then took over the role.

Ruby: Adventures of a Galactic Gumshoe, was first created in 1982 by Thomas Lopez. The radio series, involving the cases of a female private eye in the future, was originally set on the planet Summa Nulla. Later series took place in other solar systems and on other planets.

The lead role of Ruby has been played by Laura Esterman and Karen Young. From the third series forward, the role has been exclusively played by Esterman. "Ruby" is produced by the ZBS Foundation. ZBS had previously scored with action/adventurer Jack Flanders, who first appeared in the audio drama "The Fourth Tower of Inverness."

So far, there have been eight series of episodes produced. Sound Stages Radio, available on the "radio" function of iTunes, periodically airs “Ruby” episodes.

Considering that radio detectives go back it to at least 1932, it may seem surprising, to some, that tough detectives are still prowling the audio air waves in the 21st century. Despite iPads, iPods and other instant distractions, a hard-nosed detective, up against the corrupt system in a lonely quest for the truth, is still appealing to this day on the radio.

Here's looking at you, tough guy/gal.

About the Author:

Joe Posner decided he wanted to be a writer as a boy. He had his first film review published at age 16 and his first short story at 19. Joe made his first professional sale at age 29 and never looked back. A fan of both the mystery genre and science fiction, he's a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Joe's collection of science fiction, fantasy and the supernatural stories, entitled Joe Posner's Pipe Dreams, now available on He is married with fur children.

The Evolving Eye 3: Radio Drama Detectives © Joe Posner, March 2011.

Our Readers Respond

From: Judith Sue Meisner:
Joe Posner is a great source of interesting information...he is definitely a great detective himself! Love his work.
From: Wyo Nick:
This is the best Evolving Eye article so far. I really liked the way it tied in movies and other media with the radio dramas, and told some history while coming up to the present.

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