I’ve recently been listening to a lot old radio detective shows, mostly via The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio podcast (one of many run by Adam Graham out of Boise, Idaho). It’s instructive to listen to these shows alongside contemporary audiobooks and contemporary radio drama (like BBC4’s terrific recent adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere). It’s also just plain ol’ fun!
The thing that most fascinates me about these old detective shows at the moment is their unique language. Looking back from 2013, that language seems alien and laughably melodramatic. Yet (at least to my ears) it is also elegant and clever, even in its cheesiest moments. Contemporary television writing (for a relevant comparison in terms of pop-cultural location) no longer plays with words this way (with the exception, perhaps, of things like the Whedon School of Quippiness). There’s an artfulness about it that I find irresistible.
Consider, for example, the opening for The Adventures of Frank Race:
“The war changed many things; the face of the earth and the people on it. Before the war, Frank Race worked as an attorney, but he traded his law books for the cloak-and-dagger of the OSS. And when it was over, his former life was over, too… adventure had become his business!”
This is…well, it makes a contemporary listener blush a bit, doesn’t it? It is, however, both lively and efficient. It gives a listener a clear notion of the character of what is to come, and once Frank Race and his miraculous, scrappy lil’ buddy Mark Donovan get going, the arch narrator’s voice of the thing becomes beautifully weird. Frank Race features more cool turns of phrase per minute than you can possibly imagine, most of the best of them ticklish, tricky little euphemisms for violence. There are even odd meta-moments in the telling of the tale in some episodes. The title character, Race, is the first-person narrator of the story, and sometimes his narration falls right into the action it describes (especially effective as a device in the hands of the second actor to play the part, Paul Dubov). The writing is fun, and the presentation more than lives up to it.
You should check it out.
There are also broadcasts online of Golden Age classic shows like CBS Radio’s Suspense, which you really have to hear to believe, and the terrific Orson Welles radio series prequel to The Third Man, The Lives of Harry Lime, which is just too damn clever and chock full of zither music (and also: Orson Welles. Talking. What’s not to like?).
The experience of radio drama is powerful for me in ways that I didn’t expect when I first started listening to recordings of the old broadcasts. I’m hooked!