Looking back, I can see the groundwork for my love of radio detectives was laid in at an early age. My first memories of entertainment are sitting down alongside my grandparents to watch Murder, She Wrote, Matlock, and Father Dowling; later, when I was older and carried a longer attention span, Columbo became a regular part of the rotation. The adventures of the Hardy Boys were among the first books I read, and as I aged out of stories of smugglers on cliffs and jalopies, I found Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, John Grisham, and Michael Connelly, among others. I was raised on the tales of sharp-eyed sleuths (professional and amateur alike) picking holes in suspects’ stories and picking up on clues that sailed over the heads of everyone else.
So the pump was already primed in 1994 when I got my first taste of the Golden Age of Radio courtesy of my school library. I checked out Who Was That Masked Man Anyway?, by Avi.
The story of two boys growing up in the 1940s who sought to emulate their radio heroes was not nearly as interesting to me as the transcribed excerpts of those exploits. It was in those pages that I discovered the Green Hornet, the Lone Ranger, the Gray Seal, and The Shadow. And it was the Shadow, that master of other people’s minds, who bore his way into my brain more than any other character. Reading as dastardly crooks were chilled by a voice that came out of the night, heralded by the most sinister of laughs, I knew I wanted to know more about this guy.
At that time, I was still a little young to see the recently released Alec Baldwin adaptation of The Shadow, but my school’s annual Scholastic Book Fair brought me the next best thing - the novelization. I’m sure I’m not the only member of my generation who was able to read the novelizations (complete with eight glossy pages of full-color photos from the movie!) of films that were still a few years away in terms of subject matter or rating. I read Batman Returns a year before I could see it, and I devoured the novelization of The Shadow…so much so that it led my parents to get me two eight-episode collections of the radio show I’d only read about.
The first episode I listened to was “Murders on the Main Stem,” starring Bret Morrison from December 15, 1946. That was my gateway drug. Lamont Cranston was after a serial killer who was bumping off actors and singers and mutilating their most recognizable traits; a beautiful blonde actress was scalped; an opera star was stabbed in the throat; and a matinee idol’s face was scarred with acid. Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal wishes it was this twisted. Eventually, Margot Lane fell into the killer’s clutches, and The Shadow stepped in to firmly deliver the message that “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit.” That story and the other fifteen episodes simultaneously gave my imagination a double espresso shot and creeped me out more than anything I’d seen on TV or in a movie. It was my shove into the deep end of the pool called the Theater of the Mind, and I was hooked.
On my fourteenth birthday, I unwrapped Radio Spirits’ “Old-Time Radio’s Greatest Shows,” a mammoth hunk of plastic that contained 30 hours of shows spanning three decades. Over the course of that summer (and as I replayed the tapes) my eyes and ears were opened to dozens of characters (Jack Benny and his gang; Matt Dillon, U.S. Marshal; The Whistler; Fibber McGee and Molly; and so many more).
But the kid who grew up watching Murder, She Wrote and Father Dowling with his grandparents was invariably drawn to the detectives. Those tapes introduced me to Johnny Dollar, Richard Diamond, and The Saint. I listened as Dan Holiday opened letters addressed to “Box 13,” and I heard Michael Shayne and Boston Blackie take on new clients who were in way over their heads. I knew who Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade were, but I’d never read them again without hearing Gerald Mohr’s and Howard Duff’s voices in my head. And Sydney Greenstreet’s sly intonations compelled me to pick up Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels at the library.
In the years since I took my first trip into the world of old-time radio, I’ve listened to hundreds of shows, and the detectives from the Golden Age of Radio never cease to entertain with their clenched jaws, two fists, wry quips, and eyes for danger. Since 2013, it's been a treat to take a weekly trip back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, to the adventures of those heroes who kept the airwaves safe for so many years and reminded us all that crime does not pay.
Lest we forget, The Shadow knows.