You might know the Bundle of Holding as a site supporting charities while also hooking you to special offers for RPGs and the occasional book. For the next seven days, though, you can get Golden Age of Radio crime plays.
These plays, which ran from the 1930s to the 1950s, include Sherlock Holmes, Hero Wolf and Philip Marlowe stories. The sampler tier will set you back only $6.95, and if you beat the average price paid for the bundle, you’ll get the bonus collection too.
Geek Native was lucky enough to enlist Caroline Dunford, who writes stories set to listen and shadow some thoughts.
On October 30th 1938, Americans panicked. They ran screaming into the streets and many fled their cities. It was chaos. The cause? Orson Wells’ radio version of War of the Worlds. The dramatisation was so good, the American public really believed that hostile aliens were invading.
Today, radio doesn’t have the same power. It’s no longer a primary news source, and ‘Fake News’ is very much a thing. We are cynical listeners, and radio drama is all the duller for it.
So, when I got the opportunity to review a series of crime plays first broadcast on radio in the 30s, the golden age of radio, when melodrama and screeching musical lines were the norm, I was really curious to know whether I would laugh, cry or be enthralled. Just how good were thirties radio dramas and would they stand the test of time? Would I find myself imagining climbing into the car, not to flee from aliens, but to seek out bad guys and bring them to justice?
I was given a huge number to choose from, but I choose four in particular, which celebrate famous detectives I already knew: Philip Marlow, Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe.
The first two have a lot in common. Both feature hard bitten detectives, who are as ready to slug it out as they are to engage in a little thought.
Both these series revel in melodramatic effects. It might put some modern listeners off, I prefer to consider these part of their charm (much as I wouldn’t critique the acting in a Hammer Horror movies). I enjoyed the interspersed adverts for ‘men’s regular clothing’, so sweetly naive compared to today’s ads. In fact it’s all jolly good fun.
Both Marlow and Spade, tell a lot of the story directly, so these two series are more akin to mildly dramatised short stories. Fans of Marlow and Spade will recall that even in the novels we spend a lot of time inside their minds.
Their language is full of quips and imaginative descriptions that fire like bullets from some mobster’s machine gun. It’s worth listening twice to pick up all the asides, they come so thick and fast. The overall stories aren’t sophisticated, but more rawly visceral.
The big but in all of this is the attitude toward the female characters. By chance I’d been interviewed, as a crime writer, that morning and made a lot of noise about my female characters and feminine empowerment. Do not look to find anything of that sort in the Spade or Marlow radio plays (or books). The way women are described, treated and used by the-men-who-know-best, if written today would be utterly unacceptable. But these are plays of their time. If you want to listen and enjoy, then it’s best to recall how far on we’ve moved from these times, rather than dwell on the attitudes in them that are a realistic reflection of their time.
Sherlock Holmes has a more dramatised feel. A slight narration by Dr Watson in his old age allows the play to answer some of the more difficult elements of the plot at the end. Considering that Holmes is a Victorian detective, it is ironic that this play least reflected outdated attitudes, but then Holmes was never concerned with much but the problem at hand. The one I chose was a neat little murder, with an unexpected ending, and it featured a dog. What could be better?
Nero Wolfe, that fat, greedy, orchid-loving, brilliant detective, always remains at home, while Archie, his wise-cracking leg man is sent out to do the dirty work, and frequently gets beaten up. These are entirely dramatised and the closest of the four to a modern radio play. I throughly enjoyed the one I listened to, which was a clever, twisting little puzzle – and only taken on by Nero because he couldn’t pay for the ducks’ livers his chef needed.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this relaunch of old crime stories. Once you accept they are of their time, the style, panache, and sheer storytelling of them are excellent. They are ballsy and forthright. There is no doubt that the murderer will be caught, but the detectives will suffer disillusion, blows and often downright embarrassment on the way to glory. If you’re trying to get into the mood of an era, e.g. to write an RPG scenario, I’d heartily recommend them. If you enjoy crime and mystery, and the quick quipping style of the hard boiled detective novels of the 30s, or the calculated twisting plots of a Holmes or Nero story, then this is definitely a guilty pleasure for you to enjoy.
Plays I listened to;
- Philip Marlow The Feminine Touch
- Sherlock Holmes The Dog who Changed his Mind
- Sam Spade Calcutta Trunk Caper
- Nero Wolfe The Dear Dead Lady
About the author
Caroline Dunford writes about female, British intelligence agents during WWl and WWll, in The Euphemia Martins Mysteries and The Hope Stapleford Adventures. Her YA novel, Fake News is released this May. Writer, role player, voice actor, avid reader, occasional GM and decent cook.
- Bundle of Holding’s Hardboiled Radio.
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