Richard Helms is a retired forensic psychologist and college professor. A frequent contributor to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, he has nineteen novels (the most recent March 2019’s Paid in Spades) and numerous short stories in print, and has received multiple nominations for the Shamus, Derringer, Thriller, and Macavity Awards. He won the Derringer Award in two different categories in 2008 and in 2011 won the ITW Thriller Award for his EQMM short story “The Gods For Vengeance Cry.” In our July/August issue,—on sale now!—his story “The Cripplegate Apprehension” kicks off his new historical series starring thief-taker Vicar Brekonridge. In this post, the North Carolina author offers some thoughts on old-time radio and what can be learned by short-story writers from the concision of radio scripts. Some of our readers will remember not only the series this post focuses on, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, but the slightly earlier The Adventures of Ellery Queen radio show, with scripts written first by Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay and later by Lee and Anthony Boucher. A couple of Ellery Queen’s short stories have been dramatized for our podcast series (and are still available)—another example of the commonalities of the two forms of writing.—Janet Hutchings
I’ve spent a great deal of time recently listening to classic radio on Sirius XM, especially the crime dramas of the 1940s and 1950s.
One of my favorite shows ran mostly between 1949 and 1952, entitled Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. The pilot episode, recorded in 1948, initially starred Dick Powell, and was intended to be a typical private investigator show along the lines of Sam Spade or Boston Blackie. Dick Powell left after the audition episode to become Richard Diamond. For the rest of the first season, Johnny Dollar was played by Charles Russell. Over the next five years, Dollar would be portrayed by Edmond O’Brien, John Lund, and Gerald Mohr.
The name of the writer of the pilot episode is not readily available, but it was almost certainly written by Paul Dudley and Gil Doud, who wrote all the attributed shows in the first season. Dudley was quickly lured away by Hollywood, where he wrote for multiple television shows like Martin Kane, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and O.S.S..
Doud had worked in radio crime drama before World War II, joining the writing corps for Calling All Cars when he was only weeks out of college, and later took over for Richard Breen as the writer of Jack Webb’s One Out Of Seven and Pat Novak, Private Eye series. Doud remained in radio for many years, and until about 1955 was the primary writer for the Johnny Dollar series. By the middle 1950s—as he was in greater demand for other shows such as Sam Spade—he was joined by writers such as Blake Edwards, Kathleen Hito, E. Jack Neumann, Joel Murcott, Les Crutchfield, and Sidney Marshall.
By the end of the first season, Johnny Dollar had morphed from a traditional knuckles-and-know-how private eye into an insurance investigator and was touted as “The Man with the Action-Packed Expense Account.” Each scene in the drama, Dollar would open with a ledger entry in his expense book. “Item twenty-seven: a dollar forty cents for a crosstown cab ride. I arrived at the apartment of Phyllis Benchley…”
For most listeners, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar reached its zenith during the period between 1955 and 1960. Bob Bailey took over the role on October 3, 1955 in an episode entitled “The Macormack Matter,” written by John Dawson, and over the next five years Bailey grew into the best-known and most popular Dollar.
By 1955, Gil Doud contributed only the most occasional script. The episodes during this best-known period of the series were penned by John Dawson (sometimes called “Jack,” because he was a pseudonym for E. Jack Neuman), Les Crutchfield, Robert Ryf, Robert Stanley, and Jack Johnstone. The show ran five nights a week, in fifteen-minute episodes with a five-day story arc. On each of the first four nights, Dollar would end the show in some horrible predicament or other, and on the fifth night he wrapped up the case.
Keep in mind that, during this period, these writers were also busy pounding out scripts for other shows as well. Joel Murcott sidelined writing episodes of Suspense. John “Jack” Dawson/Neuman also wrote for Have Gun Will Travel between 1958-1960; Les Crutchfield is best known as a contributor to Gunsmoke and continued to write for the show when it went to television, creating the character of Festus. Robert Ryf left radio to become a dean at Occidental College, where he wrote literary criticism. Blake Edwards left to write and produce Peter Gunn on radio and later TV and, of course, we all know how his career went.
Of all the writers on the Johnny Dollar program during the halcyon Bob Bailey period, Jack Johnstone might be the most enigmatic. He had worked in radio much longer than his fellow contributors (he wrote the Buck Rogers series in 1931). Born Earl Ransom Johnstone in New Jersey, he also wrote for the Superman radio show, along with Crime Doctor, Dark Destiny, Hollywood Star Time, Orson Welles’ Almanac, The Prudential Family Hour of Stars,Richard Diamond, and Hollywood Star Playhouse. He penned several scripts for the Suspense radio show under the name “Jonathan Bundy.” Strangely, he apparently retired altogether after Johnny Dollar was canceled in 1962 and never wrote again, though he lived for almost another thirty years.
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was also the end of the road for the classic radio detective dramas. By 1962, when Mandel Kramer—the last Johnny Dollar—signed off after 809 episodes, television had taken over, and many of the radio writers for Johnny Dollar and other radio shows made the jump to the boob tube and never looked back.
The common element among all the scriptwriters for the daily radio dramas of the 1940s and 1950s was the need to write quickly and crisply. It was necessary to tell the entire story in ten pages of dialogue and sound effects. There wasn’t a great deal of time to belabor details. It has occurred to me that the writers of these shows mastered the short form, which shouldn’t be a surprise since so many of the early radio scriptwriters (Frank Kane, Walter B. Gibson, John Dickson Carr, Hugh Pentecost, Conrad Aiken, Gerald Noxon, S.S Van Dine, Robert Newman, Robert Arthur, Jr.) cut their literary teeth writing for pulps.
Even for those writers without extensive print experience, the bare-bones nature of radio required them to skip elaborate exposition and character development and dive right into the story. Many early radio crime dramas ran for only fifteen minutes—an extension of movie serials that were immensely popular during the 1940s—usually with a cliffhanger ending, so each episode was the equivalent of a short one-act play, or perhaps today’s flash fiction. It wasn’t unusual for a woman to meet a man on Page Three and fall wildly in love with him by Page Seven, only to be revealed as a femme fatale by Page Nine.
That was fine for ongoing series in which listeners had grown familiar with the recurring characters. Some of the best writing, however, was found in the anthology series such as Suspense, X Minus One, The Whistler, and The Chase, which might be narrated by a familiar voice, but otherwise featured a completely new story with new characters in each episode. With only fifteen pages or so to flesh out a story, these writers knew how to sketch a character and then leave the details to the listener’s imagination.
In much the same way, short-story writers today must learn to trust their readers to flesh out the details of their stories using their imaginations. In that sense, listening to old-time radio—and analyzing the tropes and flow of the writing on them—has made me more aware of the differences between writing novels and short stories, and I believe has made me a better short-story writer.