I Love a Mystery

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I Love a Mystery

The Golden Age of Radio produced many successful adventure series, but none is recalled with quite the same mixture of devotion and awe as Carlton E. Morse's I Love a Mystery. Radio historian John Dunning says that the program "weaves a spell over its fans that is all but inexplicable"; Gerald Nachman notes that it "was the most respected show of its type"; and Jim Harmon brands it simply as "the greatest radio program of all time." While nostalgia often filters the static of creaky plots and wheezing gags characteristic of much old-time radio, the few extant recordings of ILAM prove it to be worthy of its extravagant reputation and have made it the "most-sought of all radio shows," according to Dunning. ILAM is to the world of radio mystery what Amos 'n' Andy is to radio comedy and One Man's Family is to radio soap opera—the peak achievement of its particular form. The bizarre adventures of the trio forming the A-1 Detective Agency ("No job too tough, no mystery too baffling") may have been too outrageous to be especially influential in the world of popular entertainment, and the series was not successful in its few forays into books and movies (although Indiana Jones would have fit right in as a fourth partner), but the program still bears examination for the way in which it exhibits, and yet transcends, many of the qualities which defined the classic era of radio drama.

ILAM's opening train whistle, followed by the haunting strains of Sibelius's "Valse Triste" and the eerie chiming of a clock, first sounded in 1939, heralding an initial string of 15-minute and half-hour serial adventures which would come to the end of its line in 1944. Reappearing in 1948 in a curiously muted form as I Love Adventure, the series finally got back on track in 1949, with a new cast reprising the scripts from the initial run, until the last chime sounded in 1952. Regardless of the format, Carlton Morse wrote the series at a feverish pitch, with a globe right next to him to help locate the next exotic setting to which he would zip his peripatetic heroes and rapt listeners. Whether holed up in a gloomy mansion with "The Thing That Cries in the Night" or facing down the mad Holy Joe on "The Island of Skulls," ILAM's intrepid trio would be certain to encounter enough baffling mysteries, beautiful women, and howling terrors to outrage parents and delight their offspring.

Jack Packard was the leader of the group, a tough-talking rationalist who could find a logical explanation for anything he couldn't punch, but never found a dame he could trust. Texas cowboy Doc Long was Jack's loyal assistant ("Honest to my Grandma!") and spent most of his time making certain that the many damsels in distress rejected by Jack were well taken care of. The trio was rounded out occasionally by spunky secretary Jerri Booker but most famously by British Reggie Yorke, who was voiced by a young Tony Randall in the show's later years and could be counted on to lend a more gentlemanly air to the proceedings. Plunging headlong into whatever harebrained escapade Morse could conjure up, the three comrades lived a life so outlandish as to make The Shadow or The Green Hornet seem positively sedate in comparison.

While the series was most notable for its creative exaggeration of adventure genre trappings, it was innovative in at least three other ways as well. Although Jack, Doc, and Reggie encountered only the most remarkable mysteries and terrible villains, the three men themselves were satisfyingly ordinary. Lacking any special abilities beyond their love of a good scrap and grim determination, they were often puzzled, incorrect, or just plain scared out of their wits, lending to the otherwise fantastical goings-on a realism that listeners could identify with and share. The prosaic nature of the program's heroes was another key ingredient in ILAM's unique formula, which combined elements from the private eye and adventure genres to create a new form capable of encompassing both traditional "whodunits" and blood-and-thunder terrors. Listeners could never know, from one case to the next, which would get a greater workout, thinking caps or fists. Finally, Morse was innovative in his storytelling style. While most radio dramas switched settings several times an episode, Morse liked to open and close each installment in the same location and to approximate "real time" as closely as possible. Such adherence to Aristotelian unity not only bolstered the show's verisimilitude, but also heightened the suspense and allowed Morse to give each of his varied settings a powerful and individual atmosphere.

While the crazed characters and bizarre plots made the most immediate impact, it is the peculiar mood associated with each adventure that remains in the memory—the sound of a phantom baby crying before each murder in Grandma Martin's gloomy mansion, for example, or the howling winds of the Western ghost town with the unlikely name of Bury Your Dead, Arizona, or the "roar with lights and shades in it" which conjured the image of the giant waterfall hiding the magical "Stairway to the Sun." It is, finally, this almost dreamlike evocation of an other-worldly reality that enables I Love a Mystery to haunt listeners long after the final train whistle vanished in the distance.

—Kevin Lause

Further Reading:

Dunning, John. On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. New York, Oxford University Press, 1994.

Harmon, Jim. The Great Radio Heroes. New York, Doubleday and Co., 1967.

——. Radio Mystery and Adventure and Its Appearances in Film, Television and Other Media. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland and Co., 1992.

Maltin, Leonard. The Great American Broadcast: A Celebration of Radio's Golden Age. New York, Dutton, 1997.

Nachman, Gerald. Raised on Radio. New York, Pantheon, 1998.