The P.I. Poll

Murder on the Airwaves
Radio Eyes--Then and Now

It's strange, in a way, that, except for a small, but fervent cult out there, radio drama is now almost forgotten. But once upon a time the radio cracked and buzzed with dramas of all kinds, and private eyes in particular, in such profusion and variety, that, even now, I don't think anyone's come up with a definite list of radio eyes. They ranged from the darkest of dramas, to the lightest of comedies, full of treacherous dames, bubble-headed secretaries, malevolent foreigners, ruthless gangsters, treacherous killers and corrupt and/or bumbling police officers. And, of course, the private eyes themselves. Tall, short, fat, thin, male, female, married, single, smart, dumb, passionless, wise-cracking, fighting, singing, dancing.

The private eye was such a staple of radio that, when that newfangled electronic box, television, came along, many of the early shows were merely video continuations of already-established radio shows.

And even now, the trade in recordings of those old radio detective shows is fervent and brisk, and scattered throughout the airwaves, even now, are brand new eyes facing brand new cases, carrying on a tradition most people aren't even aware of. Nobody's doing it anymore? Well, these guys are.

So, pull up a chair, put up the volume, and tune into the results of our Summer 1999 P.I. Poll, entitled Murder on the Airwaves: Radio Eyes Then and Now.

Oh, and check out our ever-expanding list of new and classic Radio Eyes.

Best Private Detective Radio Series

  • Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Bailey gets mentioned a lot)
  • The Adventures of Sam Spade (the Howard Duff years)
  • The Adventures of Harry Nile
  • Richard Diamond, Private Detective
  • The Shadow (see J. Alec's comments below)
  • I Love a Mystery
  • The Fat Man
  • Michael Shayne
  • Phillip Marlowe (Mohr)
  • The Thin Man

Worst Private Detective Radio Series

  • Danger, Dr. Danfield
  • Barrie Craig
  • The Big Guy
  • Mr. I. A. Moto
  • Rocky Fortune
  • Pat Novak, For Hire
  • Philo Vance
  • The Avenger
  • Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons
  • The Fat Man
  • The Green Lama

Most Downbeat P.I. Radio Series

  • Gerald Mohr in The Adventures of Philip Marlowe
  • Pat Novak For Hire
  • That Strong Guy
  • Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (multiple part series)
  • Bulldog Drummond
  • Michael Shayne
  • Let George Do It
  • Dyke Easter, Detective (audition)

Best Opening Line in a P.I. Radio Series

  • "Get this and get it straight! Crime is a sucker's road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison or the grave. There's no other way, but they never learn." (Adventures of Philip Marlowe, starring Gerald Mohr)
  • "Sam Spade Detective Agency"
  • "I... Love a Mystery!"
  • "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men .... The Shadows knows, hehehehehe..." (see J. Alec's comments below)
  • "Sure, I'm Pat Novak. . . for hire."
  • "Diamond Detective Agency, if there's a corpse lying around, trade it in for something useful"
  • "Expense account, item one." (Johnny Dollar)
  • "When It started it was simple, just a law suit for damages, but before it was over it was far from simple and the damages were murder. All because of a red-headed women, a ghost writer with ambition and a match that burned with a bright green flame! (Gerald Mohr in The Adventures of Phillip Marlowe "The Green Flame", March 26, 1949)

Most Hard-Boiled, Kick-Ass, Take-No-Prisoners P.I.

  • Pat Novak
  • Philip Marlowe (Gerald Mohr)
  • Sam Spade (Howard Duff-naturally)
  • Mike Hammer (That Hammer Guy)
  • Jeff Regan
  • The Fat Man
  • Michael Shayne

Most Soft-Boiled P.I.

  • Mr. Keen, the Tracer of Lost Persons
  • Richard Diamond (really ... at times, the series seemed like a variety show featuring Dick Powell more as a singer than as a P.I.)
  • Hercule Poirot
  • Nick Charles, from The Thin Man
  • George Valentine
  • Johnny Dollar
  • Nero Wolfe
  • Benny Cooperman
  • Sam Spade, as portrayed by Howard Duff (hmmm...)

The Snappiest Line of Patter: Best Smart Ass Detective

  • Richard Diamond (Dick Powell)
  • Pat Novak For Hire
  • "There's all kinds of dames." (Sam Spade-Howard Duff)
  • Richard Rogue (Dick Powell)
  • Barrie Craig (William Gargan)
  • Mike Shayne

We Said Hard-boiled, Not Over-boiled: Most Ridiculous Metaphor (or Simile) from a P.I.

  • "His clothes were dirtier than an acre of spinach"
  • Pat Novak For Hire
  • Jeff Regan
  • Danger With Granger
  • "It hit me like a hot kiss at the end of a wet fist." (Nick Danger)
  • "She walked into my office like 110 pounds of warm smoke." Pat Novak on Pat Novak for Hire. Actually that's a simile rather than a metaphor, but I didn't think you'd mind.
  • Pat Novak
  • Pat Novak, without a doubt

Most Ridiculous P.I.

  • Won Long Pan on The Fred Allen Show
  • The Big Guy
  • The Saint
  • Nick Danger (but, it was intentional)
  • Rocky Fortune
  • Pat Novak
  • The Saint

Best Non-P.I. P.I.
(Unlicensed, professional amateurs, adventurers, reporters, etc...)

  • Rocky Jordan in Rocky Jordan
  • Gregory Hood in The Casebook of Gregory Hood
  • John J. Malone in The Amazing Mr. Malone
  • Casey from Casey, Crime Photographer, starring Stats Cotsworth
  • The Shadow
  • Sky King
  • Pat Novak, who actually rented boats ("and anything else that spelled money") but managed to get hired to solve a murder in every episode.
  • Randy Stone of Nightbeat
  • Steve Wilson of The Illustrated Press (Edward Pawley)

The Seven Deadly Sins (And the eyes that best exemplify them)

  • Sloth, Gluttony: Sidney Greenstreet as Nero Wolfe
  • Pride: Philo Vance (definitely needs a kick in the pants)
  • Anger: As represented by the uncontrolled rage of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer on That Hammer Guy.
  • Lust: Philip Marlowe
  • Covetousness: Johnny Dollar
  • Gluttony: The Fat Man

The Most Annoying P.I.

  • Philo Vance
  • The Big Guy
  • Richard Diamond: Anyone who whistles while they work needs counseling. <grin>
  • Sam Spade: Enjoyable though the series was, the light-hearted attitude was in direct contradiction to the grimness of the original Hammett stories.
  • Sherlock Holmes: (Basil Rathbone) -- egotistical, always grandstanding.
  • Pat Novak: annoying metaphors and the chip on his shoulder get old awful fast.
  • Rocky Fortune: Hard to imagine Frank Sinatra as a tough guy P.I. even though he tried to pull it off in Movies.Mr. Keen, because he calls everyone by name whenever he talks to them.
  • Richard Diamond: because he sings

Dumbest Detective

  • Sam Cragg, partner of Johnny Fletcher
  • I've never encountered any I'd put in that category.
  • Nick Danger on Nick Danger - Third Eye

Cop Who Would Most Like to Kick a P.I.'s Ass

  • Lt. Hellman in Pat Novak
  • Sergeant Otis in Richard Diamond
  • Listen to Pat Novak - Raymond Burr plays the part
  • Hmm ... I'll have to pass on that one.
  • Raymond Burr as Inspector Hellman on Pat Novak - For Hire
  • Seargent Otis of Richard Diamond, for sure
  • Sgt. Greco in Rocky Jordan
  • Lt. Hellman (Raymond Burr), for sure
  • Inspector Faraday - Boston Blackie

Best Side Kick/Assistant

  • Effie Perrine in the The Adventures of Sam Spade
  • Archie Goodwin in Nero Wolfe
  • Murphy in Harry Nile
  • Margo Lane (for The Shadow)
  • Mike Clancy from Mr Keen
  • Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes
  • Doc Long (I Love a Mystery)
  • Skip Turner in Adventures by Morse

Best Cameo

  • Sam Spade in the Suspense episode "House In Cypress Canyon."
  • Raymond Burr in Pat Novak For Hire
  • Robert Montgomery as Philip Marlowe on a special one-hour Sam Spade episode entitled "The Khandi Tooth Caper." The episode was originally run on Suspense (both shows had the same producer, William Spier), during the period when Montogmery was the host. Later, it was run as a two-parter on the regular Spade series. Montgomery had, of course, played Marlowe in the film version of The Lady in the Lake.
  • Vincent Price as himself in Johnny Dollar episode "The Price of Fame"

The Best Post-1955 Radio Eye
(list as much info as you can)

  • Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar
  • The Adventures of Harry Nile
  • Philip Marlowe in BBC series
  • Lew Archer in Sleeping Beauty (NPR)
  • The Ransom Game, with Saul Rubinek as Benny Cooperman (CBC)
  • Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel... hands down!
  • George Valentine (Bob Bailey)


From Bernard Shapiro
I have been a fan of I Love a Mystery since I was about twelve (I'm eighteen now). I'm also a scratch DJ--that is, I take vinyl records and juggle and scratch with them. After finding "Temple of Vampires" on vinyl  (for $1.50 at a used records store!) I have become hooked on sampling ILAM for hip hop music. Other people have enjoyed my creations, so I was wondering if anyone out there knew where I might be able to find "The Thing that Cries In the Night"  on vinyl.... And anyone interested should check out my Turntablist Web Page.

From Charles Sloden in Lancaster, PA
Pat Novak not only used the worst metaphors, it also uses the best. Great for a laugh!

From J. Alec West in Vancouver, Washington now
(Carrboro, North Carolina next year)

The Private Eye Writers of America and I differ on the definition of "who" is/isn't a "private eye." To PWA, a person cannot be considered a private eye unless they do it for money. To me, a person is a private eye if they do it as a "passion" or "calling" ... whether or not payment becomes a factor. A lot of times, Paladin would accept non-paying jobs. That didn't make him any less a P.I. Nor did accepting pro-bono cases make Perry Mason any less an attorney.

The best example (to explain my logic) is this: Consider two shows ... The Shadow and Sky King. In my definition, Sky King is NOT a P.I. He's an ordinary guy who manages to find himself embroiled in crime-solving. I got the impression Mr. King would be just as happy flying around carefree in The Songbird. However, to The Shadow, crime-solving is his very "purpose" in life ... as is his private (unpaid) investigation into crime. To not call The Shadow a P.I., IMHO, would be an affront to the legend.

Generally, this site tends to the PWA side of things (for some convoluted reasoning and fuzzy logic, see What the hell is a private eye, anyway?). To include non-paid detectives who do it for kicks, or some other obsession, would be to open up this site to everyone from Batman and Superman to Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher, and that way lies madness. I'm not familiar enough with Sky-King to discuss him, really. He sounds more like an amateur sleuth/adventurer more than anything, but if he accepts payment for detective work on a freelance basis, then I guess he's a P.I. Jim Rockford would rather go fishin', but that doesn't, in my mind, disqualify him from being a P.I.

By the way, J. Alec is the man responsible for the highly-recommended The Old-Time Radio Corner and The Mystery Vault, which archives several mystery listservs and newsgroups. (--ed.)

From Stewart Wright
Not all radio detectives are just gathering dust on some old tape. There is an excellent series currently in production: The Adventures of Harry Nile. This series is written and produced in Seattle by radio dramatist Jim French and is being syndicated nationally in the U.S. as part of the Imagination Theater series.

Thanks, Stewart, for reminding us that mystery radio drama is still very much with us. For listeners in the Great White North, or those with access to short wave, The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation still regularly airs The CBC Mystery Project every Saturday night. (editor)

From Cindy
Great list, one next step if you have the time would be to link up the pages that have these programs available to hear. Audiohighway has some pages of old time radio programs you can download or listen to in full streaming audio. Also Alec West who archives the DorothyL digest has a page of radio programs available.

Anyway, just a thought....

Actually, the thought has crossed my mind, but most sites change their offerings so often that it would end up a massive undertaking just to keep my site up to date. Instead, I've listed some of these sites, including Alec's, on my Radio Links page.

From Jim Doherty in Chicago
It's interesting that you pick 1955 as the cut-off year, because I believe that was one of the years that Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar ran as a five-times-a-week fifteen minute show rather than a once-a-week half-hour. Each story would take five chapters to play out. Having 75 minutes to play with, instead of only 30, made for some excellent scripts. Bob Bailey, perhaps the best of the half-dozen or so actors who portrayed Dollar, was the star during this period. The show actually ran until 1962, and was the last dramatic radio series from the Golden Age with continuing characters to still be running.

Two non-PI shows with strong PI roots ought to be mentioned. By the time Jack Webb got around to doing Dragnet (on radio in '49; moving to TV in '51), he'd already racked up time on three PI shows: Pat Novak for Hire, Johnny Modero, and Jeff Regan. Not surprisingly, for all its technical accuracy, Dragnet, the prototypical police procedural, had a lot of PI attributes. Friday told his stories in the first person, was tough as nails, married to his job, and given to the occasional use of simile and metaphor. Los Angeles, the setting for Dragnet, is perhaps the city most identified with the PI genre.

Not too many people are aware that Gunsmoke has PI roots. William Paley, the head of CBS, was a big Raymond Chandler fan, and was very pleased when his network acquired the Marlowe radio series from rival NBC (though star Van Heflin had to be replaced by Gerald Mohr; he actually did a better job, but he wasn't as big a name). He suggested that an adult western series built around the concept of a "Philip Marlowe of the Old West" would be a viable project. A few years later John Meston and Norman MacDonnell took Paley's suggestion and ran with it, creating the series about the legendary lawman who kept a lid on Dodge City crime for ten years on radio and another twenty on TV. Interestingly, when critics commented on the show, they did not refer to Gunsmoke as "Philip Marlowe in the Old West" but as "Dragnet in the Old West."

From Don Hunt (born Washington, D.C., living in Oklhoma City, OK)
I may not be up on the nitty gritty of the radio detectives but I have my favorites and some observations. Mr. Dunning would have us believe, via his encyclopedia, that Charles Russell was the first "Johnny Dollar". As I recall it was John Lund, my favorite of them all, followed by Kramer and Baily. I love Thor's Danny clover--rough around the edges but with a heart of gold. very articulate and, at times, profound. But, alas, he was a cop. Sorry about that. Dick Powell's "Rick" Diamond was clever, witty, intellegent, philosophical, and tough.

From Stewart Wright
On Rocky Jordan: I've been listening to quite a few episodes lately, a really under-rated detective series of the amateur type. Imagine what Rick Blaine, owner of Rick's Cafe American from the movie Casablanca, would have done if he had stayed in business? The answer is found in Rocky Jordan (don't confuse it with the short-lived Frank Sinatra series, Rocky Fortune).

He would be running a cafe somewhere in Africa or the Middle East. In the Post-WWII series "Rocky Jordan" he had the Cafe Tambourine, first in Istanbul and then in Cairo. Even though he was a cafe owner, he spent most of his time solving mysteries that he usually became involved in by accident. Rocky is originally from St. Louis and for some reason that is never made clear, he can't return to the United States (sound familiar?) We don't know much about Rocky, but we do know that he has lived in Seattle, New Orleans, Boston, and Chicago.

It was perhaps the most exotic of all radio detective series. The Middle East location and atmosphere are played to the hilt, including the series music. Rocky has an uneasy, but respectful relationship with Captain Sam Sabaaya of the Cairo Police. Sabaaya's assistant, Sgt. Greco, would like nothing more than to put Rocky away for life or perhaps feed him to the crocodiles.

From Dave Schank in Durango, Colorado
Casey Crime Photographer, a little talked about (on the net) but enjoyable show ran from 1943 til' 1955. A scene takes place in The Blue Note Cafe in every show I've listened to. I'm not sure for how many episodes, but the "Teddy Wilson Trio" (Benny Goodman's main man on the piano) provides the background music for these scenes. The show is good and this adds a real treat for any jazz fan.

From Kim Sellers in Charlottesville, VA
What's a radio?

Actually, my interest in OTR has been rekindled by all the great stuff available on the web in mp3 and RealAudio. You don't even need a radio anymore. (ed.)

Special Thanks to
Stewart Wright
for all his help with
this poll.

May his tubes always be warm,
and his signal never fade.

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