Die hard fans of Old Time Radio would have us believe that there is something in the OTR world for everyone, and to a great extent they are correct. Many of us find that we have favorites in every OTR genre. However, there are three types of show which Old Time Radio does exceptionally well, arguably a superior storytelling medium than Movies or TV.
These are Horror, Science Fiction and Crime Drama. The first two are actually fairly obvious. To achieve the desired response from the audience, the creators of both these genre must create indelible images for the audience. Common sense would have us believe that the visual media should be better at this, but in actual practice even the best special effects men cannot create images as intense as those created in the minds of an attentive listener. In other words, the scary monster on the screen can never be as scary as the one we can conjure in our own imagination. At least, this is true if the writer, director, and actors in the drama have any more than mediocre talent. Many of the surviving examples of both Horror and Drama were produced by the best talents in the showbiz industry.
Crime Drama is a somewhat different case. Whereas HorrorÂ and Science Fiction are image driven, fans of Crime Drama are essentially enjoying a puzzle. Whether the audience is able to solve the puzzle themselves, or they have to wait for the Dashing Detective to solve it for them, makes little difference. The complexity and intricacy of the puzzle are as important as the solution.
The Puzzle Factor is especially important for the so-called Soft Boiled Detectives. These are the guys who specialize in the Whodunit story. Their archetype in both literature and on the Radio is Sherlock Holmes, who always got his man but took the listener through some plot twists that were positively neck snapping. Nero Wolfe, The Saint, Nick and Nora of The Thin Man and Hercule Poirot are also popular Soft Boiled Detectives.
The existence of Soft Boiled Detectives implies Hard Boiled Detectives, and Old Time Radio has them in droves. The came from between the covers of pulp magazines and Noir Detective Cinema, and they flooded the post War airwaves. Part of the reason for their abundance was that they were ideal listening for the target audience of the time, largely rugged veterans who were adapting to the new affluence of of civilian life. The hard boiled detective might taken a licking once in a while, but they were rugged individuals who answered injustice whether it was perpetrated against themselves or those they had taken into their protection.
The archetype of the Hard Boiled Detective is Philip Marlowe. Marlowe was developed in pulps of the 1930s, and even though he was a tough guy, he was a character you would introduce to your grandma; he enjoyed classical music, chess, and had a strong moral code. Other Hard Boiled regulars may have been more Neanderthal, but characters like Sam Spade, Pat Novak, Michael Shayne, Mike Hammer or Johnny Dollar may have had to take their lumps, but they always got their man.
Just because imagery was not as important to crime drama as it was to Horror of Science Fiction radio, it was far from ignored. Thanks to the great writing and production values, when a listener enjoys an episode of the classic Dragnet they are transported to post-War Los Angeles. Although it is a noticeably monochromatic Los Angeles (with occasional flashes of brown from a well behaved Mexican shop owner), Dragnet‘s Los Angeles is a city of lunch counters, War Factory workers, urban sprawl just beginning to spread, and even the junkies wore coats and ties.