Murder By Experts: Origins of a Classic Old Time Radio Show

Murder By Experts was a commercial. By itself, that is not a bad thing. After all, radio itself was built as a means of marketing. The empires of the huge networks were based on selling things. So the last thing on my mind is to berate Experts for being a commercial. In fact, the purpose of this post is to praise it for being such a subtle, yet effective one.

screamPart of the subtlety came from the fact that Murder By Experts was broadcast over the Mutual Network. NBC and CBS programs were more disciplined, in that they usually had sponsors of their own, or they were sustained by the network until they could find a sponsor. Many Mutual programs were syndicated, meaning that the local broadcaster would insert the local commercials. Because they were syndicated, Mutual programs had to be good enough to sell themselves to the local stations. A show on another network may have been written to appeal to the audience in the big eastern cities, but it was still heard by affiliates in the rural Midwest.

There was little worry about the appeal of Murder By Experts. It was put together by one of the most successful writing teams in radio, David Kogan and Robert A. Arthur. Kogan had grown up on radio drama and pulp fiction stories, and wanted to create stories of his own. While attending class in writing for radio at Columbia University, he met Arthur. Arthur was a world traveler, having grown up in an Army family, had a master’s degree in journalism, and a compulsive need to tell stories. The pair began collaborating on programs for Mutual affiliate WOR.

Ellery_Queen_NYWTSTheir first effort was Dark Destiny, which set their working relationship. Generally, they would begin with a brainstorming session where plotting and characters would be developed. One partner or the other then sat before the typewriter and put the script together, and Kogan would usually finish by directing the show. After Dark Destiny, the duo went on to create their signature program, The Mysterious Traveler, and they also worked on The Sealed Book, Master Detective, Nick Carter and others.

Murder By Experts was a departure for the writing team, but that was the ingenious subtlety of the program. Rather than inventing new plots, they would adapt the recommendation of an “expert”, another writer of thriller fiction. The subtlety was that each program would gain attention for three different mystery writers. The first would be the show’s host, John Dickson Carr. By the time of the broadcasts, Carr was already a well recognized name in the Mystery fiction game, but his latest project got a nice plug in each episode (the same would be true of his replacement, Brett Halliday after Carr left the series in mid-1950).

CN 012464Along with the host, the guest “expert” would get a plug for his latest story as well as giving a plug to the author whose tale was presented in that episode. With their own success seemingly in hand, Kogan and Arthur were willing to do what they could to help other writers to make a living. In fact, it may have led to their demise. Murder By Experts is included in the list of victims of McCarthyism; Kogan and Arthur were involved in the Radio Writers Guild, a labor union which fell under the spotlight of the House Un-American Activities Committee. By then, Experts was already the victim of Mutual’s lack of sponsor support.

Murder They Wrote

Have you ever tried to ask your grandparents what joys in life did they treasure during their time when they were your age? Surely, they would reply either in jest or in a serious manner, depending on the tone of your question. Now, try asking about their favorite radio shows they often listened to during their younger years. Chances are, they would tell you a handful of radio series starred by some of the most popular celebrities in Hollywood at that time. During the golden age of radio, from 1920s through 1950s, television series were quite the rage and there were a lot of really good to excellent programs, which either lasted long enough or went off the air in an untimely manner and completely went into oblivion.

John-Dickson-Carr-1One such example was Murder by Experts, a mystery program on Mutual (or MBS) that premiered in 1949. The show was produced and directed by a couple of men, David Kogan and Robert A. Arthur, who also dished out The Mysterious Traveler (as well as The Strange Dr. Weird and The Sealed Book) on radio. It featured gruesome tales and dark stories each week. Each of the featured stories, penned by neophytes, was carefully chosen by distinguished members of the Mystery Writers of America. Two of the prolific genre writers of the time, John Dickson Carr and Brett Halliday, were taking turns in the hosting and narrating jobs of the show. Carr did the hosting job on the show’s debut episode on June 13, 1949 until March 13, 1950. Halliday took over the job on March 20, 1950 until the show’s last episode on December 17, 1951.

maurice2Local New York talents such as Maurice Tarplin, Lawson Zerbe, Leslie Woods, Gertrude Warner, Santos Ortega and Larry Haines were some of the brilliant radio personalities tapped to star on the show which was produced in New York. Unlike many other mystery anthologies of that time, Murder by Experts did not turn to gimmickry to draw audience, making it one of the best radio shows of any genre. As a testament to its true worth, the show bagged The Edgar Allan Poe Award (the ‘Edgar’) for best mystery radio program. Of the series’ five dozen or more episodes, only 13-15 of them, quite unfortunately, were salvaged. Those who were lucky few to get those broadcasts confessed that it was worth the time listening to and indeed worth preserving to keep as a treasure.