Murder By Experts

Murder By Experts: How to Become an Expert in Murder

Robert Arthur Jr. at work during 1950.
Robert Arthur, Jr

How does one become an expert on murder? According to the creators of Murder By Experts, expertise in murder is demonstrated by writing about murder in a highly entertaining fashion. No university has a recognized degree program in murder, and consulting someone with “experience in the field” is too ghastly to contemplate.

The subject itself seems too ghastly to consider, but murder mysteries make for highly entertaining fair and they are the centerpiece of the majority of the crime dramas which filled the air during the Golden Age of Radio. The average listener might drive a few miles over the speed limit on occasion or could neglect to tell Uncle Sam the whole truth on their tax returns, but by and large, they are law-abiding people who would go out of their way to help their fellow man. The psychological makeup of someone who is actually capable of murder is fascinating to behold. Remember the old joke about going to a party dressed as a homicidal maniac? They look just like you and me.

Using their own standard, Robert Arthur and Dave Kogan each qualified as experts in murder. Kogan grew up with Radio entering the Golden Age and entered Columbia University to study radio production. At a scriptwriting class in 1940, he met Robert Arthur Jr, who had a mixed bag of experiences any author would be happy to draw upon. He was born in Corregidor, Philippines, the son of a US Army lieutenant. After a life of moving from base to base around the country he won an appointment to West Point but decided against a military career and entered William and Mary College in Virginia in 1926, later transferring to the University of Michigan (Robert Arthur Sr was working there as a Professor of Military Science) where he earned a BA then an MA in English. After settling in Greenwich Village, New York City, he began writing for pulp magazines and had stories published in Wonder Stories, Detective Fiction Weekly, The Illustrated Detective Magazine, Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine, Detective Tales, Thrilling Detective, Double Detective, The Phantom Detective, Unknown Worlds, Black Mask, and several other magazines.

Arthur married a radio soap opera actress in 1938, but they split before he joined the scriptwriting class at Columbia in 1940. Kogan and Arthur’s friendship developed into a formidable scriptwriting team. They would work together in an intense session to hammer out a story, then Kogan would take over as director and producer. They went to work together at WOR, the flagship station of the Mutual Network, creating scripts for the short-lived Dark Destiny in 1942. With one success under their belt, the duo was allowed to put together another series, The Mysterious Traveler, which first aired in December 1943. In addition to spellbinding tales of fantasy, science fiction, and the supernatural to go along with crime drama, The Traveler featured the Traveler himself as a horror host.

The series spawned comic books and, eventually, its own pulp magazine. With a proven money-maker on their hands, Mutual gave Kogan and Arthur the greenlight for another series, Murder By Experts, which would begin airing in 1949. Experts would be just as thrilling as The Traveler, but the format took some interesting creative turns. One of the most important was that rather than original plots the show used stories selected by the weekly guest “Expert”, the stories still had to be adapted to a radio format. The “horror host” was replaced by a host expert, prolific mystery writer John Dickson Carr during the first season.

Carr was no stranger to radio. Not only had several of his stories been adapted by various anthology series, but he wrote several original scripts for Suspense. Each week Carr’s “guest expert” would select a favorite murder story, usually the work of yet a third author. After the first season, Carr left the series, presumably to concentrate on furthering his writing career. He was replaced by Brett Halliday, creator of the Michael Shayne detective series. Halliday was the pseudonym of Davis Dresser, who had been influential in founding the Mystery Writers of America. Kogan and Arthur were awarded an “Edgar” award by the Mystery Writers in 1950 for “best radio program of a mystery nature” in 1950 for Murder By Experts (The Mysterious Traveler would be so honored in 1953).

The team of Kogan and Arthur decided to give back to the radio writing profession by becoming supporters of the Radio Writers Guild. At the time, however, any collective bargaining effort was destined to be painted as a Communist front by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Although they were not listed in Red Channels, HUAC attention was enough to gain notice from Mutual’s sponsors who put pressure on the network to cancel both Experts and Traveler.

Old Time Radio

Sam Spade on the Radio

You’ve heard the boast: America is the country that invented rock and roll; America invented jazz, the car, the Big Mac, baseball.?  It seems fair enough to add Sam Spade, and indeed, hard-boiled detectives to the list.?  That is, there’s something quintessentially American about the droll jokes, the world-weary attitude, the careful selection of haberdashery.?  The irascible man in the trench coat who didn’t like his boss and despised authority but was ultimately on the right team and knew a bad guy when he saw one.?  Perhaps all of this reflected the increasingly complex and frightening realities in a country that was increasingly industrialized, spread out, and urban. Americans had lost some innocence in World War I, and perhaps longed for heroes who could give them an unvarnished version of what they saw around them?

You probably know that Sam Spade was the product of the imagination of legendary author Dashiell Hammett.?  S-squared set up office in San Francisco in the 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon, which of course was brought to the silver screen with Humphrey Bogart starring.

Sam first came to life on the radio in the form of adaptations of Falcon, with examples being the Lux Radio Theater adaptation from February of ’43 and that of Academy Award Theater in 1946 (with the latter starring Bogey himself)

But his main incarnation was on the relatively long-running series The Adventures of Sam Spade, masterminded by entrenched producer William Spier.? 

There isn’t a major radio network that didn’t carry the show at one time or another: for ABC it was?  Jul-Oct, 1946; CBS, Sept. ’46-Sept. ’49; NBC, Oct. ’49-Apr. ’51.? ? 

Spier, the show’s creator and producer, had risen quickly through the CBS ranks to become the head of program development.?  In that capacity, he produced the acclaimed series Suspense.?  Moving to ABC, he developed for the airwaves The Adventures of Sam Spade.

William Spier

To play the title character, Spier brought in Howard Duff, a newcomer, freshly returned from service in the Air Force’s radio services.?  Duff had just a bit of theatre experience but was already developing something a tough-guy persona, which he filtered through a bit of sarcasm, helping to achieve a less serious approach than Falcon and other radio series focusing on detectives.? ? 

Lurene Tuttle was tapped for the all-important role of Sam’s secretary Effie Perrine, who took down Sam’s observations, which served as major support beams for each narrative. Unlike Duff, Tuttle was far from being a newcomer to the silver airwaves.?  She was quite the opposite, an overworked character actress who also appeared on The Great Gildersleeve and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.?  She would at some point in her career work on as many as fifteen shows concurrently, and would eventually be known as “The First Lady of Radio,” though she happened not to be radio’s only “first” lady, and probably not its last.

But while something in the free-wheeling nature of Spade suggests a frontier mentality native to America, the show’s fate would be affected by a part of this nation’s history of which not many are proud.?  The Communist hunt of the 1950’s had wide-ranging effects, and this program was not immune. First, Hammett, whose name was originally announced at the beginning of each episode, was swept into the dragnet of those seeking anti-American behavior.?  An anti-fascist from way back, Hammett was also a member of the Communist party. This brought him before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the major arm of McCarthy’s witch hunt. Just like we imagine Spade woulda, Hammett stood his ground and refused to implicate some of his cohorts, and this earned him some jail time for a contempt charge.

NBC, to no one’s surprise, had no interest in taking a political stand, and it dropped Hammett’s name from the show early in the writer’s persecution.? 

With, Duff, however, things weren’t so easy for the show’s producers.?  Duff was also far Left, and when he was outed as a sympathizer of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and producers who refused to testify before HUAC, he lost his job as Sam Spade.?  He was entered onto some blacklists, though he did manage to continue acting in film.

Steven Dunne took over in 1950.?  Dunne was a blossoming talent, a just-known commodity, having played roles in the films Doll Face, Colonel Effigham’s Raid, and The Big Sombrero. ? He would go on to star in Professional Father and would appear in two of the late episodes of The Brady Bunch. Noted radio historian John Dunning referred to Dunne as “a boy-ish sounding Spade,” and it’s hard to find a source that gives rave reviews to the actor’s performance as the iconic detective.

The show’s last episode was “The Hail and Farewell Caper,” aired April 27, 1951.  Sam Spade is, of course, an enduring element of Americana, an exemplar of the hard-boiled detective.  The program goes down as one of the best-made detective shows, a cohesive package of acting, sound effects, production, writing and directing.