I Heard it on My Radio*

RadioAn interesting post on podcasting from crime writer Elizabeth Spann Craig has got me thinking about broadcasting. Her excellent writing blog inspires me; it’s a must-visit for writers and anyone interested in the process of writing. Podcasts are a very new form of broadcasting, but radio has been around for a very long time. In fact, it was arguably the first real-time medium of mass communication. And even with the advent of television and the internet, radio is still a popular and powerful tool. It’s not surprising then that radio plays a role in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of dozens more than I can.

In Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are on a holiday in Cornwall. There they meet Magdala ‘Nick’ Buckley, who has a house there. Poirot soon comes to suspect that someone is trying to kill Nick, although she herself doesn’t believe him at first. Then, she has a few ‘near misses.’ Poirot doesn’t want her staying in the house by herself, so Nick invites her cousin Maggie for a few weeks. Tragically, Maggie is killed during her visit. She was wearing one of her cousin’s shawls at the time of the murder; and this obvious case of mistaken identity convinces Poirot that Nick is in imminent danger. He arranges for her to be safely cared for at a hospital, where she’s told to eat nothing from ‘outside.’ When the murderer tries to strike again, Poirot has to act quickly. In this case, a radio broadcast is key to what the killer chooses to do.

The police have their own radio frequencies; and police radio plays a role in Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice. One Christmas night, LAPD cop Harry Bosch is ‘on call,’ and has his police scanner running in the background. That’s how he hears that a body has been discovered at a seedy hotel in his district. To him, it’s surprising that no-one called him to let him know, since he’s on duty. He goes to the scene only to find that the dead man is Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, a fellow police officer. The death bears all the hallmarks of suicide, but a few things don’t add up for Bosch. The official explanation is that Moore killed himself because he’d ‘gone dirty’ and was involved in drug smuggling. In order to protect the department’s reputation, Bosch is told to leave the case alone and accept it as a suicide (in fact, that’s why he wasn’t called). Bosch fans will know that leaving things alone is not his style, so he keeps asking questions. In the end, and after a trip to the US/Mexico border area, he finds out the complex truth behind this death.

Even with the popularity of television and the Internet, there are still plenty of successful and well-known radio celebrities. Some of them are quite controversial, too. We see an example of the rise of the ‘shock jock’ in Robert B. Parker’s High Profile. In that novel, we meet celebrity radio personality Walton Weeks. His politically-charged broadcasts have made him a host of fanatic followers and enemies; his private life has been just as full of drama. So when he is found shot and hung, Paradise, Massachusetts Police Chief Jesse Stone has his pick of suspects. For one thing, Weeks’ broadcasts had inspired strong passion on both sides, so to speak. For another, his ex-wives and his current wife all had good reason to want him out of the way. Stone is working on this case when there’s another murder. This time, the victim is Weeks’ pregnant mistress. Stone finds that there were a lot of secrets in Weeks’ life, and that those secrets turned out to be fatal.

In one plot thread of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we are introduced to comic Richard Mott. He’s been invited to headline a lunchtime radio comedy show, and arranges for his housemate, crime writer Martin Canning, to get tickets. On the day of the show, Canning and several other characters in the novel are waiting for the doors to open when they witness a car accident. A blue Honda hits the back of a silver Peugot driven by Paul Bradley. Both men get out of their cars and are soon arguing bitterly. Then the Honda driver wields a baseball bat and attacks Bradley. Mostly by instinct, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. A sense of obligation drives Canning to ensure that Bradley gets safely to the nearest hospital; before he knows it, he’s far more involved than he wants to be in a case of multiple murders, fraud and theft.

Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall introduces readers to Toronto radio personality Kevin Brace. He and his common-law wife Katherine Torn are both successful, and have an upscale lifestyle which includes a home in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. Everything changes one morning when Torn is found dead in one of the bathtubs. Brace is quickly arrested, and indicates that he wants to be represented by Nancy Parish. Acting for the Crown will be Albert Fernandez. While the attorneys prepare for the legal aspects of this case, Police Detective Ari Green and his team investigate the crime. One possible explanation for the seemingly airtight case against Brace is that he was framed. If that’s the case, then one likely suspect is Donald Dundas, another radio personality who stands to become a broadcasting star with Brace out of the way. And Dundas might have had his own reasons for wanting Torn dead. As the police and attorneys fallow this trail, we learn some interesting things about the modern big-city radio business.

Domingo Villar’s Leo Caldas is a detective with the Vigo police. He also has a radio call-in show. The goal of the show is closer ties between the police and the community, so callers get to ask their questions (or lodge their complaints) in direct conversations with Caldas. The show is so popular that when people are introduced to Caldas, they invariably say something like, ‘Oh, from Patrolling the Waves?’ He’s actually better known for the radio broadcast than he is for anything else.

And that just goes to show that radio still has an important impact. People do listen to audio broadcasts. These are just some instances. You’re now on the air to offer more.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Radio Ga Ga.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Domingo Villar, Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Robert B. Parker, Robert Rotenberg

24 responses to “I Heard it on My Radio*

  1. One of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, “And Be a Villain,” is set in the world of network radio (which, for those who may not remember, was how most of America was entertained in the early years of the 20th century). Radio talk show host Madeline Fraser usually has a moment on her show where her guests join her to drink the sponsor’s beverage live on air. One of her guests who drinks his glass of Hi-Spot during her live broadcast dies from the poison thoughtfully added to the drink. It’s a nightmare for Fraser, her sponsors, the network, the ad agency, etc. – but an opportunity for Wolfe to earn himself a large fee. And so he does…

    • That’s a fabulous example, Les, for which thanks. It certainly shows how radio dominated news and entertainment during those decades. Radio is still a powerful force in today’s communication world, but back then, it was the force. Stout shows that effectively.

  2. Great examples, as always, Margot! Would love to reread “Peril at End House.” And thanks for the kind mention!

    • Always a pleasure to plug your blog and your work, Elizabeth! And I think Peril at End House is a neat little mystery, actually. Of course to me, Christie’s work is always worth a re-read.

  3. I had forgotten the radio bit of the Christie – must read than one again Margot. Val Gielgud wrote a whodunit based at the BBC when radio was still in its comparative infancy, DEATH AT BROADCASTING HOUSE, and in THE WAR OF THE WORLDS MURDER, Max Allan Collins did a nice pastiche involving crime and the notorious Orson Welles CBS broadcasts that allegedly panicked America. The plot also makes room for Walter B. Gibson, who wrote the Shadow mysteries for radio at the time (when Welles was in fact playing the role).

    • Oh, Sergio, I must read the Collins. That broadcast really did start a serious panic, and with radio as powerful as it was, that’s logical, as strange as it may seem now. And the Gielgud sounds like a terrific example of radio-in-action in crime fiction. Thanks very much!

  4. Margot: In the Walt Longmire series by Craig Johnson a continuing character is Cheyenne local radio personality, Herbert His Good Horse, and his trademark phrase:

    “Stay calm, have courage and wait for the signs.”

    The local Cheyenne reservation radio station functions as a community radio in the same way Kay-Chuck does for the Inuit of Northwest Alaska in the Nathan Active series of Stan Jones.

    I am going to think further about expanding this comment into a post. There has also long been community radio in Saskatchewan.

    • Thanks for those examples, Bill. You are absolutely right about both series, and I should have mentioned them. I’m glad you filled in that gap. And now I’m thinking of the important part community radio plays in Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels as well. It’s woven into several stories. I look forward to your post.

  5. All your examples sound excellent. But I especially enjoyed Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice. Years ago when I took a mystery writing class the instructor used Harry Bosch in many of his examples, so I feel like I know him (the character) well, and I keep meaning to read at least one of the Harry Bosch books. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. So many books, so little time…

    • I know what you mean, Sue, about too many books and not enough time. I can imagine why your instructor would’ve used so many Harry Brosch examples. He (Bosch) is such a well-drawn character. And of course Connelly is such a skilled writer. I hope you’ll get the chance to read some of his work at some point.

  6. I haven’t read any of Michael Connelly’s books but have started watching the series which makes me think I should have checked this author out before. Great examples as always Margot!

  7. Very interesting post, as ever, and I also enjoyed Elizabeth’s piece on podcasts; she is a mine of information. The Val Gilegud book that Sergio mentions is a good one. HIs co-writer, Eric Maschwitz, was a colleague at the BBC. Even before their book, Walter S. Masterman wrote 2L0 – the title comes from a forerunner of the national BBC.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Martin; glad you enjoyed the post. And you are so right about Elizabeth. I learn every time I visit her blog. Thanks also for the interesting insight about Maschwitz and about Masterman. Now I’m even more keen to check out those books.

  8. I also recall the Vera Caspary novel Laura in which columnist Waldo Lydecker doubles as a newspaper columnist and – at least in the film version – radio commentator.

    • I have to confess, Bryan, that ‘though I’ve seen the film (fantastic, by the way!) I’ve not read the novel. And right you are about Lydecker’s radio job – thanks for filling in that gap.

  9. In one of Jane Haddam’s Philadelphia-set mysteries, Murder Superior, there is a right-wing radio shock jock… and I think she has a similar character in one of her later books.

    • Thanks, Moira. Among other things, it’s a great reminder that I really must spotlight a Haddam mystery. I’ve been remiss. And that’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post.

  10. Col

    I never tried any of Parker’s Jesse Stone books, I was always a Spencer fan.

  11. I want to read more Michael Connelly books, since I watched the Bosch series. And I want to try the Jesse Stone books after watching the TV movies.

  12. Kent Morgan

    I came to this post after reading about it on Bill Selnes’ blog where you always comment. A novel titled Wizard of the Wind by Don Keith (1997) takes an interesting look at radio as it changed from AM to FM to satellite and there’s more than a little crime involved.

    • Thank, you, Kent, both for your visit and for your suggestion. Both are much appreciated. Wizard of the Wind sounds interesting on several levels; I’ll have to check it out.

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