Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The great Jon Breen: Radio and The Threat of Nostalgia

Radio and The Threat of Nostalgia

     With The Threat of Nostalgia and Other Stories (Ramble House), I wanted to accomplish two things: gather some of my magazine stories that hadn’t been anthologized or appeared in any of my three previous collections, and dedicate a book to radio expert Dave Amaral, whose broadcast versions of Edward D. Hoch’s Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories occasionally appear in the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine podcast series (themysteryplace.com).  Thus I looked first for stories with a radio background.
     Radio has always loomed large in my life.  I’m old enough to remember a time when network radio still ruled, with a full slate of comedies, mysteries, variety shows, soap operas, big band remotes, plus flamboyant newscasters, mellow-voiced storytellers of the Housewives’ Protective League, and the Hartz Mountain singing canaries—not girl singers, real canaries. 
My father loved and accumulated radios, with one in every room and every moving conveyance.  I only found out after he died that he had done some broadcasts of sermons back in the 1930s while he was a divinity student at the University of Chicago.  Though he knew I was contemplating a radio career during my college years, I guess it never came up.  I broadcast basketball and baseball on the student radio station.  You’ll have to take my word for it I was good, but I decided I didn’t have the voice or the aggressiveness for that cutthroat business.
Oddly enough (or maybe, when you read the stories, not so oddly), my radio-related tales, apart from a couple that concerned play-by-play sportscasters, didn’t sell very readily.  Only the first four stories in The Threat of Nostalgia are directly centered on radio.  Two of them appeared in very obscure markets, another in the long-lived but low-paying Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and the fourth never sold at all when written in the late 1960s and appears in the book for the first time.
The title story dates to 1980 and first appeared in the semi-pro magazine Skullduggery.  The radio announcer protagonist, whose teenage nephew collects old programs on tape, looks back thirty years to the last broadcast of the Beldon and Mahaffey variety show.  I’ve always found comedy teams with dysfunctional relationships interesting, and B&M were as dysfunctional as they come.  I returned to another such team twenty years later in my Ellery Queen pastiche, “The Gilbert and Sullivan Clue,” also included in the book.
“The Old Radio Puzzle,” from a 1982 issue of the short-lived Canadian periodical Black Cat, also has a soured nostalgia theme, as the cast of the radio sitcom Career Girl Sally is reunited and murder follows.  This story introduced my movie critic detective Stephen Fenbush, whose second case, “The Missing Elevator Puzzle,” came along a mere quarter century later.  The latter case is much better, though the first one (as Ed Hoch told me) is “not great but not bad.”
“The World’s Champion Lovers” (MSMM, July 1983) doesn’t have an explicit radio background but concerns the competition that might ensue to be mentioned on-air by the National Commentator (based on Paul Harvey) as the day’s longest-married couple.  The two main characters were written with the voices of Jim and Marian Jordan (Fibber McGee and Molly) in my ear.
The last of the radio stories, “Death of a Deejay,” draws to a small degree on my experience working as a night switchboard operator at KMPC in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s.  It was my effort to create a hardboiled private eye, a figure that was somewhat unfashionable at the time but would come back strong in the 1970s and ‘80s.  It’s a period piece, not to be taken too seriously but maybe worth a delayed debut.
The rest of the stories in the book aren’t explicitly about radio, but at least a couple have a radio inspiration: “A Quiet Death,” which I can imagine as a segment of Suspense or another mystery anthology series; and “Spirit Recording,” involving a type of occult phenomenon that often turned up on late-night radio talk shows.  Conan Doyle would have loved it.  (The phenomenon, not the story.)

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