The Adventures of Sam Spade (audio)

Here’s an interesting one for you. I had to do a little research to figure out exactly what I have here, and I’m still unclear on a few issues. Please pardon my rather lengthy introductory remarks.

Sam Spade is a character created by Dashiell Hammett in The Maltese Falcon, which I have not read but very much want to. Dashiell Hammett shares some early pulp-classic mystery genre credit with Raymond Chandler, who I have read (just a little) and enjoyed; also, Hammett was partner to Lillian Hellman for some 30 years. “The Adventures of Sam Spade” was a radio series in the 1940’s through 1951, based on Hammett’s character, but I think that Hammett was uninvolved (or marginally involved) in the radio version. His name (says Wikipedia) was removed from the show when his association with the Communist Party became known.

This three-cd set presents six episodes of the radio show, “digitally remastered” and “including never-before-released episodes” – I take it to mean these are original recordings, then, although I haven’t been able to confirm that in my (casual) online research. They do include advertisements for Wildroot Creme Oil, a hair product that was the show’s sponsor. These advertisements are initially somewhat charming in being period pieces, but they are many, and like any advertisement, they get old. Again, this speaks to the authentic feel of the production.

So what about the stories? The six episodes are… “The Insomnia Caper” (1948), “Sam and the Psyche” (1946), “Love Letter” (1949), “The Overjord Caper” (1949), “The Bow Window Caper” (1947), and “The Charogagogmanchogagogchabuna-mungamog Caper” (1949). Howard Duff plays Sam Spade and Lurene Tuttle plays his secretary Effie. These are radio shows rather than your average audiobook, so they include sound effects – gunshots, breaking glass, revving engines, traffic noise – and not just reading of the stories; rather than a single narrator doing voices for different characters, various actors play each character. This is classic pulp stuff, and it’s great fun. There is a definite element of tongue-in-cheek (at least that’s my reading, I can’t speak to the original intent, and the 1940’s are pretty remote to me, but surely…?) in Sam’s character: he is the exemplar of the wise-cracking, hard-boiled, tough-guy detective.

Each story tends to involve a person hiring Sam as a PI, often against Sam’s own wishes: in “Love Letter”, he gets a love letter from a woman he doesn’t know and heads to the assigned meeting point to find himself immediately involved in a situation he’d rather have avoided. His clients are as dodgy as any other character in the story; and there is often a woman who tries to seduce (or seduces) Sam, as a means of distracting him from a plot. Howard Duff’s gruff playing of the role is a large part of the effective mood of these stories.

While the plot of each is formulaic and somewhat forgettable, and the characters are rather stock, that needn’t detract from the fun of these stories. Formulas are often successful and that’s why they’re repeated (think about Agatha Christie). As a regular listener to audiobooks, this radio format that came with multiple actors and sound effects was a refreshing change. The Adventures of Sam Spade is a little simplistic, and definitely easy listening, but great fun, and different from the usual fare.

Rating: 6 double crosses.

Black Mask (audio)

Classic hard-boiled crime stories from the historic and genre-defining pulp magazine Black Mask, in a beautifully performed audio collection.

Black Mask magazine (1920-1951) was a defining force in the pulp-magazine genre of hard-boiled detective stories, and this collection offers five representative pieces for the first time in the audio format. The excellent spoken performances are a rare treat, especially when finding stories of this vintage is in itself a challenge. The masters of the genre are represented in this collection, including Dashiell Hammett, under a pseudonym. Don’t skip the introduction, either: it’s a worthwhile and informative history of pulp magazines, the detective/crime genre, a number of classic authors, and Black Mask in particular. Each story has its own short introduction as well, adding to the value of the collection.

“The Phantom Crook” takes on organized crime in order to free a damsel in distress from blackmail. A case of arson and apparent murder is not what it appears. Another blackmail case threatens to take advantage of a well-meaning but bad-tempered newspaper photographer. A drunken reporter tails a detective into a warehouse district in pursuit of a crook. And in the final tale, a Florida private investigator named Sail, working off his boat, investigates a case of sunken treasure while the bodies stack up. In each story, the gritty, taut suspense is reinforced by an appropriately gruff audio performance.

Black Mask has released a total of three collections of short stories. The following two promise more of the same: dark, suspenseful, character-rich crime drama. Readers of the modern hard-boiled detective/P.I. genre owe it to themselves to check out their roots in these fine examples of detective-noir classics.

I wrote this review for Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

book beginnings on Friday: Black Mask Stories edited by Otto Penzler

Thanks to Katy at A Few More Pages for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Classic pulp fiction from one of the original pulp mags! On audio! Well performed! Great fun. I give you the beginning of the first book on this compilation: “Come and Get It” by Erle Stanley Gardner, read by Oliver Wyman.

Ed Jenkins was warned by a crook he had once befriended to be on his guard against a girl with a mole, that she would lead him into deadly peril. This crook was shot the instant he left Ed’s apartment, seemingly by accident.

I love the gritty tone of these stories – especially as performed here. It’s great stuff. Also, Husband really enjoyed this story in particular, because our name is Jenkins too. 🙂

%d bloggers like this: