My fellow Golden Age of Detective Mysteries afficionado Mike Tooney has written an excellent review and summary of The Dead Sleep Lightly, a terrific collection of radio mystery scripts by the great detective story writer John Dickson Carr. Carr was the master of the "impossible crime," the murder that seems as if it cannot have been committed by a human being, and his narratives usually had a appeallingly creepy atmosphere and strong intimations of the preternatural.
The Dead Sleep Lightly is out of print, but copies are available in used bookstores and through online search engines. It is well worth seeking out.
With Mike’s kind permission, I am reprinting his review here for your enjoyment and edification:
Radio: Until the advent of television, it was the most pervasive form of home entertainment available. Unlike TV, radio allowed–one could say forced–listeners to employ their imagination to its utmost, to supply imagery in their own private "theater of the mind." Radio could make a superstar of a ventriloquist’ s dummy; it could permit listeners to create a convincing image of a comedian’s old automobile, a vehicle that only existed as a vocalization; and radio could even give a boy genius an opportunity to scare the bejabbers out of America with a play about invaders from Mars.
The heyday of radio drama was in the 1930s and -40s; by a wonderful coincidence that was also the heyday of John Dickson Carr–and, needless to say, Carr was in the thick of it. In THE DEAD SLEEP LIGHTLY (1983), Douglas G. Greene has selected nine representative scripts that highlight Carr’s abiding interests in the eerie and the mysterious.
For him, radio–rather than film–was the perfect medium of self-expression; film’s faithful reproduction of reality was, for Carr, its principal limitation. If mystery thrives in the unseen and real terror has no objective substance, then it was in the "theater of the mind" that John Dickson Carr’s talent for enthralling and baffling the listener would naturally flourish.
The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983)
John Dickson Carr (1906-1977)
Edited and with an Introduction by Douglas G. Greene (born 1944)
Doubleday Crime Club, Hardcover
Collection of Radio Mystery Scripts: 9 Plays 184 pages
Contents: Introduction: "John Dickson Carr and the Radio Mystery" (11 pages):
"The Golden Age of the detective novel and the Golden Age of radio drama came together in the late 1930s and the early 1940s….perhaps the key year was 1939: that was when John Dickson Carr…wrote his first radio drama." (page 1)
"…Carr was able to combine comedy and spookiness in a way that…might be Wodehouseian or occultist, but was at base a Carrian synthesis. Only one of his comic plays is included in this volume; most of the others are neo-Gothic in mood." (page 2)
"Carr’s use of atmosphere is key to his combination of rational detection with seemingly supernatural events. He uses setting and mood to make the reader [and listener] expect the supernatural and thus misdirect him from the clues that eventually lead to a rational solution." (page 3)
"To create mood by suggestion, to lead his audience into the menace of outer darkness–these are Carr’s qualities both as a novelist and as a radio dramatist." (page 4)
With respect to his motion picture script writing experiences, "Carr’s judgment [was] that filmmakers are ‘madder than a crate-load of coots…’" (page 4)
"Carr enjoyed writing for the radio. He had no difficulty inventing plots, and he looked on his scripts as a welcome relaxation from writing novels." (page 8)
"Television was coming to dominate the American media, and Carr refused to write for video broadcasts; perhaps he recalled his unhappy experiences with film scripts." (page 9)
"Carr not only knew how far his audience’s imagination could range; he counted on it. Some of the plays in this book depend on the listener fooling himself through his own imagination. " (page 10)
"…we have printed the scripts" [except for "some editorial decisions" that "we have had to make"] "exactly as broadcast, even including indications of knife-chords and other effects." (page 11)
1. Preface to "The Black Minute" (1 page)
Play: "The Black Minute" (1940)
Setting: London, 1940.
"So this is the ogre’s den!" (page 15)
"I am reborn. Elsie talks to me."
"Elsie?" "My wife. She died four years ago." (page 19)
"That, my friend, is not part of his head. That’s the handle of the knife. He’s been stabbed through the throat." (page 25)
Comment: Dr. Gideon Fell solves a case of murder during a seance in a locked and completely darkened room.
"A little dirt. A little blood. A little span of life composed of the two. I’ve nothing much to lose there." (page 31)
2. Preface to "The Devil’s Saint" (1 page)
Play: "The Devil’s Saint" (1943)
Setting: Paris and Touraine, 1927.
"Because everybody who sleeps in that room…dies. " (page 41)
"We are a very old family, my friend. Old, and perhaps accursed." (page 45)
"Then it WAS murder?"
"Of course it was murder. Murder so cunningly contrived that the police never saw through it." (page 49)
Comment: An impetuous young man bets he can spend the night in a haunted room in a castle. If he wins, he can wed; if he loses, will he be–dead?
"Can a room kill? . . .[Carr] wrote two novels, a short story, and two radio-plays, each solving the problem of the murderous room in a different way." (page 35)
3. Preface to "The Dragon in the Pool" (1 page)
Play: "The Dragon in the Pool" (1944)
Setting: An English country house, early 1940s.
"My father, of course, didn’t die in the swimming pool. But that pool is the answer to the whole mystery." (pages 55-56)
"I accounted to the police for every second of my time. I’ve got an alibi as big as a house." (page 58)
"He’s been stabbed through the chest with a big wide-bladed knife." (page 65)
"I don’t want to suggest you’re stark, staring mad, but are you talking about an invisible knife?" (page 68)
Comment: Sometimes your worst enemy can be yourself, even if your intentions are good, a fact Andrew Prentice doesn’t live long enough to appreciate; in this play, a victim turns into a sleuth and then into a victimizer– quite an evolution for a character.
4. Preface to "The Dead Sleep Lightly" (1 page)
Play: "The Dead Sleep Lightly" (1943)
Setting: London, 1933
"There’s a lunatic downstairs, sir."
"….What sort of a lunatic is he?" (page 74)
"I lost my head and bolted out of that house as though the devil were after me. Maybe he was." (page 84)
"I can’t go to the police; I can’t go to you; where CAN I go?"
"If I were less polite, sir, I should tell you." (page 85)
"The man’s in danger, but you DON’T want the police?" (page 87)
"And this, apparently, is the famous library. This is the place where bogies walk and a telephone talks of its own accord." (page 91)
"He killed her. . . . Oh, not cleanly. Not with a knife or a bullet or poison. All he did was break her heart and leave her to starve." (page 94)
Comment: A man is convinced he’s being haunted; Gideon Fell unveils the ghost and uncovers hidden motives.
"’The Dead Sleep Lightly’ remains one of John Dickson Carr’s most memorable accomplishments. With its shuddery atmosphere, its seemingly inexplicable events, and its rational conclusion, it is Carr at his finest." (page 71)
5. Preface to "Death Has Four Faces" (1 page)
Play: "Death Has Four Faces" (1944)
Setting: La Bandelette, France, 1930s.
"I know th
ese young English. Each year they come here, and they lose what you call the shirt." (page 101)
"But don’t try any funny business, old man."
"There’s a nice sharp knife–got that?–a nice sharp knife waiting for people who try funny business." (page 105)
"You say this knife was not used as a dagger in the hand of an assassin?"
"Yes, I do."
"But at the same time it was not thrown?"
"It follows, then, that I seek an invisible murderer?" (pages 109-110)
Comment: A young Englishman "lose[s] what you call the shirt" at the roulette table and comes close to losing his head on the guillotine when he’s charged with an impossible murder.
"Carr rarely transferred his novels or short stories bodily to the radio….’Death Has Four Faces’ is a re-telling of his too-little- known story ‘The Silver Curtain’." (page 97)
6. Preface to "Vampire Tower" (1 page)
Play: "Vampire Tower" (1944)
Setting: Kent, 1930s.
"Damme, my girl, how do you do it? Are you a demon in disguise, or what?" (page 117)
"All I did was touch the trigger by accident. (Innocently) I-I do hope I haven’t hit anything." (page 121)
"Here’s a human soul….[e]xisting only to gloat when it draws life from fellow creatures. It’s a modern version, the true version, of the old vampire legend." (page 123)
Comment: A young man attempts to catch a killer–but catches something else entirely.
"’Just how far does any man trust his wife, or his fiancee either for that matter?’. . . . Carr never posed the question more effectively than in ‘Vampire Tower,’ with its contrast between the hearty normality of an English fete and the tale of a tortured soul." (page 113)
7. Preface to "The Devil’s Manuscript" (1 page)
Play: "The Devil’s Manuscript" (1944)
Setting: Weyford, an English seaside town, 1934.
"How did it happen, you ask? Can a manuscript, a mere story, strike the life out of a man’s body?" (page 133)
"I’m absolutely crackers about you! Don’t you know that?"
"No. I don’t."
"WELL, I AM!" (page 134)
Comment: Never accept a challenge offered by a writer of ghost stories; the last line of the play is a killer.
"When John Dickson Carr chose a story by another author to adapt for the radio, he usually revised the original so much that it became his own work. . . . For this book, we have chosen ‘The Devil’s Manuscript,’ based (with many changes) on [Ambrose] Bierce’s ‘The Suitable Surroundings’ ." (page 131)
8. Preface to "White Tiger Passage" (1 page)
Play: "White Tiger Passage" (1955)
Setting: Brighton, 1954.
"To my shame and sorrow, madam, I AM Willie Whiskers." (page 150)
"Attend to me, my friend. This person is not normal. He is mad, and he have a madman’s logic." (page 152)
"He’d been first stabbed in the back, and then . . . well, disembowelled. " (page 154)
"This knife I have here is a very interesting knife. I have only to press the button…(sharp click)…and a double-edged blade springs out." (page 162)
Comment: Andy Hardy and Nancy Drew versus the Slasher of the Boulevards: "Only a handful of [Carr’s] radio scripts . . . feature hilarious coincidences worthy of P.G. Wodehouse, combined with subtle clues worthy of John Dickson Carr. The best of these is ‘White Tiger Passage’…" (page 146)
9. Preface to "The Villa of the Damned" (1 page)
Play: "The Villa of the Damned" (1955)
Setting: Rome and Naples at the time of Mussolini.
"No, I’ve never met her. But I’ve read a good deal about her family history. Daggers, poison, and treachery for more than five hundred years." (pages 168-169)
"Where did you get this sudden obsession about ghosts?" (page 170)
"Mortui te salutamus!"
"’We WHO HAVE ALREADY DIED salute you!’" (page 174)
Comment: A beautiful woman wants to revive a dead lover–dead for three hundred years.
"The impossible situation in ‘The Villa of the Damned’ may be the most daring of all. It is surely incredible that an entire suburb– and perhaps an entire century–can vanish like smoke…." (page 165)
Short Biographical Sketch of John Dickson Carr (1 page)