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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Thursday, May 02, 2013

OLD TIME RADIO: PAT NOVAK FOR HIRE

"He sapped me and I slid down the wall like an old sock on a skinny leg."

I've always liked old time radio and movies but for most of my life its been very difficult to find and enjoy the radio shows; difficult and usually expensive.  One of the great benefits of the Internet is that old stuff is much easier to find now, including these old radio shows.  Several websites have collected them with sound files, and I listen to a few every day, as I wrote about a while back.
Because its been decades, sometimes more than fifty years, since these shows were popular, not many people know much about them any more, and I'd love for more people to enjoy the programs, so I'd like to introduce my readers to a few of them.
One of the more consistently entertaining and well-written of the shows is Pat Novak for Hire.  This show is unique in all the hordes of radio shows I can find for several reasons.  It defies easy category, although it is essentially a mystery show.  Pat Novak is played mostly by Dragnet's Jack Webb, before he was famous.  His friend and room mate Richard L. Breen wrote the show, and his writing crackles with amazing lines.
Breen wrote a lot of great stuff, such as A Foreign Affair, Appointment With Danger (a noire I highly recommend), the 1953 version of Titanic, and of course quite a few episodes of Dragnet.  He had an amazing gift of turning dialog into witty, fascinating twists that made even ordinary conversation fascinating and amusing.  Here are a few samples from Appointment With Danger:
Earl Boettiger: What's the matter with you? You got a face a foot long.
Joe Regas: You look as if you just lost your best friend.
Al Goddard: I'm my best friend.
Joe Regas: That's what I said.

Al Goddard: You don't think very much of me, do you?
Sister Augustine: I think of everything, Mr. Goddard, but I feel sorry for you. I don't think you have a heart.
Al Goddard: Call it muscle. That's the way it is for a cop.
Sister Augustine: I don't believe you.
Al Goddard: When a cop dies, they don't listen to his heart fade. It's a charley horse in the chest.

Joe Regas: You're gonna take this Maxie's word? If somebody gave him a Bible to swear on, he'd steal it. 
Pat Novak for Hire is the story of a man living on San Francisco's dock area with a boat for hire.  Most of the time he spends doing odd jobs, but he keeps getting into trouble.  Partly he's unlucky, and partly he's a good guy who tries to help people in need, despite his gruff exterior.  Novak isn't a cop or a private detective, he's just an ex military guy who is tough and smart enough to get through trouble.
There's a detective that keeps getting in his face named Hellman (played by Raymond Burr of Perry Mason and Ironside fame).  Novak treats Hellman like junk and Hellman keeps trying to pin murders on Novak, but deep down you can tell the men have a lot of respect for each other.  Novak in his monologues refers to Hellman as the smartest cop on the force, and Hellman seems to pin murders on Novak because he knows he'll solve them to save himself.  Their interchanges are hilarious, with each ripping on the other and never giving in.
The only real flaw in the show is the recurring character of Jocko Madigan, an ex-doctor who is a boozehound and acts as Novak's helper on each case.  Madigan is given several minutes each show for a bizarre, rambling monologue, and is often shoehorned in for no other reason than "we have to have Jocko on the show."  Occasionally he's humorous but most of the time he adds nothing to the show except to call or contact Novak at a dead end in the mystery to add a useful bit of information.
Overall the show is consistently rewarding and amusing, but unfortunately it had a short run.  For a while Ben Morris took over the title role (and did well with it, but Webb does a better job of hard boiled and bitter).  Airing between 1946 and 1947 with 23 episodes, the show was popular, but the creative force of Webb and Breen moved on to other things.  The last 4 episodes of the show took place because Breen and Webb were hired by another network to do a show, which was an almost exact copy (with a change of names) called Johnny Modero, Pier 23 which was not as satisfying or entertaining.  Its also very difficult to find any episodes of Modero to listen to.
You can find Pat Novak a lot of different places online, but I tend to listen to the ones at Dumb.com; here is a sample episode to try out, I think you'll like it.
If nothing else, its nice to hear Webb play a different character than Detective Friday - and he is very different - and the show is consistently amusing.
Incidentally, Moonstone Books put out a Pat Novak graphic novel a few years back, with Pat coming out of retirement to solve a mystery. I haven't read it but I understand it has gotten quite positive reactions.

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