by Tim DeForest
It was lucky for Nick Carter that as a child he didn't harbor any secret desires to play baseball or dance ballet—otherwise he might have grown into a very unhappy and maladjusted adult.
Nick Carter's father trained him almost from birth to be an expert detective. He was developed physically into an immensely strong and expert fighter (with both fists and guns) and taught everything from science to art to languages to acting and disguise tricks. Though small in stature, his physical strength earned him the nickname Little Giant and he was said to be able to "fell an ox with one blow of his small, compact fist." He was good at just about everything and eventually put his many talents to work bringing criminals to justice. He usually operated out of New York City, but he traveled around often enough to foil evil plots the world over. He seemed happy enough, though one can't help but wonder if he didn't occasionally look out at a sandlot ball game and let out a soft sigh of regret.
Nick's first appearance was in dime novel "The Old Detective's Pupil, or the Mysterious Crime of Madison Square," published in the September 18, 1886 issue of the New York Weekly. The Weekly was one of hundreds of dime novels that ruled over popular literature during the latter half of the 19th Century. The term "dime novel" was something of a misnomer. The phrase was coined in 1858, when the publishing firm Beadle and Adams began to issue a series of novel-length books that cost a dime apiece. Within a few years, "dime novel" was the generic expression for any regularly published source of popular fiction—most were pamphlet-sized booklets that cost a nickel.
Nick was one of the most successful characters to come out of the dime novel era. He was around for decades, eventually spinning off into the pulp magazines, a few B-movies and (of course) radio.
It was on radio that Nick Carter enjoyed what was perhaps his best-written and most entertaining incarnation. The Return of Nick Carter premiered on the Mutual network in 1943. Soon re-titled Nick Carter, Master Detective, it ran for 12 years, with Lon Clark playing Nick for the entire run. For most of its existence, it was a standard half-hour show, but it did try out a 15-minute serialized format for a short time in 1944.
In the dime novels, Nick had eventually built up a sizable cadre of young sidekicks. For radio, though, most of these characters were dropped. In a sort of literary sex-change, "Patsy" Walker, a shoe-shine boy who helped Nick out in the dime novels, became Patsy Bowen, lovely girl secretary, played first by Helen Choate and later by Charlotte Manson. Nick's adopted son Chick also popped up in the spin-off series Chick Carter, Boy Detective, which ran on Mutual from 1945-47.
Nick was still a private detective, though like many other radio detectives he rarely seems to accept a fee for his work. (In a 1946 episode, he does mention that at least one insurance company keeps him on retainer.) Occasionally, he stumbled across a murder, but it's more usual for the police or another interested party to come to him for help. The show had a fun opening—someone would be knocking persistently on a door. Patsy would open the door and ask "What is it?" "Another case!" was the inevitable answer.
Played with steady intelligence by Clark, Nick became a worthy addition to the detective genre. The stories were interesting and the clues were fairly presented as Nick depended on solid deductive reasoning to solve cases. But, like his literary counterpoint, he was quite capable in a fight and could still don a clever disguise on occasion.
In "Double Disguise; or, Nick Carter and the Mystery of the Kidnapped Heiress," (the show kept the dime novel tradition of using double titles), Nick runs across an attempt to frame an innocent man named Chester Brown for murder. The motive is to steal a fortune that Brown's wife was about to inherit. Nick deduces the identity of the real killer as an old enemy named Bartow and attempts to infiltrate the crook's hideout while in disguise. But it's a trap—Bartow set things up to lure Nick there and quickly sees through the disguise. Nick and Brown, who has also been captured, are hanged from the ceiling and left rapidly strangling to death. Bartow and his men flee as the police enter the building.
Nick, in the meantime, has employed several pretty nifty tricks to get himself and Brown out of the death trap. Before long, he's leading the cops in pursuit of the villains.
The action is handled well, but it's all nicely counterpointed by highlighting Nick's intelligence throughout the story. Other episodes didn't worry as much about getting Nick into a death trap, but were content with allowing him to show off his cerebral skills. A 1945 episode titled "The Make-Believe Murder," for instance, begins with an invitation for Nick to join the exclusive Alphabet Club. For his initiation, he must solve a make-believe murder staged by club members for his benefit. But one of the members is murdered for real during the fake investigation, shot dead when the lights go out. The only gun in the room, though, was a toy cap pistol. Later, another club member is murdered with a toy sword.
Nick figures it all out by the end, of course, identifying both murderer and motive and deducing how the toy gun had been rigged to fire a real bullet. It was, once again, well-written and completely fair to the audience in the presentation of the clues. This quality was maintained throughout the run of the show. Nick Carter on radio really did earn the right to sit next to some of the other great detectives of the airwaves.
See also Nick Carter Master Detective.
Tim DeForest has been geeking out on various elements of early 20th Century pop culture for most of his life. He is the author of several books on old-time radio, comic strips and pulp fiction. His first book—Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics and Radio: How Technology Changed Popular Fiction in America--was published in 2004. Radio by the Book: Adaptations of Fiction and Literature on the Airwaves, was published in 2008. Tim also maintains a blog about comics, radio and pulp fiction.
Tim has also written magazine articles on military history and the American West. He regularly teaches several Bible studies and has served as a short-term missionary in Haiti and south Sudan.
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