Crime Does Pay
by Bertil Falk
Even though the golden days of radio as Woody Allen knew them were long gone, they came alive in the life of Howard Harmon. It had not always been so. It is true that he used to listen to the Give us twenty one minutes and we give you the world, but he was in fact a child of the television age.
It was Allen’s movie Radio Days that kicked off his infatuation for radio. Old-time radio or OTR, as the initiated ones said, became an obsession to him. He spent less and less of his spare time with his squint-eyed and left-handed girlfriend Jenny and more and more of it listening to Amos and Andy, Jack Armstrong, Stella Dallas, Inner Sanctum and The Edge of Night.
Within a year of seeing Radio Days, his collection of recordings was a really good one and he made new friends all over the place in the mystic society of radio fandom, where only those who knew the passwords, the open sesames, had access.
In order to catch the right feeling through the right medium, Howard Harmon bought three old-time radio sets and squeezed them into his small apartment in Greenwich Village not far from Washington Square. He imagined that the loudspeakers perfectly suited the raw sound of the old RCA mikes once connected at the other end of the air.
He only used his clock radio with its sophisticated stereo reproduction as an alarm, that is, till the day he successfully turned an old Philco with a loudspeaker designed as a lovely Art Deco smile into a more fitting alarm.
While others fastened their eyes on Good Morning, America or Today, he pricked up his ears to Hope Harrigan, America’s Ace of the Airways calling control tower or to the Colgate-Palmolive Shaving Cream man Bill Stern presenting strange and fantastic sport stories, “some legend, some hearsay.”
He dressed while listening to Terry and the Pirates, had his breakfast together with Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and then he went up the avenue to paint backdrops for a Broadway theater near Times Square. But he spent his evenings at home listening to the outstanding voices of the golden days.
After some time, he understood that it was wrong to wake up to The House of Mystery because it had once been an afternoon program for kids. Through his network of radio freaks, he soon came to know at what time of the day and the night different shows had been on the air and from then on he woke up with The Breakfast Club, Breakfast at Sardi’s or Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick.
Even though the golden days of radio were over since long at the time he was born, he nevertheless at this later stage in life was the nearest thing to a born-again radio addict one can think of.
There were the ominous voices of Orson Welles and Bret Morrison impersonating The Shadow in The Shadow, sometimes hunting down gruesome voices of terrifying criminals like mad scientists, lunatics and ghosts, sometimes selling Blue Coal and Goodrich Tires.
When The Shadow hissed his Who knows ... what evil llllurks ... in the hearts of men? and when The Shadow himself answered his own rhetorical question in that filtered voice with the chilling statement that The Shadow Knows, then Howard shuddered with excitement. And the excitement grew as the eerie laughter of the invisible crime fighter filled the room and the sinister organ turned Omphale’s Spinning Wheel to a presentiment of disaster.
When the thundering train of The Mysterious Traveller made its journey into the strange and terrifying, Howard Harmon enjoyed the trip as a privileged passenger until it ran across 125th Street and ended up at Grand Central Station. The good old days of these recordings became the good new days to him, and he used his time warps to calibrate the past to be in tune with his present, successfully so.
Zenna Anderson found his predicament — or rather her own predicament — awkward. Having a boyfriend who preferred the voice of Agnes Moorehead impersonating Margo Lane to the less ethereal presence of her own voice was least to say annoying. They no longer went window-shopping together in the Village as they often had done.
When Howard Harmon one day preferred an evening with Fibber McGee and Molly to seeing a new movie together with her, then she found that she had had enough of it. She turned her back to him and went out with Gregory Smith, a make-up man who worked in a room adjacent to the old-fashioned recording studio turned paraphernalia shop for all kinds of props at the theater where Howard Harmon painted backdrops and she herself was a chorus girl. Gregory Smith had been assiduous in his attentions to her for quite some time.
“What about Howard?” Gregory Smith asked, and the suspicion in his voice did not escape her.
“Yeaah, what about him?” she said, and her angry intonation told him to stay away from mined fields. But she continued, “I need to talk to someone. Gregory, I need you.”
Howard Harmon went to his work every day. He did no longer do his job with enthusiasm. It was just a matter of routine. He drifted apart from his fellow workers. But he did not wholly give up his habit of window shopping in Greenwich Village.
One day he came upon a small shop selling memorabilia in a building to be demolished. He was surprised that he had not seen the shop before. The display window showed a number of collectibles, like old Walt Disney stuff, small toys from McDonald’s and an assortment of similar things.
He was just about to continue on when his eye fell on a thin pile of old-fashioned acetate records of the kind used by radio stations in the past. He went inside.
It was a dirty shop, and all kinds of things were thrown all over the place. There was a small counter with an old-fashioned cash register, itself a collectible. Not a sign of human presence, except the distinct smell of a Cuban cigar mixed with the sickening stench of the past. The atmosphere was solemn.
A curtain featuring a big yellow Chinese dragon was suddenly drawn apart and an old woman, actually a real hag-like thing, entered. She moved slowly. There was something about her movements that he recognized without remembering where or when he had seen something similar.
She held a cigar between two fingers, fingers the size of hot-dogs, in her left hand. Her voice was to begin with soft, almost silky and did not at all match her facial expression. Her countenance was greenish. She had wrinkles about her mouth, crow’s feet and a furrowed forehead. Her hair was tangled and gray.
“What can I do for you?” she asked and nodded.
Howard Harmon shuddered and tried to smile. “I’m interested in the old recordings in the window.”
“Really? They’ve been here for many years now.” Her voice had a stagy ring.
“That’s strange,” he said. “I’ve never seen this shop before.”
“It’s easy to overlook.”
“How much?” he asked.
“Ten dollars?” Howard Harmon was surprised.
“Is it too much?”
Her voice suddenly became forbidding and he hastened to add, “Oh no, not all. Do you have many customers?”
“Oh no. You’re a very special customer.” She smiled condescendingly.
To him it was a bargain. He paid and walked away with this unexpected treasure. He realized that the 33-rpm records must be the original recordings used by a radio station sometime in the past.
Written on the white label with a scrawl difficult to interpret were three words. But Howard Harmon made out the handwriting. It said, Crime Does Pay, probably a slip of the pen for Crime Does Not Pay. That had been the name of a syndicated show produced by MGM and first heard on WMGM in New York City on October 10, 1949 with Donald Buka. Ira Marion had been the scriptwriter and Marx B. Loeb directed. The program was mentioned in many of his books.
When he listened to it for the first time, he realized that it could not possibly be Crime Does Not Pay. Hearing a slick male voice saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to hear is true,” he at first thought that he had found a rare recording of NBC’s Dragnet. But as the voice continued in a sinister stretch to state that “the names have not been changed to protect the innocent,” he knew that he had stumbled upon something he never before had heard.
And as the voice ruthlessly said, “Names, places and incidents are not the product of an author’s imagination. Every resemblance to actual events or living or more often dead persons is intended. When you hear the splash of blood it is the splash of real blood. The first two parts of the story is recorded. The actual killing is broadcast live.”
At that point the screaming of what sounded like an army of disharmonious organ pipes filled his room with a sense of terror. And a dreadful voice roared, CRIME DOES PAY.
His radio literature had nothing about the show. He tried to pinpoint the origin of it through the search engines Alta Vista and Google and he sent a lot of requests through e-mail, of no avail. Nobody in the OTR fandom had heard of Crime Does Pay. There was no mention of it anywhere.
Truth struck him like a thundering flash from a clear sky. He had found a hitherto unknown old radio show. To say that Howard Harmon was happy was an understatement. He was deliriously overjoyed.
Crime Does Pay was different from everything he had ever heard. It was powerful. It had an almost hypnotic effect on him. The hero of Crime Does Pay was a villain, Arthur Greene, a penniless old mentor of unlawfulness and disorder, a man about country, actually the opposite of a debauchee.
The formula was simple. It was in three parts, interrupted by ads for a weed-killer. In the beginning, Arthur Greene made a detailed description about his preparation for a murder. In the second part he caught his victim. Ultimately, he committed his crime. That was supposed to be the live part. And it sounded like the real McCoy.
Arthur Greene was a very democratic murderer. He indiscriminately killed children, police officers, housewives, taxi-drivers, general managers, plumbers, disabled people. You name them, he killed them.
He had no preferences as to methods and weapons. He strangled and ripped, knifed and poisoned, slashed and even sawed. The endings were sometimes peaceful and painless, sometimes gory and gruesome. However, the voices were not worse than in other shows, the screams not more horrifying, the laughter was not louder.
The difference was the philosophy. It pretended to be real and it was in every respect the opposite of what the other shows preached. It always ended with the same statement, “They think they can fool us. The truth is that CRIME DOES PAY.” The producer of the radio show had obviously used many artists of the day, for Howard recognized a lot of voices, even though he could not pinpoint exactly which they were.
Howard Harmon was hooked. He listened to the records over and over again. With two shows on each side it was altogether ten shows on the five LP-records. He thought it must be more of them and he wanted all of them. There was only one clue to the problem and he followed it up. He went back to the small memorabilia shop in Greenwich Village. He felt elated as he crossed Washington Square and passed the university. He walked to the alley and at a fast pace he reached the shop.
It was gone.
The shop-window was not only empty. It was dusty as if it had not been cleaned the last ten years, but there was a note on the door: Closed because of murder. The owner is slashed. Crime does pay. Howard Harmon recognized the handwriting. It was the same as on the white labels of the old 33 rpms. It was signed Arthur Greene.
Shuddering and stupefied by the unexpected turn of events, Howard Harmon, in a state of mental disarray, wandered about in Greenwich Village. Not knowing how, he wound up at home.
For the first time in more than a year he did not listen to his old radio shows. He was stunned and was not able to do anything at all for a couple of hours. The shock had caused him to return from the world of nostalgia to the reality of moment. And he found reality chilling. The old lady had been killed by that Arthur Greene. What should he do? What could he do? What would he do?
Fully dressed he fell asleep late that night, completely exhausted by his experience. The next day he went to his work. In the evening he had made the decision to go to the police and find out about the murder. But the police told him that no murder had taken place at the actual place. The nostalgia shop was in itself a figment of his imagination. But he was adamant and ultimately — actually at 9 pm — a patrolman accompanied him to the shop. The note on the door was gone.
Two days later he was again on speaking terms with his old colleagues. After a week he went out with Zenna Anderson. They saw a movie and had a sundae at Howard Johnson’s in Times Square. So everything was as it used to be. That is, almost. The strange experience was still worrying him. He had put aside the records, but the thoughts were not as easy to put aside.
One day during a rehearsal he went through the dressing-room area and a door opened to the left. Gregory Smith came out into the aisle. They nodded at each other. That was nothing unusual, but as Howard Harmon cast an eye into the room before Gregory Smith closed the door, he stiffened in surprise: inside the room hung a curtain featuring a big yellow Chinese dragon.
Struck by a sudden suspicion, Howard Harmon went into the studio, which had been turned into a properties department. Nobody was around and he soon found what he was looking for.
The memorabilia shop in the village was actually a collection of props used in Broadway shows. Someone had arranged everything. It was all a fake. Actors of the theater had performed the recordings. The old recording equipment that still was around had been used. That’s why he had recognized the voices. The shop to be demolished had been rented for the only purpose of deceiving him. Rented by them! And deceived him they had!
Next time he and Zenna Anderson went out together, he said to her, “You know, Zenna, I’ve learned something. Crime does actually pay. You have a next to illegible handwriting. Is it because you’re left-handed?”
Zenna Anderson smiled. “I don’t think so. But they all did a very good job and you were a very special customer. The scriptwriters loved writing the stories and the actors loved acting them. The technicians loved recording it. And Gregory Smith put his heart and soul into making me up as the old lady.”
“How could you?” Howard Harmon gasped. “How could you do that to me?”
She looked at him calmly. “I would do anything to get you back,” she said, “and with all these professionals supporting me it was so easy.”
That evening Zenna Anderson lost Howard Harmon for good. Six months later she married Gregory Smith.
Copyright © 2006 by Bertil Falk