solve the clues, not just the crime

I’ve been listening to an old-time radio detective show called Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. It was on for many years,* but the episodes I’ve been listening to most recently are from the period when it was on for 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Each story ran for one week, starting on Monday and ending on Friday.

Yesterday I was listening to one story, and I thought it was surprisingly weak and disorganized. I was listening at work, and I thought maybe I had allowed my attention to wander (to, you know, work stuff). So, I listened to it again from the beginning. And it became obvious (since each episode ends with a teaser for the following day’s installment) that the five episodes were mislabeled — they were out of order.

One, three, and five were correct, but two and four were switched. No wonder it hadn’t seemed to hold together.** I reordered the files and listened to the story again.

And I was still dissatisfied, so I tried to figure out why. I find you learn a lot about stories by trying to figure out why the bad ones don’t work, and how they could be fixed.

(By the way, I finally figured out a satisfying — at least for me — ending to the movie Suicide Squad. It took a while.)

In the Johnny Dollar story, there is a murder, in the victim’s apartment. One wall of the apartment is full of photographs, of the victim’s past life. But when the body is discovered, some of the photos are missing, and some are defaced.

This is confusing, because it seems that some photos were removed in an effort to conceal a certain fact, and other ones were defaced in order to highlight the same fact.

So, had two different people been in the apartment that night, with different agendas? Johnny Dollar and the local cop investigating the murder toss around different explanations over the course of the story.

But at the end, when the murderer is revealed, the pictures are never mentioned. There is an explanation that you can figure out — though not a really great one — but you have to go back and piece it together yourself (and remember, radio audiences back then wouldn’t have had that option).

In real life, I imagine, if you’re looking for a criminal, you’re happy when you succeed. But in a story, if there’s a clue, there needs to be an explanation at the end, particularly if the clue has been built up over the course of the story as the thing that’s particularly baffling about the case.

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Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar ran much longer than most of the detective shows that I listen to — clear to 1962. The broadcast of the last episode, followed by the show Suspense right after it, is generally regarded as the end of old-time radio. Television had taken over drama and comedy and variety by then, and radio was focused on music, news, and talk, as it is today.

** This reminds me of the time when my father was reading a mystery novel before bed every night. He said that he thought the writing was good, but the plot didn’t really hold together. He was most of the way through the book, reading a little bit before sleep every night, when he realized it was not a novel at all but a book of short stories.

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