Pat Novak…For Hire

As I’ve mentioned before, for the last couple of years I’ve listened to a lot of old-time radio as I drive to and from work. It beats listening to the news. I started with Westerns, listening to all of the extant episodes of Gunsmoke, The Six Shooter, Frontier Gentleman, and Have Gun, Will Travel. Then I turned to detective programs: Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, Let George Do It, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and Broadway Is My Beat. As I neared the end of the extant episodes of BIMB, I began to do a little research to determine what I’d listen to next and stumbled across Pat Novak…For Hire.

PNFH started as a regional program in 1946 in San Francisco with Jack Webb starring as Pat Novak and his roommate, Richard Breen, writing. When Webb and Breen moved to Los Angeles to produce a very similar show for national distribution, Ben Morris took over as Novak. Only one of the early Webb-Breen episodes survives and it’s good. The Morris episodes aren’t quite as good.

In 1949 the show was retooled for national release, Webb and Breen returned to their respective roles, and they changed the music to be a little jazzier, blues-ier. At that point Webb was just three years from creating Dragnet and Breen was just seven from winning an Academy Award for adapting the screenplay of Captain Newman, MD.

It was dynamite. Every episode has the same opening sequence. A fog horn. Footsteps. Then sotto voce Webb’s voice breaks in: “Sure. I’m Pat Novak…for hire” and the blues-y theme music comes in. Webb’s low affect monotone was perfect for the crisp, snappy, vivid writing. Here are some examples:

“I came home to read. Oh, it wasn’t a bad book–if you ever wanted to start a forest fire.”

“He stood at the door for a minute, and then he walked out. You got a funny feeling that he didn’t walk into the night, that he was big enough to wrap it around his shoulders and take it with him.”

“Your men couldn’t follow a moose through a revolving door.”

That sort of wisecrack salted every episode and Webb could handle them more realistically than most of the actors playing hardboiled detectives. It was a better channeling of Raymond Chandler than the writing of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe had.

Web was supported by Raymond Burr as Novak’s nemesis Lt. Hellman and some of the radio actors in the business: Tudor Owen, Virginia Gregg, William Conrad, Paul Frees, and many others.

IMO Gunsmoke was still the undisputed best episodic radio drama but Pat Novak…For Hire was the best of the hardboiled detective radio dramas.

2 comments… add one
  • Paul Frees was great! He’s been everyone from Orson Welles to Boris Badenov to the Burgermeister Meisterburger. I was watching The Thing from Another Planet a couple years back and thought, “hey, I know that voice”, and it was Paul Frees again. He had a great career.

    And I keep meaning to listen to Gunsmoke, as I’ve heard William Conrad was fantastic, and I was a fan of his when he was on Cannon. (An advantage I had having older parents – they were always falling asleep early, so I got to watch on the 9 and 10 o’clock cop shows.)

    As for Jack Webb, I don’t think he gets enough credit for his delivery. I mean, really! Just try reading the script without tripping up.

    The Copper Clapper Caper
    Joe Friday: “This is the city. Los Angeles, California. I work here…I’m a cop.”
    “It was Tuesday, February 9. It was raining in Los Angeles. We were working robbery. Some people rob for pleasure. Some people rob because it’s there. You never know. I was working the day watch out of robbery when I got a call from the Acme School Bell Company.”
    Victim: “There’s been a robbery.”
    Friday: “Yes sir! What was it?”
    Victim: “My clappers!”
    Friday: “Your clappers?”
    Victim: “Yeah, you know those things inside a bell that makes them clang?”
    Friday: “The clangers?”
    Victim: “That’s right! We call them the clappers in the business.”
    Friday: “A clapper caper.”
    Victim: “What’s that?”
    Friday: “Nothing sir! Now can I have the facts? What kinds of clappers were stolen on this clapper caper?”
    Victim: “They were copper clappers!”
    Friday: “And where were they kept?”
    Victim: “In the closet!”
    Friday: “Uh huh, do you have any ideas who might have taken your copper clappers from the closet?”
    Victim: “Well, I fired a man, and he swore he’d get even.”
    Friday: “What was his name?”
    Victim: “Claude Cooper!”
    Friday: “You think it was him then?”
    Victim: “That’s right! I think Claude Cooper copped my copper clapper kept in a closet.”
    Friday: “You know where this Claude Cooper is from?”
    Victim: “Yep! Cleveland.”
    Friday: “That figures!”
    Victim: “What makes it worse is that they were clean!”
    Friday: “Clean copper clappers? Why do you think that Claude Cooper would cop your clean copper clappers kept in your closet?
    Victim: “Only one reason!”
    Friday: “What’s that?”
    Victim: “He’s a kleptomaniac!”
    Friday: “Who first discovered the copper clappers were copped?”
    Victim: “My cleaning woman Clara Clifford!”
    Friday: “That figures! Now let me see if I got the facts straight here. Cleaning woman Clara Clifford discovered your clean copper clappers kept in a closet were copped by Claude Cooper, a kleptomaniac from Cleveland. Now, is that about it?”
    Victim: “One more thing. If I ever catch kleptomaniac Claude Cooper from Cleveland who copped my clean copper clappers from the closet…”
    Friday: “Yes?”
    Victim: “I’ll clobber him!”

  • Gunsmoke will keep you busy. 473 episodes at the Internet Archives.

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