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.