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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

The Mystery of the Z-Rays -- Nick Carter, Master Detective

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It's always a surprise to find genre-related material in the most unlikely places on Old Time Radio. "The Professor's Secret" (or "The Mystery of the Z-Rays") aired on Nick Carter, Master Detective on April 1, 1944. Nick Carter ran a respectable twelve years, from 1943-1955, but the famous detective's history begins much earlier. During the post-Civil War era known as Reconstruction, a short story featuring Carter appeared in an obscure fiction paper (The New York Weekly). The publisher was none other than Street & Smith, a fledgling, struggling publishing firm which would later become the most dominant pulp magazine publisher in the world. Among its later titles would be Astounding Science Fiction (now Analog), the only magazine from Street & Smith to survive the pulp magazine crash of the 1950s.

Award-winning radio historian Elizabeth McLeod notes that, "Within a decade, an ongoing series of Nick Carter novels vaulted [Street & Smith] to the front ranks of dime-novel publishers, and made Nick himself a national institution. Nick's own magazine, The New Nick Carter Weekly, would carry the detective into the twentieth-century." By 1915, however, the then titled Nick Carter Weekly became Street and Smith's Detective Story Magazine, a true pulp magazine and S&S's initial entry into this new format. Again, from Elizabeth McLeod:  "Detective Story Weekly soon became Street and Smith's flagship publication. With the rise of radio in the 1920s, it became the firm's entree into the broadcast medium. The Street and Smith Detective Story Hour became a favorite of listeners at decade's end, with elaborate tales of murder and crime hosted by a mysterious narrator introduced only as "The Shadow." While Nick Carter himself did not appear on the program, his spirit was very much in evidence in the various detective characters that populated the stories." Of course, we all know what happened next. The mysterious voice only introducing the S&S Detective Story Hour became so popular that S&S launched The Shadow magazine in 1931, and shortly thereafter S&S added Doc Savage to its pulp adventure line. Amidst all of this activity Nick Carter was even given his own magazine (again) in 1933, proving the character's resiliency and staying power--he was now 47 years old.

Nick Carter Magazine ran for 40 issues, from March 1933 to June 1936, the final six issues slightly retitled as Nick Carter Detective Magazine. While the magazine had folded, its long-running character still lived, for in 1939 Hollywood picked up the movie rights and produced three "B" Carter films starring noted actor Walter Pidgeon (who later would star in the classic1956 SF film Forbidden Planet). A mere three years later, Nick Carter would rise from the dead yet again in his own radio series, Nick Carter, Master Detective. The show's producer and often the writer, Sherman "Jock" MacGregor, would enlist some of the best writers in the business to script Carter's episodes, including Robert Arthur and David Kogan of Mysterious Traveler fame, the creator of The Shadow, Walter Gibson, and none other than legendary SF author Alfred Bester (one of which Bester-written episodes will be forthcoming in the near future). Lon Clark played Nick Carter throughout its 12-year run, ably supported by first Helen Choate and then Charlotte Manson as Nick's intelligent, perky secretary Patsy Bowen. Other mainstay characters included Police Sergeant Matty Mathieson, young newspaper reporter Scubby Wilson, and scruffy old veteran of the crime game Waldo McGlynn. (Photo above:  Helen Choate and Lon Clark.)

From Nick Carter's beginnings in 1886 through his final radio show in 1955, Carter would change with the times; from clean-living detective, master of disguise, to anti-espionage agent, to the bane of mad scientists or the defender of scientists beset by crooks, Nick Carter has enjoyed one of the longest surviving, most popular runs in various media for over 100 years, for when his radio show ended in 1955 he would resurface (yet again!) in a series of James Bond-type paperback novels which ran into the 1990s.

Virtually forgotten today, Nick Carter predates Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, and was originally inspired by the real-life exploits of private investigator Allan Pinkerton. In this episode, a well-meaning scientist has invented a "Z-ray" which can miraculously heal all wounds--a definite boon for mankind. But when a criminal gang gets wind of it and wishes to use it for their own selfish ends, Nick Carter, Master Detective is brought in to set things straight. With minimal sound effects and the obligatory organ music used primarily to emphasize a dramatic moment, the crisp dialogue remains in the foreground and drives the action. Listen now to "The Professor's Secret" (or "The Mystery of the Z-Rays"), as a futuristic SF device is now inserted into the more traditional story lines used to keep the Nick Carter franchise current and up to date for yet another generation of his fans.

Play Time: 30:05

(From left to right, the covers below are from the following issues:  May 1934, June 1935, and January 1936.
Cover at top left is from June 1933.)