The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, “The Phantom Fingers”

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The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe (1950-51) aired “The Phantom Fingers” on January 26, 1951 as the 15th of the 26 episodes of this run. Prior to this radio reincarnation there were two earlier series, one in 1943 and another in 1945 (each short-lived), and relatively little is known about them with only two episodes now known to be in circulation. Thus, along with the 26 episodes of this 1950-51 series only 28 episodes survive. This is only the second Nero Wolfe episode we have showcased, the first being in April of this year. For newcomers to the series we reprise the introductory material offered in that first episode.

The Nero Wolfe radio programs were of course based on the popular mystery/detective novels of Rex Stout (1886-1975, photo at right). From the first Nero Wolfe novel in 1934 (Fer-de-Lance), Stout would write a total of 33 Wolfe novels and 39 novellas. Wolfe was given to us as a large man, described as being 5’11” and weighing “a seventh of a ton” (which is about 286 lbs.). Wolfe is an eccentric character in several respects. Due to his size he rarely leaves his home, avoids physical contact with both women and men, is fed gourmet meals served by his talented Swiss chef, reads voluminously, does not own a television, spends an inordinate amount of time tending his orchids, and apparently enters some kind of trance state when mentally solving crimes. This last is perhaps a reflection of the method by which Stout wrote the novels, for he has gone on record as saying he wrote them complete in his head before setting them to paper, and never reread them once finished. Rarely venturing outside the confines of his home, Wolfe relies on his able assistant Archie Goodwin to do the legwork–chasing down leads and clues and interviewing persons of interest. Verbal wordplay between Wolfe and Goodwin shows them at times to be at odds with one another, the amicable jibes springing from their contrasting personalities lending added spice to the stories.

In 1958 Stout became the MWA’s 14th President, and in 1959 he was honored as the Mystery Writers of America’s third ever Grand Master, its highest award. At Bouchercon XXXI in 2000, the Nero Wolfe novels were  nominated as Best Mystery Series of the Century, and Stout was nominated as Best Mystery Writer of the Century.

The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe starred the incomparable Sydney Greenstreet (1879-1954, photo top left and elsewhere) as Rex Stout’s iconic detective. Greenstreet is best known and remembered for his film roles, the first of which (at age 62) was as Kaspar Gutman (“The Fat Man”) in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, opposite Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade (photo at left). It was Gutman who had spent many years traveling the world and a sizeable fortune in search of the jewel-encrusted bird that was the McGuffin driving the plot in this now classic movie. His fourth film a year later in 1942 saw him in a secondary role in yet another of Hollywood’s classic films, Casablanca (photo at right), as Signor Ferrari, owner of the Blue Parrot, a rival establishment to Bogart’s character Rick Blaine and his Cafe Americain. Once again, Greenstreet was cast as an unsavory character, exemplified by Ferrari’s ironic statement: “As leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca, I am an influential and respected man.” Though beginning his film career at a late age, Sydney Greenstreet would have various roles in 24 films from 1941 through 1949, an average of three films a year. During this time he would share screen time with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, including Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Joan Crawford. Tennessee Williams wrote his play The Last of My Solid Gold Watches with Greenstreet in mind, dedicating it to him. It was at the end of his brief, eight-year film career in 1949 that Greenstreet took on the role of Nero Wolfe for radio. Stout is reported to have been highly pleased with Greenstreet in the role of his genius detective, and while a popular show it left the airwaves after 26 episodes, the advent of the new medium of television convincing potential sponsors to divert their advertising dollars to tv with its potentilly larger national audience reach.

Of interest to SF fans is that none other than SFWA Grand Master Alfred Bester (1913-1987) wrote nearly all 26 episodes of the 1950-51 era Nero Wolfe reboot. Bester also penned scripts for other radio shows during the 1940s, among them Nick Carter–Master Detective, The Shadow, and Charlie Chan, several episodes of the first two we have presented here over the years. Those interested in timelines will note that The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe aired its final episode in late April of 1951. Alfred Bester’s classic, award-winning novel The Demolished Man began its three-part serialization in Galaxy magazine approximately eight months later, in January of 1952, winning the first-ever Science Fiction Achievement Award in 1953 (retroactively named the “Hugo” in 1955) following its book appearance in 1952. How long had Bester been working on this novel? Was it in the works while he was writing episodes of Nero Wolfe? Was it written after the radio show ended, and in a relatively short period of time? Given lead times for magazines to shepherd a typewritten story through the editing and production process to finished product and to appear on the newsstand or in a bookstore, the novel could possibly have been written and fast-tracked by editor Horace Gold during the eight months between the demise of Nero Wolfe, if indeed it was begun after the show ended. It’s interesting to speculate on such rather peripheral matters, so in the spirit of these things I would guess the novel was in the works before the Nero Wolfe series came to its end. In either case, Bester was a busy man at the time writing for two mediums, each with distinct requirements and not something every writer could do, and do well.

“The Phantom Fingers” begins innocently enough, with Archie and Nero on the road to visit a fellow horticulturist of orchids who has developed a new strain of black orchid. Wolfe is desirous of purchasing some cuttings for his own hot house, when seasonal flooding forces them to an out of the way house until the waters recede and their car can proceed. Before long there are two bodies to contend with and a murderer to be found among the others also stranded at this lonely house built on the side of a cliff and with the only way in or out a now washed out bridge. A fairly standard formula you may note, but the devil is in the details. Or in this case “The Phantom Fingers.”

Play Time: 28:42

{Late January of 1951 found the neighborhood gang making its second of two monthly trips to the local drugstore for another round of their favorite SF magazines. fantastic Adventures (1939-53), while not considered a top tier magazine, nevertheless provided splashy, colorful adventure fare in just the right proportions to keep its young readers coming back for more. It was a monthly in 1951. Galaxy (1950-80) saw its first issue hit the stands in October of 1950. The issue below was but its fourth. With names like Asimov to put on its covers and exciting, dynamic art to catch the eye, it was well on its way to becoming one of the premiere magazines in the SF field, giving its authors room to stretch their literary muscles into areas long overlooked by other magazines. It was a monthly in 1951. Imagination (1950-58), like Galaxy, saw its first issue hit the newsstands in October of 1950, but as a bi-monthly. The publisher, Raymond Palmer, sold the magazine after its second issue to William Hamling whose first issue as the magazine’s publisher was the one shown below. Not considered a top tier magazine much like fantastic Adventures, it too managed to publish stories by some of the big name authors of the time, including Robert A. Heinlein and Philip K. Dick–not to mention old pulp pros like Ross Rocklynne featured on the cover below.}

           [Left: fantastic Adventures, January 1951 – Center: Galaxy, January 1951 – Right: Imagination, February 1951]


To view the entire list of weekly Old Time Radio episodes at Tangent Online, click here.