20th century, britain, listening

By Timothy!

I really like to listen to stories while I cook. Sometimes it’s books on tape (Jim Dale narrating Harry Potter? check!), sometimes it’s NPR, and lately it’s been dramatized mysteries. My sister and I grew up listening to dramatized Agatha Christie books and the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes radio plays from the 1940s, so much so that we can quote whole passages, with voices, to each other. So it’s comforting to turn on a mystery complete with actors and sound effects; the story builds a film in my head while I focus on other tasks.

courtesy Thrilling Detective
via Thrilling Detective

My latest obsession is Paul Temple. (Just writing that makes me hear the theme music in my head!) Created by Francis Durbridge for a British radio serial in 1938, Paul Temple is an amateur detective who solves mysteries with his wife, Steve. During the series’ heyday between 1938 and the 1960s, the Temples solved over 30 radio dramas, 10 of which I’ve been able to listen to. They have refined names like “Paul Temple and the Vandyke Affair” or “Paul Temple and the Sullivan Mystery.” Because these problems are always classified with one easy name.

Here’s how the stories go. Paul Temple is a genteel crime writer who happens to be pulled into some fiendishly clever mystery along with Steve. They live in a well-appointed flat in London, tended by their faithful retainer Charlie, and they spend their evenings talking with suspects and witnesses at classy bars and restaurants. Then, at some point, they’ve learned enough (and enough bodies have piled up) for Paul to reveal the true killer. He arranges for all the suspects to come to his place for drinks and drama ensues. (The perpetrator always brandishes a pistol before he’s apprehended/killed accidentally.) Paul explains the intricate workings of the mystery to poor, confused Steve and their Scotland Yard friend, Sir Graham Forbes, and it all ends with a witty parting word. The mysteries are secondary to Paul and Steve’s high-class living and smart conversation, so much so that the stories are practically interchangeable.

And that’s what I love about it. The mysteries are fun, especially when they involve smuggling and mistaken identity. But it’s the backdrop that captivates me: 1950s London, or Cairo or Geneva, with plenty of band music and clinking glasses to conjure up an image of an elegant club. Paul can afford to live on his writing income alone (kind of like Carrie in Sex and the City), and take fabulous vacations, and Steve can always buy a new hat. And if their car gets blown up along the way (there is ALWAYS a bomb in their car), or someone shoots at them, or tries to drug them, well, that’s okay. Things always work out.

Perhaps that’s the other thing I love about Paul Temple: I know exactly what to expect. Like other cozy mysteries, the Paul Temple stories promise a clean, happy ending where the bad guy gets caught and everyone drinks a martini. The stories are intricate enough that I don’t get bored, and I can listen to them over and over without getting tired of them (they’re so complicated I forget who the killer is 99% of the time). And in this heady time of finishing the school year and preparing to get married, that sense of comfort is exactly what I need.


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