If you were fortunate enough to get one of the 150 hardcover editions of The Island of Coffins and Other Mysteries from the Casebook of Cabin B-13 (2020) by John Dickson Carr — and I was — you also got an additional pamphlet containing the play ‘Secret Radio’ (1944). And so, having completed my reviews of the collection proper, I turn my attention to this delightful appendix.
First broadcast on 22nd March 1944, ‘Secret Radio’ was the final entry in a six-part propaganda series written by Carr under the umbrella title of The Silent Battle, which Douglas G. Greene describes in his biography The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995) as having an “emphasis…on the emotions of those trying to free their homelands from the Nazis”. As such, this is set adjunct to the Polish resistance in Warsaw, and marks a quite staggering tonal shift from the self-contained mysteries of Carr’s radio work that I’d encountered previously.
Ostensibly centred around the young music teacher Wanda, ‘Secret Radio’ follows her first into a bar where the behaviour of Polish fixer Felix Jankowski and his fraternising with two S.S. officers catches her attention and incites her ire. Of courser, for all the toadying Jankowski does, as a way of securing misbegotten “special privileges [and] extra rations”, he’s very much a second class citizen in the eyes of his German confreres:
You may be a Pole, mind! But you’re a damn good fellow, and I don’t care who hears me say it!
The air of desperate bonhomie is somewhat punctured and then refitted a little more tightly with the arrival of Major Schwarz, at whose entrance “the murmur [of the bar] becomes a dead silence”:
May I say, Herr Major, that being a Pole is my misfortune and not my fault.
Indeed — you like Germans?
If I lift this cane and strike you across the face, will you still like me?
May I ask why?
Because I know which side my bread’s buttered.
A story is then told, concerning the Polish resistance and its ability to broadcast a radio signal from a location that was thoroughly searched and contained nothing but “two beggars and a hunchback with a hurdy-gurdy”. The hurdy-gurdy was “kicked to pieces” and still the shortwave transmission continued. At this point, Wanda storms out of the bar in a rage, but that encounter will inform the events of the second half of the story — over which I shall draw a veil to preserve these developments for those who do not know them.
The ‘miracle problem’ the of invisible radio will be resolved in the play’s closing stages, of course, but falls very much into the background of the play — the purpose here is, as Greene suggests, the emotional response of people seeing their neighbours colluding openly with the invading force and benefitting while their countrymen are oppressed. The borderline-sycophantic tone of Jankowski’s conduct, set against Wanda’s having just watched thirty-one Poles being shot down in the street “as though it didn’t matter whether they died”, is designed to put the listeners’ back well and truly up, and succeeds brilliantly. But there’s also more here than simple, black-and-white moralising — somehow the tribulations of the time seep through, without being ever more than hinted at: there’s an urgency to the events herein, no doubt informed by the research Carr did so that the message would get across as honourably as possible. People were putting their lives on the line at the time this was broadcast, and to treat that as simply local colour would be a disrespect tantamount to siding with the enemy.
As such, the way the story is framed is quietly fabulous: overlayed with urgent discussions about transmitting messages to and from the resistances, there’s a sense of the quiet army standing up to the indignities of occupation and risks run under such conditions. When “crowbars, picks, and pneumatic drills” are brought to Nowakowska Street, where Wanda lives, to search out the secret radio station hidden there, and the station continues to transmit even as the Nazis are hammering down doors, the knowledge that this is how people chose to respond to violence and subjugation — finding somewhere the vestiges of hope, and dedicating themselves to fighting back in the most effective way they could — makes you appreciate just how heroic such acts of defiance were. From the far side of the Second World War it is easy to see these acts as a fait accompli, but goddamn if Carr’s story about an invisible radio doesn’t bring home, 80 years later, how terrifying it must have been.
The lady across the street says they’ll shoot us all if they don’t find the wireless.
This currency, this appreciation of the stakes, brings with it a delightfully meta element in the closing moments, with certain aspects of irresolution that would have been immensely vexing in other circumstances invested instead with a zest which stings all the more brilliantly for its topicality. What you’re not told is important because of how precarious you understand the situation to be, and Carr’s genius is in recognising that fiction requires a closure which real life is sometimes unable or unwilling to provide. It’s not an original observation, and Carr’s hardly obfuscating it behind layers of obtuse language and equivocal actions, but the seriousness of the picture he has drawn brooks no ambiguity. A huge amount was still uncertain at the time, and we do well to remember that.
What a magnificent addition to an already superb collection; thanks, kudos, and praise to all involved in seeing the sense behind making this available.
The Island of Coffins (2020) by John Dickson Carr [ed. Tony Medawar and Douglas G. Greene]:
‘Secret Radio’ (1944)