Writing Lessons From Old Radio Programs: Lesson 2

Another good radio program is The Mysterious Traveler, a 1940s-1950s fantasy/science fiction/mystery/suspense program, in which a mysterious traveler tells you, the listener, tales he’s picked up on his journey.

The first of the series that I listened to involved a rich man who married a beauty, which is usually the end of a good story, not the beginning. Sadly, the man lost all his money in the stock market crash of 1929. Afterward, he found out just how much his beauty was worth. Enraged at being forced to live as the wife of a POOR man she didn’t like, Millie begins flirting with every man in the village, much to her husband’s outrage. His attempts to curtail this steady stream of visitors only ends in his humiliation, when the gossips of the town begin telling tales about his cheating wife. As the couple grow more estranged, Millie makes Luke move out of his bedroom to an upper floor of the house, purportedly because he is keeping her awake nights calling her name restlessly in his sleep.

Luke’s mental state at the time the story begins can be summed up succinctly. A broken man with little or no chance of recovering from his financial losses, he wants to lead a fairly simple life with the woman he obtained with his once vast wealth. He is determined to keep her, even if that means physical violence against those who attempt to take her from him.  When Millie and her lover, Steve realize that they will never escape Luke (who will hunt them down, if they run away), they plot together to have Luke arrested for murder. Steve picks up a drifter (an easy thing to do during the Depression), who he lures back to a cabin. There, Steve uses a sledgehammer belonging to Luke to viciously murder the drifter, obliterating his face. To aid the authorities in identifying the drifter, Steve puts his watch on the dead drifter’s wrist. He also chisels a tattoo that is a twin of his own on the dead drifter’s arm.

Luke is caught, tried and sentence to 25 years in prison. After 16 years, he is paroled.  By chance, he moves to a city where his ex-wife (she divorced him one year after he was imprisoned) has taken residence. He follows her home, discovering, by accident, that the man he supposedly killed is still alive. Though Millie and Steve attempt to bribe Luke, he curtly refuses, insisting that Steve come with him to the house of the judge who sentenced him. There, Steve will confess to his wrongdoing, exonerating Luke.

After Luke has told the judge this story, the judge asks him to bring Steve in. Luke does this, carrying Steve on his shoulder. When the judge remarks, “but you told me he was alive,” Luke answers, “he was, until an hour ago. He wouldn’t come, so I made him come. There’s nothing you can do to me. I already served my sentence for killing this guy.”

The story ends with Luke passing away before any decision can be made as to whether he ought to serve a new sentence for the murder he actually committed.

The twist ending makes the whole story, already an interesting one, all that much more poignant. Luke has his revenge. One of the more interesting aspects of this story is that there is no “good guy.” Luke is clearly to blame, at least, in part for his wife and her lover’s scheme, because they would never have resorted to it, if Luke had not made it impossible for them to get away otherwise. Luke had lost everything, it seems, except his willful pride. He BOUGHT this woman. She was his to keep. She had no right to leave him. And he would stop her—if she tried.

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