Detective as fact-checker versus libel case

Detective Philip Marlowe meets a whole Hollywood trade paper crew in “The Green Flame” from March 1949 …

It’s a colorful tale. We get matches that burn with a green flame, a note in blue wax pencil, and various red herrings.

The opening blurb mentions a “ghostwriter with ambition,” but that didn’t make me think newspaper. However, the detective’s client proved to be the publisher of a movie industry daily paper… making this the third Marlowe episode I have encountered with journalists in the plot, although not necessarily as a hero.

The publisher offers the detective five times his usual salary to fight a libel suit, so this is detective in the journalistic role of fact-checker instead of the more common radio story where a reporter gets to be a detective. The publisher also owns six screen magazines and a radio station — Quite the media mogul!

The “ghost writer” phrase doesn’t just have the usual meaning … The gossip columnist who wrote the allegedly libelous story has died of a stroke overnight while his column was in the mail.

Marlowe’s assignment is to find the ghostly columnist’s source and prove the story was true.

The columnist did have a less literal ghost writer, a “legman” who along with fact-gathering claims to have written a lot of the columns, including that last one, except for the offensive item.

We also meet the fast-talking editor of the newspaper, “anybody’s Napoleon,” says the publisher, who apparently trusts him.

The columnist’s home holds clues to his career, an autographed photo of Teddy Roosevelt, a 20-year-old tarnished loving cup for excellence in reporting, and a tip about a fiery redhead who might be the story’s anonymous source.

She’s the actor’s ex-wife and the essential femme fatale for this radio noir half-hour, which sadly has some shaky acting, and only a few passages of faux Raymond Chandler writing. (“You handle a spiked heel like Babe Ruth handled a bat.”) We don’t even get a description of the lady publisher, except that she doesn’t like cigars, thinks her gossip columnist was “a thorough man and never heard of the word ‘rumor,'” and that she is old enough to call Marlowe “boy.”

The “Green Flame” of the title is a nightclub, and one of its matchbooks is the big clue. And although the columnist appears to have died of natural causes, of course there’s a murder and the threat of another to complicate matters.

The main “Newspaper Heroes on the Air” messages here are that publishers weren’t always men (even in the Truman years), gossip columnists weren’t always rumour-mongers, and maybe journalists weren’t always heroes, despite the title of this blog.

Newspaper movie fan trivia: actress Fay Baker, who I thought played the publisher here, was in the journalism classic Deadline USA with Humphrey Bogart — but as one of the deceased publisher’s alienated daughters who sell the newspaper out from under editor Bogart.

However, after looking up both actresses in the RadioGoldIndex and Internet Movie Database, I think Baker played the redhead and the publisher was the older actress, Myra Marsh, better known for playing the mother of the teenage lead in the series “A Date with Judy,” which I will have to go listen to to be sure.

Oh, look, in one of the first episodes I listened to, Judy got to interview movie star Charles Boyer for the school newspaper! I do find journalism plots everywhere. It’s a wonder she got her article written for all the eyelash fluttering, but it’s a charming mistaken identity tale from 1945, when having a non-celebrity character from France also made this a wartime refugee-immigration story.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1940s, columnists, detectives, editors, newspapers, publishers. Bookmark the permalink.

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