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New York mysteries worth investigating

By James F. Lee
Friday, February 5, 2010; WE20

Squeezing through the hidden passage behind the movable bookcase, we enter Studio B. The wall is hung with a photo of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, an "On the air" sign, an old clock and a Hopalong Cassidy radio show poster. Four big microphones marked with the call letters W-WOW! stand in front of 40 chairs.

"Studio B is on standby!"

My wife and I are about to watch a 1940s-style radio murder-mystery broadcast, part of our self-designed murder mystery weekend in Manhattan. Well, not really a broadcast. Nothing's going out over the air. But it's fun pretending as the Cranston & Spade Theatre Company puts on its monthly W-WOW! Radio Mystery Hour. Tonight's performances: episodes of "Boston Blackie" and "Sherlock Holmes," complete with sound effects and commercials.

Since 1994, Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers in Greenwich Village has been staging vintage 1930s and '40s radio plays on the first Saturday of the month in the "secret" radio studio behind the shop. Earlier in the day, we checked out the bookstore itself. It's a mystery fan oasis, carrying hundreds of new releases, classics, first editions and out-of-print books and presenting author readings as well. There's even a lending library for the folks in the neighborhood. The day we visited, author Sheila York dropped by and told us about her just-out novel, which is set in New York in the 1940s. Her heroine lives in the Village, and the principal murder takes place there.

There seems to be something about Greenwich Village, a network of curving lanes and alleys, that lends itself to murder and mayhem -- or at least tales of the same. Even Edgar Allan Poe, originator of the detective story, was a resident, living for a time at what's now 85 W. Third St., where he wrote "The Cask of Amontillado." We walked over to that site just south of Washington Square to pay homage, only to discover that nothing remains but the facade. New York University tore the house down in 2001 and rather incongruously integrated the front of the structure into the modernistic law school building. The loss of Poe's Greenwich Village residence gives new meaning to his lugubrious catch-phrase, "Nevermore."

But we could picture the writer wandering the Village's crooked streets, perhaps drawing inspiration for his macabre tales. And we got a sense of how compact this part of Manhattan is. A short distance from West Third, at 116 Waverly Pl., the former home of 19th-century literary maven Anne C. Lynch, where Poe gave his first reading of "The Raven" in 1845, still stands. A short ways down the street, at No. 165, we admired the Northern Dispensary, an unusual triangular-shaped brick building, now vacant, that Poe visited as a patient.

Of course, real crime takes place in New York, too. To get a sense of how the city's finest have dealt with it over the past three centuries, we went to the Police Museum at Old Slip, between Water and South streets, housed in a beautiful stone structure that was formerly the 1st Precinct building. There we saw a gallery of real rogues: bank robber Willie Sutton; Arnold Rothstein, known as the Czar of the Underworld; and perhaps the most famous of all, Al Capone.

Leaving the museum, we walked back up Broadway to Manhattan's other mystery bookstore, the Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca. It's a cozy place, three of its walls lined floor to ceiling with books, many signed by their authors. Comfy chairs invite browsers to sit and read. But we had to get moving. We had a mystery hour awaiting us.

At Studio B for the 8 p.m. performance, the house is packed. The actors take their places at the microphones, and the sound-effects person gets her table of audio tricks squared away. An organist plays the familiar opening notes. Then the frenetic action starts as the actors, playing multiple roles, move from one microphone to the next. I shut my eyes to get the full effect: a car trunk slams, footsteps echo across the floor, a gun fires. During a break between the performances, the man beside me tells me that he has been a regular for the past six years and that many of the people in the audience are regulars as well.

"I grew up at the end of the radio era," he said. "I like the imagination of radio."

Back onstage, Holmes has saved the life of the Ranee of Kamaratti, and the actors have cut to a "commercial" for Petri Burgundy, the night's sponsor.

Then announcer Steven Viola closes the show. "Goodnight America," he says. "Bye bye. . . . "

"And buy bonds!" the audience shouts back.

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