There are few cases of Dr Morelle, the famous criminal investigator, that can be related in full without his secretary Miss Frayle coming very much to the forefront of the picture. Indeed, some of the Doctor's most eminent friends have been known to say that Miss Frayle was in some respects the most important part of the Doctor's criminological equipment, though the lady - and certainly Dr Morelle - would probably have indignantly denied any such suggestion.
It was the murder of her erstwhile employer that has introduced Miss Frayle to the Doctor, and murder was to become a recurring link in their uneasy relationship ...
contains the stories:
Dr Morelle Finds a Secretary
The Somnabulist's Secret
The Chemist in the Cupboard
Dr Morelle and the Nursing Home
The Cornish Holiday
Born in Dudley, Worcestershire, in July 1908, Vivian Ernest Coltman-Allen grew up in Cookham, Berkshire, where his father kept a hotel. Famous artist Stanley Spencer lived next door and was a friend of the family. Through Spencer’s patrons, the hotel became a meeting place for artists and actors. Ivor Novello was a weekend fixture. The comedian and film star Jack Buchanan helped the young Ernest rehearse a song for an amateur concert.
Ernest left boarding school at 17, and joined a theatre company touring Shakespeare through Ireland, in village halls. From this he graduated to the more upscale Charles Doran Company, performing in proper theatres. Always one with an eye for the ladies, Ernest soon met and teamed up with his future wife, the celebrated actress Jane Grahame.
Jane came from a theatrical family: her stepfather was Ellie Norwood, famous silent film actor who played Sherlock Holmes on stage. Through these family connections, Ernest secured work in the West End, appearing with Charles Laughton and Fay Compton, amongst others. When the original production of Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES transferred to Broadway, Ernest and Jane were recruited to take over the Laurence Olivier and Gertrude Lawrence roles in the British touring production. His wife played leading roles in the stage plays of Edgar Wallace, and Ernest would later create for her the character of Miss Frayle, assistant to Dr. Morelle in his radio plays.
In the 1930s Ernest also ran a parallel career as a newspaper journalist, specialising and pioneering in show business gossip, working for a time with Val Guest, with whom he had also earlier worked as a film scriptwriter in the British “quota” studio system. Amongst his many newspaper ‘scoops’ was how he had collaborated with actor film Fred Astaire in a London night-club on the creation of a new dance-step.
As a writer for BBC radio, Ernest created “Mr. Walker”, a cockney rag and bone man, who dispensed worldly advice on dilemmas and crises facing ordinary people. In January 1939 he was syndicated to write “Mr. Walker” posers for the Sunday Chronicle. Interviewed in 1997, he recalled: “I was the first bloke to put Sexton Blake on the radio, in early 1939. By that time I’d been a journalist and a writer for quite a time and I got to know the chap who ran Amalgamated Press—Monty Hayden. Because of the success of “Mr. Walker Wants to Know” he thought I knew something about radio writing, and he got me to write this serial about Sexton Blake and that was the first time that Sexton Blake was ever done by the BBC.”
Dudley’s script for “Enter Sexton Blake” was adapted from “The Frightened Man” by Berkeley Gray (E.S. Brooks) published the previous year in # 641 of The Sexton Blake Library. Brooks returned the compliment by adapting the radio play as a Berkeley Gray text serial that ran concurrently in Detective Weekly through to April 1939. The radio serial ran for 12 instalments as part of the magazine programme “Lucky Dip”, with George Curzon playing Blake.
Its success prompted Hayden to commission Dudley to write two Blake novelettes for Detective Weekly starring Mr. Walker, “Mr. Walker Wants to Know” and “What Would you Do?” in March 1939. Following advice from his friend Gerald Verner, Dudley then “de-Blaked” and expanded the stories into the book Mr. Walker Wants to Know, which was submitted to Verner’s publisher Wright and Brown, who published it in 1940, launching Dudley’s career as a novelist.
In July 1942 his famous detective character ‘Dr. Morelle’ (modelled on the autocratic film actor Eric von Stronheim, who he had met in Paris in the 1930s) made his radio debut on MONDAY NIGHT AT EIGHT. Dr. Morelle was a big hit, engendering a long cycle of novels and short stories, a play and a film, and three series on radio. Around the same time, he launched another very successful radio programme, THE ARMCHAIR DETECTIVE, and Ernest became known as “The Armchair Detective.” In this weekly programme he reviewed the best of the current releases of detective novels, dramatising a chapter from each. In the 1950s he transferred to BBC television with an early audience participation programme, “Judge for Yourself.”
Dudley was one of several thriller writers who participated in writing propaganda for the government during the war, as did his friend Gerald Verner. Verner dedicated his 1939 book, Mr. Budd Again “To Ernest Dudley”. (Verner’s famous “Mr. Budd” stories are also being collected in Williams & Whiting’s Vintage Crime Library series.)
Dudley’s best-known fictional creation, ‘Dr. Morelle’, made his bow on radio on “Monday Night at 8”, whose 6th series started on 20 July, 1942. Ernest recalled: “I got the idea for it because Ronnie Waldman and Harry S. Pepper wanted a weekly sketch within “Monday Night at Eight”. When they offered me the job I had to get an idea. Originally I called him Dr. Correlli. Ronnie Waldman said we couldn’t have Dr. Correlli because Marie Corelli’s estate would not have allowed this. In fact, the character was based on Eric von Stronheim, the German film actor and Director—people hated him and felt very sorry for his poor secretary, Miss Frayle. But they listened in their millions and Morelle became a sort of cult figure. Those sketches were played, and the solution given in about six minutes. It had to be a sound clue. The Doctor or the culprit had to say something which gave them away as being the murderer or the criminal so I had to work out what the chap would say.
“We had a marvellous Dr. Morelle—Dennis Arundell. Dennis was as he was meant to be—he was meant to be sardonic and unpleasant and a disliker of women. Morelle was a very eminent psychiatrist, and he was able to judge if the chap had done it by a slip up that the chap made in his confessions or his cross-examination. Bogus of course, as all criminals are caught by information received but that was the character. My wife played Miss Frayle who had a very attractive voice. The contrast between this swine of a voice and this very attractive timorous voice, worked very well. So I owe a lot to Dennis and a lot to Janie too. One of those lucky things that went on ‘for ever’.”
Arundell, whose upper-crust, acerbic and sarcastic tones were to play a big part in the success of Morelle, was ‘a bit of a toff’ in real life too. He had a Cambridge degree and was a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge University. He had appeared in many West End plays, also producing over 60 plays and operas and composing music for 40 productions. In 1939 he had played ‘Mr. Manningham’, the cold-hearted villain in the original London production of Patrick Hamilton’s soon-to-be-famous play Gaslight (later filmed twice). It was this that led directly to his casting as ‘Dr. Morelle’.
The good Doctor Morelle, however, refused to be pensioned off, and reappeared in yet another series of “Monday Night at 8”, as from 15 March, 1946—again played by Dennis Arundell. Gale Pedrick commented in April that “…Harry S. Pepper and Ronnie Waldman are waiting eagerly to know what listeners think about the return of Dr. Morelle… ‘the man you love you hate’…pompous, condescending and a snob. His secretary and butt, the unfortunate Miss Frayle (who can stand so much and no more) will be with him...that first-rate actor, Denis Arundell, will again be the best-hated man in radio fiction.”
“Monday Night at 8” returned for yet another season on 10 October, 1947. This time Dr. Morelle was played by Heron Carvic, as Arundell was probably concerned about becoming type-cast. Carvic had the same dry, sardonic voice as Arundell, and was a considerable success. Many years later, he turned detective-story writer himself with a series of novels featuring a ‘Miss Marple’-type middle-aged lady sleuth named Miss Smeeton.
However, Morelle’s last appearance in MNA8 was to be in March, 1948, although “The Armchair Detective” continued until 1950.
In the summer of 1948, Ernest and his wife Jane and daughter Susan, left England for a well-earned ‘holiday’ in Australia, but his holiday saw no diminution of his output. Ernest and Jane starred in a daily 15-minute radio serial for the Australian Broadcasting Company, “The Adventures of Jimmy Strange,” which Ernest had adapted from his book of short stories of the same name! He also wrote and presented a listener-participation spot, “A Date with Destiny,” for the A.B.C’s “Show Business”, starting on August 2, 1948. Listeners were invited to send him a 250-word description of the most momentous happening of their life, the turning point of their career. Ernest adapted these as a short sketch with a dramatic climax, and the story chosen was awarded a prize.
On his return to England, Ernest reworked his Australian “Jimmy Strange” scripts for the BBC, and two plays were broadcast in successive weeks in June 1949.
“Dr. Morelle”, a play by Ernest Dudley and Arthur Watkyn (who provided the ‘locked room’ murder plot), was produced at the ‘Q’ Theatre, Kew, Surrey, in 1950, starring Dennis Arundell in his original role, and Jane Grahame again playing Miss Frayle. Arundell also produced. It didn’t transfer to the West End but was a modest success and also went on a long provincial tour. (Commenting in a 1954 article in The Writer magazine, on why his play had not made the London theatres, Ernest speculated that the heyday of the ‘whodunnit’ had passed when his play came out, and that the public taste had switched to ‘whydunnits’.)
Dr. Morelle was nevertheless frequently produced by provincial and Amateur Theatre companies well into the late 1950s.
1949 saw the first (and only) Dr. Morelle film, The Case of the Missing Heiress, starring Valentine Dyall (‘The Man in Black’, from the BBC radio series “Appointment With Fear”) as the Doctor, and Julia Lang as Miss Frayle. The credits read ‘Screenplay by Ambrose Grayson and Roy Plomley, from the radio series by Ernest Dudley and a play by Wilfred Burr’. It was directed by Godfrey Grayson and produced by Anthony Hinds, as an Exclusive Picture (the company that later became Hammer Films).
Dudley starred in the title role of a film of “The Armchair Detective” in 1951, and followed this by touring the variety halls, presenting an act in which he solved detective mystery problems as “the Armchair detective” in between standard variety acts by others.
Meanwhile, Dudley continued writing ‘Dr. Morelle’ novels—14 of them over the years. As an introduction to the early ‘Morelle’ books, Ernest presented ‘extracts’ from the ‘Medical Directory’ and ‘Who’s Who’ giving brief details of the Doctor’s life and career. From them we learn that Dr. Morelle (no Christian names, date or place of birth given) was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, in Rome and Vienna, and that he gained his M.D. at Berne, in Switzerland, in 1923. Also, that he had been a lecturer on medico-psychological aspects of criminology to the New York Police Bureau and to the police.
In 1957, Dr. Morelle returned to BBC radio for a final series, voiced by Cecil Parker, with Sheila Sim as Miss Frayle. These episodes are currently being repeated today, on BBC Radio 4 Extra.
Many ‘Dr. Morelle’ short stories appeared in several magazines, including Illustrated and Thomson’s Weekly News; some also appeared in various German magazines in translation (the ‘Morelle’ stage play did well in Germany too!).
Dudley also published a dozen other detective novels, mostly notably THE HARASSED HERO (1951) which was subsequently filmed. He also appeared with short stories in leading detective periodicals such as John Creasey Mystery Magazine and, in the U.S.A., Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. In the 1960s, and the following decades, he became established as the author of a long series of “animal” books, including RANGI, the story of a Highland rescue dog, and RUFUS: THE STORY OF A FOX. Ernest also wrote novelizations of a number of films, along with a range of best-selling non-fiction books on diverse subjects, most notably CHANCE AND THE FIRE HORSES (Harvill Press, 1972) bringing to life Victorian London and telling the story of a dog, famous at the time, called Chance, who became attached to the fire brigade, and a favourite of the Prince of Wales.
Remarkably, he became a marathon runner at an age when other people were drawing their pensions and relaxing by the fireside, and competed in several New York Marathons, writing a best-selling book on how he achieved his amazing feats. Ernest continued writing right up to the end of his life, in 2006. His last novelette ‘The Beetle’, featuring Edgar Allan Poe’s famous detective Auguste Dupin, was based on an earlier play broadcast on BBC radio, entitled ‘The Flies of Isis’. It was published posthumously in a new detective story collection, DEPARTMENT OF SPOOKS (2011).
An expert and enthusiast on the exploits of Sherlock Holmes because of his wife’s family connections, Ernest wrote a two-act stage play, THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, which was successfully staged and taken on tour in 1993, with Michael Cashman as Holmes. I myself novelized the stage play into a long novelette, which was published by a US publisher, Wildside Press, in 2012.
Wildside had been reprinting some of Dudley’s best detective novels since 2002. They were soon joined by the leading English ‘large print’ publisher F.A. Thorpe, in their Linford Mystery series. As literary agent for the estate, I was given access to all Dudley’s surviving manuscripts by his daughter, Susan Dudley-Allen, a resident of New York in the U.S.A. Many newly discovered Dr. Morelle short stories were published posthumously, appearing in new short story collections. These also contained novelizations of radio scripts, along with more adaptations by myself from stage plays and film screenplays.
Now, for the first time, all of these Dr. Morelle short stories and novelettes are being collected and published in the Vintage Crime Library. This astonishing body of work can now be enjoyed by modern readers and all enthusiasts and collectors of vintage detective fiction!