Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Breaking the Scream Barrier (Stories to be Read With the Lights On, Vol. 2) is a collection of various stories of crime and suspense. I presume that Harold Q. Masur, who is thanked by “the editor” is, in fact, said editor, and he also includes a story of his own that is one of the nastier little tales. There are 20 stories in this paperback that I happened to snag for free at a local library, and it was well worth it. It even would have been worth it for the cover price of a buck and a half!
There’s not really a bad story in the bunch. A few aren’t grade-A primo stuff, but overall this is a high quality collection. I’ll highlight a few of the more interesting stories, but it’s safe to say that nearly all of them are worth a look.
Barry N. Malzberg’s “Agony Column” is a neat little story of depersonalization told through letters to various magazines and politicians and the responses to those letters that show how little the writer is paid attention to. I was surprised at seeing “fuck” in a letter, though. Even in 1973 I wouldn’t have thought a Hitchcock branded publication (or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where the story first appeared) would have included that word.
Rose Million Healey’s “Guessing Game” is a sick little tale of a young boy trying to get the family maid to guess what he’s got in a box that he’s carrying, and what he wants from her if she can’t
finger figure it out.
Masur’s story, “The $2,000,000 Defense”, is a sly little tale of a showboating lawyer who can’t quite figure out how to get his client out of a murder charge and the death penalty, until the client offers him 2 million to do so. As they might say on MST3K, that’s a lot of money for back now, so the lawyer comes up with a slick defense. But does he get the payout he’s expecting?
William F. Nolan has a neat tale, “The Strange Case of Mr. Pruyn”, about a cop having to deal with the people who want to confess to murders that they haven’t really committed, and a strange man who tells him a story of having committed a recent grisly one. But is it the real story?
Al Nussbaum’s “The One Who Got Away” tells an old joke/urban legend of a smuggler, but in adding more details, this telling takes away from the punchy humor of the anonymous versions of the story.
Nancy C. Swoboda’s “Christopher Frame” is a sweet little tale that could have been one of the more sentimental Twilight Zone stories, with a man who creates oil painting recreations of old photographs for clients, and how he discovers a method to get the details correct when working from the old sepia toned pictures.
Betty Ren Wright’s “The Mother Goose Madman” is an interesting tale about a woman who learns she can’t avoid her feelings all the time, after her life is threatened by someone she has inadvertently wronged in the past.
The highlight of the book is probably Bill Pronzini’s “It’s a Lousy World”. A private detective looks into the death of his friend, an ex-con whom everyone that knows him agrees had gone straight and was not committing the robberies he’s accused of and which led him to being shot to death by cops. Is it the case that he’s innocent of these? Does the detective figure out what happened? Is it still, in the end, a lousy conclusion for the characters and for society?
Again, almost every story in this book is really good, and I could have told you something about all of them, but search this out for yourself, it’s quite good.