Monday, December 6, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Be Read with Caution

Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Be Read with Caution. Ed. Eleanor Sullivan. New York: Dial Press, 1979. (Printing history)

Tales to Be Read with Caution is among the last hardcover Hitchcock anthologies published during the director's lifetime. It contains stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine between 1958 and 1974, though oddly the introduction and dust jacket blurb claim that no story here has seen print since 1972, when in reality eight of thirty (that's 26.6%) were initially published in either 1973 or 1974. The only non-AHMM story contained in this anthology is Charlotte Edwards's novelette, "The Time Before the Crime," among the strongest of the stories. Moreover, the contents make up a healthy portion of the monumental 1976 anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Best of Mystery (Galahad Books). Perhaps the 636-page Best of Mystery was too costly to be a bestseller, so the contents were filtered into slightly smaller hardcovers, but this is just speculation.

The contents are, as usual, a varied mix; the first half is clearly stronger than the second, but the final story makes for a great finish. Caution features fewer duds than most Hitchcock anthologies published in the 1970s, though it also contains fewer "classics." The two strongest stories are the oldest and the most recent: veteran Bill Pronzini's highly entertaining and surprising "Here Lies Another Blackmailer" from 1974, and Charlotte Edwards's 1958 psychological suspense novelette "The Time Before the Crime." Also included in the collection is C.B. Gilford's fine entry "Frightened Lady," which received an Edgar Award nomination for best mystery short story of 1972.

The brief untitled introduction attributed to Hitchcock is, as is the case of most later anthologies, not of any note. It mentions only that there are stories from each of the married Matthews pair, Stephen Wasylyk's first published piece and Gilford's Edgar-nominated entry. Incidentally, it will not be until 1986 that a story from AHMM will receive the Edgar, with the award presented to John Lutz for "Ride the Lightning" from the January 1985 issue (Lutz also has a strong story included in Caution).

And for the stories.

"A Melee of Diamonds" by Edward D. Hoch. (AHMM, April 1972)
I have never been a fan of the overly-prolific Hoch, and his stories seem to appear in nearly every mystery anthology published throughout the 1960s and 1970s. This one features an interesting premise but the story itself is unintentionally comical as it presents Captain Leopold in a reckless and unintelligent light. I wrote a review of the story when I first read it, urged by my frustrations over the unnecessary death of a character, all due to hero Leopold's bumbling. The review is right here. 4/10

"One for the Crow" by Mary Barrett. (AHMM, March 1973)
A filmmaker searching for a spot to shoot a film is impressed with the "local colour" of a certain rural area where a previous filmmaker had gone missing. You're right, that's exactly how it ends. 5/10

"Happiness Before Death" by Henry Slesar. (AHMM, April 1974)
Hitchcock favourite Slesar delivers yet another good story. A self-centred hand model is determined to make his manic-depressive wife happy in order to prevent an attack of conscience once he finally murders her. It's great when a strong premise is handled well and made into a good story (eh, Mr. Hoch?). 7/10

"The Letters of Mme. De Carrere" by Oscar Schisgall. (AHMM, February 1958)
In this short epistolary story, a civic lawyer receives a letter from a small town notary concerning Mme. de Carrere and the recent events surrounding her. In his seemingly well-intentioned correspondence, the notary makes a point to mention some letters that may have unfortunate implications for the lawyer himself, should they be made public. Another good story, well conceived and well written with a satisfying conclusion. 7/10

"Linda Is Gone" by Pauline C. Smith. (AHMM, November 1973)
A young woman wanders away from a community picnic and finds herself stricken with amnesia and wandering aimlessly through California. Meanwhile her husband is arrested for her murder. Another good read. 7/10

"Which One's the Guilty One?" by Edward Wellen. (AHMM, May 1959)
An aging liquor store owner identifies a suspect from a police line-up as the man who recently robbed him, but when he discovers that the person he picked out was a police officer placed as an extra body in the line-up he begins to doubt his certainty. This would have made a good entry to Hitchcock's TV show; I read the story in black & white. 6/10

"Frightened Lady" by C. B. Gilford. (AHMM, July 1972)
Nominated for the Edgar Award as best mystery short story of 1972, it lost out to "The Purple Shroud" by Joyce Harrington. A man drives by the home of a woman he has recently had an affair with only to learn that she has been murdered. Good stuff. 7/10

"The Followers" by Borden Deal. (AHMM, August 1958)
A disillusioned high school teacher is heading home with the recent PTA donations in his coat pocket. He soon notices that three youths are following him. Fairly bland and very 1950s. 4/10

"Never Shake a Family Tree" by Donald E. Westlake. (AHMM, March 1961)
Among my favourite mystery authors, this one does not disappoint and is among Westlake's most reprinted stories. In researching her genealogy, a lonely woman places an add seeking information on the mysterious second wife of a previous relation and is soon contacting by a gentleman wishing to exchange information. Both mysterious and fun. 7/10

"Here Lies Another Blackmailer" by Bill Pronzini. (AHMM, June 1974)
An indolent young man witnesses his uncle and guardian killing a stranger in the yard of their home, and decides to capitalize on the situation. A great concept very well executed. The ending is marvelous and completely unexpected. 8/10

"The Missing Tattoo" by Clayton Matthews. (AHMM, April 1972)
A carnival tattooed lady is found dead on her trailer floor with one of her tattoos missing. Average mystery with no surprises. 4/10

"The Fall of Dr. Scourby" by Patricia Matthews. (AHMM, June 1974)
Heading up the Administration Building Tower of the State University, Ms. Gladys Grumly sees a body fall past her down the stairwell. The better story from the Matthews couple, but while better written its mystery is also fairly average. 5/10

"Within the Law" by John Lutz. (AHMM, April 1972)
A man is persistently following the person he is convinced killed his wife. This one is quite good with some nice surprises and tight suspense. 7/10

"Act of Violence" by Arthur Gordon. (AHMM, July 1959)
Following a business layover in Jamaica, where the heat can make a man do almost anything, our hero quickly falls for a beautiful woman who immediately throws herself at an infamous rogue. No real surprises in this one but nonetheless a good, suspenseful read. 6/10

"The Loose End" by Stephen Wasylyk. (AHMM, April 1968)
While replacing a friend in a lobby newsstand, a police detective, retired after losing his left arm, watches a small-time crook wander in and out of the elevators. 6/10

"That So-Called Laugh" by Frank Sisk. (AHMM, May 1968)
The body of a filmmaker is discovered with a curious note in his bathrobe pocket. Very short and just as average. 5/10

"A Very Special Talent" by Margaret B. Maron. (AHMM, June 1970)
After seven years of blissful marriage, a man discovers that his wife is a murderess. Amusing and highly entertaining with some good laughs. 7/10

"The Joker" by Betty Ren Wright. (AHMM, May 1962)
To capture evidence of his wife's infidelity, during a party at their home a practical joker places a tape recorder on the balcony. A pretty good idea that ends a little too oddly (I won't say why since that'll be spoiling it). 6/10

"The Man Who Took It with Him" by Donald Olson. (AHMM, November 1973)
After many years of courting, a woman marries a stingy man she believes has amassed a fortune. The reader knows better and the story does not disappoint. 7/10

"The Plural Mr. Grimaud" by Jacques Gillies. (AHMM, September 1959)
An American detective stranded penniless in Paris must accept an odd offer of employment: the wealthy Mr. Grimaud needs a body double since he believes that someone is trying to kill him. This was a great premise that started well, but the denouement came too quickly and suddenly. Evidently the character, behind the readers' back, does some investigating and tosses out his theory on the situation. 6/10

"Pseudo Identity" by Lawrence Block. (AHMM, November 1966)
Tired with his suburban middle-class life and of his cold and distant wife, a successful copywriter constructs a second, fictional identity in New York's Village. Things get complicated when he inadvertently discovers that his wife is also leading a double life. A great premise and a good story, the ending is over-explained in a truly unfortunate dull finish. 6/10

"That Russian!" by Jack Ritchie. (AHMM, May 1968)
Ritchie has always been among my favourite AHMM contributors, and this is another good contribution though not among his best. On a ship headed to New York are a number of Russian and Eastern European athletes participating in an upcoming meet. A Hungarian hammer thrower tries to help a Russian sprinter evade the commissar that is shadowing her. Not quite a mystery but a very amusing tale from behind the Iron Curtain, and once which features a non-America or British hero. 6/10

"The Very Hard Sell" by Helen Nielsen
. (AHMM, June 1959)
A used car salesman is discovered in a black Cadillac he was trying to sell, dead from an apparent self-inflicted gun shot wound. Police Detective Sommers investigates, and as suspected by the reader, it is not suicide after all. An interesting procedural piece with a nice criminal element. There's a dated moment regarding marijuana, when it appears to be a life-ending drug, and immediate gateway to the harder stuff. Paranoid, but the story is pre-1960 so we can smile, shake out heads and move on. 6/10

"The Privileges of Crime" by Talmage Powell. (AHMM, March 1967)
An amusing little story about a small-town sheriff and his deputy who nab a man clearly guilty of a fouled-up robbery, but must treat him carefully so as not to aggravate his rights. 6/10

"Comeback Performance" by Richard Deming. (AHMM, March 1973)
In a small hotel a wheelchair-bound man and his wife get caught up with some kidnappers. This one starts off well, patiently and nicely built-up, but ends flatly as it is all-too predictable. 5/10

"The Tin Ear" by Ron Goulart. (AHMM, September 1966)
Detective John Easy's partner was just killed while pursuing an adultery case in San Amaro, and Easy heads down to investigate. This one was reprinted in Best Detective Stories #22 though it's not too clear why. Some amusing banter and nice touches, but the mystery itself lacks in mystery. Easy figures out too easily what's going on and sets himself up as a decoy to prove it. 5/10

"Infinite License" by Dan J. Marlowe. (AHMM, September 1968)
"A detective in a big city sees a lot of bodies, but I'd never seen a body like this." This opening line can refer to all types of bodies, yet what our big city detective is bemused by is the well-dressed corpse primly and properly laid out on his own bed in an apparent suicide. This very short piece offers up a neat little idea with a lot of promise, but the ending, though appropriate, is not terribly satisfying. 5/10

"The Montevideo Squeeze" by James Holding. (AHMM, November 1973)
In Montevideo, Uruguay, an organization by the name of the Big Ones is pressuring a taxi company to cough up some protection money. A simple little mystery; not knowing the direction this one is taking might make it predictable to many, but I was slow on the uptake. 6/10

"The White Moth" by Margaret Chenoweth. (AHMM, September 1969)
"Forrest Blake had been dead less than a month when he first came back." A young widow to an old, wealthy man is having post-mortem visions of her less-than-dearly departed husband, in which he holds a key that transforms itself into a white moth. A great opening sentence followed by a great paragraph quickly pull the reader in. The latter portion is not as clever and ultimately predictable. 5/10

"The Time Before the Crime" by Charlotte Edwards. (Cosmopolitan, May 1958)
While one man receives a summons for jury duty, another man is heading toward a life of crime. An intriguing novelette of two very different men, yet both desperate in their own way. The psychology is well employed and though the reader might at some point or other figure out the grand ending, there are enough smaller surprises along the way to make this a good, tight read. The only story not from AHMM as far as I have been able to research. 8/10


Todd Mason said...

The Best of Mystery was a 1980 publication, not 1976...the first ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S ANTHOLOGY issue was 1976, and the Sullivan Dial Press items were reprints of the AHA issues. Interesting that there might intentional overlap between the Harold Masur instant remainder and Sullivan's issues/volumes.

Todd Mason said...

The Charlotte Edwards story looks as if it was the first non-AHMM story in an AHA issue. It wasn't the last, by any means.

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