Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Cry Silence", by Fredric Brown

From: The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, ed. Otto Penzler. Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 2010.

This new anthology of classic stories from Black Mask magazine opens with a long, long-winded story by Erle Stanley Gardner, which, at penny-a-word rates, seemed designed mostly to deposit as many pennies as possible in Gardner's pockets.

The next story, though, is "Cry Silence" by Fredric Brown. It's short, only a couple of thousand words, and it carries an impact that the weight of Gardner's saga can't match.

The nameless narrator, a stranger in town, is sitting at the train station waiting for a connection when he overhears the old "if a tree falls in the forest" argument. Despite his best intentions he's drawn into conversation by the station agent, and soon learns why the man is so intent on the line between sound and silence.

There's another man at the station there, who sits impassively throughout. He claims to be deaf, says the agent, and if he's telling the truth, he's the victim of a terrible tragedy. And if he's not, he's a cold-blooded killer.

The twist ending to this short little shocker is worth the price of admission. Brown was one of the most original thinkers among the Black Mask writers, and this story truly deserves its place among the best stories published there.