Suspense and Good Ideas

On a recent road trip, I was listening to some Suspense! episodes and was struck by their politics.  One was on the side of three guys who hijacked an airplane (because they were trying to get out of the Soviet Union).  Another one was interestingly anti-vigilante, and more importantly, anti-stand your ground.  This was an episode called Holdup, from 1956.

It opens when a grocery store owner drills a holdup man with five shots through the head.  His wife is scared of him (that’s played subtly).  The police are obviously hostile to him, but can’t do anything to him because all of his homicides (3 in 18 months) were legally justifiable.  The newspapers like this guy, a decorated vet of the Pacific theater from WWII, with his tough talk and apparent gun fetish.  Seriously, the guy talks about his guns like they’re his friends, pets, or lovers.  It’s unnerving to listen to.  The actor, Joseph Kearns, doesn’t lay this on too thick, but it’s not a point of the episode you can get away from.

Things start to go awry, though, when the police warn him that the last kid he killed had a violent, older brother who just got out of prison.  A hostile closing customer puts Tim, the main character, on edge, and he closes up the store early while his wife calls the train station to see if their son’s train has come in yet.  Someone drives up to the shop, and bangs on the window, calling for them to open up.  Tim panics and drills the newcomer with his gun.

It was his son.  End of the episode.

It might be something easy to laugh-off (how would he not know his own son, I own a gun and I’m not an animal and so on).  But it rings true.  How many people accidentally shoot somebody every year?  Every day?  How many people have been killed by toddlers this month?  And when people get scared, they aren’t rational.  My brother once gave Mom a black eye with his teddy bear when she startled him in the dark (he was five).  He felt terrible about it afterward, but what if it had been a weapon?  Or what if he’d been older and stronger?

The Suspense episode goes on to argue that the police are the only ones to be trusted to handle thieves and so on, which has its own set of problems, but given the attitudes of the 1950s with McCarthyism, the thought that you always had to defend yourself against the so-called Red and Lavender menaces (as well as the rise of the revenge-themed western), it’s interesting to find something so against the idea of shooting-first and asking questions later.

It’s an episode that should be revisited (, and it’s an idea that really needs to be brought out and held up with respect.