Diagnosis: Impossible – The Problems of Dr Sam Hawthorne (2004) by Edward D Hoch

Well, it’s Christmas, so for my next review, I thought I’d go for something festive. Unfortunately, I haven’t got time to re-read the excellent Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, so instead, I’m going to look at Diagnosis: Impossible by Edward D Hoch.

This is a bit of a cheat, as it’s a collection of short stories, only one of them with a Christmas setting, but never mind.

Edward D Hoch started writing short mysteries stories in 1955, and, by the time of his death in 2008 had racked up over 950 of them. He had a story published in every issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, a US monthly anthology from 1962 to 2008, every one of them a fair-play mystery. He created a number of series detectives, but my favourite of them was Dr Sam Hawthorne, a New England doctor from the 1920s (and onwards, as his stories follow the history of the United States, with about two stories set in each year). My main attraction to the character, though, is that every crime he stumbles across is an “impossible” crime – a locked room murder or something similar.

I’ll talk about the locked room murder more in a later post, but Hoch created hundreds of them. This book is a collection of the first twelve Hawthorne stories. The highlights include the discovery of a recently killed body in a sealed time capsule, the strangling of a man by a haunted tree and my particular favourite, “The Problem of the Voting Booth”, where a candidate making his vote is stabbed to death whilst alone in a voting booth in the middle of a room.

The Christmas story, to be honest, isn’t the best of the collection, but it’s still pretty good. In “The Problem of the Christmas Steeple”, a local preacher has invited the visiting gypsy camp to church for the Christmas service. After they leave, the preacher is seen running into the empty church and is found stabbed in the steeple. The gypsy leader is cowering in the corner of the steeple, insisting that he didn’t do it. Without spoiling the story, while all the clues are there to be spotted, it’s handicapped by some very strange behaviour from one of the characters and there aren’t really enough suspects. It’s hard to set enough suspects up in a short story, but there are a couple of characters who are given motives but no suspicion is ever directed towards them, seemingly wasting opportunities.

Much as I enjoyed this collection, having since read more (in fact, most) of the Sam Hawthorne stories, these seem a little more erratic than the later ones. The second collection, More Things Impossible is much better, as will  the next collection be when it is published, but this is still definitely worth a look.

Happy Christmas!


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