Edward D Hoch, in case you’re not aware, was a prolific writer of short stories – specifically mystery stories – specifically whodunit mystery stories. In the space of twelve pages, he would create a whole world with a number of well-drawn suspects, a likeable detective and a puzzle to be solved. From March 1973, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine published one of his stories every month until his death in 2008.
Not content with simply writing mysteries, Hoch often wrote locked room and impossible mysteries, in particular in his series featuring Dr Sam Hawthorne. The first twelve are collected in Diagnosis: Impossible, which you can still find, but not cheaply, and the next fifteen are collected in More Things Impossible, which is out of print – Amazon.co.uk has one used copy, going for over £650!
Crippen and Landru, the publishers of the collections have announced a third collection on their website, but it can take quite a while before a book actually sees print – I think “Hoch’s Ladies” has been on their “Upcoming Releases” page for at least five years – so I thought I’d do a preview-review.
How can I do this, you ask? Well, once upon a time, when there were a number of decent crime bookshops in London, I’d regularly raid the back issues of EQMM with a list of issues with the sole intention of finding Sam Hawthorne stories. Because in their own little way, these are classic mystery stories.
So I thought I’d spend a little time on occasion reviewing these little mysteries. It goes completely against my unofficial policy of only reviewing “in print” stories, but, as I said, it’s an unofficial policy. I’ll take them in chunks of six, mainly because that gives me a nice title for this strand of the blog. So off we go.
The Problem Of The Graveyard Picnic (EQMM Jun 84)
A couple are having a lovely picnic when the woman stands up and runs away across a footbridge, only to trip and fall into the river below, all in full view of Sam. Her body is soon washed up downstream. He is convinced foul play is involved – but how could she trip over nothing?
The Problem Of The Crying Room (EQMM Nov 84)
The town drunk commits suicide, confessing to shooting the mayor while he is inside a locked glass “crying room” – an area in a cinema for mothers and young children. Only it hasn’t happened yet. However, the next day, with Sam standing next to him, the mayor is shot – but where did the bullet come from?
The Problem Of The Fatal Fireworks (EQMM May 85)
As agents from the FBI come to town to seize some illegal booze, a local mechanic tears open a packet of fireworks and lights one. Unfortunately, that solitary firework is in fact a stick of dynamite with a very short fuse. Boom! But how did it get inside the sealed packet?
The Problem Of The Unfinished Painting (EQMM Feb 86)
A woman is found dead inside her art studio – only her cleaner has been outside the only door for the whole morning and heard her moving around and talking on the telephone. With all of the windows locked on the inside, how could anyone have killed her?
The Problem Of The Sealed Bottle (EQMM Sep 86)
Prohibition is lifted, and Sam is part of a celebration in a local restaurant. The now-official booze is delivered and the mayor picks a sealed bottle at random. You’ve guessed it, dead from poisoning within seconds. But all of the other bottles are harmless…
The Problem Of The Invisible Acrobat (EQMM Mid-Dec 86)
The circus has come to town, and Sam has to deal with an impossible disappearance. Five acrobats climbed to the top of the circus tent – and only four returned. Needless to say when the fifth turns up, he is somewhat dead – and in a farmhouse some distance away…
The most impressive thing about the Hawthorne stories, to me, is the constantly changing background of US history. We’re in the prohibition era here, so two of the stories have strands dealing with illegal booze – in some ways, Fatal Fireworks is a direct sequel to the events of Crying Room – and a third deals with the end of prohibition. There is also a development for Sam when his crime-solving gets in the way of his doctoring, leading him to abandon his investigating, for a while at least.
Of these stories, I’d say that none of them are quite up there with the best so far – such as The Problem Of The Tin Goose (More Things Impossible) or The Problem Of The Haunted Bandstand (Diagnosis: Impossible) – but The Sealed Bottle comes close. The Invisible Acrobat is also very strong, although the motive is a bit iffy – the disappearance is very clever though. A couple of the others though do fall prey to the “only one person could have done it” syndrome. They’re still decent reads though.
My collection still isn’t complete – I’m missing The Problem Of The Enormous Owl, The Problem Of The Miraculous Jar, The Problem Of The Yellow Wallpaper and The Problem Of The Scarecrow Congress – but they’re a way down the line, chronologically speaking. Next time, we’ll have vanishing weapons, killers who can float over snow and another impossible poisoning.