Any fan of locked room mysteries should know about Dr Sam Hawthorne. A doctor from the New England town of Northmont who is very happy to relate tales about his time in practice from the 1920s onward – not medical stories, of course, but of the numerous times he helped Sheriff Lens solve impossible crimes, From vanishing acrobats, a gunshot from a dead man to a patient apparently poisoned by Sam’s own medicine, there are fifteen puzzles here for you to solve along with Sam.
Edward D Hoch wrote a ridiculous number of short stories, not quite hitting the 1000 mark before his death in 2008, and 72 of those featured Sam Hawthorne. The first twelve are collected in Diagnosis: Impossible and the next fifteen in More Things Impossible, both, along with this one collected by Crippen & Landru. The second volume is also available as an ebook. Both of those reads are essential for any locked room fan, but what about this one?
I’ve read almost all of the Hawthorne series – a bookshop in London used to sell back issues of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and I’d trawl through them every now and then looking for the Hawthorne tales (and the Ben Snow ones). I’m still missing a few – in fact, I must make a little list of the missing ones so that I can track them down at some point. Crippen and Landru are doing a great job of collecting them but they do so very, very slowly.
In fact – if Hoch’s estate are reading this – why not set up a publishing scheme where the short stories are available as mini-ebooks for, say, 99 cents each. I can’t imagine it takes much to convert text to ebook and there must be a way of selling with minimal overheads. Not just the Hawthornes, but the Leopolds, the Snows, etc. It would make Hoch’s many fans very happy. Just a thought…
So, we’ve established that I love these stories, right? Unfortunately, as I have read most of them, this isn’t the strongest collection.
Some of the stories are obvious (to the reader who’s read too many mysteries of course) such as The Problem Of The Graveyard Picnic, The Problem Of The Fatal Fireworks and The Problem Of The Unfinished Painting and some are a little bonkers, such as The Problem Of The Crying Room, The Problem Of The Thunder Room and The Problem Of The Two Birthmarks. And one of them felt like a bit of a cheat – The Problem Of The Protected Farmhouse.
There are some top quality Hawthornes here though, such as The Problem Of The Sealed Bottle, The Problem Of The Invisible Acrobat and The Problem Of The Blue Bicycle, but the other collections, I have to say, are stronger. The real shame is looking at the list of the next fifteen – from The Problem Of The Country Church to The Problem Of The Scarecrow Congress – I can’t see a sub-par one there at all (and three that I haven’t read!).
Oh, it’s worth pointing out that this also contains the crossover story The Problem Of The Haunted Tepee, featuring Ben Snow. Hoch wrote three such stories, this one, The Theft Of Leopold’s Badge featuring Captain Leopold and Nick Velvet and The Spy And The Gypsy with Jeffrey Rand and Michael Vlado. I thought I’d mention it because there’s no indication in the book as to the special nature of the story or why Sam’s narration is dropped for this tale.
But it may be that I’ve read these before that makes me a little bleh on some of them. They’re well written (although some of the historical trivia, while still fascinating, seems a little more unsubtle than usual in places) and are all fairly clued and solvable. Everything is there for the reader to spot (or not spot) and the puzzles should be enjoyable for everyone. So, Recommended – in fact, read this one first as it will make you appreciate the first two even more!