Dr Sam Hawthorne, a country doctor in Northmont, Connecticut, has a history of solving impossible crimes. It seems that Cabot Cove has nothing on Northmont as over the years, Sam solved seventy-two such mysteries – well, it’s possible that he solved even more after October 1944, but unfortunately Edward D Hoch is no longer in a position to tell us those stories. Which was a great loss to mystery readers everywhere.
Anyway, between 1940 and 1944, Sam was solving three impossible mysteries a year. From a cottage with a suicide on the same day every year, a snowman in the middle of summer, two impossible disappearances, a man with a broken leg who walks invisibly past a police guard to commit murder… and all in one book!
I’ve reviewed all of the Sam Hawthorne collections from Crippen & Landru on the blog so far:
but I’d been reading these in the pages of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine for a good while before those collections came out. I’ve got most of the later stories in the original magazines, so I’d read all but a couple of these before. But let’s take a look at the tales herein. Be warned, these little synopses contain spoilers for the set-ups for the tales which sometimes are revealed beyond the halfway point. Feel free to skip them.
The Problem Of Annabel’s Ark
An important tale as Sam meets his future wife, but it’s a bit of a disappointing start to the collection, as there’s a bit of information dropped in rather clumsily that telegraphs who and how killed a Siamese cat inside a locked vet’s office.
The Problem Of The Potting Shed
A nice simple set-up – a shooting inside a locked potting shed – with a lovely solution. A great story.
The Problem Of The Yellow Wallpaper
The first of two tales that I hadn’t read before and… it’s not great. A man keeps his disturbed wife locked in the attic – until she disappears, leaving a portrait of herself peering out from the torn wallpaper.
The Problem Of The Haunted Hospital
A hooded figure haunts a hospital ward, eventually murdering an occupant and vanishing without trace. I really liked this one, with the disappearance handled well. The motive is a little too similar to one of the other tales though.
The Problem Of The Traveler’s Tale
A visitor to Northmont relates a house that he visited on the way to the town that seemed to be occupied by a financial swindler on the run from the New York law. When the house is located, the swindler is dead – and the house is locked, obviously. The locked house is a bit poor, but the rest of the story is clever.
The Problem Of Bailey’s Buzzard
Was a friend of Sam’s new wife thrown to her death from a horse by a legendary giant buzzard? Of course not, and it’s fairly obvious what happened (to me at least). Nice idea though
The Problem Of The Interrupted Séance
A husband, a wife and a medium hold a séance – in a room under surveillance from Sam himself. When the door is broken down, two are drugged and one has their throat slit – but nothing that could have caused the injury is in the room. A nice straightforward tale with an elegant solution.
The Problem Of The Candidate’s Cabin
Sheriff Lens is found unconscious, locked inside a cabin, with a dead body and a chimpanzee. Surely the chimp couldn’t have committed murder? Again, simple set up, nice resolution.
The Problem Of The Black Cloister
At a fund raiser for the troops, a staged gun-fight goes wrong when a shot from a blank cartridge causes murder – despite there being no gunshot wound on the victim… a lovely tale with a bit more depth than some of the others.
The Problem Of The Secret Passage
A rich local man is found dead inside the secret passage in his house – which was locked at both ends… A nice idea which should have been obvious to me, but wasn’t.
The Problem Of The Devil’s Orchard
In which a drunk man, being escorted home by Sam and Lens, runs into the Devil’s Orchard and disappears. Some nice heart to it, but I think the “how” is very disappointing.
The Problem Of The Shepherd’s Ring
Did a magic ring help a crippled man walk, become invisible and commit murder? I loved this one – a great idea with a clever solution.
The Problem Of Suicide Cottage
As Sam’s wife is about to give birth, they go to a lakeside cottage for a getaway – a cottage with a history of suicides which is about to have another “suicide”… This is a bit of an odd one – a nice idea, but it can’t help but come across as being a bit silly.
The Problem Of The Summer Snowman
A murder near a children’s birthday party in a locked house – with the only person seen approaching the house being a snowman in the middle of summer… The locked house is an old chestnut but the snowman is clever.
The Problem Of The Secret Patient
A strange bandaged German-sounding prisoner is brought to Northmont for treatment – but before he can be taken away for questioning, he is poisoned. But how? A bit of an odd one to end on – the poisoning is obvious, having been done before by a master of the genre and the revelations about the prisoner… hmm.
These is a very strong collection of tales, told by a master of the short mystery genre, that are more than mere puzzles. The characters are likeable and the historical background is woven well into the background of the tales, mostly, and used to establish motivations for the crimes more than once. And you learn a bit of history at the same time – for example, I was not aware that the Japanese did not use kamikaze tactics until the end of 1944.
Unfortunately, Challenge The Impossible doesn’t seem to be available in the UK at all, but can be bought from Amazon.com for very reasonable shipping or direct from Crippen & Landru’s website but for significantly higher postage. Hopefully an ebook will appear at some point – the previous volumes are available in that format.
Good news as well, there will be three more Hoch collections coming soon from the company – the (very) long-promised Hoch’s Ladies and collections of Simon Ark and Alexander Swift stories. Very excited about the last one, as I’ve really enjoyed those stories. In the meantime, though, if you can get hold of it (be patient), this is Highly Recommended.