Constant Hearses And Other Revolutionary Mysteries by Edward D Hoch

Alexander Swift was an agent of George Washington during the American War of Independence, being sent to investigate cases of sabotage, espionage and other crimes against the American cause, often leading into the heart of enemy territory. And in every documented case, there is a murder, either tied to his case or happening to get in the way of his duties to Washington.

As the War develops, Swift becomes more and more suspicious of one Benedict Arnold, a suspicion that becomes an obsession, first to expose his treachery and then eventually to bring him to justice.

Oh, and there are five stories featuring Golden Age pastiche Gideon Parrot (with a silent “t”) for some reason…

It’s been pretty clear over the years on the blog that I’m a big fan of Edward D Hoch’s short stories – in particular the Sam Hawthorne impossible crime series – and I had found memories of the Swift tales that I had already read in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. So I was a bit disappointed with this collection, to be honest.

The problem is the format – the setting is a very interesting one, given that I know almost nothing about the American War of Independence. Heck, I thought it finished in 1776. The format struggles, for the most part, to marry the tales of espionage in the war with a whodunnit mystery. Hoch had a basic formula that he could have done well to ignore for these stories. Even some of the historical detail seems shoe-horned in a very clunky way – “I’m sorry to learn of your decision not to seek  a third term. Now you will never reside in the new presidential mansion in the District Of Columbia” for example…

The feud between Swift and Arnold is well-handled, and thankfully comes to a good conclusion – the saga wasn’t cut short by Hoch’s untimely death – and there are some very good stories here. Constant Hearses and The Orchard Of Caged Birds are the obvious contenders for the best of the batch. To be clear, this isn’t a bad collection of Hoch stories, just nowhere close to his best.

And to briefly mention the pagecount-padding Parrot stories, these are an odd selection of homages to the Golden Age. They’re perfectly fine, even if the nods to the Golden Age are far from subtle, but there’s no real surprise as to why Parrot is not one of Hoch’s top sleuths, or why he only wrote five of them.

I don’t know what the next collection of Hoch’s work from Crippen and Landru will be – I’d be hopefully of another Ben Snow collection, to be honest – as there must be many more gems from the writer. I just didn’t think there were many of them here.

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