The story seems to hint that Dr. Sam will be suspect number one this time, but honestly nothing much comes of it. (He even seems surprised when Sheriff Lens points out that that’s the direction the evidence points to, even though Dr. Sam himself seemed to realize that a page or so earlier). It’s a good story, although there is one late assault that felt a little weak in regards to motive. To be vague about it, surely X isn’t going to realize Y from Z. I think that mystery readers will stumble to the solution, although once again Hoch has a lot of subtle clues pointing to it. Hoch does tease at a much meaner solution that’s fairly clued as well, and I almost wish he’d gone with it.
“The Problem of the Whispering House” is a story that puts Dr. Sam in harm’s way. Dr. Sam is approached by a ghost hunter named Thaddeus Sloan who wants some help looking into the local whispering house. The house is said to have a secret room that no one has ever left. During a late-night ghost hunt, Dr. Sam and Sloan hear threatening whispers, and witness an unknown man walking into the secret room. After he never leaves, Dr. Sam and Sloan enter...and find the man stabbed to death with no one else inside. Making matters even more confusing is that the man has been “dead for probably fifteen to twenty hours” before he was found.
This is one of the more tense Dr. Sam stories, as Dr. Sam finds himself in a fair bit of peril, such as when his beloved Pierce-Arrow Runabout car is rigged with a bomb. The killer is pretty well-hidden, although the cluing pointing to them is a little weak (and I feel that there could have been another suspect or two in the story). Also, some parts of the motive get dumped into the summation at the end. The solution can be seen as weak; one that has no business being used in a mystery, much less a locked room one. However, Hoch does a good job of justifying it, and ties it into Dr. Sam figuring it out in a tight spot.
“The Problem of the Boston Common” is a story that holds a special place in my heart. It sees Dr. Sam going off to Boston for a medical conference, only to get wrapped up into helping consult in a serial killer investigation. A man named “Cerberus” has been striking down people in the Boston Common with curare poisoning. The police know that the killer is a man named George Totter, who was doing research with curare and is trying to raise awareness of how important it is in the most over-the-top way possible, but they can’t figure out how he’s doing it. His victims are chosen at random, and after death number two, the Common has been filled with plainclothes policemen who can’t see Totter using the blowgun he has to be using to fire his darts. Dr. Sam looks into the case, but is hampered by the culture clash caused by working with small-town police compared to the Boston PD. I found it effective. The solution is good, and kudos to Hoch for describing the Common in a way that makes the solution clear even when the reader isn’t familiar with it (much less the Boston Common circa 1928), but I feel that the police, or at least the actual expert on curare consulting on the investigation, should have stumbled to the solution before Dr. Sam. But there’s a final twist in the case, and I’m proud to say that this is the first time I remember solving even part of a mystery on my own. I was thinking about this story while changing my clothes in my closet after church one day, and suddenly realized that X had to be the killer. It was a good moment for me.
Next up, we have “The Problem of the General Store.” Maggie Murphy is in Northmont, preaching weird ideas in the general store about women being equal to men and women having the right to vote. Dr. Sam is usually a passive observer to this, but finds himself having to get directly involved when Murphy is the prime suspect in a murder. One night, the owner of the store is found dead on the floor from a shotgun blast to the chest. Murphy is unconscious on the floor, and her story of falling over and striking her head doesn’t convince Sheriff Lens, especially since the store is completely locked on the inside, even the coal chute!
I admit that I wasn’t overly impressed with this story at first, beyond thinking that the killer was well-hidden (perhaps too well-hidden), but a re-read improved my opinion. You do have to be paying attention, but Hoch sets up almost all of his twists, barring the one about how Murphy ended up unconscious on the general store floor. The solution is a little lightly clued, but it is fair, and it’s understandable that Dr. Sam doesn’t hit on it sooner. As I said, the killer is also pretty well hidden, a theme in this collection.
On a minor note, I do wish that Eustace Carey, who was established as the “owner of one of Northmont’s two general stores” in Diagnosis: Impossible, played some role in this story. It would have helped establish more of a continuity between the stories and a sense of a community for Northmont.
“The Problem of the Courthouse Gargoyle '' sees Dr. Sam put on jury duty when a controversial trial is moved to Northmont. It’s a sordid tale of a farmhand accidentally-on-purpose killing his boss over the victim’s wife. However, things take a sudden turn for the impossible when the judge takes a sip of water and suddenly kneels over from cyanide poisoning, the word “gargoyle” on his lips. (“Doc, you draw corpses like flies, I swear!” Sheriff Lens cries out, close to understanding the Detective’s Curse (™)). Everyone in the courtroom saw the court attendant fill the pitcher, everyone saw the judge pour water into his glass, but no one saw when the poison could have been administered.
I’ll lead off by saying that the “gargoyle” clue ends up having disappointingly little to do with the story. The back of the book boasts about “Poisoning by a courthouse gargoyle!” and no, that is not at all what the story is trying to do. The poisoning itself is clever enough, although once again the lack of real alternative solutions means that I think most readers will see how it was done. There is another clever use of the least-likely suspect idea, although the motive is handwaved a bit.
The next story is “The Problem of the Pilgrim’s Windmill,” which I talked about in spoiler terms here. A new hospital has come to Northmont, but there are issues. For one, the hospital is a tad too big for the town, and the locals aren’t exactly jumping at the chance to go to it in the first place. For another, they’ve hired (gasp!) a black doctor, Lincoln Jones. Oh, and the Devil is apparently taken up roost in the nearby windmill, seeing as two people end up set aflame, one fatally. And of course, there are no footprints besides those of the men in the light snow surrounding the windmill…
I maintain that this is one of my favorite Dr. Sam stories, although it wasn’t as strong as I recalled since I feel that Dr. Sam could have solved the case if he’d investigated more thoroughly after the first burning. But the solution is good, the clues subtle (one does require some specialized knowledge, but it’s very minor and the clue is technically given in a different way), and the motive and the killer are genuinely chilling.
“The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat'' sees the arrival of Miranda Grey in Northmont and she quickly wins Dr. Sam’s heart. Her aunt and uncle, as well as their neighbors, the Hausers, go out on the Hauser’s houseboat for a day on the lake while Dr. Sam and Miranda sit at her aunt and uncle’s cottage. However, when Dr. Sam notices the boat is just drifting on the lake, he goes to investigate and finds the boat empty.
This is less of an impossible crime than other stories in this collection. Sure, the boat was in the middle of the lake in full view of Dr. Sam, but even he admits that it would be easy for the four of them to slip away. Indeed, the solution to the “impossibility” is given so off-handley that it might be easy to miss. But then the question becomes why. “Why would four perfectly normal, sensible, middle-aged people want to disappear and hide from us?” The strange set-up is merely cover for a sordid little crime, but it probably won’t be too hard for the reader to figure out the broad strokes of it. That being said, the clues Dr. Sam notices seem a little weaker than normal. Kudos to the genuinely tense sequence on the boat just before the reveal of the culprit(s).
“The Problem of the Pink Post Office” is fun, which is an odd description for a story that takes place on Black Thursday. Dr. Sam and his nurse April stop in to Northmont’s post office, which is currently having the last wall painted the same intense pink as the rest of the post office, when a banker runs in, desperate to send off a railroad bearer bond. Which is $10,000. Which can be cashed immediately. And he announces these facts to everyone in the post office. One guess what vanishes and can’t be found even after thorough searches of the post office and the suspects.
What makes this story fun is the enjoyment Hoch is clearly having in setting up false solutions for every one of the suspects (even Dr. Sam!) before shooting them down. There’s even one bit of cluing that, on my re-read, made me offer a complement to how Hoch waves a vital clue in your face. It’s a solid little story.
On a side note, Dr. Sam breaks up with Miranda in this one. Yes, the story after she’s introduced, they break up due to off-page difficulties. Hoch was many things, but “Master of Romance” was not one of them. That being said, Sheriff Lens and the postmistress, Vera Brock, do fall in love…
...And “The Problem of the Octagon Room'' is set on the day of their wedding. Vera insists on the wedding taking place in an octagon room, since her parents were married in one, and conveniently there happens to be one in Northmont, and there are rumors of it being haunted to boot! Needless to say, come the wedding day the door is found to be bolted, and the window latched. When the door is broken down, a tramp is found stabbed to death on the floor. The solution is a little more physical than Hoch’s normal, and a little awkwardly hinted at since a key part is given near the very end. This story also has a slightly different framing device than the others, but that’s mainly there to tie up one last loose end.
The next story, “The Problem of the Gypsy Camp,” had such an interesting premise to my naïve mind back when I first read this collection that I saved it for last. Hoch didn’t quite up to what I had hoped for, but I enjoyed it on the re-read. Another group of Roma have moved into Northmont, and Dr. Sam is witness to one running into the local hospital saying he’s been cursed and “will die of a bullet to the heart.” Shortly after, he drops dead. The death seems natural, but an autopsy confirms that Northmont is still cursed to have impossible crimes everywhere: there’s a bullet firmly embedded in the man’s heart.
This alone could make a perfectly fine short story, but Hoch adds more to it. After Sheriff Lens is assaulted and one of the suspects is kidnapped, he makes a move to arrest everyone at the camp. Lens and a deputy sit in their car at the only road out of the farm where the camp is. The other three sides are blocked by a fence and forest that the wagons can’t get around. And yet, when the state police show up the next morning, the entire camp has vanished into the night. Even though this is the titular disappearance, it only happens near the end of the story and it doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. It’s also not very well-clued, although it is a workable trick. The first impossibility is more of a stretch, and the motive felt a little weak, but it is better clued. There was one element of this first impossibility that I remembered being a little bit weak, but this re-read showed that I was wrong; Hoch fairly clued it, and passed it right in front of my eyes. Clever.
“The Problem of the Bootlegger’s Car” opens with Dr. Sam being kidnapped by gangsters working for Fat Larry Spears, an infamous bootlegger. Spears has been shot and needs a doctor, but when Dr. Sam arrives, he learns, at the barrel of Fat Larry’s gun, that the injury isn’t as serious as reported. Fat Larry thinks that one of his men has sold him out to the New York mob and is faking a more serious injury to lull the mole into a false sense of security. He forces Dr. Sam to stay at the abandoned house that he’s using as a hideout and keep an eye on the other gangsters. Fat Larry is waiting for a meeting with Tony Barrel, a New York man who’s selling...empty barrels. Hoch’s explanation for this is honestly very historically interesting. It almost reminds me of a Porges story with the focus on a not-very-well-known scientific fact, although in this case it isn’t the centerpiece of the story. That would be the impossible crime.
Tony Barrel goes to meet with Fat Larry while Dr. Sam and the other gangsters loiter outside the house. When the meeting ends, Barrel goes for his car, but when one of the gangsters goes to get the barrels, the drugged-up driver opens fire and gets killed during the gunfight. Dr. Sam goes to look for Barrel, but finds that he’s vanished from his car and left almost no trace behind. This is another story where there aren’t a whole lot of alternate explanations for the crime, which I think Hoch compensates for by putting it near the end. It’s still good and well-clued (although a little obviously so), and there is a solid motive behind it, which is sometimes missing in impossible crime stories. It also has a criminal (well, they’re all criminals but you know what I mean) who feels clever and intelligent, similar to what JJ discusses in this podcast.
“The Problem of the Tin Goose'' brings more planes to Northmont, this time in the form of a flying circus. Dr. Sam sees a local girl fall in love with the head pilot of the circus, and is also on the scene of yet another impossible crime. The pilot, Ross Winslow, takes both the local girl and the owner of the airfield that the circus is using into the sky for a close-up look at the performance. Dr. Sam watches from the ground, and sees the plane land after the show. Shortly after, he’s called by one of the passengers and finds them pounding on the locked cockpit door. The door is broken down, and Winslow is found with a stab wound in the back. But how did the killer get around the locked door and the two witnesses sitting right outside it?
I admit, this story didn’t really sink in in the way that the others did. It’s a solid story, but the scenario, once again, doesn’t allow for a full range of false solutions and red herrings. Hoch does a good job at spreading misdirection (he sometimes doesn’t have enough suspects/doesn’t pass enough suspicion around them), but the solution is a bit banal. It is fairly clued and all, but it just doesn’t stick out.
Next up is “The Problem of the Hunting Lodge,” which actually stood out more on this re-read. Dr. Sam’s parents are in town, and it turns out that his father is a penpal of Ryder Sexton, a former arms dealer who collects antique weapons and is an avid hunter. Before long he’s talked Dr. Sam’s dad into a hunting trip, and Dr. Sam goes along both for the sake of father-son bonding, and for the sake of his worried mother. The trip seems to go well, with Sexton staying in the titular lodge while the other men on the trip seek out deer (as Sexton can shoot said deer if they run away). Dr. Sam and his father see one, but miss it, and although Sexton has a clear shot, he doesn’t take it...because, as Dr. Sam’s father finds out when he goes to check on Sexton, someone has bashed his head in with a club lined with sharks’ teeth. And there’s no trace of the killer’s footprints in the snowy ground.
I don’t know why this story didn’t click for me the first time I read it. Maybe something about the solution didn’t seem right, or it was just the mood I read it in. But now it feels stronger. The suspects aren’t vivid but Hoch ties them into the crime well. The whole, “Dr. Sam’s father is a suspect!” angle doesn’t get used as well as it could have been (he’s a suspect for about half a page). This time, while the crime is still “impossible,” there are ways it can be done, ways that are fairly set up and clued and which Hoch gleefully swats aside, including one that he could have easily done and gotten away with it. Instead he “just” gives us a very well-clued solution and least-likely suspect. The only three real weak spots are A. some of the characterization of Dr. Sam’s mother, with one statement in particular feeling a little more cynical than the rest of the story, (Hoch is sometimes guilty of these statements, and they don’t always land or feel at odds with the story) B. the motive, making the dead man a jerk without any real build-up when Hoch could have easily done so, and C. the way the killer is caught. Seeing as Dr. Sam freely admits that he has no evidence, I’m not sure why they confess.
Justice for the Corpse (an excellent blog) says the solution was used earlier in this collection, but I don’t see what they mean unless I’m misunderstanding (which is likely).
“The Problem of the Body in the Haystack'' sees a bear running around Northmont, causing havoc and killing animals, much to the annoyance of farmer Felix Benet. Veterinarian Bob Withers (who’s having an affair with Benet’s wife) proposes bringing in Sheriff Lens to deal with the bear, and once the implications for his election campaign are if he takes down a bear are explained, he agrees. Dr. Sam goes home for the night...but is awoken by a phone call from Benet, where he implies he’s in danger before the call cuts off. Dr. Sam goes over to the farm to ask questions and is soon witness to the bear (cameoing from The Fox and the Hound), arriving and being shot. However, he went after one of the covered haystacks before going down, and when the group investigate, they find Benet’s body on top of the haystack under the tarp, stabbed with a pitchfork.
The haystack was under a tarp and in Sheriff Lens’ line of sight. A killer couldn’t have moved the big man’s body there without being seen, and even if he could, the tarp was tied down and impossible to remove and replace without being noticed, and it’s too tight to move the body to the top of the haystack from the ground. Once again, we have the impossibility and solution coming very close together, giving the impression that Hoch might have been concerned that it wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny for very long. Indeed, the mystery is easy to solve. In fact, it’s so easy that it’s Sheriff Lens who gets to solve the case! Of course, Dr. Sam figures it out too, but the Sheriff gets the glory of seeing a clue that Dr. Sam missed. While the mystery is still fair, there is one deduction that eliminates a suspect that feels a little weak. It’s something that, once you know that X isn’t the killer, points to their innocence, but on its own really doesn’t feel that strong. (Although in fairness Dr. Sam only points it out after he’s fairly sure he knows what happened.)
We end with a bit of a dud; “The Problem of Santa’s Lighthouse.” Dr. Sam is on a trip when he sees a tourist attraction, “Santa’s Lighthouse.” After studying the sign, he realizes that the original name was “Satan’s Lighthouse” and goes to check things out. The lighthouse turns out to be a former smuggler’s base now run by Lisa and Harry Quay, a brother-sister duo. The lighthouse was originally used as a lure for ships to wreck them on the coast, and normally the Quay’s play that up with a ghost pirate attraction, but they change it to a Santa attraction for the holidays. After being charmed by Lisa and getting a tour of the lighthouse, Dr. Sam and Lisa end up talking outside...and witness her brother falling from the top of the lighthouse, a knife buried in his ribs. And of course, a search of the lighthouse turns up no one.
I admit, this story was semi-ruined for me from the start because of a review on Mystery*File (which is another good blog!) that quotes a line that made the solution obvious even to young me. Most of the story is spent digging into the conviction of Lisa and Harry’s father, falsely (or so he says) accused of trying to scam investors. This is exciting and all, but leaves the mystery itself wanting. Dr. Sam’s false solution is interesting and actually clued (a must for false solutions), but a little too obviously false, and I think that the real solution will stand out to the reader. And once again, just like “The Problem of the Hunting Lodge,” Dr. Sam is lucky that the killer was willing to confess, seeing as he didn’t have a bit of evidence against them! But it’s a better motivated confession than that previous story.
All in all, this was another solid collection of Hoch stories. While I know that any “theme” in this collection was unintentional, I did feel that there was a trend towards least-likely killers, at least in the earlier stories. Even though the solutions didn’t impress me as much as the first collection’s, I’m optimistic about the future collections since I did find more to enjoy here than I thought I would. (Although, there were some that I didn’t enjoy as much as I thought I would.) That being said, I am still worried about having the same issue of burnout that I did with Arthur Porges! But we’ll see what happens when I get past the third collection, which I remember being the weakest one I read.
All in all, there’s still some good mysteries in here. Recommended.