Saturday, August 13, 2022

All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne by Edward D. Hoch (2017)

Cover image from Beneath the Stains of Time.

I admit, I went into this collection with a bit of trepidation. After the disappointment of the last Hoch collection, I started to fear that he simply wasn’t as good as I’d thought, that I would have to sadly conclude that I’d overhyped him due to my inexperience with mysteries. I’m glad to report that I was wrong; All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne is a very worthy collection of impossible crimes.

The collection opens with “The Problem of the Country Church.” Dr. Sam heads back to Maine to reunite with his former nurse, April, who wants Dr. Sam present at the baptism of her son, who has been named after the good doctor. Dr. Sam, April, her husband Andre, the baby’s godmother Ivy, and the reverend performing the baptism, Dr. Lawrence, head out to the titular church, where the impossible happens (proving that you should never invite Dr. Sam to anything, ever).

The reverend, April, and Andre are at the front of the church, while Dr. Sam and Ivy sit with the bassinet with the baby in it in a back pew. However, when Ivy brings the baby to the front, he turns out to have been replaced with a Shirley Temple doll! And there’s a ransom note attached to it. No one could have entered the church without being noticed, and the switch couldn’t have been made with two people, including Dr. Sam, sitting right next to the baby. However, I was able to figure out the how, simply because there aren’t any real alternative solutions for the reader to latch on to. Like quite a few of the other stories, it also suffers from a lack of good suspects. It’s not a bad story (beyond Dr. Sam making a really shocking accusation that makes him look like a jerk), but a little easy.

“The Problem of the Grange Hall” sees the return of Lincoln Jones from “Pilgrims Windmill.” This time, he’s the main suspect in a locked room murder. Pilgrim Memorial Hospital is hosting its eighth anniversary at the hall, and a former high school friend of Jones is playing in the orchestra. The two meet in a dressing room during a break in the music, but when they don’t emerge, Dr. Sam breaks the bolted door down to find the friend dead of a codeine injection, and Lincoln Jones holding the syringe.

I admit to mostly figuring this one out. The story is better at giving out alternative solutions, but the final solution still jumped out at me. It must also be mentioned that the final decisive clue isn’t given until near the end. This story does once again show Hoch’s skill in having *everything* matter in the denouement.

“The Problem of the Vanishing Salesman” presents Dr. Sam with a baffling disappearance. James Philby is a traveling salesman who vanishes practically in front of Dr. Sam’s eyes. Dr. Sam sees him open the storm door of the widow Gains’s house, but the widow swears that he didn’t enter. And indeed, the only other way into the house is bolted from the inside. It’s a bizarre mystery, magnified by Philby denying that he ever vanished when Dr. Sam meets him again. But the scenario becomes much more serious when he repeats the disappearing act in front of Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens…after shooting a man.

I wasn’t overly impressed with this story on my first read-through, but I admit to enjoying it more on this second go-round. Philby’s disappearance feels like something anti-modern, and the bizarre incident, combined with him constantly trying to sell his lightning rods like nothing is wrong, gives the whole story a surreal atmosphere. Another author might have drawn those elements out a little more. (Although the feeling could have just been me.) The solution is pretty good, with Mary getting a very good false solution that actually does have some basis in the story itself and which Dr. Sam is able to refute with, again, evidence within the story beyond, “That wouldn’t work.” (What’s weird is that Mary’s false solution is the same as another story I read with a similar premise. She even points to the exact same evidence as the other story, and it’s a very specific piece of evidence!)  Like I said, I was more impressed with it on this second read. Some elements, such as the motive for the murder, come without much build-up, but I can forgive it. I appreciated how yet another off-hand comment foreshadowed a part of the backstory.

“The Problem of the Leather Man” is Hoch’s take on the Paris Exposition story. A man killed in a car crash utters the name of the Leather Man, a real-life figure who walked in a circuit through the northeastern United States. Evidence points to someone else copying the route, and Dr. Sam goes to follow him. The new Leather Man turns out to be an Australian man on walkabout, and Dr. Sam accompanies him to try and get more information about the accident. During their walk, they encounter a witness driving by, a crossing guard, and end by resting at an inn run by a couple. However, when Dr. Sam awakes in the morning, he finds that his companion is gone and everyone he met denies the man’s existence.

It must be said that this is neither a straightforward impossible crime nor a Woolrich-style nightmare. It’s acknowledged pretty early on that, “They all lied” is a perfectly plausible solution, but then the question becomes, “Why would a bunch of unconnected people all tell the same lie?” The answers are good; one has very little cluing but is a very plausible deduction, one is well-clued, and one is a bit of a let-down. This is a solid story on the whole.

Next up, we have one of my favorites: “The Problem of the Phantom Parlor.” A teenage girl named Josie Grady comes to Dr. Sam for a medical issue and confides in him that she thinks her aunt’s home is haunted. Josie is staying there for the summer and claims that a china closet will sometimes change into a parlor with a tasseled sofa and drapes on the walls. Dr. Sam investigates and finds only the china closet, but the room will play a key role in a brutal murder during the night.

Josie rings Dr. Sam and says that her aunt is lying dead in the parlor. When he and Sheriff Lens arrive, the body is lying in the hall outside of the china closet, but Josie insists that she was lying in the parlor. On the one hand, this is another story that lacks real alternative solutions. I didn’t find this as big a problem, because there isn’t anything obvious for the reader to jump to. There’s no, “Well if it’s not X or Y, it’s clearly Z.” And personally, I love this sort of solution; it’s a type of grand trick, (ROT13: n fbeg bs “lbh gubhtug guvf jnf K, ohg vg’f npghnyyl L” vqrn) gung V ybir frrvat va zlfgrevrf.) I admit that the cluing is a bit obvious, and there aren’t many suspects for the reader to chew over, but the solution itself makes up for that.

Alliteration is also the name of the game of the next story, “The Problem of the Poisoned Pool.” Dr. Sam is invited to a clambake hosted by the publisher of one of Northmont’s newspapers. Unfortunately, his show-off of a brother is a guest, and he baffles the crowd by suddenly emerging from his brother’s pool…a pool that’s been watched for the past twenty minutes, and which Dr. Sam looked into and saw no one. When the host challenges his brother to dive in and disappear, the other man gladly jumps in and doesn’t emerge. When Dr. Sam goes to check, he finds that the man is very much still there and very much dead at the bottom of the pool, poisoned by cyanide. Since he ate nothing and the beer he drank before diving in would have killed him before he made it to the pool, the only explanation seems to be that the pool itself was poisoned. The actual solution is pretty good; I actually came very close to seeing how the victim was able to appear in the pool in the first place. The main weak points are the explanation about how he planned to vanish, and the motive for the murder, which isn’t clued at all.

“The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse” takes on one of the more audacious of impossible problems: a vanishing building. A couple are driving home one cloudy evening when they stumble on the Apple Orchard, a roadhouse with cars in the lot and music blaring that they’ve never seen before. When trying to leave, they accidentally run over a man, and when they bring him to the hospital they learn he’s actually been shot. Making matters worse, the roadhouse has disappeared.

Vanishing buildings suffer from the same problem as vanishing rooms: There are only so many ways you can work that kind of trick. I can’t complain too much about this one, since I fell right for a red herring and missed the actual, fairly clued, solution. (In fairness, I’m very bad at visualizing things, so perhaps I didn’t understand how X could make the appearance/disappearance possible. It didn’t help that I missed a blatant clue though.) However, the explanation of “who shot the victim?” is very underwhelming. There’s a final twist in the tail that I admit I didn’t like on my first read, but worked a little better on this round.

“The Problem of the Country Mailbox” is another solid story. Like a few of the stories we’ve seen so far, the main problem appears to be a prosaic one: books left in the mailbox of a local man seem to disappear, even when he watches the box the entire time. Dr. Sam gets roped into figuring out how it was done, placing the book in the mailbox and then watching to see who gets close. The man goes, gets the book, then looks confused and gets it out of his pocket…and sets off a bomb. Complicating matters is that the book the bomb was planted in was a completely different book than the one Dr. Sam put in the mailbox!

I suspect that most people will hit on the “how” of this solution, because again there aren’t many alternative possibilities. Hoch plays his cards well though, and has a final twist waiting to catch the unwary reader, a twist that has been set-up and clued throughout the story. I liked the cluing for the trick itself too, such as the clue of the reading glasses.

After peacefully serving as a graveyard trustee for a number of years, the Detective's Curse strikes and gives Dr. Sam another baffling mystery to solve in “The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery.” Flooding and soil erosion have left some of the coffins exposed and in danger of drifting away down the stream. Dr. Sam goes to supervise their removal in preparation for reburying them, but when he examines one of the removed coffins, his fingers come back stained with blood. The body of one of the other trustees is removed, forcing Dr. Sam to explain how a man killed less than twenty-four hours ago ended up buried with a body dead for twenty years.

I didn’t see the solution to this, although I should have. I did figure out the “who” via a dialogue that is very obviously there to give you a clue. It’s a pretty well-done mystery on the whole, and reminds me of the best of the earlier Dr. Sam stories.

“The Problem of the Enormous Owl” is better described as an “unusual” mystery, rather than as a “locked room” one. A local playwright/farmer is found dead in his field, his chest crushed and a couple of feathers attached to his shirt. Even though there’s some talk about an owl killing him, this isn’t really an impossible crime. It’s a good mystery, don’t get me wrong, with a clever method of murder and a killer of a final line, but temper your expectations accordingly.

“The Problem of the Miraculous Jar” presents a more traditional locked room. A couple return from their trip abroad bearing a gift for Rita Perkins, a friend of theirs: a jar from Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. There’s some brief drama at the party when Rita faints, but the party goes well. The jar is even filled with water as a joke, but both Rita and Dr. Sam confirm that it’s still water. Shortly after, Rita calls Sam in distress, saying she drank something before cutting off. Dr. Sam goes to her house, finding it locked tight, the snow unbroken on the ground, and Rita dead of poison. And as you might have guessed, the jar is now found to contain poisoned wine.

This is another story that I liked a little more on my re-read. The main clue is pretty obvious and I caught it on my first read, although the “how” still requires a little more thought to piece together. However, the whole thing hinges on someone keeping quiet about something without ever questioning it, and the killer’s motive for doing what they do is very weak. (ROT13: V haqrefgnaq gur xvyyre jnagvat gb oevat cbvfba vagb gur ubhfr fb ab bar ernyvmrf gung gurl tnir vg gb gur ivpgvz, ohg jul qb vg va n jnl gung’f vzcbffvoyr sbe ab tbbq ernfba (rfcrpvnyyl fvapr gur thl jub unf n erchgngvba sbe fbyivat ybpxrq ebbz zlfgrevrf jvyy trg vaibyirq), naq jvyy cbvag gur svatre bs fhfcvpvba qverpgyl ng lbh, fvapr lbh oebhtug gur wne va gur svefg cynpr? Guvaxvat nobhg vg, V’z abg fher jul Qe. Fnz qbrfa’g tvir zber nggragvba gb gur pbhcyr rneyvre, fvapr lbh’q guvax gurl’q or gur svefg crbcyr lbh’q dhrfgvba.)

Dr. Sam goes to New Bedford, where Herman Melville first got on a whaling ship, in “The Problem of the Enchanted Terrace.” Dr. Sam and Mary head there with two friends and stop at a Melville museum run by a friend of the couple. His neighbor lives on what is allegedly the site of the inn that Melville stayed at before boarding, and apparently Melville’s ghost likes to hang out on the newly-built terrace. Dr. Sam and the friend’s backer stop at the house, only for a green light to lure the man out onto the terrace. Then a scream is heard and by the time Dr. Sam makes it outside, the man has vanished, leaving only a few drops of blood.

JJ really did not like this story, and I can understand why. The solution leans towards the ridiculous, and while I did solve it, I could see someone missing the needed clue. I happened to enjoy it, but I admit that if I’d read it in the previous collection, I might have been more critical.

“The Problem of the Unfound Door” is another good story. As World War II heats up, a group of Anglican nuns in Northmont move to ask for permission to let some schoolgirl refugees stay at their convent. The mayor is suspicious, but agrees to tour the convent with Dr. Sam. Dr. Sam arrives late, but sees the mayor standing among the nuns in a closed courtyard…but when he reaches them, the man has vanished, and the nuns are talking about him walking through an unfound door.

I suspect that most people will see how the disappearance was arranged quite quickly. However, the full details of what happened will take a little more work, and I’m pleased to say that there are plenty of clues, including one that I missed until this reread. Seemingly irrelevant scene-setting turns out to be very important to knowing what happened at the convent. I enjoyed this story when all was said and done.

“The Second Problem of the Covered Bridge” is obviously meant as a call-back to Dr. Sam’s very first adventure. Northmont is celebrating major milestones in its history, and they recognize the beginning of Dr. Sam’s detective career as one of them. A celebration will be held at the famous covered bridge that started it all, where the mayor will ride through on a horse and buggy. However, the celebration is interrupted by another baffling impossibility. As the mayor rides through, he suddenly shakes and falls off his horse. When Dr. Sam gets to him, he finds that the mayor has been shot in the head, even though the bridge has over two hundred people watching it on both sides.

I wasn’t very fond of this story. I like the idea of a story that calls back to some earlier Dr. Sam stories, but beyond the set-up and the mention of the Jennings Tobacco Company from “Curing Barn,” there isn’t anything else. The crime itself is also unsatisfying; I simply don’t like this type of solution (I’m not talking about the crime itself, but how it was carried out), and there’s one deduction (admittedly not needed to know the “how”) that depends on specific historical knowledge. It reads like Hoch saw that fact and tried to wrap it into a story. And I don’t fully understand why the culprit did some of what they did. (ROT13: Jul qvq gur znlbe yrnir gung abgr nobhg Ncevy 1922? Gb or n uvag nobhg uvf qrprcgvba? Uvf bofrffvba jvgu gung qngr vf zrnag gb vzcyl gung ur qvqa’g xabj gur cubar pnyy jnf snxrq, ohg fvapr ur snxrq vg uvzfrys, V’z sbeprq gb nffhzr gung vg jnf n thvygl pbafpvrapr.)

The collection wraps up with “The Problem of the Scarecrow Congress.” The new mayor of Northmont decides to host a “Best Scarecrow Contest” and display the winners in the redesigned town square. The competition goes off without a hitch and the scarecrows are put up, but a few days later, blood is seen coming from one of the winning scarecrows, and, when it’s taken down, it turns out to be the body of its maker. However, the victim had spoken to Dr. Sam an hour before about an intruder who left a straw doll with a needle in its heart in his kitchen, meaning that the killer somehow managed to switch the victim with the scarecrow (which was tied to the post with wire) in a public square in broad daylight.

This is another good story, but I think there’s a contradiction in one of the main clues that weakens it. There’s still a good chance that a reader will realize how the crime was committed, but that’s still a blemish on the story. It’s irritating, because there’s another really good clue that I suspect will sail past most readers. The motive is also…indirect is the best word for it, because we get so little detail on the backstory of the crime. The final issue I had was that this was one of those stories where the killer really did not need to do half of what they did. (ROT13: Rira vs gurve cyna unq jbexrq nf vagraqrq, Qe. Fnz abgrf gung gur nhgbcfl jbhyq unir fubja gung gur ivpgvz qvrq rneyvre gung qnl.) In spite of these flaws, I still enjoyed the story; it was quite fun.

All in all, this collection soothed my fears that my Hoch love was a fluke; there are quite a few really solid stories here. It’s made me hyped up for the final collection of stories, and for that alone, I appreciate it. Highly Recommended.

Other reviews: Beneath the Stains of Time, Mysteries, Short and Sweet, The Invisible Event, MysteryFile, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Fifteen Years Ago...

EDIT: Added a link to ahsweetmysteryblog's post on Christie's use of mysterious cases in the past and changed "cold case" to what you see below.               


                                           *squawk!* Don’t forget DL-6! *squawk*


This is inspired by some of Ho-Ling’s posts on different tropes he likes seeing in mysteries, from closed circles to mysteries that have the supernatural as a key part of the story.

We all have those…”plot devices” is the wrong phrase, but I can’t think of anything else that fits beyond “trope,” that tend to suck us in whenever they appear. I’m not so much talking about locked room mysteries or dying message stories, but rather certain elements that hook us. For me, that would be the "mysterious case in the past."

You know what this looks like. At some point, the detective asks about a certain character, maybe a name that keeps popping up, and everyone just averts their eyes and starts mumbling about “that incident five years ago,” or something like that. It’s a case that seems to touch everyone and influence everything. There’s a memorial or gravesite, or an area that no one goes to anymore, or a family member still in the depths of grief. And of course, there’s a bundle of unanswered questions in the back of everyone’s minds.

Usually, if the detective isn’t there to solve the case, she inevitably finds out that the past case connects to her current one, and has to resolve it too. The case is usually unsolved, and the detective will only learn about it in bits and pieces, as the grief is too great, or the shame about how certain characters handled it too overwhelming. (And of course, sometimes everyone is vague to sustain the good old cover-up.) For me, that piecemeal approach is what draws me in with this plot; I enjoy seeing everyone whisper about “that murder” before finally someone starts to come clean about what they’re talking about, why that person is being shunned or why kids aren’t allowed to play in the abandoned factory anymore. Sometimes the past case provides eerie parallels to the present, digging up those unpleasant unanswered questions already mentioned. Sometimes the past case provides the motive for a modern one. While I haven’t read many of them, my understanding is that quite a few of the cases in Case Closed or The Kindachi Case Files have some mysterious crime in the past that often provides a motive in the present. Sometimes it complicates an accepted narrative, such as a body turning up that seems to match the M.O. of a killer long dead. It’s a pretty common device in modern mysteries; the Wesley Peterson novels by Kate Ellis, although I haven’t read them, or the Lake District Mysteries by Martin Edwards will probably jump to mind. And when it comes to past authors, John Dickson Carr liked to give his novels some vim with a mysterious murder, sometimes in the very distant past. Agatha Christie was also a very prolific user of this device.

Sometimes the mystery is already “solved.” If the detective is lucky, most people she meets will agree that the wrong man was convicted or that it wasn’t a suicide, and she’ll have plenty of help. If she’s unlucky, then almost everyone’s going to get real angry about her asking questions about odd evidence or shaky witness testimonies.

Of course one way or another, the detective’s presence, even if they weren’t there to investigate the cold case in the first place, will usually end up provoking more murders, such as in Paul Halter’s The Crimson Fog. Everyone, reader included, is quick to assume that the killer is tying up loose ends…but sometimes there's more to it. On rare occasions, such as Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs or Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, the focus is entirely on solving the cold case. I haven’t read the former, but the latter shows that this can be a bit of risk, since the narrative can get dragged down, especially when the case is so long in the past that most of the witnesses involved are dead.

But the series that always jumps to mind when I think about mysterious cases in the past is the Ace Attorney series. Ever since the first game’s DL-6 Incident, this long-running series usually features a mysterious case in its games, a case that connects most of the main cast and that, considering the series it’s a part of, ended with the wrong person taking the fall. The main character is usually unaware of this case, beyond the occasional mention that the other character tries to deflect from, but finds out that it is part of a seemingly-unconnected modern murder, and from there ends up solving it and bringing justice to the present. The most recent game in the series, The Great Ace Attorney 2, has a great example of this in the Professor case. While this is partly because the game is still fresh in my memory and I was pretty awed by it, I remember being fascinated by this bizarre series of murders that almost every supporting cast member knows something about, learning more and more as the details were given (The killer’s face was hidden with an iron mask during his trial! He rose from the dead!) and seeing the main character slowly but surely pick apart every attempt to cover up the dark truth of the case. It was a very good example of how this type of plot works.

So yeah, I really like this trope, and not just in mystery fiction. Horror fiction can sometimes make even more effective use of it. Unless it’s just a minor part of a larger plot, even the weakest mystery novel is elevated in my eyes once people start grumbling about how “This feels like seven years ago…” or saying “You ever heard of the Calendar murder?” It’s always a joy to see! Feel free to share your favorite examples of this trope in the comments below.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Nothing is Impossible: Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2014) by Edward D. Hoch

Cover image from Mysteries, Short and Sweet. 

And now it’s time for the third Dr. Sam collection, Nothing is Impossible: Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne. I’d waited years for this collection, and I admit that my first impressions weren’t the best. It felt like a weaker than normal collection that didn’t live up to the high standards set by the previous ones. I felt that maybe my lack of enjoyment was due to me fearing that Hoch wasn’t as good as I’d thought; that my inexperience with mysteries and my nostalgia poisoning made me hype up the early stories. Sadly, this re-read didn’t really change my opinion about the collection; it’s still poor. That being said, there were a few solutions that, while not amazing, were still pretty good.

We start off with “The Problem of the Graveyard Picnic,” which sees Dr. Sam moving his office to Northmont’s Pilgrim Memorial Hospital. His office overlooks a park/cemetery, where he sees a bizarre sight during a walk. A couple are picnicking when the woman suddenly gets up and runs for a nearby bridge. Dr. Sam and her husband chase her down, but she falls off into the creek and her body is found caught on a dead tree. It looks like an inexplicable accident, but Dr. Sam suspects foul play. However, the victim had no (potentially drugged/poisoned) food in her stomach, no one was near enough to push her off, and the bridge was smooth concrete.

I admit that “woman trips on nothing” is a bit hard to make a mystery out of, and I think that Hoch recognized this. The actual solution--that I think most people will think of--is never considered at all until the end, and there are a couple of plot threads that feel like padding, although one of them does get worked into the story. That being said, I will admit that I was caught off-guard by just how many clues there were (and more importantly, how many I missed) on my re-read, so it can’t be faulted on that aspect.

Next up is “The Problem of the Crying Room,” which involves Northmont’s new movie theater. The projectionist, a drunkard, is found to have shot himself in his apartment, but he leaves behind a bizarre suicide note where he confesses to shooting the mayor to death on opening night while the man was in the “crying room,” which is “[A] soundproof room for families with babies or small children.” The problem? The opening is tomorrow and the mayor is still unshot. He seemingly laughs off the threat and intends to watch the first bit of the movie in the room, but the theater owner asks Dr. Sam to sit in there with him and for Sheriff Lens to stand guard outside. In spite of the precautions, the mayor is almost killed by a bullet. It’s a shot that should be impossible, since as Sheriff Lens points out, “There’s no bullet hole in the window or the walls--or the ceiling. And none of the holes in those soundproof tiles are big enough for a bullet.”

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t fully live up to the intriguing premise. While the cluing works well enough (I actually missed the clue I noticed on my first read-through during this re-read), the mystery again suffers from a lack of good alternative solutions. Also, the shooter’s plan makes no sense. (ROT13: Fheryl, vs gur vqrn vf gb qvfperqvg nal shgher oynpxznvy yrggref, gur orfg jnl gb qb gung vfa’g gb znxr n frrzvatyl vzcbffvoyr cerqvpgvba, naq gura nyzbfg shysvyy vg?) From what I understood, the culprit would have accomplished the exact opposite of their goal if things had gone as planned.

Next up is “The Problem of the Fatal Fireworks.” It’s Independence Day in Northmont, and it looks like the only crime problem Dr. Sam might have to deal with is a broken window at the local car repair shop. However, he’s soon witness to a horrible tragedy.

Billy and Teddy Oswald are a pair of brothers who own the local garage, and are convinced that the broken window is part of a plan by a local community leader to buy it. Both Dr. Sam and Billy’s girlfriend think that it’s more likely that it’s an accident, and Billy turns his attention to setting off firecrackers. He pops open the sealed package and sets out for some fun, but can’t get them lit. His exasperated brother sets out to do it himself, but the fuse he lights burns differently than a normal firecracker...and his life is quickly taken by a violent explosion courtesy of a stick of dynamite. But how could a killer slip it into the sealed package? And which brother was the target?

This is a pretty minor story, all things considered. I don’t think that the solution will baffle experienced fans of the genre. This time Hoch does give us an alternative explanation from Sheriff Lens, and I liked it, especially the motive. The cluing is once again solid. There’s also a good bit at a warehouse featured in the previous story that I had completely forgotten about until the re-read. But once again, a plot thread gets rather abruptly dropped with no clear resolution.

We now move on to a personal case for Dr. Sam: “The Problem of the Unfinished Painting.” A woman is found strangled to death in front of her easel. Her maid was outside the only door to the studio for an hour, and the windows were all locked. However, Dr. Sam has bigger problems than the impossible crime. You see, even though I keep typing “Dr.” Sam, he hasn’t done all that much doctoring beyond giving times of death. In this story, his noble laying aside of his duty to solve impossible crimes--while deeply appreciated by us--starts to weigh on him. One of the patients who’s not getting Dr. Sam’s full attention is Tommy Forest, a young boy suffering from polio. His life is hanging in the balance, and he needs an iron lung to survive. Dr. Sam’s attention is taken from him and another patient while he’s investigating the murder, and the boy’s death causes him to step away from the detection game.

I admit, I don’t like how this was handled. The story goes out of its way to emphasize how Dr. Sam couldn’t have done anything even if the murder had never happened and while his guilt is well-handled, it feels to me like an unwillingness to commit to Dr. Sam actually being responsible for this. I also don’t know why Hoch does this, since the ending makes clear that this wasn’t intended as a finale for the series, and he moves past it pretty quickly in the next story.

The impossible crime is pretty good, being a really rather simple but clever trick. However, the location of a vital object isn’t given until the summation, although perhaps it would have been common knowledge when the story was published. I enjoyed it, but I can see others finding it a bit disappointing.

The next story, “The Problem of the Poisoned Bottle,” takes place as Prohibition is wrapping up, with most of Northmont at Molly’s Cafe to celebrate with some legal spirits. In spite of a brief scare, the drinks arrive, and the mayor gets first dibs. He picks his bottle, gets a glass poured, and drops dead from cyanide poisoning. Not only was the bottle sealed, but the mayor chose it at random in full view of others out of a box of eleven other bottles, none of which were poisoned. How was it done? Well…

When I first read this story, I really didn’t like it. The solution to the “How did the killer know which bottle the victim would pick?” is not good at all. I can see how Hoch could have hinted at it and how it could have worked, but he just has a character spell it out to Dr. Sam in an incredibly obvious way. The other parts of the solution are a little better; I’d forgotten about a certain deception that Hoch pulled until I reread the story, and I was very impressed by how casually it was clued. The final confrontation with the killer was genuinely suspenseful as well. The motive requires some specialized knowledge, although it’s a pretty minor part of the story. I can’t say that I liked it a lot, but certainly more than my first readthrough.

“The Problem of the Invisible Acrobat” sees the circus come to Northmont, and this one has as its gimmick the “Flying Lampizi Brothers”, five acrobats who sail through the circus tent. Dr. Sam is watching the show with Sheriff Lens’ nephew when he realizes something: there are only four brothers swinging through the air. Indeed, one of the brothers is later reported missing...but all five went to the top of the tent, and there’s nowhere else to go…

I enjoyed this one when I first read it, since I missed the solution. In retrospect, Dr. Sam should have figured out how it was done earlier, but it’s a simple, clever solution. When I reread it, one element that I forgot about made me worried that Hoch was going to pull out a cheap solution, but this element is mostly well explained, barring a small but important part. The main weakness of the story is the culprit’s motive, which is handwaved away as “They were mad, mad, MAD!!!” I was also skeptical of a piece of evidence that Dr. Sam uses to show how the culprit is X and not Y, but it’s a minor part of the story.

The next story is “The Problem of the Curing Barn.” The titular barn is part of Jasper Jennings’s tobacco operation, a structure that resembles an unfinished barn where tobacco leaves can be left to dry in the open air. Dr. Sam mostly just handles the fieldhands’ injuries, but Jennings’s wife Sarah pushes him into investigating some threatening notes alleging an affair between her and one of the fieldhands, Roy Hansen. However, his attention is soon taken up by Jennings’ bizarre murder.

Jennings goes out to the barn with Hanson and Jennings’s field boss to repair a fuse in the barn, but then Dr. Sam hears someone slash Jennings’s throat. The lights kick on almost immediately after, but neither man is found to have a weapon. Complicating matters is that the evidence shows that the killer was left-handed, but both men, not to mention all the other suspects, are found to be right-handed. Honestly, this aspect will probably make the killer stand out to the eagle-eyed reader, but the main clue passed me right by when I first read this story, so I thought that it was cleverer than it was on that first readthrough. The solution to the vanishing weapon is simple but workable, although there is one minor aspect of timing that is either wrong or that I didn’t understand.

“The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin” sees Dr. Sam and his nurse April taking a vacation to Maine in Dr. Sam’s new Mercedes-Benz. April quickly falls for the innkeeper, Andre, but murder intervenes when they find a man stabbed to death in a nearby cabin. Snow has drifted against the door and the only nearby tracks are those of a wandering bobcat. The story does a decent job of presenting alternative solutions to the crime (ROT13: vapyhqvat bar gung freirf nf n pyhr gb ubj vg jnf ernyyl qbar), but something about the final solution doesn’t sit right with me. The clues all work (although one is a dead giveaway), even the broad explanation of how the culprit did it makes sense, but the nuts and bolts just don’t work for me. The way Dr. Sam explains it, I’m not sure why the victim was so unafraid of his killer.

With April enjoying the sound of wedding bells, Dr. Sam looks for a new nurse in “The Problem of the Thunder Room.” A chance accident introduces him to May Russo, a former dentist’s assistant who’s looking for a slower life, unaware of the impossible crimes that flummox the populace every few months. May proves to be a skilled nurse, beyond a phobia of thunderstorms. It’s during one such storm that May is the center of her own impossibility.

A farmer is murdered with a hammer and his wife attacked when the couple are in their “thunder room,” a windowless room meant to be a shelter from storms. Oddly, it’s not the scene of a locked room mystery, as the couple was attacked when they opened the door, but the wife swears that May was the attacker…but she has an alibi proved by Dr. Sam himself! She was unsettled by the storm and went to lay down, and was only out of his sight for fifteen minutes, leaving her no time to get to the scene of the crime and back. But if she didn’t do it, why would the victim lie? The solution is okay, with some decent misdirection. At first, I first felt that said misdirection all hinged on Dr. Sam asking a question in a specific way, but I’m more satisfied with it on a reread. My main issues are that the backstory is a little too vague for the horror of it to set in, and that the killer’s motive once again boils down to “They were mad, mad, MAD!!!” Of course, it had been two years since the last time Hoch used that motive in this series, but I still didn’t care for it.

Dr. Sam meets his next nurse in “The Problem of the Black Roadster” in even more exciting circumstances: a bank robbery in progress. Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens catch some robbers fleeing Northmont’s bank in the titular roadster, but their pursuit is cut off by Mary Best, a nurse who decided to take a shortcut on her way to a job interview in Springfield. Sheriff Lens calls for roadblocks to be put up, but the roadster has somehow vanished, leaving the bank manager dead and the employees handcuffed in the back room.

As I write this review, I realize that the central problem is quite broad. Sure the roadster didn’t pass through the roadblocks, but it’s not like it vanishes from a tightly-defined space where there are only X number of ways it can get out. The story even acknowledges that there are “plenty of places to hide a car.” It should have been a tighter problem, in my opinion. Dr. Sam and Mary both get a chance to shine here, with Dr. Sam pointing out a very good false solution, and Mary getting the glory of the actual solution. My issue with this is that she points out evidence that frankly Dr. Sam shouldn’t have missed, and her solution, while fairly clued, isn’t as clever as the false one. I feel that the real and false solutions should have been swapped.

Obviously, Mary joins Dr. Sam after this story, and I really like her as a character. April was just sort of there, and didn’t really contribute much to the mystery plots beyond proposing ridiculous false solutions. Mary is much more proactive, either joining in on the investigation or at least proposing some really good theories about the crime. Maybe that will change later in the series, but her showings in this collection and the next are very good.

A good example of this is “The Problem of the Two Birthmarks,” where she contributes to solving the murder of a nurse. This rather convoluted story opens with Dr. Sam going to a local roadhouse to investigate a possible source of food poisoning. By the end of the night, a dummy with an unusual birthmark will be “killed,” the patient with food poisoning will be nearly smothered to death, and the body of a nurse will turn up in a locked operating room...and they key is in the possession of a man with a perfect alibi.

I wanted to like this story, but all these elements really don’t come together well at all. The killer’s plan is pointlessly convoluted, hinging on them getting very lucky three times. The explanations for the murdered dummy and the locked room are both quite weak. I did like one clue that makes the killer incredibly obvious if you catch it, but even if you don’t, the killer is very obvious. Like a lot of these stories, it suffers from a lack of suspects.

“The Problem of the Dying Patient” puts Dr. Sam himself in danger of losing his medical license. While treating one of his patients on house call, an old woman named Betty Willis, Dr. Sam gives her a digitalis pill. He barely turns away before she gasps out and dies, a victim of cyanide poisoning. The pill Dr. Sam gave her wasn’t tampered with, and she didn’t eat or drink anything else. Unlike “Black Roadster,” this is actually a very tight problem; the different ways Betty Willis could have been poisoned are analyzed at length. On the one hand, if you can’t figure it out, it helps make the poisoning sound completely impossible. On the other hand, if you do figure it out, then you’ll spend these segments waiting for Dr. Sam to see the obvious. I did not, and while the solution wasn’t awe-inspiring, I did like it. The evidence Dr. Sam gives is pretty weak, though I like how it requires the reader to pay attention and connect two bits of information when that connection isn’t obvious. There was one deception that I liked as well, but it’s not handled perfectly. (ROT13: Gur nffhzcgvba gung gurer’f ab zbgvir sbe gur pevzr orpnhfr gur ivpgvz jnf nyernql qlvat, naq gung nffhzcgvba orvat oybja ncneg ol bgure punenpgref, naq rira Qe. Fnz uvzfrys vs lbh’er cnlvat nggragvba, vf jryy-qbar. Ohg yvxr V fnvq, gur fgbel qbrfa’g dhvgr pneel vg nyy gur jnl guebhtu, jvgu Qe. Fnz npgvat nf vs fur jnf ba gur iretr bs qrngu ng bar cbvag, naq gur fgbel abg ernyyl npxabjyrqtvat guvf zvfgnxr qhevat gur fhzzngvba.)

TomCat liked this story much less than I did, and I see his point about how the method should have left evidence. (Be warned, he gives the solution here.)

He also wasn’t impressed (although he liked it better than “Dying Patient”) with “The Problem of the Protected Farmhouse,” although it’s my personal favorite in this collection. It shows what I consider Hoch’s best feature as a mystery writer: his ability to make everything, even information given in a half-sentence, play a role in the solution and justify why the witness/killer/accomplice would act a certain way. The victim this time is a paranoid Nazi who spends his time in his fortress of a house: locked, watched by FBI agents, guarded by a dog, and surrounded by an electric fence. The method is simple, but I like how Hoch clued it; like I said, every little detail justifies why the killer did this and not that, and even why the murder had to be a locked room one. There are a couple parts that are weak (the locked door, the grocery list), and the motive for the crime is nowhere near as bizarre as Dr. Sam makes it out to be, but on the whole this is a great little story.

The next story is one of the rare mystery crossovers. “The Problem of the Haunted Tepee” sees an old man seeking out Dr. Sam to help resolve a mystery from the plains of the Old West. Said old man is Ben Snow, a Billy the Kid look-alike who served as the protagonist of Hoch’s Old West mystery stories. Snow tells the account of how he ran into a Sioux encampment with a strange feature: a tepee that has killed three people who slept in it. Before his time with them is over the tepee will claim a fourth victim, but how was it done? On the one hand, this is another story where Mary gets to contribute to the solution, but said solution mostly hinges on specialized knowledge. You either know how the deaths happened or you don’t. Dr. Sam does tie up one last plot thread, but in an inversion of “Black Roadster,” he picks up on something that Mary shouldn’t have missed. Still, a good story on the whole, and one that I would have liked more if I was more familiar with Snow.

The collection wraps up with “The Problem of the Blue Bicycle.” Dr. Sam has a new house, and often watches Angela Rinaldi, the teenage girl across the street, lead a group of neighborhood children on a bike ride along with her friends. One night, the girl suddenly vanishes while on a ride. Her friends and the children they led saw her round a corner, and once they followed, they saw her bicycle lying in the road with her nowhere in sight. There were “mowed fields of hay on both sides of the road,” and no trenches for her to hide in, yet she vanished. I enjoyed this story, although that was in part because I missed the solution, which is honestly quite simple but also pretty obvious. The contradiction that Dr. Sam catches the culprit in is almost clever, but when I reread the scene in question, they didn’t actually say what Dr. Sam claims they said. It’s a pity, because it’s a clever contradiction once again based on seemingly-trivial information delivered throughout the story. I thought the ending was quietly impactful as well, and a good end to the collection.

Sadly, this is my least-favorite of the Dr. Sam collections. Part of it might just be that I became more experienced with mysteries and gained a better understanding of how Hoch structures his stories; had I read this shortly after finishing the second collection, I might have had a higher opinion of it. I’m not sure why this streak of stories is so poor; I’d be interested in reading his other fiction published during the six years he wrote these stories to see if the one-story-a-month schedule (on top of everything else he was doing) was getting to him or if he just had a bad run with the Dr. Sam series in particular. It’s with a heavy heart that I label this as Not Recommended. Try one of the first two collections if you’re going to try the Dr. Sam stories, or Hoch in general.

Other reviews: Beneath the Stains of Time, Mysteries, Short and Sweet, Justice for the Corpse (links to earlier reviews in the post), MysteryFile, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel (first five stories; the collection as a whole).

Monday, July 4, 2022

More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne by Edward D. Hoch (2006)

And now, back to Hoch. This time, we have the second collection of Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories: More
Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne
. We kick off with “The Problem of the Revival Tent.” Dr. Sam is sucked into attending a revival with a professor who wants Dr. Sam’s opinion on the “healing” that goes on as part of a thesis “that American ritual is a factor of immense psychological power.” Dr. Sam witnesses a couple of his patients being “healed” by the boy evangelist Toby Yester, but when he sees one in pain outside the tent, he goes back in to give the boy’s father a piece of his mind and a punch to the face. Dr. Sam turns to leave, but turns when he hears the other man cry out...only to see that he has been stabbed with a sword, and there’s no trace of anyone else besides the two of them in the large, empty tent.

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 Pilgrims 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 alternative 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.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Remote Vol. 1-3 (2002/2004) by Seimaru Amagi (translated by Haruko Furukawa)

I'm back for now.

Even I understand how nothing but Hoch reviews can come off as tedious (although seeing as I keep going silent for months, this might not be an issue), so I’ve decided to break things up with reviews of a manga that I haven’t seen discussed: Seimaru Amagi’s Remote. ''Seimaru Amagi'' is one of the many, many, pennames of Japanese novelist Shin Kibayashi. The penname is mainly associated with the mystery manga The Case Files of Young Kindaichi (or The Kindaichi Case Files in the Tokyopop translation) but also with Tantei Gakuen Q. He's also one of TomCat’s fanboy obsessions. I’d seen Remote linked on Kibayashi’s Wikipedia page, didn’t see any other in-depth reviews on it (beyond some simple ones on Goodreads), and decided that this was a niche that I needed to fill.

Tracking down information on this series was a pain since I had no idea where to look. Wikipedia, which as we all know is never wrong, says the series was written by “Tadashi Agi,” another of Kibayashi’s pennames...but on his actual page it says he wrote Remote under the Amagi name, which is backed up by the Tokyopop translation. The series started in 2002, and a live-action adaptation began the same year. The series does feel like a TV drama, with eleven ''episodes'' and simpler plots than I was expecting.

The premise is simple: Kurumi Ayaki is a former meter maid looking forward to her upcoming marriage to car salesman Shingo. Unfortunately, said fiancé's promotion isn’t happening, meaning she needs to go back to work to help pay for the wedding. Thankfully, her old precinct does have a position open, but not as a meter maid. Instead she’s made part of “Unsolved Crimes Division, Special Unit A,” under the command of Kozaburo Himruo. Himuro is an unconventional partner though. He lives in a room in his basement after an incident in his TRAGIC PAST (™) rendered him unable to feel emotions and left him with a serious case of agoraphobia (although I don’t remember if that word is ever used). As a result, Ayaki is equipped with a cell phone and headset that allows her and Himuro to communicate and exchange information.

The series kicks off with “Serial Killer Circus” (taking up Volume 1 and some of Volume 2), which is now the name of my new heavy metal band. The story opens with two police officers stumbling on a dancing clown, followed by finding a dead woman among some trash bags. A disk labeled “Stage 1” is in her hand, and the message “SEND MORE MONEY” is painted over her body. Ayaki is also witness to a clown dancing and humming a song shortly before the discovery of another body...a murder foreshadowed on the “Stage 1” disk. It seems that there’s a movement of murderous clowns (Amagi was clearly having visions of that clown panic of 2016), but who’s behind it, and what connects the victims?

This is more of a serial killer thriller than a fair mystery. Most of the story is Ayaki and Himuro trying to crack the killer’s codes and prevent more murders. I’m a little surprised that Ayaki didn’t pick up on the connection between the codes earlier, since it sprang out to me at once. Too much of the backstory is also delivered in an info dump and this drowns out the interesting idea behind the murders. (One part of the backstory both comes out of nowhere and feels very 2000ish, but I can’t explain without spoilers. There’s still a little exposition about the mastermind, albeit nothing major, at the beginning of the next story!) There is some fair play to the story, in that you can deduce the mastermind if you’re paying attention to the art, but it’s a pretty minor aspect.

But while we’re on that, I have to register one of my biggest complaints with this manga: the aforementioned art. My understanding is that Amagi is mainly associated with his sister. Fumiya Sato, who draws The Case Files of Young Kindaichi series. The artist for this manga, however, is Tetsuya Koshiba, and I don’t know if I’m fond of his artwork. Characters who are the focus of the panel are generally fine, but background/minor characters sometimes seem underdrawn, or with a bad case of what I can only describe as “fish lips.”

All that griping aside, I have to say that “Serial Killer Circus” held up a little better than I remembered it (since I’m rereading the manga for these reviews). There’s too much “I quit, wait, no I don’t, but actually I do!” from Ayaki, and Himuro’s emotionlessness is dialed up for the sake of tension, but it was fun on the whole.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the next story, “Survival School,” which takes up the rest of Volume 2 and most of Volume 3. The story kicks off with Ayaki meeting Shingo for a date at a café, only to clash with students from the “elite” Shoto High. Shortly after, a bomb destroys the café, and suspicion falls on the students/faculty of the school. Ayaki is sent in to question a former classmate of Himuro, now a teacher, but the interview is interrupted by a bomb threat. The bomber has rigged the school with bombs, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. The name of this dangerous maniac endangering hundreds of lives?

Chicken.

Apparently Amagi read too much Terry Goodkind. It does make more sense in context, but still.

Anyway, Ayaki goes undercover as a new student in order to find out who Chicken is before news of the situation spreads to the student body...and when it inevitably does, things get violent fast. However, this escalation leads into one of the story’s issues. My understanding is that stories like this are at least in part about seeing what happens when otherwise respectable people are thrown into a dangerous situation that pushes them to the brink, seeing their true personalities and values exposed. However, most of the characters are jerks with little redeeming qualities, even before things get bad. The closest we get to character breakdown is a rapist jerk becoming...a paranoid rapist jerk.

There’s not much of a mystery here either. It’s even more of a thriller than “Serial Killer Circus,” and it does have an exciting climax, but that comes at the expense of the cluing. I think that you really only get clues about Chicken’s identity at the very end, but they’re pretty obvious and I might have imagined them in my desperate attempt to find actual cluing. Pretty much all of the important information you get is found offscreen. A murder is implied to be important, but doesn’t get explained beyond implication. Even the “undercover” aspect of this story doesn’t amount to much. It’s annoying, since the byplay between Himuro and Ayaki is much better here, with no quitting/not quitting.

My other major issue with Remote as a whole is all of the fanservice everywhere. I get that this is meant to be an adult series, but that doesn’t mean I want or desire near-nudity shoved in my face all the time. It also comes off as...crude in this story, considering an incident that happens near the climax. It felt pointless and gross.

All in all, these first three volumes don’t exactly bode well. Volume 3 ends with the start of what I remember being the worst story in this series, but I do want to assure the reader that there are some good mysteries in this series. Later. Not Recommended (for now).

Monday, June 22, 2020

Diagnosis: Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (1996) by Edward D. Hoch

Disclaimer: The book cover image comes from In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.

This has been a long time coming.

I’ve made no secret about my love of Edward D. Hoch. While the gleam of nostalgia has faded away some over the years, he remains one of my favorite mystery authors. He’s created many different characters, ranging from the spy C. Jeffery Rand to Billy the Kid look-alike Ben Snow to the master thief of the valueless Nick Velvet. However, the subject of this post will be that impossible crime expert Dr. Sam Hawthorne. A doctor in the New England town of Northmont circa 1920s-1940s, Dr. Sam enjoys entertaining guests with “a small libation” and tales of his crime-solving career. Crippen and Landru have been publishing collections of Dr. Sam’s adventures for a while now, and at long last they’ve collected all 60-some stories. This collection is the first of them.

Diagnosis: Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne holds a special place in my heart, since it was one of my first introductions to the impossible crime genre and older mystery fiction as a whole (a step beyond things like Encyclopedia Brown). I actually reviewed this collection way back in the early days of the blog, but it was lost to my efforts to add tags to it. However, this loss provided an opportunity for me. You see, I read (and reviewed) the second collection of Dr. Sam stories, read (and did not review) the third one...and then, by the time I got the fourth one, I had an idea in my head (or by the time I was going to get to it the fifth and final collection either came out or would be coming out soon and I decided on this idea): I’ve decided to read and review all five collections, although the reviews will not be in a row. I hope to break them up with some reviews of a little-known (as far as I know) mystery manga.

But that’s enough talking. Let’s review.

The series kicks off with “The Problem of the Covered Bridge.” Dr. Sam is new to the town of Northmont, but is already liked by the citizens, such as the Bringlow family. Hank, the family’s son, invites Dr. Sam to follow Hank to his home to check up on his father. Hank’s fiancee rides with Dr. Sam to make sure he doesn’t get lost. Hank speeds ahead, and when Dr. Sam and the fiancee catch up to the covered bridge that he had to have entered, they find that the tracks of his horse and buggy have come to a complete stop in the middle of the bridge, and the only remaining trace is a broken jar of applesauce that Hank was meant to deliver. At least until the horse and buggy turn up the next morning carrying Hank’s body, dead of a shotgun blast to the back of the head…

This is a pretty good introduction to the Dr. Sam stories. Hoch manages to quickly establish Northmont, Dr. Sam, and other details like Dr. Sam’s yellow Pierce-Arrow Runabout car. The central mystery is attention-getting, with a good solution, although one that I don’t totally like for minor reasons. I can see the experienced mystery reader seeing through it, but it is still well-done, and this re-read helped me to appreciate the extent of the misdirection that Hoch throws at you during this story, which was a common-theme during this re-read.

“The Problem of the Old Gristmill” brings naturalist Henry Cordwainer to Northmont to study the local wildlife and the seasons. He starts as a recluse, but soon becomes good friends with Dr. Sam and the son of the mill’s owner. However, all good things must come to an end and Cordwainer gets ready to return to teaching, sending his journals via train to Boston. However, that night a light is seen in the gristmill, and it proves to be a fire. The mill is almost destroyed, and Cordwainer’s body is pulled out...killed by a blow to the head. And to make matters more mysterious, when Cordwainer’s brother tries to retrieve the just-arrived journals, he and Dr. Sam find that the journals have vanished from the locked strongbox that they were sent in.

This is another solid mystery. Although I think that the impossible crime is a little simple, there’s a very good motive behind the disappearance. I think that some can argue that the whodunit pushes the fair play boundary a bit and I don’t disagree.

“The Problem of the Lobster Shack” has Dr. Sam making the acquaintance of Dr. Felix Dory, a famous brain surgeon who invites Dr. Sam to his daughter’s engagement party. The main entertainment is magician Julian Chabert, who promises an escape from a lobster shack. Chabert is tied and chained up to a post in the shack, the shack’s door is locked, and the windows are boarded up. A whole crowd of people surround the shack, but when Chabert doesn’t emerge, the shack is opened...to reveal that someone has slipped into the locked shack in full view of everyone and cut his throat. This time, the solution is a little more unexpected (though still fairly clued), and the killer is a little better hidden. There is one twist that made me wonder why Chabert would still be hired in the first place, but that’s it. And Dr. Sam gets some good characterization here in regards to Dr. Dory and how he handles the murderer.

“The Problem of the Haunted Bandstand” is one of my personal favorites of this series. During the Fourth of July celebration, the band is interrupted by a hooded figure with a noose around his neck stabbing the mayor in the chest (this is the start of Hoch’s hatred of mayors in this series). The figure vanishes in a flash of light, leaving only the hood and noose, even though the figure was rushed immediately, there was no place to hide on the bandstand, and the bandstand itself was surrounded. The solution is effective, although I think that the clues to the killer stand out a bit, since there aren’t a whole lot of good alternate solutions. That being said, I love the motive for why the crime is done in this way, since it’s rooted in the time period. I feel like that if you’re going to write a historical story, it should actually rely on that setting in some way, and this story fulfills that.

The next story, “The Problem of the Locked Caboose,” is a bit of a let-down. Dr. Sam is called to fill it for another doctor in another town and has to catch the train to make it. Said train is transporting a collection of jewelry, which is kept in a locked safe in a locked caboose containing a guard. Needless to say that before a few hours have passed the guard is found stabbed to death and the jewelry stolen, the caboose still solidly locked. And the only real clue is the victim’s dying message, “Elf”...

The problem is that that dying message is really the only clue you have. Up until now (and later in the collection), Hoch’s stories have been based on a tapestry of clues. I mentioned this in my review of No Killer Has Wings, but Hoch’s stories often operate on a chain of logic: A->B->C->D->E, or something like A+B+C+D=E. There are normally quite a few clues once all is said and done. In this one though, if you don’t know the meaning of the main clue, you can’t solve it. Hoch even introduces two more clues during the summation that in my opinion he could have easily slipped in earlier. (You can argue that he did with one of them, but it’s quite vague and a bit of a stretch in my opinion.)

Next up we have “The Problem of the Little Red Schoolhouse.” A young boy goes missing from the schoolyard after recess under the watchful eye of the teacher. She last saw little Tommy Belmont swinging on the swing, but after calling the children in, she finds that he’s vanished, even though there are no places for either him or a kidnaper to hide. When the family starts getting ransom calls, the police are brought in. It’s a good, tense story with an unsettling experience in the house of a suspected old man, but the mystery felt a little weak. I would think that the other students would notice something amiss, and one aspect of the culprit is barely hinted at. The story also has Dr. Sam forget to talk to a character who could clear everything up until near the end of the story. Still good, but not as solid as some of the others.

“The Problem of the Christmas Steeple” is the first Dr. Sam Christmas story. This time, Northmont’s white Christmas is being thrown off by a Roma encampment nearby, leading to much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the townsfolk. And to make matters worse for them, the local parson is inviting them to church. Dr. Sam isn’t impressed by the controversy, but things get interesting when Sheriff Lens goes to speak with the parson after the service. He and Dr. Sam see the parson run into the steeple, but after they break down the locked door and head up, they find the parson stabbed and the leader of the encampment saying he didn’t do it.

Needless to say, he didn’t. As Dr. Sam says, “...[H]ow could you have a locked room that wasn’t even a room--that was in fact open on all four sides?” But not only could no one have slipped out of the steeple past the locked door and Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens, but the “open” sides of the steeple are blocked by chicken wire. That leads him to his next comment, “And how could you have a mystery when the obvious murderer was found right there with the weapon and the body?” The killer is more of a surprise this time, and while the “how” might be obvious, I was honestly impressed at how well-done the cluing is. I really think that this is one of the reasons why I like Hoch so much; his skill at having even seemingly-irrelevant details be an important part of or a hint to the solution.

But on a nitpicky note, Dr. Sam’s comment in the epilogue is wrong. This wasn't the first time he'd done this.

“The Problem of Cell 16” is another well-constructed story. While trying to get help for a man shot in what looks like a hunting accident, Dr. Sam accidentally crashes into a car driven by a rude Frenchman. When he causes a ruckus at the garage, Sheriff Lens is called in...and arrests the man on the spot. It turns out that the man is Georges Reme, a conman known as “The Eel” due to his skill in escaping police custody, a feat that he repeats in Northmont. He’s locked up in Sheriff Lens’ new jail, which sports barred windows and an unpickable door. Even if The Eel were to get around the cell door, if he wanted to leave the jail he’d have to get around another bolted door guarded by Sheriff Lens himself. It should come as no surprise that the cell is found empty less than twenty-four hours later. Another simple but solid solution, and Hoch does a good job of weaving the suspicious shooting into the plot as well. The cluing is once again very well done.

Next up is a sort-of sequel, “The Problem of the Country Inn.” Dr. Sam is called in when the owner of a local country inn is found shot to death, apparently by an armed robber. The clerk claims that the robber fled down a back hallway, but Sheriff Lens is suspicious since the back door is firmly bolted on the inside. Since this is the ninth impossible-looking crime Dr. Sam has seen in four years, he delays the arrest to look into the crime further. He also tries to soothe some bad blood between two townsfolk left over from the previous story...and catches the robber in another robbery at the inn, and then sees him run down the hallway and disappear...with the door solidly bolted. I’m not as fond of the solution here, since it’s hard to fully clue, but kudos to Hoch for coming up with two possible solutions to the impossibility...and using the fact that they would each only work once to make it seem even more impossible.

“The Problem of the Voting Booth” is set during the final day of the county elections, with Sheriff Lens facing a tough challenge from Henry G. Oatis. The two are supposed to meet at a barber shop serving as a temporary voting station for a photo op, but everyone involved forgot that this is Northmont and that Dr. Sam is cursed. Oatis goes into the booth to fill out his ballot, but stumbles out of it a couple minutes later, blood on his shirt and a stab wound in his chest. Eight people were surrounding the booth, and no one saw anything. As Dr. Sam puts it, “Our eyes had not deceived us. Henry G. Oatis had been stabbed to death while alone in the voting booth, with no less than eight people watching from outside, and with a knife that seemed to have vanished into thin air.”

However, I can see Hoch’s solution disappointing. It’s fair (although one major giveaway clue is only given right before the end--which is when Dr. Sam realizes what happened too, and the key clues are given before that), but I can see readers not approving of it. I accept it, because Hoch throws two twists into the mix that keeps the solution from being lazy. (Although I concede that one bit of information isn’t given until the summation, although it’s just the motive.)

“The Problem of the County Fair” presents us with probably the most ambitious impossible crime in the collection. Northmont is having it’s annual county fair, with the main attraction being the time capsule, set to be buried for one hundred years. The only shadow over the proceedings is the return of Max McNear, the old flame of Gert Friar. He was kicked out of Northmont after sending the current mayor’s son through a window, but told Gert that he was coming back. Dr. Sam is distracted with participating in the burying of the time capsule, but soon after is met by a distraught Gert who tells him that she found Max’s truck...with bloodstains on the front seat. When an arithmetic book that should have gone into the time capsule is found on the ground, stained with blood, Dr. Sam has the capsule dug back up...revealing, among all the items, Max McNear’s body.

“We looked at it logically. And logically it couldn’t have happened.” The capsule didn’t contain the body when it was put into the ground. The capsule was under constant observation while it was being buried. No one could have dug a tunnel to it, and the walls of the capsule are still intact. It’s a great premise, but I think Hoch recognized that there are only so many alternate solutions with this one, since this story wraps up pretty quickly after the discovery of the body. The cluing is good, but a little clunky, since the solution is such a specific one. Said solution is good, however. There’s one sequence though, right before Dr. Sam goes to confront the killer, where he says a really odd line to someone he knows isn’t involved in the crime, along with an odd piece of narration. It almost feels like Hoch is trying to pull a last-minute bluff on the reader. It’s the only real off bit in the story.

The collection wraps up with “The Problem of the Old Oak Tree.” The talkies have come to Northmont in the form of a movie about barnstorming pilots which Dr. Sam has been hired to provide medical assistance for if needed. However, as usual, it’s his detective skills that are needed as he once again is at the scene of an impossible crime. The star and his stunt double take off into the sky. The double jumps from the plane, opens his parachute...and careens into the titular tree, where it’s said a Revolutionary War traitor was hanged. The tree apparently has a thirst for blood now, as when the double proves unresponsive, Dr. Sam investigates and finds a wire wrapped tightly around the man’s neck. He was alive (Or was he?) when he jumped from the plane, and no one else approached him after he crashed, so how was he killed? It’s a good story, although it requires the victim to be a little credulous. Again, I don’t think that the experienced mystery reader will have too much trouble with this one since again there are only so many alternative solutions, but that could just be due to me reading the solution over and over again over the years.

And indeed, the fact that I've had this collection for years and read it on and off (though not in full like I did for this review) during that time makes it hard for me to be objective about it, even discounting the nostalgia factor. Yeah, the mysteries seem more obvious now, but is that because I’ve read this so much that I know them too well? Is it because I’ve read enough Hoch that I’ve gotten used to how he clues stories? (Although I will say that while re-reading this I noticed one way he manipulates the reader that I never noticed before, so make of that what you will.) Is it because they’re genuinely easy mystery stories?

I don’t know. But I do know I still love this collection and this re-read showed me that there was even more to love, even if there’s nostalgia poisoning involved. Highly Recommended.

Christian Henriksson has a positive review here, Ho-Ling has a brief but positive look here, and the late, lamented Noah Stewart has a more critical review here.

Next time, we’ll be looking at that murder mystery manga.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Man Who Read Mysteries (2018) by William Brittain (edited by Josh Pachter)

And there goes the name of my future autobiography...

While lurking among mystery fans, one name that I noticed coming up a bit in regards to the mystery short story was William Brittain. Brittain was a teacher, a writer of Young Adult novels (including The Wish Giver, which is apparently pretty well-known and also a book I’d only vaguely heard of), and writer of mystery short stories. I had only read one story of his before this, “The Impossible Footprint” in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries by Mike Ashley. This was far from his only story, but there was no place to find them beyond anthologies and digging your way through old mystery magazines. Now, this has changed.

The Man Who Read Mysteries is a collection of Brittain’s stories edited by Josh Pachter. It collects all of his “The X Who Read” stories, as well as a few of his stories starring Leonard Strang, a teacher. While I admit that I hoped to see more of the Mr. Strang stories here, what we have is excellent. The collection opens with “The X Who Read” stories, stories based on other mystery authors, running the gamut from whodunits to code cracking stories to reverse whodunits like “The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr.”

Edgar Gault is a young man who also, much to his uncle’s future sorrow, happens to be a fan of the great John Dickson Carr. Edgar is filled with love both for Carr and for his uncle’s money, meaning that when the latter is going to be cut off, he takes action to kill his uncle. He comes up with a simple, but workable locked room trick...And I won’t spoil how it works out. It’s a very amusing little story.

“The Man Who Read Ellery Queen” takes place in a nursing home where one of the new residents expresses his desire to solve a crime just like Ellery Queen does...and gets his chance when one resident accuses the other of stealing his coin. The other man agrees to be strip-searched and no trace of the coin is found, but our hero is able to use logic to find the coin. I’m not sure that the hiding place would have been undiscovered, but the logic is solid. It’s a little less fair today than it would have been back then, but it’s still good.

“The Man Who Couldn’t Read” has two men, Monty and Ford, out in the woods doing some repair work on the former’s house, since the darkroom he wanted constructed has an extra door to the outside on it. The two get to work bricking the door up, and Ford is happy that Monty is willing to call on him. After all, Ford did accidentally kill Monty’s wife sometime back while driving, but it was ruled an accident and Monty believes in letting bygones be bygones…although you can probably tell where this story will end up. I do think that Brittain had to make Ford a little more repulsive than hinted at the last second to make his fate feel fitting as opposed to disproportionate, considering how vicious it is.

“The Woman Who Read Rex Stout” is set among a traveling carnival sideshow and stars the fat woman of the show. Gert Jellison was given one of the Nero Wolfe books as a joke by the show’s owner, but she’s become a big fan of the obese detective since. The skills she’s learned reading the books come in handy when the snake charmer is found strangled to death. The story is good, but there’s one moment that screams “I AM THE KILLER,” and it isn’t well integrated into the story at all.

“The Boy Who Read Agatha Christie” is more of a “what is going on” story than anything else. A group of college students invade a small town and begin doing bizarre good deeds or just things that irritate and annoy but that aren’t actually illegal. The local police chief is baffled, but the exchange student he’s housing sees what’s happening. While it’s not fully fair play, since some of the information is learned offstage, there’s still a clever scheme going on here. And kudos to Brittain for using a similar plot to an Agatha Christie novel without showing off and spoiling by name-dropping said novel.

“The Man Who Read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle” opens with the editor of a small-town newspaper receiving a mysterious letter purporting to be from an old college friend...but that’s only one of the many bizarre and incorrect details in the letter. He tries to call the woman mentioned in the letter, but she hangs up on him and later he gets a visit from a government agent, dragging this small-town man into an international incident.

The U.S. government has been dealing with an unnamed country to ensure their support in the Cold War. However, certain agents are intending to pass on a list of American spies to their country's government as a public relations coup. The U.S. government knows that the list is being transported in a box on a ship, but they will only have two minutes to take the list and the box is locked with a lettered combination lock that will set off a smoke bomb if the wrong code is imputed. The only thing that the government knows is that the code is consecutive (ABC, DEF, etc.). The letter writer was an American mole in the group, but he was unable to include the code, but did give a hint of it in the letter. The solution is perfect; excellent, totally fair, and groan-inducing. Full credit to Brittian for this one.

“The Man Who Read G. K. Chesterton” is about a priest who has concerns about the death of a local citizen. Tim Harrington apparently shot himself in his office with a discarded piece of hardcore pornography providing the motive. The monsignor at St. Bartholomew has no interest in providing last rites to a suicide victim, meaning that Father Kenny will have to prove murder if they are to be done. The story is another solid one, as Father Kenny struggles with finding any evidence to prove murder, and Brittian does a good job of getting you to sympathize with him. I do think that the clue is a little too bluntly delivered, but it’s still well done. Should the police have realized it? Probably. But I can believe they would write it off as a suicide and not look closer. The who is a little clunky, but it’s not the focus of the story.

“The Man Who Read Dashiell Hammett” is another code-cracking story. A lover of classical detective fiction is debating donating his collection of mysteries to a library, but he’s also a fan of games and has a feud going with the head librarian, a lover of hard-boiled mysteries. As a result, the classical fan comes up with a challenge: a copy of The Maltese Falcon is concealed in the library, he provides three clues to its location, and the book must be found in an hour to ensure the rest are donated. The sixty-five year old “stack boy” is pulled out to help find the book. I don’t know if this is perfectly fair, so the enjoyment comes from seeing a seemingly impossible scenario taken down and solved in time.

I admit that “The Man Who Read Georges Simenon” is my least favorite of these opening stories, in part because I’m not really familiar with the author. (Although I’m not familiar with Hammett’s work either, but that story has so little to do with Hammett’s actual work that it’s easier to overlook.) Two men arrive at a mansion to deliver some art. One of the men likes to read the works of Georges Simenon. The plot won’t be too hard for a reader to figure out, and I found it a little disappointing.

“The Girl Who Read John Creasey” is another story about an author I know almost nothing about, but this time the story is a little more solid. A police officer limps home in despair from hitting dead ends in a recent murder case. Thankfully for him, his daughter has been reading John Creasey’s Gideon novels and wants to know more. Fred Dawkins was a British man who won a football pool and decided to take a trip to the States. There, he converted his money into American dollars, played poker with a few people, and then was stabbed to death. Bizarrely, his dying words were “Twas Ol’ Fishin’ as done me in.” Three men knew about the money, and the officer’s daughter must interpret the clue to figure out the killer. I don’t deny the logic behind the clue, but I found it a little hard to follow along with since the topic was something totally unfamiliar to me. The killer also seemed a little obvious.

The final story of this segment is “The Men Who Read Issac Asimov” which thankfully for me is based on his Black Widowers stories rather than his science fiction. Davey Lotus was a local ne’er-do-well who after winning money at a poker game opened up a department store known for its various gimmicks, such as a creative way of price haggling. The current gimmick is a safe with a hundred (Is that even possible!?) different numbers on it that contains a thousand dollars. A reporter is in town to report on the store, and he ends up meeting up with a group of local men, fans of Issac Asimov, who have gathered together to break the code. The story feels like one of those Black Widowers tales, with all of the men providing their own interpretation on the same facts to come up with wrong solutions, before the waiter swoops in to provide the correct one. I do think that perhaps someone should have come up with it beforehand, but that’s a minor gripe.

It’s at this point that I’ll stop and mention something that leapt out at me: Maybe it’s just because I read so much Porges before this, but I liked how these stories all felt different from each other. After so many stories that had the same characters talking about some abstract situations, albeit ingenious ones, it felt nice to be shifting genres every story, seeing new characters and more grounded and solvable mysteries.

And with that, we move on to the Leonard Strang stories. Mr. Strang is a science teacher at Aldershot High School who solves a variety of cases. Some are related to school, some are not. The first story, “Mr. Strang Gives a Lecture,” opens with Mr. Strang being informed by Detective Paul Roberts that Mr. Strang’s car was used by a student as a getaway car in a diner robbery. While said student is a troublemaker, Mr. Strang is doubtful...and demonstrates his doubts via a lecture. I found the story a little hard to follow the first time around, since I had a hard time visualizing the layout of the locations, but it’s a solid story with some good logic, although there is one element thrown in at the last minute that makes the culprit obvious.

“Mr. Strang Performs an Experiment” is a much different story. Russell Donato is an up-and-coming chemistry teacher at Aldershot who has been accused of coming on to one of his students. However, Mr. Strang is confident enough in Denato’s character and skeptical enough of the story to dig further. This is more of a “howtoproveit” story, since everything hinges on the “experiment” Mr. Strang performs. The issue is that unless you have the same knowledge that he does to pick up on the main clue, you’re just going to have to sit back and watch Mr. Strang solve it all. There’s none of the chains of logic that you see in the other stories, and it feels a little weaker as a result.

The next story, “Mr. Strang Takes a Field Trip,” is an impossible crime story. Mr. Strang takes his students on a field trip to a natural history museum, with the only issue being a prankster student. Unfortunately, said student and his friend slip away from the group, and ten minutes later one of the employees is grabbing the boys, accusing them of stealing a golden mask. However, neither of the boys have the mask on them, and a search of the room turns up nothing. Even a search of the museum itself doesn’t turn up any evidence of the mask. If the boys had stolen it, what did they do with it? And if they didn’t do it, who was it, and where did they hide it? The hiding place of the mask is fair, you can figure out where it’s hidden from the evidence, and I was a little annoyed that I missed it. I admit that I’m not sure that the robbery would have stood up to an actual police investigation. On a final note, I admit I appreciated Mr. Strang getting called out on one of his assumptions, since I don’t care for infallible detectives.

“Mr. Strang Versus the Snowman,” is an excellent episode in detection. Detective Roberts tips Mr. Strang off that the grandfather of one of his students, one Simon Barasch, is a drug dealer known as “the Snowman,” whose drugs are finding their way into the hands of Aldershot High School's students. Mr. Strang is the tutor of the man’s grandson, Arthur, so Roberts wants him to investigate. And on one snowy day, he gets his chance. A snowstorm results in Mr. Strang driving Arthur back home, where he gets his chance to search...but finds no evidence of cocaine. But that same night, he and Roberts sit outside the house on a stake-out and manage to catch Simon with two blocks of cocaine. It’s an excellent example of deduction, since Mr. Strang manages to piece everything together from one piece of evidence and a few other observations. For the record, this isn’t an impossible crime story...

But “Mr. Strang, Armchair Detective” is, in my opinion, and if so it was one missed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders and by Brian Skupin in Locked Room Murders: Supplement. Mr. Strang and Roberts are eating dinner with Holbeck, a New York man who’s been down to talk homicide with the Aldershot police department. Unfortunately, Holbeck has a “patronizing manner about everything outside the city limits” and has managed to drive Mr. Strang and Detective Roberts insane. The final straw comes when he refers to Mr. Strang’s teaching job as “restful,” causing Roberts to defend Mr. Strang and offer him up a good detective. Holbeck puts that to the test with a problem in detection that has baffled New York’s finest.

A man named James Phillimore Earnshaw went to an apartment complex and asked a tenant for his ex-wife’s apartment and was seen going upstairs. Shortly after, a loud argument broke out, necessitating summoning the police. The argument seemingly stopped, before the ex-wife yelled for her ex-husband to come back, and the apartment door slammed. The police go upstairs to get more information, but Rachel Earnshaw answers the door alone and denies her ex-husband ever being there. A painted wall and a discarded knife in the apartment tell a violent story, but there’s no trace of James Earnshaw in the apartment. I don’t think that a fan of locked room mysteries will have too much trouble figuring out the gist of what happened, but I think that there are enough moving parts to make it fun to see everything fall into place. The motive is somewhat weak, and to be oblique, the story is told in such a way that something is mentioned very indirectly so that Mr. Strang can look smart by deducing that it exists. These are pretty minor gripes however, and I do like the deductions surrounding the latter point. Brittain also gets due credit for a very clever clue. I think that most people will see it, but dismiss it. I mean, I did, and I’d hate to be the only one who didn’t figure it out.

“Mr. Strang Interprets a Picture” is a more disappointing story, especially compared to the former story. Mr. Strang pops in on the art class of a colleague and notices a strange picture drawn by the “Mnemonic Kid,” a Vietnamese immigrant who has an infallible memory. Mr. Strang is so confused by the picture that he takes it home to think on it...but it’s obvious to the reader that the picture has something to do with the bank robbery that opens the story, and it’s just a matter of figuring out what. I don’t think that most readers will have trouble with this one. (Although I didn’t piece it together, so what do I know?)

The collection ends with “Mr. Strang Takes a Tour,” the last Mr. Strang story written. It’s not a sequel to “Mr. Strang Takes a Field Trip,” but a story that has Mr. Strang going on a trip to Canada. As the trip begins, he befriends a nun named Sister “Gerry” Geraldine, who purchases a souvenir cross. However, after one leg of the trip, she realizes that the cross is missing. She assumes that it’s simply been misplaced in someone else’s bag, but Mr. Strang sees that as unlikely and thinks that someone has stolen it. But who would steal a five-dollar souvenir cross? The solution is pretty smart, but the reader has no chance of figuring everything out; you can piece together a bit of the solution, but most of the backstory is told to Mr. Strang offscreen. The ending, while touching, felt a little out of place to me, since the two characters involved didn’t really interact in the story.

All in all, this is another excellent collection from Crippen and Landru. There’s plenty of variety among the stories, and even if they all don’t reach the heights of fair-play cluing, they bring up interesting problems. They are all well-written, although the choice of font for the book was hard to read at first. I’d like to see the rest of the Mr. Strang stories collected, personally. Highly Recommended.

Brad and Christian also gave their opinions on this book. We all agree on the overall quality, although me and Christian disagree on some of the individual stories.