Friday, August 8, 2014

Diagnosis: Improbable

Let's make one thing clear: I utterly fanboy Edward D. Hoch. I do not admire him. I do not respect him. I fanboy him. He's one of my literary idols. One of pipe dreams is to write the man's biography. I want to read everything he's written. I can only hope that I'll be as good at mystery writing as he was. I mean, the man wrote over 950 short stories. He had talent. And, with all those stories came many different series detectives. Today, we're going to look at my personal favorite, (though Simon Ark might replace him if I ever get around to reading his stories) Dr. Sam Hawthorne, the star of Diagnosis Impossible, The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne.

Dr. Sam has his office in the New England town of Northmont circa 1922 and, interestingly enough, continuing on into the 1940s. Yep, we also get to follow the march of history in this series and in just about every other long series Hoch has written, which just makes me love him more.

Now why Dr. Sam? Because this was the third random book I decided to start my mystery reading with. A wise choice, as almost every story in the series is some sort of locked room mystery/ impossible crime. (The one exception I know of I've reviewed already.) But can Hoch keep delivering consistent quality?

Yes. He can.

The Problem of the Covered Bridge

By March of 1922, the only thing Dr. Sam is known for around Northmont is his Pierce-Arrow car. That all changes when his Detective Curse(TM) kicks in leading him to investigate the bizarre disappearance of Hank Bringlow. Hank was delivering applesauce and was being followed by Dr. Sam when Hank sped ahead. The tracks show that he went into the covered bridge, and never came out the other side...

An excellent start to the collection. The problem is intriguing and the solution is fair (even though SPOLIERS the people responsible were kind of operating on crunch time/ banking on no one else coming through END SPOLIERS). My main complaint is that the story feels slightly disjointed or maybe just a little slow. It's not pronounced or anything though and doesn't majorly damage the story.

The Problem of the Old Gristmill

Henry Cordwainer has come to Northmont for a year so that he can write a book on the nature there. Then, in July 1923, the gristmill he's staying in burns to the ground, with Cordwainer inside. That's not the impossibility though. The true impossibility is how his notes and journals vanished from a locked strongbox en route to Boston...

Another good story with a fine solution. The main semi-gripe one can have with this story is that the killer is harder to spot than normal (not bad normally, but it's how they appear that might irritate a reader). The main gripe I have with this story was the truth serum business. It felt like pointless padding. Also, why doesn't this story have the little outro the other stories have?

The Problem of the Lobster Shack

Dr. Felix Dory is a well-respected surgeon and an idol of Dr. Sam...who thinks enough of him to invite him to his daughter's wedding party complete with magician! A magician who's escape act goes awry, leaving him with a slashed throat in a boarded-up lobster shack watched by countless witnesses...

An interesting story with another good solution and well-concealed killer, marred only by some mild...(SPOLIERS homophobia? I mean the victim is called out for doing forcing a suspect when that suspect said he did it of his own free will! Am I misreading the line? Was he worse than a blackmailer in the same way Charles Augustus Milverton was? Or is this just 1920s attitudes at work? SPOLIERS) It just seems bizarre.

The Problem of the Haunted Bandstand

It's time for Northmont's 4th of July Festival, complete with fireworks, music, and a crazy hooded guy stabbing the mayor to death before vanishing in a flash of light! Wait, what was that last one...?

Hey, another good story! Once again, the solution works (there's bare minimum of technical knowledge, but barely enough to note) the killer is fairly hinted at, and the motive is honestly interesting. It's good example of how to use the time your story's set in to show different motives.

The Problem of the Locked Caboose

Dr. Sam hits the rails to replace a doctor in Boughville, only to find caught up in a jewel theft and a brutal murder, both committed in a locked caboose. And what's with the dying message implicating an elf...?

The collection finally hits a (very small) hiccup with this story. It's by no means bad. The solution is still good and all, but the clueing (SPOLIERS This story shows a gripe I have with dying messages; sometimes they hinge on the reader having specialized knowledge-in this case, the German language. I believe that dying messages should be solvable based in-story information, extremely common knowledge, be one of those clues that makes perfect sense when you looks at it right, or merely be one clue among many, where the reader can fail to deduce it, but still solve the mystery. END SPOLIERS) That being said, there is enough for you to at least get the solution even if the murderer escapes you. Besides, I still enjoy it and I can have very high standards about clueing.

The Problem of the Little Red Schoolhouse

It is the fall of 1925. Leopold and Leob is still fresh in the minds of many, especially after Tommy Belmont is kidnapped and held for ransom. Of course, the more interesting part is how he vanished from an active schoolyard when the teacher looked away for a few seconds...

For once, no murder! That doesn't stop the central problem from being interesting through. It's simple, the red herrings (and clues!) abound, and the obligatory "Detective Figures Out Case Because Of Chance Remark Or Action" is well done.

The Problem of the Christmas Steeple

It's Christmas Day in Northmont; a time of peace on earth and goodwill toward men...unless you count dem dirty gypsies. Thankfully, they have an ally in Parson Wigger... until he's found stabbed to death in his steeple and only the gypsy leader is in there with him. Oh, and there's no other way out except the entrance that Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens followed the parson up...

Routine sets in once again. Not only with the murder but with the fair cluing and the neat solution. It's a little more obvious than normal (not that I solved it my first time through...) but that really doesn't impede things. Oh, and Dr. Sam bends the law. Again. (He did it in the third story.) I'll talk more about this in the next collection.

The Problem of Cell 16

Georges Reme is the Eel, a master criminal known for his daring escapes. And then he goes and gets caught by Sheriff Lens. Good show there, buddy. (I kid. I like Sheriff Lens.) He's eager to gain some pride back, and gain back pride he will when he vanishes from the new jail cells...

Once again, no murder! Guess the Detective Curse(TM) is slipping. This is another good story, with more of a focus on the "how" for obvious reasons. I don't have much to say other than that I gathered that some don't like this story. Could someone explain that to me.

The Problem of the Country Inn

Early summer, 1926. A masked man shoots and kills William Stokes, owner of the Ferry House, the titular county inn. The man then fled down the hall...and vanished, leaving the door bolted behind him. Dr. Sam already has his hands full with dealing with the fallout form an unfortunate duel and things just get worse when the robber fires on him before repeating his vanishing act...

I'm running out of mindless praise here, I'm sorry to say. Thankfully, this is probably my least favorite story in the collection, mainly because of the solution. (SPOLIERS It's one of those technical ones that I have to be able to see in action before I can full believe it. I'm probably just being petty though. END SPOLIERS) This is contrasted by a clever motive for creating the locked room, something which authors tend to lack. (Though Hoch is much better about it than others.)

The Problem of the Voting Booth

It's election time in Northmont and Sheriff Lens has tough competition in the form of Henry G. Oatis. The good news is that his victory is soon guaranteed. The bad news is that this is because Oatis is stabbed to death while alone in a watched voting booth..

This story leaves me torn. On one hand, it's well played and clued, and the ending is honestly pretty somber. It's that the solution makes me iffy. It's fairly clued, but it's not a solution I approve of in mysteries like this. But that's the thing, "what I approve of" and my standards can be very exact at times. It's not as technical as the previous story though, which is why it edges out over the other.

The Problem of the County Fair

Max McNear was always trouble in Northmont, doing things like punching the mayor's son through a window. Then he calls and says he's coming back after a year's absence and come back he does. As a corpse in the county fair's time capsule...

Probably my favorite story in the collection. Unique situation, neat solution that goes with the situation, fair clueing, a semi-interesting motivation this story has it all! I only have one gripe. (SPOLIERS What was the point of Dr. Sam's conversation with Emma Thane? Yes, there were elements of a red herring, but the conversation makes little sense. Especially that whole "blunt instrument" thing. He knows she's not the killer, why is he saying that? END SPOILERS) Still a great story.

The Problem of the Old Oak Tree

The talkies are taking Hollywood by storm and one about barnstorming pilots is going to be filmed in Northmont. Too bad the crew didn't pay enough attention the legends about the old haunted oak tree. Nor did they consider that Dr. Sam was on the set. If they had maybe one of them could have prevented the star's double from being strangled by said tree. That is, unless they're willing to believe that he was strangled in midair...

A great finish to the collection. All of my previous praise applies here. I simply can't say anything more than what I've already said. I guess that you could argue that there's technical knowledge in the solution, but it's very minor, and you can figure out the main trick without that knowledge.

All in all, this is an excellent collection. Each story here is a high quality mystery and while some have minor flaws, they're just that, minor. In fact, these stories have so few flaws, that I can't give any pros or cons that I haven't already mentioned! About the only other gripe one could have is that Hoch doesn't create a lot of complex characters. Thing is, he doesn't need to. These are short stories with more focus on the puzzle, that's not to say his characters don't have personalities, but it is something to note. (Of course, most won't read Hoch for character complexity. The man had one story in every issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine for a little under 35 years!. He's allowed a few liberties with characterization!)

I give this collection an 8 out of 10.

Next up, more Hoch! Be sure to comment!


  1. I love the series, but I find it difficult to discuss each volume/story because they are all so similar. In their awesomeness, but still. But reading your review made go 'oh yeah, that did happen!' and now I want to read the first volume again =_= The EQMM Podcast has some radio drama-style adaptations by the way, I think all of them of the first volume.

    My review of the last volume of the Japanese version of the Hawthorne series is scheduled to go up early next week (I actually finished it over a month ago already, but review backlog is kinda...long)

    1. (I posted this below, but I meant for it to be a reply.)

      I aim to please. And you're right, I was running out of fresh praise by the end!

      Also, yeah, yeah. Remind me of all those awesome Japanese mysteries and translations that you get to read. Your cruelty knows no boundaries.

      Thanks for commenting! (And thanks for telling me about that podcast!)

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  3. Oh, so this is what other people see when I'm fawing over John Dickson Carr. There's really no excuse for "The Problem of the Voting Booth," but that's what a lot of people say about books like Behind the Crimson Blind and The Cavalier's Cup.

    By the way, on Steve Steinbock's old blog, you can find a post from when Hoch passed away and tells how Hoch was once hired to investigate a real-life locked room mystery. I thought a Hoch fan might wanted to know that.

    1. TomCat commented on my blog! *squeeee* And I'll take that comparison as a complement.

      Yeah, "The Voting Booth" just barely works for me (though your wording there seems awkward.) And I thought you talked about that Steinbock post already. I could be wrong though. I often am.