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 gyspy 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 gypsies 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.

1 comment:

  1. I've never heard of Edward D. Hoch, but I need to know what happened to the horse and buggy...

    Thanks for the tip

    ReplyDelete