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).

No comments:

Post a Comment