Friday, November 18, 2022

The Word is Murder (2018) by Anthony Horowitz

No matter what, I can’t seem to get away from detectives named Hawthorne.

A couple of years ago, I read and reviewed Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders after seeing positive comments about it from other bloggers. I ended up enjoying it so much that I grabbed his next mystery novel, The Word is Murder, almost sight unseen. But would it prove to be another solid example of the modern mystery novel?

The book opens with Diana Cowper planning her own funeral; not an uncommon occurrence for those who want to make things easier for their families. But six hours later, she’s been strangled to death in her home, a bizarre and baffling crime that demands examination by an expert. Enter Daniel Hawthorne, a former police officer who was “kicked out for reasons that weren’t made clear” and who now serves as a sometimes consultant for the police when they’re dealing with an “unusual” case. Hawthorne is called in to investigate, and Anthony Horowitz is following him and writing it all down.

Horowitz (who I will refer to as “Tony” to distinguish him from the author Anthony Horowitz) is fresh off writing Foyle’s War and The House of Silk, and is looking for new ideas. Hawthorne approaches him with a proposal: Tony follows him around and details his case, and they split the profits fifty-fifty. Tony is reluctant, but after being accused of not writing about “real people” at a literary festival, he takes Hawthorne up on his offer.

This book has plenty of meta moments in it, and honestly it was slightly hard for me to keep track at first: for example, Chapter 3 is titled “Chapter One” and revolves around Hawthorne’s reaction to the actual Chapter 1 of the book, and the inaccuracies Tony put in there. That are still in the current Chapter 1. And then Tony follows up by going, “Fine, ignore everything that he mentioned, but the rest is true, including the clue to the killer’s identity.” There’s another chapter where Tony meets with who I assume was Horowitz’s agent at the time, and she says that she doesn’t want to be named in the chapter titled “Lunch with Hilda.” In fairness, my confusion was more due to me trying to read too much into the meta, and the mystery doesn’t hinge on you being able to navigate it. Horowitz uses it all well, and I found his discretions on his different works and writing in general to be very interesting.

Of course, the partnership isn’t smooth sailing: Tony finds Hawthorne frustrating and evasive about his life, and gets a taste of the man’s more unpleasant opinions during the case. I admit though that Hawthorne didn’t come off nearly as offensive as intended. I may have had incorrect expectations based on what I’d read about the book, but Tony came off as the prickly, insulting one to me. Perhaps this is because Hawthorne’s more repulsive moments (like his homophobia) either don’t play a major role or don’t get a lot of development (like the sting in the tail at the end). For most of the book, he comes off as an intense but awkward guy who (based on my reading) does value Tony’s companionship more than he shows. Of course, I also have the expectation that Holmes-Watson style relationships will end with the Watson realizing that the Holmes is indeed a genius who has all the right answers, so that influenced me as well.

I mentioned how Tony teases you with a clue to the killer’s identity in Chapter 1. This is partly true. The clue is there, but you won’t realize its significance until late in the book. I would say that this is a fair mystery on the whole; you can piece the killer’s identity together before the reveal, but the full motive behind the crime won’t become apparent until near the end. It’s more like the “modern-day” narrative of Magpie Murders, more a procedural than a more traditional mystery. The killer is well-hidden, and as I said, you can figure out who they are with a bit of thought.

All in all, I quite liked this book. The meta aspects were fun, the mystery was well-constructed, and it was a joy to read. Highly Recommended.

Other Reviews: ahsweetmysteryblog, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, crossexaminingcrime, The Invisible Event.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

The Gold Watch (2019) by Paul Halter (translated by John Pugmire)

Tick, tock, tick, tock…

Unbeknownst to us non-French speakers, Paul Halter went on a bit of a hiatus in the 2010s, producing only about one short story a year. However, in 2019 he returned to form, giving us The Gold Watch, published first in English. The book features mysterious crimes in the past, the past having an uncanny influence on the present, and of course, impossible murders. Set your watches, and enjoy.

The Gold Watch opens in 1901, and details a woman’s brutal murder, a crime that seems to reach forward almost a century. The story switches between two narratives. In the 1991 narrative, Andre Leveque is a playwright who’s suffering from a terrible case of writer’s block, brought on by his frustration at being unable to remember the name of an unsettling movie he saw as a child. All he can remember are some key images: “A sinister figure, a house in the rain, a frightened woman, a slowly-turning doorknob, a staircase…” And of course, “A gold watch.”

The 1911 narrative follows a group of people invited to Raven Lodge, the second home of Victoria Sanders, the head of a firm “speciali[zing] in the import of fine fabrics.” Among the guests are her deputy director Andrew Johnson and his wife Alice, along with Andrew’s secretary Cheryl Chapman, as well as Victoria’s brother, Daren Bellamy. There’s tension among the guests, as Alice despises Daren and has a bone to pick about her husband’s closeness to Cheryl, his former model, but before there’s any chance for argument, Victoria’s body is found out in the snow, having apparently tripped and hit her head on a rock while trying to get some air after a nightmare. The lack of any footprints besides her own and those who discovered her body attest to that. But Owen Burns is suspicious when he learns that a copy of the infamous play The King in Yellow was in her room the day before…

At first, these narratives seem to have nothing to do with each other, but eerie coincidences and strange echoes keep popping up, and it seems that they may be more connected than anyone thinks…

The 1991 narrative is more of a “what is going on here?” tale than anything. Another impossible crime is introduced, that of a woman who fell to her death when no one was near her, but it’s not the main focus (although the solution is clever). Halter does a good job of playing with your expectations in this narrative, and I have to say that I enjoyed this narrative more than the other one. The 1911 narrative suffers from a lack of…I suppose “substance” is the best word. There’s really only a handful of suspects, and not much investigation. I should have liked the culprit reveal more than I did; it’s possible that I was reading too fast and didn’t quite get that Halter was saying “X was the culprit” at first. (The fact that I didn’t suspect X at all didn’t help.) The central solution is very clever, although I don’t totally buy one aspect of it. (ROT13: Anzryl, gung gur jvgarff jbhyq znxr fhpu n znffvir zvfgnxr nobhg jurer gurl fnj gur obql; rira jvgu gur xvyyre’f qrprcgvba, V srry gung gurl fubhyq unir ernyvmrq gung fbzrguvat jnf bss.)

My main issue with the mysteries in both narratives is that you don’t really get the needed detail to solve them. The mysteries are drawn in broad outlines, and the specific details that would let the reader solve them get glossed over. (ROT13: V guvax urer bs na haoernxnoyr nyvov jurer n xrl qrgnvy gung jbhyq znxr vg fbyinoyr vfa’g zragvbarq hagvy Oheaf rkcynvaf rirelguvat.) I will say that the 1991 narrative is better clued than it might seem; there’s no final summing up, but the clues about what’s going on are there. The final explanation for the connections between the two narratives could irritate some readers. It frustrated me at first, but after chewing on it, I’m satisfied with it, as Halter does set it up. I admit I was thrown off because (ROT13: V gubhtug vg jbhyq or gur fnzr rkcynangvba nf nabgure Unygre abiry gung hfrf qhny aneengvirf. Vg jnfa’g, ohg V guvax V fgvyy unq n uneq gvzr pbaarpgvat gurz, nf Bjra vf fb rfgnoyvfurq va zl urnq nf n svpgvbany punenpgre, gung V pbhyqa’g dhvgr ernyvmr gung gur gjb aneengvirf jrer gnxvat cynpr va gur fnzr havirefr; gurl sryg qvfpbaarpgrq va gung frafr.)

On the whole, I enjoyed this book. There are some aspects of it that I’m not totally satisfied with, and I know that my generosity is because it’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I do think that it’s an interesting experiment. The impossible footprint problem is good, and the 1991 narrative is gripping. It’s another solid Halter. Recommended.

Other Reviews: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, The Invisible Event, Ah, Sweet Mystery Blog!, and Beneath the Stains of Time.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Murder in the Crooked House (1982/2019) by Soji Shimada (translated by Louise Heal Kawai)

 A crooked man, a crooked hinge, a crooked house…

In 2004, a translation of the debut novel of Soji Shimada, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, made its way into the hands of eager mystery fans. Ever since, we have patiently waited for more of Shimada’s work to drift over here, but outside of a couple of short stories, we had nothing. However, a few years ago Pushkin Vertigo released a translation of Shimada’s second Kiyoshi Mitarai novel, Murder in the Crooked House. But was it worth the wait?

The titular house is the Ice Floe Mansion, the recently-constructed home of Kozaboro Hamamoto, the CEO of Hama Diesel. The house is known as “The Crooked House,” as the house tilts “at an angle of about five or six degrees off the vertical.” It also has a tilted tower made of glass connected to the house by a drawbridge that serves as Hamamoto’s living quarters. Hamamoto invites a handful of people to attend a party over Christmas week, including a business partner, Eikichi Kikuoka, one of the partner’s executives as well as his wife, and two students vying for his daughter’s hand in marriage, among others. It’s a relatively peaceful affair, with the only slight oddity being a pair of stakes in the snow outside, noticed by one of the guests. But come morning, a body is discovered.

Kazuya Ueda is Kikuoka’s chauffeur, a quiet, ex-military man who almost nobody at the party is familiar with. Nonetheless, someone slips into his locked bedroom and stabs him to death, leaving him in a bizarre pose, “almost as if he were dancing,” along with tying his wrist to the bedpost. The door is locked. One window was locked and barred, the other was too high up for a killer to reach. There are no footprints in the snow leading up to the door…and the entrance was on the other side of the house, meaning that any killer would have had to walk a great distance just to get to the locked door. The only opening was a small ventilation hole that was too high to reach, and too small for any killer to use. 

Not to mention the nightmarish face one guest reported outside her window the night of the murder, on the highest floor of the mansion, with no footprints on the snow outside, and the man’s roar heard right afterward, over an hour after the victim was killed…

The police are summoned, although they prove unable to not only solve Ueda’s murder, but to prevent Kikuoka’s. He’s found stabbed to death in his own bedroom, the door not only locked and bolted from the inside, but blocked by a coffee table. Not only do most of the guests lack a motive for the crime, but investigation reveals that all of them, even the ones who would have a motive, have perfect alibis!

There were two aspects of the first murder that I found disappointing. First is the corpse being tied to the bed; the explanation is very poor and has very little to do with the crime. The other is the motive behind the murder; it comes out of nowhere. (Kikuoka's murder has the same problem.) I wouldn't care that much, if it weren't for the fact that the story emphasizes that no one has a reason to kill Ueda and makes it a major part of the mystery. That being said, other than those aspects I quite enjoyed it, especially the explanation for how the killer left no footprints. There are two parts to the trick, and I found one to be very clever; something obvious that I should have thought of, but didn’t. 

Of course, the second murder is the main attraction, and it lives up to the hype. Again, I wasn’t very impressed at first, but upon thinking about it and looking at the map (yes, there is a map in this book), I realized that it was both an update of an old mystery device and a very, very clever trick. The kind of trick where I looked back at the aforementioned map and went, “Oh come on.” In a good way! I’ll admit that this was partly because I went in expecting a dramatic solution; I can’t speak to how I would have reacted if I’d gone in blind. Perhaps I would have liked it less, perhaps I would have loved it more. Is it fair? In a sense. There’s one minor aspect that is not clued, and Shimada is quite cheeky about it, but I feel that it could have been mentioned without giving the game away. The solution is so bombastic that I think that most readers wouldn’t hit on it, even with the extra clue, because it’s so far out of the norm. But I see why Shimada might have been concerned about tipping his hand.

The book brightens up when Mitarai is summoned to help with the investigation. I’d forgotten what he was like from Tokyo, but he wastes no time in utterly dominating the final third of the novel; I’m glad his entrance was delayed, he would have been too much otherwise. There is one more impossible stabbing before the book is out, in circumstances that seem even more impossible than the last one, but while it makes sense in the book and proves to be the set-up for a larger twist, it’s quickly resolved.

I had a slightly mixed reaction to Murder in the Crooked House. After my first read-through, I had a “Well, that was kinda cool, I guess,” reaction. After thinking about it, I then decided that I actually really liked it…before shifting to not liking it. But as of right now, I like it again. I can’t quite explain why the book has this effect on me. I think a combination of being spoiled on the killer’s identity (although incorrectly on the method), the lack of characterization, and the hype I’d built up before the book began (especially this) all worked against it. Like I mentioned earlier, had I gone into it blind, I might be a little more sure about what I think.

It’s very much the mystery novel fan’s mystery novel, with some very baffling mysteries and some equally clever solutions. However, those same qualities that will make it a joy for fans might cause more casual readers to bounce off it; this really should not be anyone’s introduction to the genre. John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books nails it when he says, as a criticism, "It is a series of puzzles with one overarching puzzle that serves as the pièce de résistance." If that sounds amazing, then you'll love it. If not, then I'd stay away from this one.

For those who think they’ll like and appreciate it, it’s Recommended. But my personal opinion is Recommended, with Caveats.

Other reviews: She Reads Novels, The Green Capsule, James Scott ByrnsideBeneath the Stains of Time, Mysteries Ahoy!, Pretty Sinister Books (contains review of The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo, also contains spoilers), Criminal Musings (contains review of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, also contains spoilers), The Grandest Game in the World (contains other reviews), and Bad Player's Good Reviews.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Challenge the Impossible: The Final Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2018) by Edward D. Hoch

 At long last, the end.

Challenge the Impossible: The Final Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne is the final collection of Hoch’s Dr. Sam stories, and finishing this brings a close to a chapter of my own life. The fourth collection gave me hope for the rest of the stories, but how do they hold up?

We start with “The Problem of Annabel’s Ark.” The Ark is a veterinary clinic run by Annabel Christie, who manages to capture the heart of Dr. Sam and give him another locked room mystery to solve. A cat staying overnight at her clinic is found strangled to death in its locked cage, inside of the also locked clinic. I admit I liked the method since I didn’t figure it out, although it is a tad prosaic. The motive behind the cat strangling will be obvious, and there’s one element of the backstory behind the crime that I didn’t quite understand, but this is still a nice story.

“The Problem of the Potting Shed” is one of my favorites of the collection. It’s a straightforward locked room mystery, with a man found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in the titular shed, the door padlocked on the inside. The story suffers a bit from the lack of suspects, but there’s still a good twist involving one of them. The final solution is one of my favorite mystery solutions: the one where you have all the clues, but you won’t figure it out because the solution is so unconventional as to be unthinkable. It certainly isn’t a prosaic solution, even if it is simple.

I had high hopes for “The Problem of the Yellow Wallpaper,” but it didn’t quite live up to expectations. Dr. Sam is treating a woman who, just like in the original “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is being confined to an upstairs room in response to psychological issues and is tearing at the wallpaper. Dr. Sam tries to bring in a specialist, but the woman vanishes from the locked and barred room, leaving only a watercolor painting of her face on the wallpaper. Again, I came into the story with high expectations, and that threw me off. It’s a good story with a fairly clued solution, it just wasn’t what I was thinking it would be.

Next up is “The Problem of the Haunted Hospital,” A young woman recovering from an appendix surgery claims that she’s twice seen a dark hooded figure standing next to her hospital bed before vanishing in the moonlight. That same room was briefly the home of an injured jewel thief who was killed after attacking his guard, and the implication is that his ghost has moved in. Dr. Sam is skeptical, but something smothers the new occupant of the room after a room swap, forcing him to play detective once again.

I liked this story well-enough, but the solution is rather obvious. The impossible murder is also only vaguely “impossible.” Hoch is normally good at establishing how thoroughly locked/watched a room or location was, but here, we really don’t get a good impression of how impossible the murder could be, beyond a couple of lines about the room being under observation. It’s one of the weaker Dr. Sam stories I’ve encountered because of those issues. Still, it ends happily with the engagement of Dr. Sam and Annabel…with a wedding date set for December 6, 1941.

But before that, Dr. Sam has to confront a traveler and a double murder in “The Problem of the Traveler's Tale.” Graham Partridge tells of encountering an isolated house while on a walk that he thinks is the current hideout for a notorious swindler. After some trouble, Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens allow him to guide them to the house…where they find the swindler and his lady friend shot to death. It looks like a murder-suicide, and the totally locked house adds to that, but Dr. Sam sees the evidence that points to this being a double murder instead. I liked this story, if just for the minor twist on the normal Dr. Sam formula: Dr. Sam realizes who the killer is before he’s able to piece the method together, and while I wasn’t awed by it, it’s still a good one. The killer’s motive for doing something seemingly very foolish is also quite good; I’ve seen it used before and should have seen it here.

The wedding of Dr. Sam and Annabel goes off without a hitch, but the same can’t be said of their honeymoon. “The Problem of Bailey’s Buzzard” presents two problems for Dr. Sam to deal with. One is the mysterious (non-impossible) substitution of a large buzzard’s skeleton (the titular Bailey’s Buzzard) for the bones of a Union war hero and the impossible disappearance of Annabel’s maid on honor during a horse ride, seemingly spirited away from her horse, leaving no footprints in the snow. Writing my review, I find that I’m a little more fond of this one than when I first read it. The explanation for the buzzard substitution is a bit of a guess on Dr. Sam’s part, and while I do like the explanation for why it happened, there’s one part of the explanation that really boils down to, “Based on this vague character trait, X would have done this.” The disappearance is better done, but I figured out the method quickly; I’ve seen Hoch use it in a non-Dr. Sam story. As usual though, the clue pointing to the killer is well-done.

Another of my favorites from the collection is up next: “The Problem of the Interrupted Séance.” Dr. Sam is approached by a distressed patient who’s started to meet with a psychic to talk to her son, who died at Pearl Harbor. She and her husband convince Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens to sit in on the woman’s next séance to determine its validity, but nothing goes how they expect. Dr. Sam and Sheriff stand outside of the only door to the windowless room where the séance is taking place, but when they hear nothing from inside, they enter and find the couple drugged and the medium’s throat slashed. And a knife that was outside of the room the entire time mysteriously vanishes…While there are only two suspects for this crime, Hoch does a good job of creating a truly baffling impossible crime, with an elegant solution. Once again, every detail matters.

I also really enjoyed the next story, “The Problem of the Candidate’s Cabin,” less for the mystery and more for the personal aspect of the story, as Sheriff Lens finds himself accused of murdering the campaign manager for his opponent in the election for sheriff. The man called Sheriff Lens, reporting a prowler, but when he arrived, the cabin was locked and the manager was dead on the floor, shot in the head. Sheriff Lens is caught at the scene, and it doesn’t look good for him. I was pretty invested in Lens’ plight, even though the reader knows that Dr. Sam will get him off. These stories don’t often tend to directly involve the main cast, and don’t always do a good job with them when they do, but I enjoyed how it was handled here. Unfortunately, the solution is a bit of a letdown, and one aspect (ROT13: ubj gur xvyyre tbg gur zheqre jrncba) felt handwaved.

I first reviewed “The Problem of the Black Cloister'' in the very early days of my blog, as it was included in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries, and it was my first introduction to Dr. Sam and Hoch in general. The story takes a while to get to any crime, much less an impossible one, as Dr. Sam digs into the history of a door being offered as part of a war bonds auction. The door was the door to a cloister “for disenchanted monks and other religious men who’d left their various orders but weren’t ready to return to the secular world.” Dr. Sam is curious about the cloister and the fire that burned it down, killing a juvenile offender staying there in the process, and the death of a movie star visiting Northmont for the drive proves to be tied to the cloister’s history. This is a hard story to explain, because the exact crime isn’t specified until the denouement. It’s also not really an “impossible” crime. The anthology got it right, but I can’t go into more details without spoilers. The cluing is also a bit weak; it hinges on (slightly) specialized knowledge and a clue that is never described in detail until the summation. In fairness, the truth isn’t hard to deduce in spite of this, but it still damages the story.

“The Problem of the Secret Passage'' is another good story, Dr. Sam gets dragged into playing the role of “Unlock Homes,” a character who searches out scrap metal that could be used in the war effort. He’s set to pose for a photograph at the house of Aaron Cartwright, an old man who’s happy both to play along and to show off the secret passage that connects the library to his bedroom. The passage is locked on the bedroom side and can’t be opened from the library side, meaning that the library is still a perfectly locked room when he’s found dead the following Thursday, bludgeoned to death. It’s a pretty good problem. I want to say that the solution is too simple, but there is a perfectly plausible chain of logic explaining the actions that had to be taken to make it possible. I suppose the motive comes a bit out of nowhere, but that’s the only other major issue I had. There are some solid clues pointing at the murderer, and I admit that I missed two of them.

Next up is “The Problem of the Devil’s Orchard.” The titular orchard is a walled and fenced-off orchard that becomes the stage for a miraculous disappearance. Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens go to collect a young man who’s drinking in despair of his recent drafting. During the drive back to his house, he breaks free from the car and leaps the wall into the orchard. Once he lands in there, there’s no way out, as the entrance is being watched and a guard is set up to catch him when he leaves. But come morning, the only trace found of him is a bloody T-shirt weighed down by a rock…

While this story does a good job of giving possible alternate solutions to the crime, it hinges on how well you can picture the orchard and the surrounding properties. I couldn’t, and that, combined with a weaker solution, damaged the story for me. I will concede to falling for a red herring that Hoch set up, although it more or less led me to the same final solution. Finally, a bit of pop culture knowledge will make this story much easier to solve.

Speaking of pop culture, Hoch gives The Lord of the Rings a shout-out with “The Problem of the Shephard’s Ring,” a story about a ring that can apparently turn its wearer invisible. Its current wielder doesn’t need magic powers to make him unstable, he’s already threatening to kill another man for allegedly selling him a faulty tractor. He’s suffering from a broken leg, but that doesn’t stop him from suddenly appearing outside of his victim’s house, seemingly out of nowhere, and breaking in to kill him. There’s a clever plot here and the cluing was good (barring one minor clue that Hoch could have put in, but perhaps he was worried it would make things too obvious), but I don’t think it quite clicked for me.

To be honest, I didn’t read these last three stories in the best frame of mind, so take that into account as you read my thoughts.

“The Problem of the Suicide Cottage” sees Dr. Sam and Annabel ride out the last month of her pregnancy on vacation at a lake cottage. They find out that their cottage is known as the “suicide cottage” due to two previous deaths there. Needless to say, when Dr. Sam and Annabel return from a dinner, they find the windows locked, the doors locked and bolted, and a woman staying at a nearby cabin hanging from the ceiling. I know that, “I liked this story, it had good cluing where every detail mattered and a good solution” is getting trite by now, but it’s my opinion on the story.

“The Problem of the Summer Snowman” is a bit of a letdown from an intriguing premise. A local man is found stabbed to death in his locked home, and a little girl claims she saw a snowman going to the house…an idea backed up by water on the living room carpet. However, I found that the story did not quite live up to its component parts; sure the explanation for the “snowman” is good and points the finger directly at the killer, but some bits, such as the water and the locked room itself, are quite weak. The action the killer takes to create the latter is very easy to miss.

The collection, and the Dr. Sam series as a whole, closes with “The Problem of the Secret Patient.” Dr. Sam is requested to assist in the care of the titular patient, a man with a bandaged face who’s scrupulously guarded; even his food and drink are carefully analyzed. With a set-up like that, you know that somehow he’ll end up poisoned in spite of the precautions. I liked this story well-enough, but the solution is quite simple, Skupin even refers to it as “hoary.” The identity of the titular patient is also pretty obvious. (ROT13: V’z nyfb abg dhvgr fher jul Qe. Fnz yrgf gur xvyyre tb orlbaq ynpx bs rivqrapr; ur’f ghearq va zber flzcngurgvp zheqreref orsber.) A slightly disappointing end to this series.

And so, that’s it. The final Dr. Sam story. While this collection was weaker than the last one, there were still some excellent stories here, like “Potting Shed” and “Interrupted Séance.” I did find myself wishing that there was some more variety in the types of stories I was getting, stories like “Traveler's Tale” or “Black Cloister.” By the end, I was getting a little tired of straightforward locked rooms, but that was in part due to burnout. I’m looking forward to taking on Hoch’s non-impossible crimes; since I’ve seen plenty of variety of story types in other collections I’ve read by him (see this review for an example). On the whole, I liked this collection, although I must now bid adieu to Northmont. Recommended.

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

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).