Sunday, July 24, 2022

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

Cover image from Mysteries, Short and Sweet. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 4, 2022

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

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

The story seems to hint that Dr. Sam will be suspect number one this time, but honestly nothing much comes of it. (He even seems surprised when Sheriff Lens points out that that’s the direction the evidence points to, even though Dr. Sam himself seemed to realize that a page or so earlier). It’s a good story, although there is one late assault that felt a little weak in regards to motive. To be vague about it, surely X isn’t going to realize Y from Z. I think that mystery readers will stumble to the solution, although once again Hoch has a lot of subtle clues pointing to it. Hoch does tease at a much meaner solution that’s fairly clued as well, and I almost wish he’d gone with it.

“The Problem of the Whispering House” is a story that puts Dr. Sam in harm’s way. Dr. Sam is approached by a ghost hunter named Thaddeus Sloan who wants some help looking into the local whispering house. The house is said to have a secret room that no one has ever left. During a late-night ghost hunt, Dr. Sam and Sloan hear threatening whispers, and witness an unknown man walking into the secret room. After he never leaves, Dr. Sam and Sloan enter...and find the man stabbed to death with no one else inside. Making matters even more confusing is that the man has been “dead for probably fifteen to twenty hours” before he was found.

This is one of the more tense Dr. Sam stories, as Dr. Sam finds himself in a fair bit of peril, such as when his beloved Pierce-Arrow Runabout car is rigged with a bomb. The killer is pretty well-hidden, although the cluing pointing to them is a little weak (and I feel that there could have been another suspect or two in the story). Also, some parts of the motive get dumped into the summation at the end. The solution can be seen as weak; one that has no business being used in a mystery, much less a locked room one. However, Hoch does a good job of justifying it, and ties it into Dr. Sam figuring it out in a tight spot.

“The Problem of the Boston Common” is a story that holds a special place in my heart. It sees Dr. Sam going off to Boston for a medical conference, only to get wrapped up into helping consult in a serial killer investigation. A man named “Cerberus” has been striking down people in the Boston Common with curare poisoning. The police know that the killer is a man named George Totter, who was doing research with curare and is trying to raise awareness of how important it is in the most over-the-top way possible, but they can’t figure out how he’s doing it. His victims are chosen at random, and after death number two, the Common has been filled with plainclothes policemen who can’t see Totter using the blowgun he has to be using to fire his darts. Dr. Sam looks into the case, but is hampered by the culture clash caused by working with small-town police compared to the Boston PD. I found it effective. The solution is good, and kudos to Hoch for describing the Common in a way that makes the solution clear even when the reader isn’t familiar with it (much less the Boston Common circa 1928), but I feel that the police, or at least the actual expert on curare consulting on the investigation, should have stumbled to the solution before Dr. Sam. But there’s a final twist in the case, and I’m proud to say that this is the first time I remember solving even part of a mystery on my own. I was thinking about this story while changing my clothes in my closet after church one day, and suddenly realized that X had to be the killer. It was a good moment for me.

Next up, we have “The Problem of the General Store.” Maggie Murphy is in Northmont, preaching weird ideas in the general store about women being equal to men and women having the right to vote. Dr. Sam is usually a passive observer to this, but finds himself having to get directly involved when Murphy is the prime suspect in a murder. One night, the owner of the store is found dead on the floor from a shotgun blast to the chest. Murphy is unconscious on the floor, and her story of falling over and striking her head doesn’t convince Sheriff Lens, especially since the store is completely locked on the inside, even the coal chute!

I admit that I wasn’t overly impressed with this story at first, beyond thinking that the killer was well-hidden (perhaps too well-hidden), but a re-read improved my opinion. You do have to be paying attention, but Hoch sets up almost all of his twists, barring the one about how Murphy ended up unconscious on the general store floor. The solution is a little lightly clued, but it is fair, and it’s understandable that Dr. Sam doesn’t hit on it sooner. As I said, the killer is also pretty well hidden, a theme in this collection.

On a minor note, I do wish that Eustace Carey, who was established as the “owner of one of Northmont’s two general stores” in Diagnosis: Impossible, played some role in this story. It would have helped establish more of a continuity between the stories and a sense of a community for Northmont.

“The Problem of the Courthouse Gargoyle '' sees Dr. Sam put on jury duty when a controversial trial is moved to Northmont. It’s a sordid tale of a farmhand accidentally-on-purpose killing his boss over the victim’s wife. However, things take a sudden turn for the impossible when the judge takes a sip of water and suddenly kneels over from cyanide poisoning, the word “gargoyle” on his lips. (“Doc, you draw corpses like flies, I swear!” Sheriff Lens cries out, close to understanding the Detective’s Curse (™)). Everyone in the courtroom saw the court attendant fill the pitcher, everyone saw the judge pour water into his glass, but no one saw when the poison could have been administered.

I’ll lead off by saying that the “gargoyle” clue ends up having disappointingly little to do with the story. The back of the book boasts about “Poisoning by a courthouse gargoyle!” and no, that is not at all what the story is trying to do. The poisoning itself is clever enough, although once again the lack of real alternative solutions means that I think most readers will see how it was done. There is another clever use of the least-likely suspect idea, although the motive is handwaved a bit.

The next story is “The Problem of the Pilgrims Windmill,” which I talked about in spoiler terms here. A new hospital has come to Northmont, but there are issues. For one, the hospital is a tad too big for the town, and the locals aren’t exactly jumping at the chance to go to it in the first place. For another, they’ve hired (gasp!) a black doctor, Lincoln Jones. Oh, and the Devil is apparently taken up roost in the nearby windmill, seeing as two people end up set aflame, one fatally. And of course, there are no footprints besides those of the men in the light snow surrounding the windmill…

I maintain that this is one of my favorite Dr. Sam stories, although it wasn’t as strong as I recalled since I feel that Dr. Sam could have solved the case if he’d investigated more thoroughly after the first burning. But the solution is good, the clues subtle (one does require some specialized knowledge, but it’s very minor and the clue is technically given in a different way), and the motive and the killer are genuinely chilling.

“The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat'' sees the arrival of Miranda Grey in Northmont and she quickly wins Dr. Sam’s heart. Her aunt and uncle, as well as their neighbors, the Hausers, go out on the Hauser’s houseboat for a day on the lake while Dr. Sam and Miranda sit at her aunt and uncle’s cottage. However, when Dr. Sam notices the boat is just drifting on the lake, he goes to investigate and finds the boat empty.

This is less of an impossible crime than other stories in this collection. Sure, the boat was in the middle of the lake in full view of Dr. Sam, but even he admits that it would be easy for the four of them to slip away. Indeed, the solution to the “impossibility” is given so off-handley that it might be easy to miss. But then the question becomes why. “Why would four perfectly normal, sensible, middle-aged people want to disappear and hide from us?” The strange set-up is merely cover for a sordid little crime, but it probably won’t be too hard for the reader to figure out the broad strokes of it. That being said, the clues Dr. Sam notices seem a little weaker than normal. Kudos to the genuinely tense sequence on the boat just before the reveal of the culprit(s).

“The Problem of the Pink Post Office” is fun, which is an odd description for a story that takes place on Black Thursday. Dr. Sam and his nurse April stop in to Northmont’s post office, which is currently having the last wall painted the same intense pink as the rest of the post office, when a banker runs in, desperate to send off a railroad bearer bond. Which is $10,000. Which can be cashed immediately. And he announces these facts to everyone in the post office. One guess what vanishes and can’t be found even after thorough searches of the post office and the suspects.

What makes this story fun is the enjoyment Hoch is clearly having in setting up false solutions for every one of the suspects (even Dr. Sam!) before shooting them down. There’s even one bit of cluing that, on my re-read, made me offer a complement to how Hoch waves a vital clue in your face. It’s a solid little story.

On a side note, Dr. Sam breaks up with Miranda in this one. Yes, the story after she’s introduced, they break up due to off-page difficulties. Hoch was many things, but “Master of Romance” was not one of them. That being said, Sheriff Lens and the postmistress, Vera Brock, do fall in love…

...And “The Problem of the Octagon Room'' is set on the day of their wedding. Vera insists on the wedding taking place in an octagon room, since her parents were married in one, and conveniently there happens to be one in Northmont, and there are rumors of it being haunted to boot! Needless to say, come the wedding day the door is found to be bolted, and the window latched. When the door is broken down, a tramp is found stabbed to death on the floor. The solution is a little more physical than Hoch’s normal, and a little awkwardly hinted at since a key part is given near the very end. This story also has a slightly different framing device than the others, but that’s mainly there to tie up one last loose end.

The next story, “The Problem of the Gypsy Camp,” had such an interesting premise to my na├»ve mind back when I first read this collection that I saved it for last. Hoch didn’t quite up to what I had hoped for, but I enjoyed it on the re-read. Another group of Roma have moved into Northmont, and Dr. Sam is witness to one running into the local hospital saying he’s been cursed and “will die of a bullet to the heart.” Shortly after, he drops dead. The death seems natural, but an autopsy confirms that Northmont is still cursed to have impossible crimes everywhere: there’s a bullet firmly embedded in the man’s heart.

This alone could make a perfectly fine short story, but Hoch adds more to it. After Sheriff Lens is assaulted and one of the suspects is kidnapped, he makes a move to arrest everyone at the camp. Lens and a deputy sit in their car at the only road out of the farm where the camp is. The other three sides are blocked by a fence and forest that the wagons can’t get around. And yet, when the state police show up the next morning, the entire camp has vanished into the night. Even though this is the titular disappearance, it only happens near the end of the story and it doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. It’s also not very well-clued, although it is a workable trick. The first impossibility is more of a stretch, and the motive felt a little weak, but it is better clued. There was one element of this first impossibility that I remembered being a little bit weak, but this re-read showed that I was wrong; Hoch fairly clued it, and passed it right in front of my eyes. Clever.

“The Problem of the Bootlegger’s Car” opens with Dr. Sam being kidnapped by gangsters working for Fat Larry Spears, an infamous bootlegger. Spears has been shot and needs a doctor, but when Dr. Sam arrives, he learns, at the barrel of Fat Larry’s gun, that the injury isn’t as serious as reported. Fat Larry thinks that one of his men has sold him out to the New York mob and is faking a more serious injury to lull the mole into a false sense of security. He forces Dr. Sam to stay at the abandoned house that he’s using as a hideout and keep an eye on the other gangsters. Fat Larry is waiting for a meeting with Tony Barrel, a New York man who’s selling...empty barrels. Hoch’s explanation for this is honestly very historically interesting. It almost reminds me of a Porges story with the focus on a not-very-well-known scientific fact, although in this case it isn’t the centerpiece of the story. That would be the impossible crime.

Tony Barrel goes to meet with Fat Larry while Dr. Sam and the other gangsters loiter outside the house. When the meeting ends, Barrel goes for his car, but when one of the gangsters goes to get the barrels, the drugged-up driver opens fire and gets killed during the gunfight. Dr. Sam goes to look for Barrel, but finds that he’s vanished from his car and left almost no trace behind. This is another story where there aren’t a whole lot of alternative explanations for the crime, which I think Hoch compensates for by putting it near the end. It’s still good and well-clued (although a little obviously so), and there is a solid motive behind it, which is sometimes missing in impossible crime stories. It also has a criminal (well, they’re all criminals but you know what I mean) who feels clever and intelligent, similar to what JJ discusses in this podcast.

“The Problem of the Tin Goose'' brings more planes to Northmont, this time in the form of a flying circus. Dr. Sam sees a local girl fall in love with the head pilot of the circus, and is also on the scene of yet another impossible crime. The pilot, Ross Winslow, takes both the local girl and the owner of the airfield that the circus is using into the sky for a close-up look at the performance. Dr. Sam watches from the ground, and sees the plane land after the show. Shortly after, he’s called by one of the passengers and finds them pounding on the locked cockpit door. The door is broken down, and Winslow is found with a stab wound in the back. But how did the killer get around the locked door and the two witnesses sitting right outside it?

I admit, this story didn’t really sink in in the way that the others did. It’s a solid story, but the scenario, once again, doesn’t allow for a full range of false solutions and red herrings. Hoch does a good job at spreading misdirection (he sometimes doesn’t have enough suspects/doesn’t pass enough suspicion around them), but the solution is a bit banal. It is fairly clued and all, but it just doesn’t stick out.

Next up is “The Problem of the Hunting Lodge,” which actually stood out more on this re-read. Dr. Sam’s parents are in town, and it turns out that his father is a penpal of Ryder Sexton, a former arms dealer who collects antique weapons and is an avid hunter. Before long he’s talked Dr. Sam’s dad into a hunting trip, and Dr. Sam goes along both for the sake of father-son bonding, and for the sake of his worried mother. The trip seems to go well, with Sexton staying in the titular lodge while the other men on the trip seek out deer (as Sexton can shoot said deer if they run away). Dr. Sam and his father see one, but miss it, and although Sexton has a clear shot, he doesn’t take it...because, as Dr. Sam’s father finds out when he goes to check on Sexton, someone has bashed his head in with a club lined with sharks’ teeth. And there’s no trace of the killer’s footprints in the snowy ground.

I don’t know why this story didn’t click for me the first time I read it. Maybe something about the solution didn’t seem right, or it was just the mood I read it in. But now it feels stronger. The suspects aren’t vivid but Hoch ties them into the crime well. The whole, “Dr. Sam’s father is a suspect!” angle doesn’t get used as well as it could have been (he’s a suspect for about half a page). This time, while the crime is still “impossible,” there are ways it can be done, ways that are fairly set up and clued and which Hoch gleefully swats aside, including one that he could have easily done and gotten away with it. Instead he “just” gives us a very well-clued solution and least-likely suspect. The only three real weak spots are A. some of the characterization of Dr. Sam’s mother, with one statement in particular feeling a little more cynical than the rest of the story, (Hoch is sometimes guilty of these statements, and they don’t always land or feel at odds with the story) B. the motive, making the dead man a jerk without any real build-up when Hoch could have easily done so, and C. the way the killer is caught. Seeing as Dr. Sam freely admits that he has no evidence, I’m not sure why they confess.

Justice for the Corpse (an excellent blog) says the solution was used earlier in this collection, but I don’t see what they mean unless I’m misunderstanding (which is likely).

“The Problem of the Body in the Haystack'' sees a bear running around Northmont, causing havoc and killing animals, much to the annoyance of farmer Felix Benet. Veterinarian Bob Withers (who’s having an affair with Benet’s wife) proposes bringing in Sheriff Lens to deal with the bear, and once the implications for his election campaign are if he takes down a bear are explained, he agrees. Dr. Sam goes home for the night...but is awoken by a phone call from Benet, where he implies he’s in danger before the call cuts off. Dr. Sam goes over to the farm to ask questions and is soon witness to the bear (cameoing from The Fox and the Hound), arriving and being shot. However, he went after one of the covered haystacks before going down, and when the group investigate, they find Benet’s body on top of the haystack under the tarp, stabbed with a pitchfork.

The haystack was under a tarp and in Sheriff Lens’ line of sight. A killer couldn’t have moved the big man’s body there without being seen, and even if he could, the tarp was tied down and impossible to remove and replace without being noticed, and it’s too tight to move the body to the top of the haystack from the ground. Once again, we have the impossibility and solution coming very close together, giving the impression that Hoch might have been concerned that it wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny for very long. Indeed, the mystery is easy to solve. In fact, it’s so easy that it’s Sheriff Lens who gets to solve the case! Of course, Dr. Sam figures it out too, but the Sheriff gets the glory of seeing a clue that Dr. Sam missed. While the mystery is still fair, there is one deduction that eliminates a suspect that feels a little weak. It’s something that, once you know that X isn’t the killer, points to their innocence, but on its own really doesn’t feel that strong. (Although in fairness Dr. Sam only points it out after he’s fairly sure he knows what happened.)

We end with a bit of a dud; “The Problem of Santa’s Lighthouse.” Dr. Sam is on a trip when he sees a tourist attraction, “Santa’s Lighthouse.” After studying the sign, he realizes that the original name was “Satan’s Lighthouse” and goes to check things out. The lighthouse turns out to be a former smuggler’s base now run by Lisa and Harry Quay, a brother-sister duo. The lighthouse was originally used as a lure for ships to wreck them on the coast, and normally the Quay’s play that up with a ghost pirate attraction, but they change it to a Santa attraction for the holidays. After being charmed by Lisa and getting a tour of the lighthouse, Dr. Sam and Lisa end up talking outside...and witness her brother falling from the top of the lighthouse, a knife buried in his ribs. And of course, a search of the lighthouse turns up no one.

I admit, this story was semi-ruined for me from the start because of a review on Mystery*File (which is another good blog!) that quotes a line that made the solution obvious even to young me. Most of the story is spent digging into the conviction of Lisa and Harry’s father, falsely (or so he says) accused of trying to scam investors. This is exciting and all, but leaves the mystery itself wanting. Dr. Sam’s false solution is interesting and actually clued (a must for false solutions), but a little too obviously false, and I think that the real solution will stand out to the reader. And once again, just like “The Problem of the Hunting Lodge,” Dr. Sam is lucky that the killer was willing to confess, seeing as he didn’t have a bit of evidence against them! But it’s a better motivated confession than that previous story.

All in all, this was another solid collection of Hoch stories. While I know that any “theme” in this collection was unintentional, I did feel that there was a trend towards least-likely killers, at least in the earlier stories. Even though the solutions didn’t impress me as much as the first collection’s, I’m optimistic about the future collections since I did find more to enjoy here than I thought I would. (Although, there were some that I didn’t enjoy as much as I thought I would.) That being said, I am still worried about having the same issue of burnout that I did with Arthur Porges! But we’ll see what happens when I get past the third collection, which I remember being the weakest one I read.

All in all, there’s still some good mysteries in here. Recommended.