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.


  1. Rest assured, your love for Hoch is not misguided. Just a little blind to a glaring imperfection that gets overlooked a lot. Hoch simply was an uneven mystery writers, which you got to expect from a prolific writer of short stories. Something that's easily overlooked when you read one of his short stories in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or some anthology, but becomes more apparent when you read his stories in bulk. But his very best stories warrant his reputation as the Giant of Short Detective Stories.

    As to be expected, you like everyone else likes "The Problem of the Poisoned Pool," but glad you enjoyed "The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery." It was my introduction to both Hoch and the Dr. Sam Hawthorne series.

    By the way, Crippen & Landru published Hoch's Constant Hearses and Other Revolutionary Mysteries a few months ago. Sounds like a good volume collection all the Alexander Swift and Gideon Parrot stories.

    1. Very true about reading Hoch in bulk. I suspect that in some of the other collections, when he isn't just writing one type of story, this would be less of an issue.

      And hah, sorry about the disagreement. For what it's worth, I didn't love it (especially the explanation for how the victim planned to disappear from the pool), but I thought it was a solid enough story on it's own.

      I'm behind on all the new Hoch releases; once I've gotten some distance by reading other authors I'll dive back in, although part of me wants to go read some of the older collections first.