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.


  1. When I saw this post popup on my blog-roll, I was curious to see your opinion on "The Problem of the Potting Shed" and it was a relief to see you think as highly of it as I do. It's surprising it never turned up in any of the locked room anthologies as it shows what a bit of imagination can do with the impossible crime story. We seem to be pretty much in agreement on most of the individual stories, but you rated the collection as a whole a little lower than I did. Glad you enjoyed it nonetheless.

    If you want to try something different, I recommend Hoch's Ladies.

    1. I wonder if it's because of the year it was published (2000). It might have been too late for it to slip into any locked room anthology, since I have the impression that they tend to aim a little earlier.

      And thank you for the rec! I might go for that as my next Hoch, although there's also a Nick Velvet + Jeffery Rand collection sitting on my Kindle, as well as The Thefts of Nick Velvet, so I may take a look at them first.