#347: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 4.1: The Edward D. Hoch ‘Best Impossible Crime Novels’ List of 1981 (Books 15 to 11)

TMWEM Hoch List

Let the tucket sound!  Dan and I are back with our occasional podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles, and we’re taking on something rather special this month.

We’ve turned our attention to the list of the 15 best impossible crime novels of all time compèred by Edward D. Hoch for the introduction to his 1981 anthology All But Impossible.  If you’ve not heard of it, you’ve come to the right place — details are in the episode below, and the list itself and a brief bit of background can be found here.

So, we’ve decided to have a look at the books thereon, discuss them, debate their presence and position, and look a little into the context of the list and how it came to be.

Fifteen books would, however, be a rather large undertaking at one swoop, so instead of our adopted one-episode-every-couple-of-months approach we’re doing five books an episode, and one episode a week for three weeks in a row.  Yes, indeed — get excited!

No spoilers, so you’re as able to access this whether you’ve read the books or not, and due to my change of web hosting we’re now able to post the episodes here rather than over at SoundCloud (I will, in time, bring the first three episodes over to TIE as well and give the podcast its own page…).  Discussed this week are:

Invisible Green (1977) by John Sladek
Too Many Magicians (1967) by Randal Garrett
He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944) by Carter Dickson
Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) by Helen McCloy
The King is Dead (1952) by Ellery Queen

Right, let’s get into it…

46 thoughts on “#347: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 4.1: The Edward D. Hoch ‘Best Impossible Crime Novels’ List of 1981 (Books 15 to 11)

  1. What, no mention of Swedish critic Jan Broberg who was also a member of the selection committee? Boo. I’ll have to try to rectify that when I go through the impossible crime anthologies that he edited on my blog. 🙂

    (Apart from Broberg, I think the only name you missed mentioning was Howard Haycraft, author of several books on the genre.)

    • We did do a run through of everyone and mention their link to the genre, but it was felt that it slowed things up rather too much. A couple of people got left out — it’s no slight to Broberg, I promise, and we’re looking at rectifying this in a later episode.

  2. Can’t get your link to work =( Tried looking on your sound cloud but couldn’t find the episode. *sigh* I imagine the problem is at my end, but not being technological not sure what the problem is. Annoying as I have been able to listen to the links before.

  3. Perhaps a comment on the content as well wouldn’t be amiss.

    I’m mainly in agreement with you on the quality of these novels, though I’m a bit more impressed with the EQ novel than the both of you. I enjoy the outlandish setting. You may be right that it might have been better as a short story, but on the whole I quite like it.

    The Randall Garrett novel I don’t really remember any more. I guess that does’t really speak too highly of its quality…

    Sladek, Carr and McCloy are well deserved to be on the list, though I agree that McCloy’s trick is a difficult one to pull off well and I’m not sure I completely like it.

    Looking forward to the coming episodes.

      • I just think I have a higher tolerance of Queen’s outlandish plot elements. The whole bit about the island, the fascist ideology from the Bendigo family, the background from Wrightsville and how King and Karla met, it all appeals to me.

        Just to show you where I come from: I also quite enjoy “… And on the Eighth Day” which is panned by many, for many of the same reasons: its outlandishness, getting bogged down in a religious discussion, and so on.

        I think also that you approach this as an impossible mystery (which is understandable, seeing that you are making this podcast about the list of 15 best impossible mysteries), while I approach it simply as a mystery.

        Which means two things:
        1) I don’t mind that there’s 200 pages before the crime because the whole setup interests me.
        2) Even if I think the impossibility is easily solved (which I didn’t, because the 200 pages before the crime got enough of my attention to waver) it doesn’t really matter for the novel to succeed

        • No doubt, the focus of the novel is not the impossibility, I would completely agree; Dannay and Lee had crammed plot-heavy works with more plot much sooner elsewhere in their career for it to be obvious that they’re not trying to focus on the crime here. It doesn’t need the impossible crime to succeed — again, we agree — but the failure of the eventual focus (given that Queen was an author people picked up for the mystery) is a failure on the part of the book. A better mystery would definitely rescue TKiD.

  4. Lovely job so far, gentlemen. I do think it’s nigh on impossible when you’re creating any sort of “best of” list, and are dealing with the most prolific authors like Carr, to pick and choose titles that will satisfy everyone. That’s why I recoil when asked to choose a best Christie for any occasion. I very much liked Dan’s differentiation between the “epic” Carr titles and the smaller works. In the U.S., those books were published by a different house, with less elegant covers, and I always assumed they were “lesser” titles. But we’re talking about Green Capsule, Till Death Do Us Part, and Wire Cage here, among others, proving the strength of the adage about judging books by their covers.

    As you talked about the McCloy (which I loved) and the Queen (one of their worst), something occurred to me: I can’t argue with your opinions because that’s what they are, opinions, but I wonder if this list was compiled not so much with quality in mind but in terms of providing a varied experience in the sub-genre. Does that make any sort of sense? Each of the fifteen books is going for something a little different from the others in their set-up. This doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with your assessment for why Queen is included here – Hairy Aaron knows he was not an adept when it came to impossible crimes – but the set-ups for this aspect of both titles included on this list might be deemed intriguing enough to warrant inclusion here, even if they both falter greatly in the, you should pardon the expression, execution. At least the better placed Queen title on the list goes for pure puzzle; The King Is Dead gets so bogged down in another of the authors’ thematic preoccupations (here it’s the dangers of fascism, with a little Book of Genesis thrown in) that the mystery element all but drowns. Very typical of some of the late Queens.

    • This is a really interesting point Brad, and I realised as we prepared this that it was actually quite hard to figure out what the whole motive was for these 18 guys creating this list. If there indeed was a cohesion in motive other that to pick favourites. In fact it’s very likely that some chose books for their creativity, some for their writing style, some for the impossibility etc., and I’m guessing that each voter’s own personal likes and dislikes then played a part in their choices.

      It was also done by a straight points system, so it didn’t seem that many discussions were involved, although they did meet up regularly anyhow which we will get into a bit on episode 2. In many ways it’s difficult to know. But I guess from my perspective, I feel like many people come to this list or think about this list mainly for it’s ‘impossibilities’ and if you do come at it for that, ironically, you may end up disappointed at times.

      Your point also reminds me of hearing Martin Edwards speak on his process for selecting short stories for his recent British library collections. He chooses them not always based on quality, but on the interest of their relationship to the history of the genre. The books then go both ways in that you can say ‘wow look a detective story by Checkov! But also doesn’t mean that the interesting story is going to be any good.

      • In the preface to “All But Impossible”, Hoch himself says this about the selection process:
        “… it occurred to me that readers might be interested in a guide to the best locked room novels […] I asked a number of writers, editors, critics and fans […] to give me a list of their favorite locked room or impossible crime novels […] I ended up with seventeen lists […] Some could give me only two or three titles, while others had difficulty limiting their choice to ten.”

        Another interesting point from Hoch’s preface:
        “At least two members of my panel suggested that locked rooms and impossible crimes work best in the short story length, and there’s something to be said for that opinion. A look at the publication dates of the fifteen books listed above shows only two of them published after 1952 [,,,] If the locked room novel is in decline, the locked room short story is still alive and well.”

        Guess who agrees with that last point? 🙂

        • I’d be fascinated to know who was only able to put forward two or three books, and whether this was down to their high standards in selecting only the very best or simply because they hadn’t read very many (which, admittedly, seems unlikely…).

          I hav to say, too, that I just don’t see tha argument that the impossible crime is at its best in the shorter form. Undoubtedly some great short stories have been written, but the majority are far too brief and far too limited in their scope on account of their length. An impossibility, given the setup and misdirection required on top of the usual detection accoutrements, needs time to breathe — put in a bigger context there’s so much more than can be done.

    • I had a similar response to Christie when I started reading her, to be honest: the apocryphal “everyone” has heard of Orient Express, Body in the Library, Death on the Nile, Roger Ackroyd, and so one assumes these are the big hitters when it comes to reading.

      Then it turns out that Crooked House and Evil Under the Sun and Lord Edgware Dies are still amazing, which is possibly what makes a GAD great: anyone worth talking about has at least one excellent book, but the true top tier have excellent books beyond the ones that get discussed…almost like there’s too much quality to acknowledge, so we just talk about the same five most of the time and assume others will discocver the richness on their own.

      • The Christies you list here – and I would add And Then There Were None – are considered “epic” because of some extra thing that has nothing to do with their general quality. Ackroyd really is a pedestrian story in so many ways – but the thread that leads to that ending elevates it. I can name five better village mysteries by Christie than this one, but they don’t have that thing! Ditto with Orient Express vs. other travel mysteries. Nile is arguably the best of a certain type of twist that Christie exploited frequently; plus, it has that exotic travel element in spades. You’ll never convince me that The Moving Finger and After the Funeral aren’t better reads than Ackroyd, but they won’t be found on the “best of” lists like that title will, just because of one factor.

        Regarding your argument about impossible crimes and long form, JJ, I don’t disagree with you, but I would argue – and this stems totally from my own personal preferences – that the best impossible crime novels contain other elements of atmosphere and/or obfuscation to help sustain their length. Clayton Rawson is proof that some writers were better than others at expanding an impossibility. (In general, he was not one of them! Carr, on the other hand, was!

        • I don’t disagree with your notion about impossible crime novels having other apsects to sustain them, that’s a necessary part of being an impossible crime novel: you gotta get the words to fill the pages somehow. I do feel, though, that in doing so — in creating a background, and giving us a larger canvas, plus the opportunity and the time for the bafflement to baffle — the writing of a top class impossible crime novel will always be a better utilisation of the conceit than a short story. Most short stories will give you a crime, drop three clues, then tell you what happened…which I find profoundly disappointing. I want time to reflect!

          As for the Christies…you’re aware, of course, of my profound indifference for Death on the Nile. I think she used that central idea far better in another semi-travel book, not least because it was tied into a puzzle plot of actual consequence rather than simply a series of unrelated things that happen to be occurring in the same space. Death on the Nile is Christie’s The Ten Teacups for structure…but we’ll get into that next weekend!

  5. Said J.J. elsewhere in the comments:
    “I hav to say, too, that I just don’t see tha argument that the impossible crime is at its best in the shorter form. Undoubtedly some great short stories have been written, but the majority are far too brief and far too limited in their scope on account of their length. An impossibility, given the setup and misdirection required on top of the usual detection accoutrements, needs time to breathe — put in a bigger context there’s so much more than can be done.”

    First, I’m probably the one person in the world who’s least interested in characterisation, so that’s one of the things that makes short stories more appealing to me. You just don’t get a whole bunch of extraneous stuff that’s only there to draw in those other people – you know, everyone else who isn’t me. 🙂

    The thing is, to me, an impossible mystery is simply about the mystery. I want a sooper dooper cool setup with an impossibility that seems totally, well, impossible. Of course, to create that some background (characters, setting, etc.) will obviously be needed, I certainly recognise that. And if there is too little of that background even I will be disappointed – as is probably evident from several of my comments on my own blog.

    Second, I don’t ever want to be bored when reading. And because a short story is short, if I get bored, I’ll only be bored for say 20 minutes. But a novel has an inherent problem with that – since it’s longer, there will always be extraneous stuff that has a much higher risk being boring. So even though the impossibility might be great in a novel – and there are lots of such novels – I might get bored with the rest, and then I have to sit through that for a much longer time just to get to the solution.

    An auxiliary to that point is that the reading of a short story can also be aborted, and I can move on to the next one, if I don’t like it. For a novel, that might be harder, because there might be two or three things that I like about it, and so I might have to force myself through it just to get a resolution of those parts.

    A second auxiliary to that last point, because short stories are short, I can read more of them in one go and get many more impossible mysteries (or train mysteries or whatever I’m reading at that moment) than if I read a novel. If that’s not a win, I don’t know what is.

    • Yeah, I can see your point — I’m not massively enamoured of deep characterisation, either, though I enjoy it when I find it — butequally I’d say there’s nothing especially specific to the impossible crime in our requirements, hein? A short mystery can be baffling whatever the form it takes.

      I’d even qrgue that your desire for a super-dense impossibility is undercut by the short form. Is there not a case that by repeated application of a problem — in say The Case of the Constant Suicides by Carr, or The Demon of Dartmoor by Halter — that the problem becomes even more impossible because it happens several ltimes in spite of repeated attempts to either decode or avoid it? That, I have to say, is one of the things that gives me the biggest kick in this sort of story…and is something most shorter takes on it don’t have the scope to allow.

      In fact, I think that might be the exact reason I tend to prefer the longer form (though, as I say, I acknowledge some masterpieces of impossible crime fiction do exist in short format),

      • True. It should be said that I acknowledge that when a novel is wholly successful, it’s better than a short story. It’s just that there aren’t THAT many wholly successful novels…

        And you have a good point that a super dense impossibility which is repeated over and over holds a great deal of appeal. But even though a novel may feature just that, there’s still the risk that some other part of it is a letdown in some way.

        So, of course it swings both ways. Short fiction has its disadvantages, no doubt about that.

        And to be honest, my favourite form is not the regular short story, but the novella. Not too long, but meaty enough to bring something more to the table. Rawson’s Don Diavolo stories, some of Christie’s longer Poirot stories, “The Third Bullet” by Mr. Automobile, “Lamp of God” by those other kings, and some others, that I can’t remember right at this moment. They’re great stuff to me.

        • I have definitely come to appreciate the benefits of the novella as I’ve read more of the genre. On the off-chance you’ve not yet read Erle Stanley Gardner’s Two Clues I highly recommend them for someone who loves a good, focussed, and cunning novella.

  6. I’ve only read five of the fifteen books on this list, which doesn’t bother me much as I have a lot to look forward to. Of the ones covered by this episode, I’ve only read Through a Glass, Darkly. That title, as enjoyable as it was, definitely doesn’t strike me as belonging on the list. I enjoyed McCloy’s writing style and she provided an interesting twist to an impossibility that, as you say, only seemingly has two potential solutions. With that said, I’d place at least 20 Carr novels ahead of it – and that’s only considering Carr’s true impossible crimes (which is roughly 50% of his work by my rough estimate).

    Of the others covered in today’s episode, I mostly look forward to He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (obviously) and Invisible Green.

    The big question is what elements should drive the ultimate choice for inclusion in the list. Three obvious criteria are:
    1. The strength of the puzzle presented to the reader. Does it stimulate the imagination and hold the proper focus in the mind for the length of the story?
    2. The strength of the solution. Does it ultimately satisfy and justify 160+ pages of story?
    3. The overall strength of the story that ties it all together.

    Now we have a question of balance of these three dimensions (which alone would make an interesting post). I assume that any book making a top 15 list is going to be above average in all three dimensions. At this level you can’t afford a dip in any of these traits.

    Through a Glass, Darkly certainly excels in #3. It’s weak in #1 because I think most readers are going to assume there are only two possible solutions (regardless of whether that is true or not). #2 straddles the fence for me – the answer to the core puzzle was ok, but there was a clever element involved in a scene that takes place in the last few chapters. Altogether though, I’ll comfortably say that the solution wasn’t worthy of a seat at the table compared to many of the book’s peers.

    You say that you’re doing three episodes on this topic (five books per episode), but I plead for a fourth covering which books should have made the list in your minds. That’s where I think the real fun discussion will lie. It’s hard enough for me to not rattle off a list right now, and you’re just getting started!

    • I forgot to say – criteria that I don’t think should come into play for the list:
      1. Diversity of authors. There’s already five John Dickson Carr titles on the list, and it would be fine with me if there were more – assuming they truly are the best.
      2. Diversity of impossibility. If the top fifteen impossible crime novels truly are locked room mysteries, so be it. Don’t add titles simply to get a spread of different puzzle types.

    • TAGD is odd in its inclusion here, but I can see the thinking behind its popularity as I say in the episode. Youre right that McCloy brings an iteresting twist to the problem — she’s done this in all three of the books of hers I’ve read, even the execrable The Slayer and the Slain — but, as you rightly highlight, there are other aspects that should perhaps be given prominence in such a list (and, of course, we’ll never know each of the criteria for the people who made their choices).

      The pospect of an episode where Dan and I put forth our own top 15 was discussed in the run-up to this, and…well, I don’t know, it might happen, we haven’t got that far ahead yet (we’re still yet to record episodes 2 qnd 3 of this series…). We have a grand plan of an episode every 2 months, however, so we may return to this in April. Watch this space…!

      • Watch this space indeed, Ben – for the sight of two men wrestling violently over JJ’s continual use of words like “execrable” to describe a fascinating book like The Slayer and the Slain! This is a mystery that actually does something different AND does it well. What’s your problem, bub???

        • Ugh, dude, where to start? A noivel whose mystery — established very early on — revolve around a) lots of people approaching our narrator and then going “Oh, I’m sorry, you look exactly like someone else I know who has a different name”, and b) our narraotr remarking that everyone — everyone — he meets looks about ten years older when he hasn’t seen them for only about six months. Jeez, the amazing thing is that, even with all the directionless prose added into this gruel, it even makes it to the length of a novel. For plot and intrigue it’s about as poor as “classic” crime fiction ever got. A horrible book, enough to put me off McCoy for another couple of years yet.

      • Well, not necessarily your own top 15, but rather what titles are you surprised you didn’t see? For example, I’m somewhat surprised that Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger didn’t make the list.

          • Really? Victim murdered on an operating table in full view of a surgery team? The equipment is checked out and shown to not have been tampered with?

            By the end of the book, the impossibility certainly takes a back stage to other elements, but this one felt like an impossibility when I read it.

            • I wouldn’t say its an impossible either as it isn’t air tight, there are lots of ways it could have been set up.

              Secondly I don’t think its a very good book either… (Dodges bullets)

            • I’ll acknowledge that the idea of GfD containing an impossibility is problematic. It’s not like he’s found with a scalpel in his brain and nobody could have stabbed him there. He just . . . dies! The question is IF it’s not a natural death, how did it happen. And I agree there are all kinds of possible ways this could have happened – it’s just that the one that was chosen is rather clever. (Makes the title mean something!)

              My second point is a question, and it’s for JJ: now that Daniel is being drummed out of the GAD corp for his nasty dislike of a classic mystery, what sort of commute schedule would you like me to arrange so that I can take over his co-podcasting duties?????? 🙂

            • I am glad it’s not just me who doesn’t see this — I was worried I was missing something in the setup. There’s that whole debate around what qualifies as an impossibility (I did a post on it, in fact) — I don’t remember there being anything especially watertight about the setup…it’s just odd. And distinctly possible that what the solution turns out to be could easily have happened, just no-one thought of it.

              As for podcasting — we’re doing the next episode(s) at mine tomorrow morning if you an get an early flight…

            • It was my first Brand, having been told by all and sundry that it was amazing and brillant and wonderful. I, too, was rather underwhelmed, even though the revelations at the end are quite affecting — Brand has done much, much better.

        • I can’t say I had thought of Green for Danger as an impossible crime but it does indeed present a situation which appears to defy logic initially. There is a circumstance before us where it looks like it would have been impossible for anyone to successfully commit the crime – so I guess it can be an impossible crime.

  7. I don’t think I have any issue with the inclusion of McCloy’s book in that list. As has been said, this may be a result of how one interprets the reasoning behind the list. I guess I felt McCloy’s solution was just about OK, but if one comes to this book, or the list itself, aiming the be presented primarily with a whizz-bang solution, then it probably will seem a bit lacking.
    For me, I read the list as a compilation of the best detective/crime books which feature impossibilities. As such I think Through a Glass, Darkly deserves its place as it is a well-written (maybe a bit padded, but OK) novel that is genuinely creepy, holds the attention and features an apparent impossibility.

    • For my perspective, they key part of what you say is that penultimate word. It is apparent, it’s all too apparent. This is an impossibiliy in the way that anything is impossible if the detective in the case refuses to countenance basic common sense; that’s why it falls down for me. She has about as good a go as anyone can at this kind of puzzle, but it’s just not something that permits much puzzling.

      • Yes, I know what you mean alright, but then I’d counter that any impossibility in crime stories – unless we go fully down the supernatural route – has to be and is in truth apparent. Some will be disguised a bit more carefully, perhaps due to wider range of explanations available, but I reckon McCloy did pretty well in this one with the limited options at hand. And as I said, the storytelling (padding aside), atmosphere and creepiness all add up to a pretty fine book, in my opinion.

        • Oh, no, that’s my point: this isn’t disguised well. I mean “apparent” in the sense of “obvious” — it is immediately clear what the solution is going to be, so the lack of possible obfuscation works against it for my tastes. We can agree that the atmosphere is superb, but the potential for something unforeseen is bunkum.

          • I suppose the atmosphere drew me in enough to at least wonder if it was going down the supernatural route. And though I agree the options are limited from the outset, I still hadn’t worked out who was the culprit till the reveal – of course it’s entirely possible (who’s that whispering the words highly likely?) that I’m none too bright, but still…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s