#350: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 4.2: The Edward D. Hoch ‘Best Impossible Crime Novels’ List of 1981 (Books 10 to 6)

TMWEM Hoch List

Continuing our examination of the 15 best impossible crime novels of all time as compèred by Edward D. Hoch in 1981, here is the second of three episodes looking at the titles in question from Dan and myself in our occasional podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles.

In addition to discussing books 6 through 10 on the list — no spoilers, we promise — we also take a look at the situation in mystery fandom at the time (pre-internet, would you believe) that in part contributed to this list coming about in the first place.

The books discussed this week are:

The Ten Teacups, a.k.a. The Peacock Feather Murders (1937) by Carter Dickson
Nine Times Nine (1940) by Anthony Boucher
The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) by Ellery Queen
Death from a Top Hat (1938) by Clayton Rawson
The Big Bow Mystery (1892) by Israel Zangwill

We hope you enjoy it!

And if you missed out on episode 1 in this mini-series, well, you can find that here.

~

The three episodes we recorded prior to this run can currently be found here on SoundCloud, and I will — I will, I will, I will — get them uploaded on a proper page all of their own here at some point….

34 thoughts on “#350: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 4.2: The Edward D. Hoch ‘Best Impossible Crime Novels’ List of 1981 (Books 10 to 6)

  1. Another superb episode – I appreciated the little bit of background you were able to include about the way this list came about and your conversation with one of the voters. Great stuff!

  2. Regarding The Tragedy Of X – a bit like Teacups, lovely set-up – man dies on crowded tram due to a poisoned sharp thing in his pocket (a cork with needles in it iirc) despite evidence that his pockets were empty when getting on the tram (I forget how that is established) – but it all goes downhill from there. Off the top of my head, I forget why it’s really considered an impossible crime as clearly someone just put it in his pocket… It’s OK, but Tragedy of Y (non-impossible) is much better. I’ll put X in the bag for Bodies…

      • The Footprints on the Ceiling does, though, right? No Coffin for the Corpse gave me significant pause, but I have TFotC and will get to it…well, at some point. Not in any rush, though, it has to be said…

        • Yeah, “The Footprints on the Ceiling” has at least one impossibility, as the title indicates. 🙂

          I liked it, though I like “Death from a Top Hat” better than you two did, so take that with a pinch of salt.

    • Ah, thanks for clearing that up. And I appreciate the offer of a loan, but I do actually own that — I have everything by Queen, including quite a few of the ones they didn’t write — I’d just skipped over it once my “EQ in Order” enterprise got off to such a strong start!

    • I second the comment that The Tragedy of X isn’t an impossible crime at all. I’ve never even heard it positioned as such, and the book in no way implies that there is a hint of impossibility at play. As Puzzle Doctor says, it is an interesting set up, just not of the impossible variety.

  3. Second one is up already? I haven’t even gotten around the first one yet! I’m awful, I know, but I’ll get back to you once I have catched up with everyone else.

    • So, I listened to the first part and, on a whole, there’s not all that much to nitpick about what you two discussed except for the undeserved praise for Too Many Magicians or favoring Invisible Green over the brilliant Black Aura. Don’t get me wrong. Invisible Green is a great locked room novel, especially for something written in the late 1970s, but, for me, it never emerged from the tall shadow cast by its predecessor.

      By the way, has a list, like this one, ever been put together for short impossible crime stories?

      • I was never convinced by the solution to floating death in Black Aura, which is why I chose Invisible Green over it but Black Aura is very very good.

        We had been discussing doing something on short stories and would love to at some point, but we both feel we need to read a few more first. I don’t know, maybe we will try something… Watch this space.

        • I’ve also been considering such a list for short stories – I mean, with the project I’m doing, I’m already half the way there.

          Problem might be to get people to vote, because there are sooooo many impossible short stories that I don’t think there are many people who actually have a really good overview of what is available, never mind having read them!

          • This is the exact difficulty I foresee. With novels there’s a good chance people will have covered the classics and then branched out into a few underappreciatd gems. Short stories — man, there’s so much to read, and so much not worth reading, how many people could ever claim to have a fully encyclopaedic knowledge? And would there be enough of them to make a poll worthwhile?

            I’ll volunteer my services in about five years, maybe…

      • I think, were one ot attempt something for short impossible crime stories, there’d have to be a word limit — like, between 5,000 and 15,000 words or something. It’s be a nightmare to narrow down otherwise. But, still, good fun trying.

        Personally I need another five or so years of reading the genre before attempting this, however…!

  4. I’ve only read two of this set, the Rawson and the Boucher, and enjoyed both of them, perhaps more than you guys. I worked out the solution to the Boucher book easily enough but I had an absolute blast going through it and loved Sister Ursula – a marvelous character.
    On Rawson, this one is his best novel for sure although I found The Footprints on the Ceiling perfectly fine too. I wasn’t all that thrilled with The Headless Lady (I think I expected something else). I found No Coffin for the Corpse quite poor – mind you, I was enduring a bit of very poor health hen I read it and wonder if that colored my view. I remember someone commenting on the tendency for Rawson to write about unlikable people and I think that’s true, especially as you read more of his novels. Still, I have to say Death from a Top Hat worked fine for me and I have no issues with its presence on the list nor its placement.

    • Well, you’re one up on me, Colin — Nine Times Nine sailed right past me at the time. And Sister Ursula is the only thing that makes the sequel worth reading — I’m aware that novel is a roman a clef and supposedly very bitchy and sharp in its satire…but I didn’t pick up on that when I read it, and so just taken as a narrative it has some frankly gigantic failings.

      There are two Sister Ursula short stories, too, that I’ve reviewed on here somewhere (I have the collected mystery stories of Boucher, under the title Exuent Murderers), which once more show a great amount of potential with that character. One wonders why Boucher didn’t write a full collection, he clearly had the ability.

      • Don’t forget Boucher’s novels about Fergus O’Breen under his own name. One of them is an impossible mystery, but I think all are worth reading. They remind me a little bit of Queen’s Hollywood period – a little bit screwball, a little bit zany, and of course they take place on the West coast.

        • Yes, The Case of the Solid Key is the impossibility…if anyone has a copy they don’t want I’ll happily and selflessly take it off their hands!

          I read a couple of the O’Breens and really enjoyed them even if their precise mechanics are lost to me now — Crumpled Knave and Seven Sneezes, iirc. Boucher’s Nick Noble short stories are also great (see write-up here); he’s one of the few GAD writers who really seems to’ve got out while the going was good.

      • I agree that Rocket to the Morgue is much weaker. I was not and am not familiar enough with the people who were being satirized to pick up on that either, or appreciate the aspect fully. I remember the book being quite well written and generally passable but not all that satisfying an experience – OK but that’s as far as I’d go.

        • Yup, that’s pretty much my impression of it, too — plenty of other books I need to read for the first time before I consider going back and looking at this for a second…

  5. Another fine episode, gentlemen.

    A few comments on the works discussed in this episode:

    I have no quibbles with what you said about “The Ten Teacups”, “Chinese Orange” and “Nine Times Nine”. I probably enjoyed them a bit more than you guys did (well, you both seemed to have liked “TTT”), but I can agree with the comments you make on their respective strengths and weaknesses.

    As for “Top Hat”, I liked it a lot more than the two of you did. Now, it was a while ago that I read it, but I can’t remember being particularly disappointed with the solution. I guess I’ll have to reread it sometime.

    “Big Bow”, though, I remember as a thorugh and utter disappointment. Again, it was a long time ago I read it – probably fifteen years or so – but it still lingers in my mind as a boring thing that I had no idea why it would be recommended to any mystery fan.

    I get that it was one of the trailblazers and was (I suppose) the first to use this particular solution to an impossibility, so there’s that. Admittedly, the solution is memorable because that’s the one thing that I still remember about it, except for my disappointment.

    If anyone else is interested to know a bit more about Jan Broberg, I’m in the middle of doing a writeup on him. Should be published on my blog some time next week.

    • Thanks, Christian — part of wonders what it would be like were Dan and I to really disagree on a book, but (boringly!) we generally see eye-to-eye. Maybe we shold seek out something he loves and I despise…

      Big Bow I remember being surprised at for the paucity of its actual plot, as huge swathes of it are mainly just Funny Dickens — I wonder if there’s something peculiarly British about that humour at that time (certainly I’ve read other satirical works from around this era and been bored stiff…).

      Top Hat has elements of the solutions that Dan and I discussed in advance and found we disliked…but to avoid spoilers we didn’t go into them, so it’ll be very much out of my scope to discuss them here. But, well, this is such a solution-oriented tyoe of writing that any slight wrinkle can often feel magnified, and merely get more so over time.

      I’ll definitely try Rawson’s other novels before I return to DfaTH, but maybe I’ll like it again once I read it with my negative opinion on mind….come back in, like, ten years to find out!

  6. J.J.: “I read a couple of the O’Breens and really enjoyed them even if their precise mechanics are lost to me now — Crumpled Knave and Seven Sneezes, iirc. Boucher’s Nick Noble short stories are also great (see write-up here); he’s one of the few GAD writers who really seems to’ve got out while the going was good.”

    Heheh, that write-up of the Noble stories doesn’t really indicate that you thought them great! 🙂

    I agree that Boucher left the genre (or at least the “writing fiction” part of the genre) before he had time to write anything really bad – like Crispin, if we discount his very short comeback. Still, it would have been nice to see what more both of them could have done if they’d continued writing mystery fiction.

    • Well, sure, upon actually rereading that it would seem — as my impression was, now that I bother to reflect on it — that the character is wonderful and the stories slightly less so… 😀

  7. Of this list I’ve only read The Ten Teacups. Although it probably teeters on the precipice of a Carr top ten list (along with about ten other stories…), I think it would absolutely make the list if we narrowed things down to only include impossible crimes. Many of Carr’s best stories certainly have interesting setups and shocking misdirection (The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Four False Weapons, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, etc…) but are in no way impossible crimes.

    The Ten Teacups definitely contains one of my favorite impossible set ups. Out of all of the books that I’ve read, this may well be the one that left me with the sharpest feeling of “oh my, how could that have happened?” I think it’s the proximity of the policeman to the crime scene as it unfolds that really lent a sense of realness to the whole set up. Often times, us readers encounter a crime scene, such as a locked room, which has lain undiscovered for some time. In the case of The Ten Teacups, we see the crime unfold nearly before our eyes.

    I mentioned three dimensions to an impossible crime in your first post on the series (strength of set up, strength of solution, strength of overall story). The Ten Teacups absolutely nails that first dimension.

  8. Excellent stuff as usual. And good to see love for The Big Bow Mystery. As for the reasons behind certain choices – there are arcane and unwritten rules governing these things, requiring the inclusion of a minimum of one absolutely inarguable choice for credibility, one completely spurious offering for the deliberate raising of hackles and spit takes, plus at least five borderline cases that can be enjoyably chewed over for years.

    • Yeah, I’m starting to think a lot of lists actually are compiled along these lines. Reminds me of a book of 1000 Films to See Before You Die that had unironically included Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula — probably the source of more discussion than any of the obvious classics it contained.

      Next up from me: Fifteen Crime-Solving Cats Better at Their Jobs Than Poirot, Fell, Cockrill, and Wimsey Combined…

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