Arthur Porges is an author who seems to’ve faded somewhat from memory despite (or maybe ‘on account of’) writing in a spread of genres. To myself, he’s of most interest as the creator of fiendishly ingenious impossible crime stories, and it was with much delight that I learned of Richard Simms’ on-going project to get all Porges’ short fiction reprinted…and with much impatience that I awaited the Joel Hoffman stories, having first encountered Porges through ‘No Killer Has Wings’ in a Mike Ashley-edited collection…and with much consternation that I admit it’s taken me far too long to get round to this collection since its publication in 2017.
First up is ‘Dead Drunk’ (1959) in which a well-known drunkard protected by his family and title is found, er, dead in a sealed room. This opens with a fair wedge of backstory that will make sense in due course, but the initial introduction of the victim is pure framing. The story highlights Hoffman’s simple approach to his job — he’s not looking for the miraculous, he simply happens upon it — as well as Porges’ canny use of scientific principles to explain away these impossible occurrences. It also gives the affable first-person narrator of Hoffman time to establish himself, and the working relationship he has with Lieutenant Ader of the Norfolk City Police. All told, it’s a great little introduction to the characters and their universe; perhaps one person in a thousand possesses the knowledge to solve this in advance, but the real joy of the story is to be found in the closing couple of lines.
‘Horse Collar Homicide’ (1960) is able to hit the ground much faster, all the setup having been done previously — a puissant, overbearing, ancestor-fixated patriarch dropping dead of an apparent stroke while engaged in a grinning (though I’m inclined to think Porges meant ‘gurning’) competition involving the eponymous equine rebato. “You can’t poison and egg without getting through the shell” Hoffman reminds us, but there are no needle marks or indications of electrical contact and so “the killer got to his brain without piercing scalp or skull. Furthermore, he — or she — did it without being near the victim”. I solved this one, but was helped by the only recurring flaw in Porges’ writing: the lack of viable suspects or obfuscating activities. I mean, I also had to know some science — so, y’know, yay me — and it’s lovely to see Porges playing fairer than usual, but I’m not claiming a special prize or anything. Y’know what, forget I mentioned it.
The only non-impossible story in the collection, and favourite of Richard Simms, ‘Circle in the Dust’ (1960) represents an increase in confidence, with too many excellent turns of phrase to wish to spoil here. One of those seemingly motiveless crimes — a virtually blind old lady attacked and killed in her home, the top floor of which is filled with useless and valueless knick-knacks — with an obscure hint given by a clean circle on top of an otherwise dusty cabinet. It would appear this was something worth stealing, but no-one can remember what it might have been. As a story it’s fine, but the clue Hoffman utilises to reach the solution — that wouldn’t work, right? I mean, the sun moves and so the [REDACTED] would be useless. It’s a nicely obscure piece of trivia an’ all, but I just don’t buy the method here, which is rather key where Porges is concerned.
‘No Killer Has Wings’ (1961) is a masterpiece of short form impossible crime fiction, and was the story that first brought Porges to my attention. A man killed on a beach while walking his dog, but since he was hit on the head he must have been approached by his attacker…yet no other footprints are in evidence, and the beach is bereft of any hiding or lurking places for his attacker. I love a good ‘no footprints’ murder, and this is more than a merely good one — it’s another of those problems that seems obvious in retrospect, and is perhaps a little on the nose in how it represents is evidence, but the final piece of the jigsaw is one of those perfect little pieces that you can see several hundred other authors of this kind of thing reading and immediately slapping themselves on the head going “Oh, how did I not think of that?!?!”.
It would appear that Porges was also taken with that story, since ‘A Puzzle in Sand’ (1961) is a direct follow-up: same beach, same house, similar setup. This time a man is found shot at close range on the beach, but the presence of footprints up to and away from the body make the case rather simpler. Except the obvious guilty party has a distinct lack of motive and so Lieutenant Ader is suspicious of a frame. As a story it’s…fine, but the flaws really come out when held in comparison to its predecessor: the method here is about 5% as ingenious, and the explanation creaks accordingly. it also does that thing where a character is praised for their clear-sighted thinking and then exhibits the exact opposite right on the page in front of you, which always frustrates me. Things end on a very interesting note, but overall this falls significantly short.
We finish with ‘Birds of One Feather’ (1963) in which a man is found poisoned at the side of the road while changing a flat tire on his car. All good — maybe he ate something containing poison — except that his pet parakeet is with him, simiarly poisoned, and there’s no evidence of it having been fed anything. This is another one I solved, mainly because the options are pretty limited, but it’s a nice little utilisation of a key idea. It’s a shame this is the final Hoffman story, too, not just because the standard is pretty high, but also because you’re just starting here to get a glimpse at the wider universe that surrounds these characters and it’s something that would stand some fleshing out. “[A]nother generation of Kurzins coming to louse up future crime detection” is a conceit that could form a decent backgreound to another swathe of these stories…alas, not to be.
For their unconventional approach to the problem of murder, and for the ingenuity Porges displayed in explaining the impossible, his work in this genre really does commend itself to anyone who feels like maybe they’ve seen it all before. Porges deserves recognition for working so fully within the puzzle/scientific rubric long after it had gone out of fashion (you have to wonder what porportion of contemporary readers’ heads his reference to “Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke” flew over…), and while he hardly limited himself to this genre he still managed to pick out a very distinct niche and work a great deal of originality into it. And as I review this collection, I learn to my delight that yet another collection of Porges’ detective stories have just been made available by Richard Simms — These Daises Told: the Casebook of Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie. So between these two and The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey there’s plenty to tempt the curious. Get involved!
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: So, all in all, No Killer Has Wings: The Casebook of Dr. Joel Hoffman is a very short, but excellent, collection of detective stories with four of the six entries being top-notch examples of either the locked room mystery or the pure howdunit – such as “Dead Drunk,” “Horse-Collar Homicide” and the superb “No Killer Has Wings.” These stories alone is what makes this volume a must have for (locked room) readers like myself. Only real downside is that these half dozen stories constitutes the entirety of the Dr. Hoffman series. And that’s hardly enough.
Christian @ Mysteries, Short and Sweet: Some of Porges’s writing tics are in evidence here – obscure facts, a tendency not to end his cases “properly”, and several others. But compared with some of his other stories, the Hoffman stories seem more well-rounded. They are also a bit longer than, say, theCyriac Skinner Grey stories, which allows him to get in more background.
For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The D.A. Cooks a Goose from last week because both feature a fatal car crash in which a minor is killed (man, happy stuff…)