#433: No Killer Has Wings: The Casebook of Dr. Joel Hoffman [ss] (1959-63) by Arthur Porges

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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‘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?!?!”.

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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.

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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.

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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!

These Daisies Told

Out now!

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See also

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, the Cyriac Skinner Grey stories, which allows him to get in more background.

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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…)

26 thoughts on “#433: No Killer Has Wings: The Casebook of Dr. Joel Hoffman [ss] (1959-63) by Arthur Porges

    • Pleased to here it — he’s one of the great non-GAD era GAD writers…and more than worth checking out for some of the insane creativity he brought to the table. ‘The Scientist and the Time Bomb’ is a staggeringly loony piece of detective plotting…

        • No kidding! “The Scientist and the Time Bomb” has a plot and solution that has to be read to be believed. A true original!

          You can find it with the rest of the series in The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey, which is perhaps my favorite Porges series. The wheelchair-bound scientist detective Grey, his 14-year-old genius son Edgar and Lt. Trask are more pulpier than either Dr. Hoffman and Prof. Middlebie, but they’re also more well-rounded. And have that human touch lacking in most of his detective-characters. Who are, for the most part, just problem solvers.

          So this makes Curious Cases one of Porges better overall collections of short stories with his best series-characters at the helm. Only downside of the collection is that only few stories in it come close to reaching the heights of “Coffee Break” or “No Killer Has Wings.”

  1. When the stars align and Hell experiences a cold front, you’ll find us in almost complete agreement on a detective story. Or, in this case, the content of a volume of short detective stories. Right down to the individual stories. And that doesn’t happen often.

    I’m currently reading These Daisies Told: The Casebook of Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie and the stories have so far been vintage Porges.

    • Yeah, but it only happens when you’re both partly wrong. 😉

      I’ll be picking up the Middlebie collection later this autumn, when hopefully the final Dr Hawthorne collection is available at (a European) Amazon.

      As an aside, I see that C&L are promising three future Hoch collections: the forever promised “Hoch’s Ladies” and one each with Simon Ark and Alexander Swift. Yay!

      As a further aside: With the many short story collections and anthologies that I’m planning to buy I have no idea when I’ll find the time to read novels.

      • Hey, TC is the old hand here — one with dodgy judgement, true, but also possessed of a far wider knowledge of this field than I currently possess. I’ll happily be the one in the wrong!

        And I have your problem with books in general: every one I buy means that I have an increasing number I’ll probably never get to…

    • Bah, where’s the fun in agreeing all the time? And, given how wrong I frequently am, why would you want to agree anyway? 😉

      But, hey, at least we can agree that Porges was a one-of-a-kind writer who is being very well-served by these deserved ministration by Richard Simms. I wouldn’t have missed out on these stories for anything; even the ones I don’t necessarily like that much are worth the short amount of time you need to put into them…if only to see what weird twist he can come up with next!

  2. This was the first book I finished this year. I did not enjoy it as much, but for some reason it seems that short story collections don’t really work for me. I probably should do something about it…

    I agree however that the title story has an ingenious idea and I also very much liked the idea employed in the last one. Other stories I found okay-ish.

    • What I enjoy is the unexpected way he finds a new niche in a lot of cases — the idea behind the first murder, for instance, is probably the kind of thing R. Austin Freeman would have cooked up, and then ‘No Killer Has Wings’ is pure Ellery Queen. No-one should be able to apply themselves this fluidly to that many styles of story, and yet Porges makes it seem so easy.

  3. Hello guys, interesting discussion. Thanks for your interest, and to The Invisible Event for posting this. Arthur knew his limits, and his strengths, as a writer of short stories. His main strength in this particular genre was his ability to take obscure and very specific facts from the fields of history and science (sometimes bordering on trivia and the downright abstruse) and working them into a plot for a story. He did this in the fields of crime, SF and fantasy writing. In the 1950s and 60s, he was very prolific. Many of his stories explored different themes and spanned genres, sometimes defying mere genre (an example being “Night of the Puppet”, a strange amalgam of an SF/detective story). I should note that it was not always about ideas in the Porges canon; he wrote conte cruel stories and moody weird fantasy tales very well too. Also, the Joel Hoffman stories showcase his gift for dialogue. For me, this aspect carries the stories through to their conclusion very well and add a human element. If you enjoy his ideas and writing style, then his SF especially is well worth checking out as, more often than not, there is a scientific problem to solve. This is true of the Ensign De Ruyter stories which, on one level, could be described as good old fashioned space operas. On the other, they involve seemingly impossible-to-get-out-of predicaments for a crew of space explorers…..this was just a different set up and milieu for Porges’ ingenuity to shine. “These Daisies Told” was a pleasure to compile, and I hope it is enjoyed by fans of the “impossible crime” story and those that found something to like in the Joel Hoffman collection. And as for the R. Austin Freeman reference, Arthur loved referencing his heroes from the literary world or from science. I don’t think he’d have minded if anyone missed the significance of a particular name check….a number of the characters in his stories were named after friends and relatives anyway!
    Best regards,
    Richard Simms

    • “These Daisies Told” was a pleasure to compile, and I hope it is enjoyed by fans of the “impossible crime” story and those that found something to like in the Joel Hoffman collection.

      Mission accomplished! I look forward to the next releases in this ongoing series. Including the collection of Porges’ hardboiled crime fiction. I’m kind of curious to see what a puzzle-fiend, like Porges, managed to do with the hardboiled crime story. Hopefully, something along the lines of Edmund Crispin’s “The Pencil.” 🙂

      • Oh! A collection of stories of the same tone a quality of ‘The Pencil’ would be something of a dream come true. Please let this be the case with Porges’ harder-edged works…

    • Thanks, Richard, not just for your efforts in bringing these stories to us in such available editions but also for the information on the De Ruyter stories — hopefully they’ll follow soon! It’s great to see an under-appreciated yet highly talented author like Porges be remembered by someone who clearly has so much enthusiasm for this work. Hopefully everyone who is deserving of such attentions will have an equally enthusiastic champion in time.

      Keep up the excellent work, it is gigantically appreciated.

  4. I’m not sure if I’ve read anything by him. Mind you, I surely must have, given how many short story anthologies I’ve gone through over the years!

    • I remember seeing a handful of Porges stories in some Alfred Hitchcock anthologies over the years, so doubtless he’ll have cropped up in all manner of places. But, hey, you should still check these out, just to be on the safe side… 🙂

  5. For anyone interested, Arthur Porges’ Ensign De Ruyter stories (there were 8 of them in total, one previously unpublished)) have already been collected in book form. “Eight Problems in Space: The Ensign De Ruyter Stories” was published in 2008 and is available direct from the publisher, The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box. Website here: http://www.batteredbox.com/

    The same publisher also brought out a complete collection of Porges’ Sherlock Holmes parodies (which I edited) in the same year: “The Adventures of Stately Homes and Sherman Horn” is also available from the same website. It features some cracking impossible crime stories, with a good deal of humour and Holmesian references, Victoriana, etc, which may be enjoyed by fans of Conan Doyle’s creation.

  6. I have just read These Daisies Told, I think it is definitely worth getting. I rather like the bird-loving old professor. I would say that these are the most “abstract” stories of the three collections – they don’t often stray far from Black and Middlebie’s discussions of the case, whereas particularly with the Cyriak Skinner Gray stories, the kid will go and investigate stuff – the stories get out and about a bit more often.
    Having heard about those Sherlock Holmes pastiches, I think I might have to give those a go, they sound fun.

    • Good to know, thanks for passing this on. How many of the stories are impossible crimes, out of interest? I mean, I’ll read them anyway, it’s just a point of curiosity…

      • I don’t think any of the stories are up there with “No Killer Has Wings”. “Coffee Break” is a locked room mystery. “The Symmetrical Murder” is probably an impossible crime as well. It depends on how you define impossible crime, for the rest. Most of them are “howdunits” – theoretically someone else could have done it. There are several involving getting things in or out of closely guarded complexes.

        Thinking it over today, i suppose i would rank this the lowest of the three collections, though of course it is still good.

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