I’m probably starting in the wrong place with this chronologically fourth collection of the Dr. Sam Hawthorne impossibilities by short story specialist Edward D. Hoch. However, it contains the very first Hoch story I ever read and so seemed as good a place as any to start. I’ve read maybe three Hawthornes in other collections and figured it would be good to end 2018 with a long-awaited perusal of them in greater concentration, and…well, I’m a little underwhelmed. Hoch has a talent for capturing ambience very piquantly, and the best of these stories are very good, but far too few of them have anything like the rigour or intelligence I’d expected given how highly-regarded this series seems to be.
First up, ‘The Problem of the Country Church’ (1991) sees Sam Hawthorne about to play godfather to a friend’s baby only for the infant to vanish from his bassinet. This does well for atmosphere and setting, and includes enough details to throw in potential semi-realised false solutions (e.g., the baby was never in the basket to begin with), but it’s perhaps a little too simplistic (and lucky!) to be truly great. It does that thing which I often enjoy in impossible crimes in allowing a situation to appear fantastical but then turn out to be mundane, but there’s no real scope to get into the fantastical elements and so the mundane ones predominate.
Again, atmosphere and setting are the highlights of ‘The Problem of the Grange Hall’ (1991), which sees an associate of Sam’s caught seemingly red-handed committing murder in a locked room. The fundraising dance attended by a big-time band is captured charmingly, and the inclusion of contemporary details surrounding the skin colour of both the victim and accused are unavoidable and handled well, but the scheme itself is old hat. And, heavens, as if someone would perform the tell-tale action in that tell-tale way at that tell-tale time — like it couldn’t be done any other time, for pity’s sake. Aside from some ingenuity to get the murder weapon into the accused’s hands, this is rather off the boil.
‘The Problem of the Vanishing Salesman’ (1992) is great up until the final workings of James Philby’s disappearance from the porch of an isolated farmhouse are revealed. To that point, the mystery of Hawthorne witnessing Philby vanish in spite of the resident of said house pleading ignorance is entertainingly phrased and (deliberately, it turns out) reminiscent of a story by John Dickson Carr. There’s even a false solution along those lines — remember, Carr did a similar thing (with a different type of problem) in ‘The Gentleman from Paris’ (1950) and so it’s not without precedent or merit — but the mechanical dullness of the final reveal wipes away most of the lingering goodwill.
The first real gold is to be found in ‘The Problem of the Leather Man’ (1992). Starting with a car crash caused by a near-mythological figure from the past, Hawthorne tracks down the culprit and, as the two walk miles and discuss a raft of subjects, ends up with no fewer than three independent witnesses denying he was with anyone when they saw him. Echoes of Carr again — see ‘Cabin B-13’ — this is brilliantly clever in how it explains and resolves its problem of Hawthorne’s invisible companion…in all but the final case, where Hoch seems to strain too hard for a grim tone that doesn’t fit with the whimsy preceding it.
‘The Problem of the Phantom Parlor’ (1993) concerns an impressionable and worldly-unwise teenager staying with her aunt in the inherited family pile, which may be haunted, and telling stories of a room that disappears. I’ve seen the workings here in a novel, and enjoyed that novel much more, but the atmosphere and unusual problem commend this nevertheless. It’s quite impressive how much psychodrama and evocation of mood Hoch can fit into these more incident-heavy tales, and at this point I’m very much enjoying his taking on more than just the usual standard fare in the problems he sets. A good final confrontation, too.
Two confounding situations confront Hawthorne in ‘The Problem of the Poisoned Pool’ (1993): the miraculous appearance of a man from a swimming pool he was not seen getting in to, and the death of that same man in that same pool due to a poison which would have killed him long before he’d had a chance to re-enter the water. The core idea here is…fine, but it’s not a strong story by any means. The resolutions are the result of problems that sounds far interesting than they’re really given the chance to be and, while this might make EQMM’s Department of First Stories, Hoch is clearly capable of far better.
However, that poisoned pool is a masterstroke when held up against ‘The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse’ (1994). Good grief, this one’s bad. Quite impressively so. The old “vanishing building” hoo-haa, done with about as much conviction as your four year-old nephew showing you card tricks, and requiring such an effort to pull of that you can’t help but feel the guilty party would stop halfway through the prep and go “Goddamn, why am I even doing this?” (for the same idea executed with far more flair, see ‘The Vanishing House’ (1924) by Will Scott). Every collection has at least one duff, and this is the first
Vanishing post — always a contentious issue — rears its head in ‘The Problem of the Country Mailbox’ (1994): how can packages put into a rural postbox and in view of the recipient the whole time vanish in the time it takes him to walk down his driveway to collect it? Keikichi Osaka asked a similar question in ‘The Hungry Letter-Box’ (1939), and while I like Osaka’s answer more Hoch does something quite marvellous with this when murder rears its head. It’s an exquisite piece of pacing with a superb revelation at the end of it, and goes to show how a great impossible crime story doesn’t need a great impossible crime.
Hawthorne and I are back at the beginning with ‘The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery’ (1995), the very first Hoch story I ever read. And rereading it now simply reinforced the impression I had from it years ago: it’s too long, a little too casual in how it reveals motive and opportunity, and contains a great idea in practice which is turgid on the page. In the best of these stories Hoch is brilliant at dropping in casual asides and keeping a roving finger of suspicion, but here it’s simply difficult to take much interest in the who, why, where, or how. This might explain why it took me so long to return to him…
Thank heavens the title of ‘The Problem of the Enormous Owl’ (1996) is so good, because the story itself is a real let-down. Concerning a farmer found in the middle of a field with his chest crushed and owl feathers on his person, there’s no real suggestion of an impossibility — mention is made of soft ground, but nothing about footprints — and so the essential idea (he was killed elsewhere and dumped here) is all too transparent. And given the morality that has emerged over these stories, the killer leaps out at you, too, with a motive and a method that shows an author feeling the strain of such a prodigious output.
‘The Problem of the Miraculous Jar’ (1996) illustrates much of what I initially struggled with in short-form fiction: the problem is too small for a longer story, but — being crammed into a smaller space — the pacing and revelations never surprise as they should. A jar from Cana turning water into wine is interesting enough, but the no footprints murder is made somewhat hokey by the idea that a woman who has been fatally poisoned would have time to make two desperate phone calls. Still, Hoch rustles up a good community again, with his victims and killers, each making their first and last appearance, really feeling as if they could have lived cheek by jowl for years before this.
I had to put this collection down for a few days after ‘The Problem of the Enchanted Terrace’ (1997), which reminds me of those rumours about a post-Catcher J.D. Salinger submitting short stories to reputable magazines under noms de plume and all of them being rejected where his own moniker would have seen them printed without hesitation. Does this (and I’m being generous) workmanlike vanishing from an enclosed courtyard offer anything except the Hoch name? It’s long, it’s achingly tedious, and the actual solution isn’t even worthy of false solution misdirection. Yeesh, what a stinker.
Suitably refreshed, I walked straight into ‘The Problem of the Unfound Door’ (1998) and its atmospheric if minor vanishing of the town’s mayor while in the middle of a group of nuns, inspecting their convent for its suitability to house British children during the Blitz (which seems…a lot of effort). The machinations of and reasoning for the vanishment are staggeringly difficult to believe, and the appearance of the man’s hat outside the convent wall should recall Chesterton’s ‘The Secret Garden’ (1927) but instead make Sheriff Lens appear an Olympic standard more dense than the average Pet Policeman for needing it explained. Currently, this collection is long on bluster and lacking lustre.
‘The Second Problem of the Covered Bridge’ (1998) deliberately recalls Hawthorne’s first case, the disappearance of a horse-drawn carriage while passing through a covered bridge. Re-enacted for the town’s centenary celebrations, the driver is shot at close range with no-one near him. ‘Revisiting an old case’ is always fun, but the motive here is nonsensical — would it really have stood a greater chance of discovery now than at the time? I mean, really?! — and the murder could have been done in any of a multitude of less self-defeating ways. You’ll say I have a downer on Hoch, but this is the epitome of straining for cleverness and missing by a loooong way.
Finally, then, ‘The Problem of the Scarecrow Congress’ (1999), in which a dead body appears in…well, a place it should have been impossible for it to appear. True, the workings are broadly clear given the nature of the crime, but this makes excellent use of historical background for mood, and manages to cram in a great deal of incident and creativity in setup and execution. The slightly open nature of one aspect of it, too, it a nice touch, since the desire to pound pegs into holes is often the undoing of this manner of undertaking. More like this, please!
Some of the foregoing will, no doubt, strike indignation into the hearts of the Hoch fans among you, but let’s be honest: the 950-some short stories he wrote in his lifetime is a staggering achievement, and it would be unrealistic to expect only a faint fluctuation in quality. There’s inevitably going to be a vitiating effect from such prodigious writing, but at least when he hit on a good idea, as the best in this collection show, he had the skills and insight to make it really work. The truly disappointing ones here are, for me, the setups and situations which don’t offer much scope to begin with…given this spark of insight into something more unusual, Hoch was away and able to produce something far more worthy of his talents. Perhaps an earlier collection, when the fresher ideas may have been thicker on the ground, will prove more rewarding for my tastes. You can check out alternative perspectives on this collectioon from Aidan, Christian, Puzzle Doctor, and TomCat, and should expect more Hoch, Hawthorne or otherwise, to crop up here on The Invisible Event in 2019.