#478: All But Impossible – The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne [ss] (2017) by Edward D. Hoch

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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…

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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!

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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.

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Sentence is Death from last week because — and I promise I didn’t plan this, it didn’t even occur to me until after I’d finished this one — in both the detective is called Hawthorne.

28 thoughts on “#478: All But Impossible – The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne [ss] (2017) by Edward D. Hoch

  1. Hmm… Well, I am clearly the only Poisoned Pool fan out there but I am happy to see that we are in full agreement on Roadhouse and Enchanted Terrace which are terrible and Country Mailbox which I agree is a really satisfying story regardless of whether it is a great impossibility.

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    • I would check in with you review every four or five stories, since you and I are similarly neophites with Hoch and I wondered if I was missing the point some of the time. We agree on a fair amount, which heartened me given how despondent I felt at times…so thank-you for that!

      And ‘Country Mailbox’ is a belter — has a real kick to it, most unexpected. More like that would have made this a far more agreeable experience.

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  2. Yeah, you probably started in the wrong place and recommend you’ll try the second volume next, More Things Impossible, which is rightly considered to be the best in the series. I think it’s fair to say the stories in it represent the series at its height.

    I’m glad to read we, more or less, agree on “The Problem of the Leather Man,” “The Problem of the Phantom Parlor” and “The Problem of the Poisoned Pool,” but weren’t you a bit harsh on “The Problem of the Enchanted Terrace”? The solution to the impossible disappearance is a smash and fitted the Herman Melville theme of the story. Sure, this is perhaps not one of Hoch’s best written stories, but, as an impossible crime story, it deserves something. You didn’t even gave it a participation star, you heartless monster!

    I also think two stars for the collection, as a whole, is selling it short. It deserves at least three-stars. Now the third volume, Nothing is Impossible, is probably more deserving of two-stars. And you might want to skip that one for now.

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    • As I say, stands to reason there will be so much variation — hell, I thought the Hawthornes were written over a much more concentrated period, but it turns out he was doing maybe one or two a year and so the quality is going to be even more variable as time wears on.

      Nevertheless, what’s good here is very good, and things like ‘Country Mailbox’ and ‘Leather Man’ show how good he can be, and I’#m always up for more of the same. Hoch will return…

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  3. I had to check back to my own review of this collection, but we’re mostly in agreement on the stories here, it’s simply that I like each and every one of them a bit more than you do. 🙂

    Except for “Poisoned Pool”, which Aidan should remember that I really like as well, since I wrote that in a comment on his review. Clearly, I’m not the only one who doesn’t remember back. 😀

    I think this is equal with collection 2, just a tad better than collection 1 and a bit better than collection 3. I’ve just ordered the fifth and final one, and will “soon” review that together with some other collections that I’ve read during the second half of 2018.

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    • Ah, apologies — I missed your review of this when I did a search. have now added you into the final paragraph so that a full range of opinions can be found.

      I always find single-author collections to be something of an odd beast, especially if they’re not written to be collected and are collected together significantly after originally published. Like, so much will have happened over the period they were written that trying to come to an overall perspective on the stories is probably meaningless — there’s not necessarily intended to be cohesion as with a novel or a collection of novellas on a theme. This is part of why I rate the stories individually rather than just giving a “big star” rating at the top (typiclly an average of the individual ratings, since you ask).

      All of which is a preamble to…well, nothing, really, But, yeah, you liked this more than I did. I put it down to your pacifying Scandinavian temperament. All that hygge is making you soft 🙂

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      • I’m Swedish! Not Danish! We have fika, not hygge. 😦 Well, I’m from Scania, and we’re called half-Danes by the rest of the Swedes so okay then.

        However, I think it’s probably down to me liking short stories better than you do… As for your theory of single author collections, I actually think the Dr Hawthorne ones are possibly the most “novel like”, because they tell an overarching story of the good doctor’s life and works in the northeastern part of the US. But yeah, it’s not quite like “The Big Four”, to name an episodic novel by a more famous author.

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        • Aha! I knew something would shake you out of your Norwegian inscrutability! Also, jeepers, “fika”? We have not yet heard of that in the UK, so I shall expect it to be next winter’s hot trend.

          Could you guys maybe do something around Staying the the EU? Like a murder mystery or some jumpers or something? Everything Scani is pretty big news over here, and I think it really might help unite the nation…

          I’d like to like short stories more, but it does at least mean that the ones I like I really like — though, yeay, this perhaps enhances my dislike of the ones I dislike. Pinches of salt all round, people Especially if it’s some hot new Swedish trend involving salt in candles or on horses or something.

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          • Salt is used for gravlax, you heathen Welshman. And fika’s been written about by the luvvies in the Grauniad for years – years I tell you! – so you and your fellow Scotsmen should be enlightened in about twenty years or so.

            Unfortunately, we’re not the best to rely on when it comes to the EU. We’ll follow every regulation to the letter, but we won’t actually like it. Not like those southern Europeans who break every rule and dance around merrily. 🙂

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  4. Shame there wasn’t as many beauties in this one, but the good ones sound awesome. My experience of the Sam Hawthorne series seems similar to yours so far: there are hidden treasures in the collections (The Problem of the Locked Caboose and The Problem of the Country Inn are the best I have read) but then the rest are either okay, or not good, but always with one good idea somewhere within. It depends on how much the redeeming idea can win the rest of the story back! A good example of the one idea would be the Problem of the Old Gristmill which has an incredible way of working a time of death problem.

    Hoch then also falls into the category which we have been knocking about the ‘too good to be true’ problem. The Problem of the Voting Booth is one of those. This collection though doesn’t seem to have one of those – an incredible set up, that can’t be pulled off.

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    • I’ve no doubt Hoch’s reputation for construction excellent puzzles is valid…it’s just a question of how many excellent puzzles he produced for every duff. I also picked up on a trend of his here and in his Sherlock Holmes stories that I feel the need to read more by him to expand on, but that’s a preview of something a little way down the road.

      I’ll keep walking and keep reasing and hopefully my impression of his talents will improve.

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      • I think it really is a case of diamonds in the ruff, with the amount of stories as you said, and the gaps between them it’s not all glory. I have also seen loads of trends in his work that make his stories quite guessable as you go. But then he suddenly wacks you over the head with something, and surprises you.

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  5. You know, I am rather pleased to see this negative, somewhat nonplussed reaction of yours. There are two reasons, both perhaps really the same reason: my love of being vindicated.

    First I too am underwhelmed by the little Hoch I have read. I am not sure I have ever even risen to the level of being whelmed, just always under that.

    And second, we see more vindication of my theory you are no longer a fan of the “just give a complex impossible crime” Carr school …. Would you like to borrow my copy of Bloody Murder? 😈😉😎

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    • Nah, where they are legitimately complex and interesting stories I’m all in — see ‘Leather Man’ or ‘Phantom Parlor’. It’s the tendency to overdress stale old dolls as something worthwhile that gets me — ‘Enchanted Terrace’, ‘Enormous Owl’, ‘2 Covered 2 Bridge’ — and there’smore of the latter than the former in here, that is all.

      However, I have a Carr due next week, and a fairly minor one at that, so we’ll see how I respond to that… 🙂

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  6. I’ve read a few of the Hoch stories in this collection, and I agree with most of your opinions. A lot of the time Hoch can feel almost dull in his writing, with the impossibilities and the crimes not really coming to life and the solutions being either obvious or completely disappointing. However, he has created just as many good stories as bad and I admire his ability to create great sense of place while infusing the stories with some great puzzles.

    The Leather Man is probably my favorite of the bunch, with it’s three separate impossibilities all having interesting and separate explanations that delighted me on a first reading. Poisoned Pool wasn’t as bad as you described it, I remember enjoying the premise and solution to the first half of the impossibility, though the poisoning bit wasn’t very good. Crowded Cemetery was one of my least favorites, with the solution being a let down and the overall story moving at a snail like pace. I am also part of the small minority who actually really enjoy Enchanted Terrace. The solution is extremely audacious and perfectly fits the stories overall tone. It isn’t actually a good solution, but it’s one of those bad/ridiculous solutions that you can’t help but laugh at in retrospect.

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  7. I recently reviewed the first Hawthorne collection, Diagnosis Impossible, on my blog. I think this one suffers by comparison because the ratio of “good” to “okay” to “oh, come on now” is a lot more favourable in the earlier book, with almost half of the solutions in the first category and only one that really left me dissatisfied. As well, you are right that a number of the stories in All But Impossible take a turn for the tedious, while the even the weaker ones in Diagnosis are tighter and faster moving. I have a feeling that if anyone ever does a definitive “best of Hoch” list, it will be made up mostly of stories from the Sixties and Seventies. Still, I’m glad to have a copy of this one for the sake of the four or five gems it contains.

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    • In a perfect world I would have loved to’ve started with the first collection, but for these imperfect times it seemed sensible to start with the one I’d gotten my hands on. If possible, I’ll read the first one next — for the Hawthornes, I mean, not necessarily for Hoch — and then try to do the rest in order. Good to know you rate it, always interesting to go back to the beginning of such a long series and see how things began.

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