Back we go into the vault again and come out bearing...impossibilities. My favorite kind of traditional mysteries: crimes which simply couldn't have happened - but did happen. Locked rooms, victims surrounded by unbroken fields of snow - I'm sure my visitors here know many examples of these wonderful mysteries. So today, let's look at some stories by a master of the genre, Edward D. Hoch, and his long string of stories starring Dr. Sam Hawthorne, a New England doctor with a real knack for untangling the secrets of impossible-crime stories and revealing those secrets for the illusory magician's tricks that they are. The Dr. Sam stories are gathered now in four good-sized trade paperbacks from Crippen & Landru. The first collection was called Diagnosis: Impossible, the Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, and it was the subject of my audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast all the way back in 2010. Here's what I had to say about it:
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Hi there. Come on in and chat for a while. I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. Dr. Sam has been practicing medicine in a small town in Connecticut for quite a while now. But – much more than that – he’s also helped solve some pretty amazing mysteries while he was going about his business. Amazing – because the crimes all appeared on the surface to be impossible. So sit down, pour yourself a small libation, as Dr. Sam might say, and get ready for Diagnosis Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, by Edward D. Hoch.
Talk about amazing: Edward D. Hoch was a pretty amazing author. Hoch, who passed away in 2008, only wrote a handful of novels in his career. But I think he was unequalled in short stories, turning out some 950 of them in the course of his writing career. He had a number of different series detectives. But our focus today is on one character, Dr. Sam Hawthorne. Hoch wrote dozens of stories about Dr. Sam, all published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine from 1974 until his death in 2008. Every one of them is about an impossible crime – usually murder. In many ways, Hoch was the successor to the 20th century master of locked room mysteries, John Dickson Carr – in fact, Carr once said of Hoch, "Satan himself would be proud of his ingenuity."
The publishing house of Crippen and Landru has issued a number of anthologies of stories by Hoch. In Diagnosis: Impossible, we are given the first dozen of his stories about Dr. Sam Hawthorne. The stories are all fascinating: in each case, we see a seemingly impossible crime committed. Police are baffled. But Dr. Sam, who is observant and intelligent, is able to figure out what really happened and solve the crime – although he doesn’t always turn the criminal over to the authorities.
What kind of situations are we talking about?
- How about the case of a man driving a horse and carriage into a covered bridge – and never coming out the other side? The driver, horse and carriage all simply disappear.
- How about a politician murdered in full view of witnesses by what appears to be a homicidal ghost who appears, stabs his victim – and vanishes in a puff of smoke.
- Or the kidnapping of a schoolboy who simply disappears from a schoolyard swing.
- Or the captured escape artist who manages to get out of a locked jail cell and out through a locked stairway door without anybody seeing him.
- Or the stunt actor who parachutes into a supposedly haunted oak tree…but is found to have been strangled AFTER he jumped and BEFORE he could get down from the tree.
- Or another politician who is stabbed to death in front of witnesses as he leaves a voting booth – yet there’s no sign of a killer or knife.
Are we having fun yet? I certainly hope so. There are a dozen of these stories, and they all feature some apparently impossible situation. And, yes, there are natural and honest (if sometimes improbable) solutions to all of these problems. As always with such stories, it can be a lot like learning how a magic trick was really done – there’s a tendency on the reader’s part to say, “Is that all there was to it?” That’s an unfair, if quite understandable, reaction, and it should never be strong enough to keep a reader from savoring these remarkable stories.
They’re all set in the Connecticut town of Northmont, where Dr. Sam Hawthorne lives and works. And they are historical mysteries as well as impossible crimes – they’re all set in the 1920s, a time when America was struggling with prohibition, a situation which plays a significant role in several of the stories. Hoch wrote them for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and intended them to be a regular series, as they were. Each story begins with Dr. Sam welcoming his anonymous listener – that would be you – and offering what he calls, in those days of prohibition, "a small libation" of brandy. And each story in this collection ends with a one or two line preview of the next one. It was a good gimmick, which was continued long after the first dozen stories had appeared.
Are the stories fair to the reader? Yes…although we are not always given some of the key clues early enough to draw our own logical conclusions. But we ARE told the facts we need to know. And, frankly, much of the fun in these stories comes from realizing that we are watching a fine magician at work, producing these impossible illusions before our eyes. Diagnosis Impossible is a wonderful introduction to Ed Hoch’s stories about Dr. Sam. I’m looking forward to reading more of them.
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Over the past several years, Crippen & Landru have published three more volumes of Ed Hoch's Dr. Sam stories. You can find links on the Classic Mysteries backlist page (just scroll down to "Hoch" on the list).
Next: Lady in the Lake, by Raymond Chandler.