Six Impossible Things – Dr Sam Hawthorne stories 28-33 – Edward D Hoch

Edward D Hoch, in case you’re not aware, was a prolific writer of short stories – specifically mystery stories – specifically whodunit mystery stories. In the space of twelve pages, he would create a whole world with a number of well-drawn suspects, a likeable detective and a puzzle to be solved. From March 1973, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine published one of his stories every month until his death in 2008.

Not content with simply writing mysteries, Hoch often wrote locked room and impossible mysteries, in particular in his series featuring Dr Sam Hawthorne. The first twelve are collected in Diagnosis: Impossible, which you can still find, but not cheaply, and the next fifteen are collected in More Things Impossible, which is out of print – Amazon.co.uk has one used copy, going for over £650!

Crippen and Landru, the publishers of the collections have announced a third collection on their website, but it can take quite a while before a book actually sees print – I think “Hoch’s Ladies” has been on their “Upcoming Releases” page for at least five years – so I thought I’d do a preview-review.

How can I do this, you ask? Well, once upon a time, when there were a number of decent crime bookshops in London, I’d regularly raid the back issues of EQMM with a list of issues with the sole intention of finding Sam Hawthorne stories. Because in their own little way, these are classic mystery stories.

So I thought I’d spend a little time on occasion reviewing these little mysteries. It goes completely against my unofficial policy of only reviewing “in print” stories, but, as I said, it’s an unofficial policy. I’ll take them in chunks of six, mainly because that gives me a nice title for this strand of the blog. So off we go.

The Problem Of The Graveyard Picnic (EQMM Jun 84)

A couple are having a lovely picnic when the woman stands up and runs away across a footbridge, only to trip and fall into the river below, all in full view of Sam. Her body is soon washed up downstream. He is convinced foul play is involved – but how could she trip over nothing?

The Problem Of The Crying Room (EQMM Nov 84)

The town drunk commits suicide, confessing to shooting the mayor while he is inside a locked glass “crying room” – an area in a cinema for mothers and young children. Only it hasn’t happened yet. However, the next day, with Sam standing next to him, the mayor is shot – but where did the bullet come from?

The Problem Of The Fatal Fireworks (EQMM May 85)

As agents from the FBI come to town to seize some illegal booze, a local mechanic tears open a packet of fireworks and lights one. Unfortunately, that solitary firework is in fact a stick of dynamite with a very short fuse. Boom! But how did it get inside the sealed packet?

The Problem Of The Unfinished Painting (EQMM Feb 86)

A woman is found dead inside her art studio – only her cleaner has been outside the only door for the whole morning and heard her moving around and talking on the telephone. With all of the windows locked on the inside, how could anyone have killed her?

The Problem Of The Sealed Bottle (EQMM Sep 86)

Prohibition is lifted, and Sam is part of a celebration in a local restaurant. The now-official booze is delivered and the mayor picks a sealed bottle at random. You’ve guessed it, dead from poisoning within seconds. But all of the other bottles are harmless…

The Problem Of The Invisible Acrobat (EQMM Mid-Dec 86)

The circus has come to town, and Sam has to deal with an impossible disappearance. Five acrobats climbed to the top of the circus tent – and only four returned. Needless to say when the fifth turns up, he is somewhat dead – and in a farmhouse some distance away…

The most impressive thing about the Hawthorne stories, to me, is the constantly changing background of US history. We’re in the prohibition era here, so two of the stories have strands dealing with illegal booze – in some ways, Fatal Fireworks is a direct sequel to the events of Crying Room – and a third deals with the end of prohibition. There is also a development for Sam when his crime-solving gets in the way of his doctoring, leading him to abandon his investigating, for a while at least.

Of these stories, I’d say that none of them are quite up there with the best so far – such as The Problem Of The Tin Goose (More Things Impossible) or The Problem Of The Haunted Bandstand (Diagnosis: Impossible) –  but The Sealed Bottle comes close. The Invisible Acrobat is also very strong, although the motive is a bit iffy – the disappearance is very clever though. A couple of the others though do fall prey to the “only one person could have done it” syndrome. They’re still decent reads though.

My collection still isn’t complete – I’m missing The Problem Of The Enormous Owl, The Problem Of The Miraculous Jar, The Problem Of The Yellow Wallpaper and The Problem Of  The Scarecrow Congress – but they’re a way down the line, chronologically speaking. Next time, we’ll have vanishing weapons, killers who can float over snow and another impossible poisoning.

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14 comments

  1. C&L shows “More Things Impossible” as still available (whether that’s up to date or not, only Doug Greene knows!). And Amazon (at least US Amazon) sellers seem to have a number of copies of “Diagnosis: Impossible” available, starting around $15. So if you’ve whetted anyone’s appetite for Dr. Sam…well, they should move quickly… 🙂 Like you, I love ’em.

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    • If you go to the page dedicated to the book, it says out of print. But thanks for the heads up on Amazon US. I had a reader a while ago looking for a copy – if you’re still here, take a look!

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      • Just checked Amazon.com and they’ve got the second collection for a bargain $200! So, if you are the sort of person who would waste £650 on amazon.co.uk, you can save a bit of money…

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  2. It’s been rather too long since Crippen & Landru updated their pages for my liking … I hope to see some new publications from them soon! On seeing this post of your, my first reaction was “You cheeky b$%££*r!” but don’t take this personally, that was just sheer envy at your collection of EQMM. Wonderful stuff …

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    • I did wonder if the post read a bit like I was showing off.

      Truth be told, Hoch was the reason I subscribed to EQMM for so long and Hawthorne the reason I followed Hoch. Every new issue would be an excited check to see if the story was “The Problem Of…” – and hopefully not “The Theft Of…” – not a Nick Velvet fan. It baffles me that some enterprising so and so doesn’t release these stories as ebooks – 50p a pop for example. Surely in the long run that would generate more money that a printed collection every decade…

      Failing that, Crippen and Landru could branch out into ebooks for the collections

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    • If you avoid Hoch’s other series solely because the Sam Hawthorne series specialized in impossible crime stories, you’re only cheating yourself. Hoch would often return to the locked room mystery, and I don’t think there’s an anthology of his stories out there that doesn’t have at least ONE impossible crime, even if the hero wasn’t Dr. Sam.

      One more thing—just because a Hoch story DOESN’T have an impossible crime doesn’t mean it can’t be a masterpiece. One of the greatest non-impossible Edward D. Hoch stories I remember reading was “No Crime For Leopold.” Hoch was inspired to write it after a reader wrote to EQMM and jokes that the poor detective can’t go ANYWHERE without a crime taking place, so Hoch wrote a story where Captain Leopold went to a convention and no crime took place—except that a friend has a question for him about his alarm clock. The armchair deductions Leopold makes had my jaw on the floor, and the ending left me with a feeling of apprehension even though no crime had taken place—yet.

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      • Quite right too – Hoch’s variety as an author is well worth celebrating (sadly I’ve not read his “No crime for Captain Leopold” – not yet, anyway. The first of his stories that I remember reading was “The Golden Lady” from an issue of MIKE SHAYNE’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE which was a great piece of hardboiled Noir about a femme fatale with a very nice twist.

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      • Oh, I didn’t avoid Hoch’s other work. It was the only reason I subscribed to EQMM for years. A guaranteed treat every month. Not a big Nick Velvet fan but the rest were great, especially Simon Ark and Stanton & Ives

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    • About as surprised as people would be to discover that my other favourites are the historicals Ben Snow and Alexander Swift. Got a soft spot for the more recent Stanton & Ives stories as well…

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  3. Can send you a digital copy of The Problem of the Miraculous Jar if it is still missing in your collection. Send me your e-mail.

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      • Great! Just started collecting the Sam Hawthornes — a little difficult doing it from India but then I am managing the digital editions so at least I get to read. All the best!!

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