The Laughing Cure: "The Problem of the Vanishing Town" (1979) by Jon L. Breen

A week ago, I reviewed Edward D. Hoch's Challenge the Impossible: The Final Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2018), which is the last collection of short stories about a retired New England medico, Dr. Sam Hawthorne, who begins every story with pouring a small libation before telling about one of the innumerable impossible crimes that plagued Northmont in the past – a small American town and locked room murder capital of the world. So with the publication of Challenge the Impossible there was nothing left to read in this series. Or is there?

Jon L. Breen is an award-winning mystery critic who took over The Jury Box column in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM) from John Dickson Carr in 1977 and relinquished the column in 2011 to Steve Steinbock, but Breen is more than just a critic. Over the decades, Breen has penned over a 100 short stories and garnered a reputation as a "premier parody-pasticher" as he satirized his illustrious predecessors and contemporaries alike. Some of his parodies have been collected in Hair of the Sleuthhound (1982) and The Drowning Icecube and Other Stories (1999).

The Giant of the Short Story was not exempt from a friendly ribbing at the hands of Breen and in the November, 1979, issue of EQMM he aimed "the point of his pen at one of the favorite series characters in EQMM," Hoch's Dr. Sam Hawthorne.

"The Problem of the Vanishing Town," subtitled "A Chapter from the Memoirs of Dr. Sid Shoehorn, New England General Practitioner," takes place in the small town of Northsouth. A quiet, peaceful place where nothing ever happens except the absolute impossible. An inebriated Dr. Shoehorn begins his tale with relating some of the unholy miracles that have taken place in Northsouth and they're gems.

One day, "the public library disappeared overnight," leaving behind a vacant lot, but the disappearance was "a publicity stunt on the part of the librarian," who are "a militant lot," to protest budget cuts – she put it back the next day. Obviously, this story takes place in the same universe as Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979). A second incident that livened up a pleasantly dull Northsouth summer when an old man, Noah Zark, who claimed he was 2000 years old "challenged the Devil to a duel in the middle of the town square." But he was run through with "a pitchfork that came out of nowhere" in "full view of more than a hundred people." Why has nobody attempted to turn this premise into an actual story?

"The Problem of the Vanishing Town" takes place on a day in late August of 1928 and Dr. Shoehorn had delivered triplets that morning, attended to "a case of the black plague" and learned Sheriff Aperture got a telephone message saying that at three o'clock that afternoon "the whole town of Northsouth will disappear from the map." So they have to figure out how someone can make a whole town disappear.

I'm not sure whether, or not, "The Problem of the Vanishing Town" qualifies as an impossible crime story, because the plot only has a promise of an impossible situation. However, the explanation as to how the town of Northsouth eventually vanished, here played for laughs, could easily be used to explain the miraculous appearance of an entire town. So I decided to tag this post as a "locked room mystery" and "impossible crime," if only for being a parody of the Dr. Hawthorne series.

Since this is purely parody, there not much else I can say about "The Problem of the Vanishing Town," in terms of plotting or characterization, except that it's a fun, tongue-in-cheek treatment of one of Hoch's most popular and beloved series-characters. Crippen & Landru should have included it as a bonus story in Challenge the Impossible. Just like William Brittain's "The Men Who Read Isaac Asimov" in the posthumously published The Return of the Black Widowers (2005). So, long story short, "The Problem of the Vanishing Town" is unreservedly recommended to fans of Hoch and Dr. Hawthorne.

A note for the curious: one of the impossible murders Dr. Shoehorn casually described at the start of the story is the death of a clown, who was "mauled by a lion on the fifth floor of the Northsouth Hotel" when "the lion was in his cage five blocks away" – which was deemed "kind of interesting" by Dr. Shoehorn. Hoch picked up the challenge and turned this idea into a short story, entitled "Circus in the Sky," which was published in Scenes of Crime (2000). So I'll see if I can track down that story for one of my next short story reviews.

Next up on this blog is a review of a very obscure mystery novels from the 1930s that was reprinted last year.


Kirin's Horn: Case Closed, vol. 68 by Gosho Aoyama

The 68th volume of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, published in the non-English speaking world as Detective Conan, begins with the final chapter of the story that closed the previous volume and has one of those which-of-the-three setups littering the series, but here it was poorly executed with a painfully obvious solution – resulting in an incredibly mediocre story. Luckily, the next two stories are much better.

The plot of the second story centers on another ill-fated attempt by Rachel to get her estranged parents, Richard Moore and Eva Kaden, back together and the birthday of her mother provides her with an opportunity. Rachel has won a weekend getaway at the Shizuoka Seaside Hotel, which is a perfect location for a small, intimate birthday party, but the series murder-magnet, Conan, tagged along with Rachel, Richard and Eva. So a murder interrupting the birthday party is a question of when, not if.

Eva Kaden is a busy, successful attorney at law and had to reschedule an important meeting to the hotel where she was having her birthday party.

Kaden's client are a former model, Akiho Kokubu, who has been the victim of a stalker and her husband, Takehiko Kokubu. Their appointment was to arrange an out-of-court settlement with the mother of the man who was stalking her, all of whom are in the hotel, but, before their scheduled meeting can take place, Akiho's body "appeared out of nowhere" in Kaden's hotel room when she was taking a shower – which is patently impossible. The hotel room has a door that can only be opened with a key card and has a small window without a balcony. So how did the murderer enter or leave the locked room?

The problem of the locked room is practically immediately solved, but this answer reveals a second problem hiding underneath it. How could the murderer have carried out a certain task requiring two, or more, people? One of the clues gave me an idea how this could have been done, but failed to completely envision the trick before it was revealed. So a good, richly clued story with a sugary ending.

The third story marks the return of my favorite recurring side-character, Jirokichi Sebastian, who's Serena Sebastian's rich uncle and sworn nemesis of that infamously elusive thief, Kaito KID. Jirokichi has attempted to capture KID numerous times, such as in volumes 44, 61 and 65, but it was Conan who, time and time again, prevented KID from getting away with a valuable object – something that gave the old man an idea. Jirokichi has gotten the traditional warning note from KID promising that, when the moon is full, he'll appear again "to take the Kirin's Horn," but this time he had added a post-script. A post-script asking Jirokichi to "put aside childish things" and "settle this like men."

Jirokichi deduces from this that he wants adults present, not children, because "children are Kaito KID's weakness." After all, not even a master of disguise, like KID, can pass himself off as a child. So he places Conan and the Junior Detective League in the limelight. Admittedly, this was certainly the most original way to shoehorn them into a case without them just being there. Conan remained surprisingly cool-headed in the face of all those rollings news camera considering that it could blow his cover wide open. Anita at least pulled her hoodie over her head, but Conan like a deer in the headlights.

Anyway, the Kirin's Horn is "a rare piece of amber" containing "a seed that's ten of thousands of years old," which was recently discovered in a shrine constructed by the devilishly ingenious 19th century craftsman, Kichiemon Samizu – whose "tricky devises" has given Conan and KID hard times on several occasions. However, the presence of his long-dead hand, sort of, gave away the mechanics of the plot.

Nevertheless, the impossible situation that emerged from this setup was an intriguing one: the Kirin's Horn is part of a statue, well hidden inside a mechanical pillar, which stands in the middle of a small room with four differently colored pedestals in each corner. All of these pedestals have keyholes and the four colored keys have to be turned at the exactly the same time to make the statue inside the pillar appear. Jirokichi ordered an electrical current to be placed on the pedestals and placed members of the Junior Detective League in front of the keyholes. Finally, Jirokichi nailed the keys into the wall with a big staple.

Well, in spite of all the security measures, the lights go out as predicted and it takes KID only a minute to steal the horn, but he has a problem, because the trap is sprung and he's trapped inside the shrine – along with the police, a film crew and Jirokichi. Uncharacteristically, KID has taken Conan out with a taser and spends most of the story lying in the middle of the room, like John Kramer, but why?

Seriously, I began to suspect KID had gotten his hands on some short-term APTX 4869 and had taken Conan's place, which would be perfectly acceptable within this universe and this would explain why Anita and Conan acted differently towards the news cameras. You know, KID would look practically identical to Conan as a child. Luckily, this turned out not to be the case and the explanation showed a little but more ingenuity. The locked room trick is mainly a mechanical one, which is hardly a spoiler, but still required enough subterfuge and manipulation of the situation to not make the mechanical aspect feel like a cop-out.

As a bonus, KID gives the reader a second locked room mystery when he appears to be trapped, but simply vanishes when the lights go out for a second or two! The solution is very comic book-like, but have come across it before in a short story and admired the skillfully placed red herring that made it very easy to overlook the solution.

Admittedly, this is far from the best story with either Jirokichi, KID or the lingering presence of Kichiemon Samizu, but still found this to be a wonderfully imagined, cleverly constructed and enjoyable story.

Regrettably, this volume is book-ended by two incredibly mediocre stories and the final story deals with a purse snatcher, disguised in a goofy-looking Hyottoko mask, who targets tori-no-ichi markets and his latest victim is Rachel's best friend, Serena Sebastian – who's determined to get revenge. So they're present when the purse snatcher wounds a man with knife and the victim, before losing conscious, gives Conan a cryptic, near-death-message. However, Western readers rarely have a shot solving the codes or dying messages in this, because they nearly impossible to translate. And this story is no different. So that probably detracted something from this pretty average, uninspired which-of-the-three detective story.

All in all, this was a fairly balanced volume with weak stories opening and closing this collection, but wedged in between you'll find two solid cases and one of them has appearances of some of my favorite recurring side-characters. And those two stories were more than enough to leave me satisfied.


Goodnight Irene (2018) by James Scott Byrnside

Back in 2015, "JJ" of The Invisible Event began a semi-regular blog-series, "Adventures in Self-Publishing," in which he examines independently published detective novels and with the exception of a few clunkers, like The Message in a Bottle (2017) by Merapi Omnut, the quality has been above average from what you'd normally expect from self-published works – most notably Lee Sheldon's Impossible Bliss (2001). Recently, he discussed a novel this series of blog-posts that sounded too good to ignore.

JJ opened 2019 with a review of James Scott Byrnside's Goodnight Irene (2018), a self-published locked room mystery, which he described as "an absolute belter" with "increasingly bizarre and unfathomable crimes" in an isolated house reminiscent of "the pell-mell craziness" of Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935). That alone was enough to get my attention, but then Byrnside turned up in the comments to say he wasn't "interested in writing anything except impossible crime." So that got him fast-tracked to the snow-capped peak of Mt. To-be-Read. Sorry Robert Innes and Adam Roberts. I'll get around to you two eventually.

Goodnight Irene is an ambitiously written, intricately plotted detective novel, certainly for a debut, which generally means the opening chapters are easier to discuss than the later. Here, it's the other way around.

The story opens with a prologue set in Chicago, 1907, giving the reader a glimpse of an appalling crime before moving twenty years ahead, to 1927, when a private-detective, Rowan Manory, made "a terrible error in judgment"  that has caused "irreparable harm" – effectively putting him out of commission for months. Five months later, Manory receives a letter from Robert Lasciva from Vicksburg, Mississippi, who received a death threat in the mail. A threat promising Lasciva will be murdered during the weekend of his fifty-fifth birthday and the murderer will be a guest at his party.

Lasciva has organized "a small, tight-knit celebration" at his remote estate, high upon a ridge, between the Bayou Pierre Mounds and Fort Hill with only one read leading up to the place. There are only three guests, a business associate and staff besides the two detectives of the story.

The guests are an elderly aunt, Bernice Lasciva, and a long-lost English nephew, Charles Lasciva, who brought along his wife, Margaret. Jack Tellum is Robert Lasciva's bodyguard, while Ruth Martice and Willie Aikes respectively fulfill the duties of private-secretary and butler/driver. The party is rounded out by his lawyer, Paul Daniels. Manory decides to take the case, not only for the much-needed three-thousand dollar fee, but the link his client has with the long-forgotten crime from the 1907 prologue and the untimely death of his mother – which probably gives you the impression that the book is a dark, grim and brooding historical crime novel. Goodnight Irene is definitely written in the traditional of the nicotine-stained, booze-fueled American pulp story, but the two main characters have a sense of humor and their comments often lighten the mood.

Coming next...
Manory has an assistant and friend, Walter Williams, who banter back and forth like a couple of married detectives from the comedic mystery novels of Kelley Roos and Herbert Resnicow. And this never strikes a false, jarring note with the pitch-black plot-strands. I believe Byrnside's talent as a writer is in straddling the various forms and tropes of the genre without turning the story and plot in a Frankenstein monstrosity.

Goodnight Irene begins to resemble a classically-situated, traditionally-styled detective story when Jack Tellum is poisoned and mumbles, what proves to be, a dying message, "choke, choke," which is funny coming from a character named Tellum (Tell 'Em). Very subtle, Byrnside. Very subtle. A note is found on Tellem saying "two are now dead" and promising two more "shall perish" before dawn. That second body belongs to the host, Robert Lasciva, whose decapitated body is found clad in a heavy, ancient and costly suit of armor in his office – three feet away sat the helmet propped up with a battle-ax by its side. There are no windows in the office and the door was locked with the key sticking in the lock on the inside.

Lasciva had been in the room with his aunt, Bernice, but the elderly lady could not have committed the murder, because she was physically unable to swing the big battle-ax and there's another problem. When the door was broken down, Bernice had disappeared from the locked, windowless room! What a brilliantly posed, double-edged impossible situation. A third, quasi-impossibility is thrown in for good measure when body parts are found, but the dismembered victim was not a member of the party and the house became inaccessible to outsiders when a flood washed away the only bridge to the mainland.

On a side note, Goodnight Irene is set during the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States, known as The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which left over 700,000 people homeless, approximately 500 people dead and caused $1 billion in damages. The town of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was one of the places that was flooded in 1927 and is depicted in the story as being drowned in twenty-five feet of water, covering "any signs of civilization," except for a roof or tree here and there. The deluge had even "unearthed the contents of Beulah Cemetery" and forced "the coffins to travel through the town like some unholy pastiche of a funeral procession." These scenes reminded me of the devastating flood in Zelda Popkin's criminally underrated Dead Man's Gift (1941).

Byrnside dedicated Goodnight Irene to one of the uncrowned Queen's of Crime, Christianna Brand, stating that she may not have been "the most prolific or celebrated mystery writer," but "she was the best" and the plot slyly winks to Brand – draping another layer over this peculiarly structured detective story. A detective story that could have been penned by Bill Pronzini and plotted by Paul Halter, but paying homage to a mystery writer whose only flaw is that she didn't write enough detective stories.

The plot has some minor imperfections, such as a rushed ending and words ("pixilated") or phrases ("Five more minutes, Mom") that are or feel out-of-place in 1927, but overall, the quality of this self-published debut novel that I can easily dismiss those flaws as growing pains of a promising mystery writer. If there's anything to complain about, it's the routine solution to the locked office. The dying message of the bodyguard, the reason why the body in the locked room was clad in an armor suit, the disappearance of Bernice, the dismembered remains and the link to the crime from 1907 are all superbly handled, but have seen this locked room-trick more than once – one of the clues made it blatantly obvious this trick was being used. So that was a little bit disappointing.

Byrnside took an ambitious first stab at the detective story with Goodnight Irene and the result is an unconventional historical mystery novel, steeped in the offbeat style of the American pulps, but written around the skeletal frame of the traditional detective story and everything fitted together perfectly. Most promisingly, the solution to the dismembered remains is something you expect to find in a Japanese shin honkaku (neo-orthodox) detective novel. So, hopefully, Goodnight Irene is not only the auspicious beginning of the next John Dickson Carr or Paul Halter, but also the beginning of the end of the current Renaissance Period with the dawn of a Second Golden Age looming on the horizon. No pressure, Byrnside.


Challenge the Impossible: The Final Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2018) by Edward D. Hoch

Edward D. Hoch was "a legendary figure in the history of contemporary crime fiction," debuting in 1955 in Famous Detective Stories with "The Village of the Dead," who died in 2008 with "almost a thousand short stories" to his name and appeared in every issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM) from May, 1976 until his death – a literal Giant of the Short Detective Story. John Dickson Carr said of Hoch that "Satan himself would be proud of his ingenuity" and this may have something to do with his propensity for locked room and impossible crime fiction.

During his five decades as a writer, Hoch created "a village of unforgettable series characters," such as Simon Ark, Ben Snow and Nick Velvet, who have all come across one or two crimes of the impossible variety. Only one of his series-detectives exclusively dealt with locked room murders, impossible disappearances and other miraculous mysteries, Dr. Sam Hawthorne.

Dr. Hawthorne is a country physician in Northmont, a small, fictitious town in New England, during the first half of the twentieth century and the series follows the chronology of history. The series began in March, 1922 and ended two decades later in 1944. Ordinarily, long-running series and characters tend to get frozen in time, but here nobody is exempt from the ravages of time. Not even Dr. Hawthorne!

Last year, Crippen & Landru published Challenge the Impossible: The Final Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2018), which completed their collection of Dr. Hawthorne stories comprising of Diagnosis: Impossible (1996), More Things Impossible (2006), Nothing is Impossible (2014) and All But Impossible (2017). Five volumes packed with locked room and impossible crime stories! Sadly, this is the last time Dr. Hawthorne will pour the reader "a bit of libation" to go with his stories.

The stories collected in Challenge the Impossible take place during the Second World War, between 1940 and 1944, and the shadow of war looms ominously over the town of Northmont. And greatly impact the plots. So this volume had the added bonus of being one of those rare, WWII-themed collection of short stories. Let's see what's inside!

"The Problem of Annabel's Ark" was originally published in the March, 2000, issue of EQMM and introduces a new character, Annabel Lee Christie, who's a veterinarian with her own animal hospital "halfway between Northmont and Shinn Corners." Sabbath is a Siamese cat and the first patient of Annabel's Ark, but the poor animal has been strangled in its cage when the place was closed and locked up for the night. So she turns to "the local Sherlock Holmes," Dr. Sam Hawthorne, to help her expunge this blemish from her animal hospital.

A pretty decent opening story with an unusual, but good, impossible crime scenario with a perfectly acceptable explanation, which is only marred by the clumsy handling of the central clue – immediately giving away half of the locked room-trick. Still liked the story as a whole and love it Shinn Corners is only a short car drive from Northmont (see Ellery Queen's The Glass Village, 1954). It makes me wish there was a Dr. Hawthorne story in which he visited Theodore Roscoe's Four Corners.

EQMM, July, 2000
"The Problem of the Potting Shed" was originally published in the July, 2000, issue of EQMM and is possibly, plot-wise, one of the most perfect detective stories Hoch has written during his storied career. Sheriff Lens telephones Dr. Hawthorne to tell him he has something that's right up his alley: Douglas Oberman had been found "dead inside a locked potting shed," padlocked from the inside, with a bullet-wound in his right temple. Clues are liberally strewn across the pages that spell out the truth and I figured out "the how and the who and the why" exactly at the same time as Dr. Hawthorne. An original, rock solid impossible crime story with clever plot that inexplicably never turned up in any of the locked room anthologies from the past nineteen years.

"The Problem of the Yellow Wallpaper" comes from the March, 2001, issue of EQMM and is an homage to the Victorian-era Sensational novel. Dr. Hawthorne has a Dutchman as patient, Peter Haas, whose wife, Katherine, appears to have gone crazy and has to keep her locked in an attic room – a room with faded yellow wallpaper ripped away in places. Katherine has nightmares of "a prisoner in these walls," inside the wallpaper, "trying to claw her way out." Something quite the opposite happens when Katherine disappears from the attic room when she talking through the locked door with Dr. Hawthorne. And she left behind portrait of her own face staring out from her torn, wallpaper prison.

Admittedly, the scheme behind the plot is hardly original, especially the motive, but liked how the premise of a Victorian-era melodrama was used as a premise for a vanishing-act from a locked, barred and watched room with a very simple trick. So a fairly minor, but pleasant enough, short detective story.

"The Problem of the Haunted Hospital" was originally published in the August, 2001, issue of EQMM and begins when Dr. Hawthorne is consulted by Dr. Lincoln Jones on a patient of his, Sandra Bright, who claims her private, one-bed room in Pilgrim Memorial Hospital is haunted – swearing she saw "a hooded figure" outlined against "the moonlit window." On the following day, another patient is found smothered to death in the haunted hospital room where a year previously a wounded police suspect had been killed by a deputy during a botched escape.

So the reasons behind the ghostly presence and murder were pretty obvious, but they were nicely tied to the identity of the murderer and the vanishing-trick, which had a simple and elegant solution played to great effect. Another minor, but good, locked room story. This is story in which Dr. Hawthorne and Annabel get engaged.

"The Problem of the Traveler's Tale" was originally published in the June, 2002, issue of EQMM and brings a seasonal hiker, Graham Partridge, to Northmont with an interesting story for the police. Last year, Partridge had came across an abandoned, two-storied house boarded-up, but this year the house appeared to have people living in it. There was a middle-aged couple and he recognized the man as Clifford Fascox, "a Chicago swindler," who had worked "a Ponzi scheme on thousands of small investors," but after posting bail he disappeared along with five million dollars – everyone assumed he had fled the country. Two years later, he appears to have turned up in a secluded, out-of-the-way house.

Dr. Hawthorne accompanies Sheriff Lens to the house, but they find it locked up tight and through one of the windows they spot a body sprawled on a carpet. What they find inside looks like a murder-suicide had it not been for the absence of scorch-marks around the bullet-wound in Fascox's right temple. Unfortunately, the solution to the locked house is an old one, but the reason why the murderer had to take a stupendous risk was a clever touch to an otherwise average detective story.

EQMM, December, 2002
"The Problem of Bailey's Buzzard" originally appeared in the December, 2002, issue of EQMM and the story begins on the day before infamy, December 6, 1941, when Dr. Hawthorne and Annabel Christie exchanged their wedding vows. There was much kidding about the wedding day being "interrupted by a locked-room murder," but it was a party without any bloodletting and the following day they began to pack when the news broke “Japanese planes were attacking Pearl Harbor” in Hawaii! The nation was at war. And they have to postpone their honeymoon in Washington.

So they get invited by a friend, Bernice Rosen, to come to her horse farm and this drops two problems in Dr. Hawthorne's lap. One is a historical mystery pertaining to the missing remains of a Civil War hero, General Moore, whose casket held "the remains of a very large bird" and the murder of Bernice – who appears to have been snatched from her horse surrounded by snow only marked by hoof prints. As if she had been picked up by a large bird of prey. I very much enjoyed the historical sub-plot, but the idea behind the impossibility has been used before and much better by John Dickson Carr and Baynard Kendrick.

"The Problem of the Interrupted Séance" was originally published in the September/October, 2003, issue of EQMM and the murder in this story is a direct consequence of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

One of the boys of Northmont, Ronald Hale, had aboard "the ill-fated battleship Arizona" and his mother, Kate, is a patient of Dr. Hawthorne and this is how he learns she's has fallen in the hands of a spiritual medium, Sandra Gleam. Dr. Hawthorne warns her mediums are known to prey on the grieving, but Gleam has convinced her to conduct a private séance at her home together with her husband, Art. Dr. Hawthorne and Sheriff Lens are present as outside observers, who stand outside of the room, but, when the door is opened, they find the Hales unconscious and Gleam with her throat slit. There's no weapon found inside the room.

This is a pretty decent story, as far as these "debunked séances" goes, but not anywhere near as good as Clayton Rawson's classic "From Another World" (collected in The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective, 1979).

"The Problem of the Candidate's Cabin" was originally published in the December, 2004, issue of EQMM and has an interesting backdrop, but plot-wise, easily the weakest, most disappointing and unimpressive story of this collection. Sheriff Lens is running for his seventh and final term in office, which he usually does unopposed, but this time the election is heating up as a young candidate, Ray Anders, is vying for his spot – calling for younger men and new blood in the county sheriff's department. The election is thrown in disarray when the campaign manager of Anders is murdered and Sheriff Lens is the only person who could have pulled the trigger.

A story that began strong, but the plot was mediocre and didn't care at all about the lame locked room-trick.

The following story is "The Problem of the Black Cloister" and have read the story before in Mike Ashley's The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Murders (2006), but disliked the story and didn't want to reread it. So moving on.

EQMM, July, 2005
Fortunately, "The Problem of the Secret Passage," originally published in the July, 2005, issue of EQMM was incredibly fun to read with an inventive and imaginative locked room setup. Meg Woolitzer is the editor of the Northmonth Advertizer, a weekly newspaper, who wants to organize a scrap-metal drive to support the war effort. She wants to run a weekly feature with someone dressed like Sherlock Holmes, complete with deerstalker, cape and magnifying glass, who goes around town looking for scrap metal to be donated to the war effort and he even has a great moniker – namely Unlock Homes! Absolutely brilliant! Dr. Hawthorne's reputation as an amateur detective and even his initials makes him "a perfect scrap-metal Sherlock." So he reluctantly accepts the role on behalf of Uncle Sam and the men fighting over seas.

Meg Woolitzer has arranged their first photo-shoot in the home of the elderly Aaron Cartwright, who has a barn-house full of junk, but offers them to show them his secret passage. One of the bookcases in the library is a hidden door, opening on a dark staircase, leading to "a plain metal door" without knob that can only be opened from the other side with a combination-lock and only Cartwright knows the combination. Well, the following day Cartwright is murdered in the library and the door was bolted from the inside, while the metal door in the secret passage was securely closed. So how did the murderer enter and leave this hermetically sealed room? Hoch has found the best use for a secret passage in an impossible crime story and has a simple, but elegant, solution to the confounding locked room situation. So, yeah, I enjoyed this one.

The following story is "The Problem of the Devil's Orchard," but have already reviewed it separately here.

"The Problem of the Shepherd's Ring" was originally published in the September/October, 2006, issue of EQMM and has a plot that reminded me strongly of Paul Halter's L'Homme qui aimait les nuages (The Man Who Loved Clouds, 1999). Julias Finesaw broke his leg when his tractor rolled over and has been ranting and raving from his sickbed how he's going "to kill Ralph Cedric for selling him that defective tractor," saying nobody can't stop him, because "he can make himself invisible" and "walk down the road" to kill Cedric – or so he says. Apparently, Finesaw made good on his promise and all of the evidence indicates he has killed Cedric, but this is a physical impossibility.

A good, imaginative detective story ending with the news that Dr. Hawthorne and Annabel are expecting a child.

"The Problem of Suicide Cottage" was first printed in the July, 2007, issue of EQMM and the Hawthornes decided to wait out the final month of Annabel's pregnancy at a cottage on Chesterlake. Unfortunately, their cottage has an history of suicides and not long after their arrival a woman appears to have hung herself in their cottage, which was locked up at the time, but this locked room-trick was disappointingly simple. Something that only served to give the story an exciting climax. The only notable point about this story is that it revealed this series is narrated by an eighty-year-old Dr. Sam Hawthorne in the 1970s and the identity of his listener.

EQMM, November, 2007
"The Problem of the Summer Snowman" originally appeared in the November, 2007, issue of EQMM and had an unexpectedly dark back-story and motive, which strikes an unnerving note with the problem of a snowman that was seen entering a house right before a children's birthday body – leaving behind a puddle of water and a dead body inside a locked house. A routine, time-worn explanation is given to the problem of the locked house, but the answer to the snowman was genuinely clever. So not a perfect story, but certainly a memorable one. Particularly in this series.

Finally, "The Problem of the Secret Patient," originally published in the May, 2008, issue of EQMM and shares the same strength and weaknesses as the previous story. A weak story with a memorable elements dabbling in alternative history. Dr. Hawthorne is visited by Special Agent Barnovich, of the FBI, who tells him Pilgrim Memorial Hospital has been chosen to bring in a secret patient, whose head had been bandaged to conceal his identity, to have a medical checkup. Presumably, the patient is a well-known, high-ranking defector from Germany and rumor has it he's being fixed up to meet President Roosevelt. However, the patient is poisoned under seemingly impossible circumstances before he can be moved again. Sadly, the murderer was rather obvious and the poisoning method is another golden oldie, but the identity of the secret patient gives this series the sendoff it deserves. No. It's not Hitler.

Quality-wise, Challenge the Impossible is an above average collection of short stories with mostly good stories ("Haunted Hospital," "Traveler's Tale" and "Secret Passage"), one classic locked room story ("Potting Shed") and only a few I disliked ("Candidate's Cabin" and "Black Cloister"). So not a bad score at all and comes warmly recommended to locked room enthusiasts, readers of historical detective stories and long-time fans of Hoch.

I'm afraid my next read is going to be another contemporary impossible crime novel, which came recommended by JJ. So stay tuned.


Death Behind the Door (1933) by Victor MacClure

Thom MacWalter was a Scotsman who had studied architecture, painted and supposedly had an amateur interest in acting, but the onset of the First World War likely put his artistic ambitions on hold and worked for the British Intelligence – reportedly was badly wounded in the Gallipoli Campaign. After the war, MacWalter began to write fiction under the name of "Victor MacClure."

The most well-known, best remembered work under the MacClure name appears to be a science-fiction novel, The Ark of the Covenant (1924), but, more importantly, MacClure wrote a quartet of detective novels during the early 1930s. Detective-Inspector Archie Burford of the Criminal Investigation Department, New Scotland Yard, stands at the helm of this short-lived series.

A series that began with the intriguingly titled The Crying Pig Murder (1930), but the one that predictably caught my eye was Death Behind the Door (1933). The plot is briefly described in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) as a murder in a cloakroom, which reminded me of the impossible situation from John Rhode's Invisible Weapons (1938), but never expected to find a detective story that could have actually been written by Rhode. A story with a plot firmly rooted in the traditions of the great triumvirate of the "humdrum" school, J.J. Connington, Freeman Wills Crofts and Rhode.

Detective-Inspector Archie Burford is on a well deserved holiday in the English countryside and has gotten permission from Colonel Selburn, Chief Constable of the county, to fish the "carefully preserved waters" of the region, but when he was pitting his wits against "a salmon of mettle" a uniformed man appeared on the river bank – a village policeman with an important message. Burford responds by asking his ghillie to maim or murder the policeman in various ways, because there's nothing "more important than a twenty-pound salmon." Only flash of genuine humor in this deliberate, methodical and leisurely-paced detective story.

The village policeman brought the news to Burford and Colonel Selburn that a well-known art critic, Graeme Wakeling, was killed at his home in a shooting incident.

Wakeling lives in a reconstructed farmhouse, The Ford, which is up river and had been found shot by his friend, Rupert Kyle, in the cloakroom with a sporting gun belonging to another friend and house-guest, Mrs. Edna Cayne. Burford accompanies Colonel Selburn to The Ford and, together with Superintendent Groves, begin to methodically examine every crumb of evidence and inch of the cloakroom. They learn who handled or cleaned the gun, and when, scrutinize fingerprints and question the small pool of potential suspects. A painstaking examination that allows them to eliminate the possibility of a tragic accident or an unfortunate suicide.

As an aside, I loath and detest it when a murder turns out to be a suicide, particularly in a locked room story, but I have to give props here to Superintendent Groves for his elegant, properly motivated (false) solution suggesting that Wakeling had committed suicide after all – Kyle had removed evidence from the scene to ensure "his friend 'll have a Christian burial." Normally, a victim disguises his suicide as a murder or suspicious looking accident to either make trouble for someone or the circumvent the suicide clause of their insurance policy. I have never seen a suicide turned into a murder, by a friend or relative, for this very human and understandable reason. Anyway...

So the shooting incident in the cloakroom is murder and the challenge staring the police in the face is how the deed was done. However, this is not an impossible crime! Wakeling was alone in the cloakroom when the shot was fired, but not only was the cloakroom unlocked, "the door was standing open a little" when Kyle found the body and this makes the book a how-was-it-done very much like Christopher Bush's Dead Man Twice (1930). A status cemented when one of only two suspects, Cayne and Kyle, emerged as the murderer halfway through the story with the remainder spent on building a case against this person.

The case Burford and Colonel Selburn are building forces them to thoroughly reexamine the suspicious death of "the wickedly vicious, spiteful and indecent" ex-wife of the victim, Mrs. Wakeling, who died unexpectedly eighteen months previously of aspirin poisoning – taking a headache powder that inexplicably contained acetylsalicylic acid. Mrs. Wakeling had received a sample packet in the mail and how it ended up in a machine-packed dose of headache powder is another how-was-it-done rather than a pure impossible problem. Still, this was a interesting side-track to the investigation.

Up to this point, Death Behind the Door only had a pair of good murder methods and some clever, old-fashioned police work in the "humdrum" tradition, but the murderer's personality, attitudes and motivation makes the book stand out.

Firstly, the murderer turns out to stand on equal footing with the detective and the ending is best described as a stalemate between the two. You have to read for yourself how this transpires and is resolved. Secondly, the motivational drive of the murderer is something out of the ordinary. And there's something tacked to the motive at the end that was very not-done at the time.

So, all things considered, Death Behind the Door is a methodically plotted detective story with the focus on the mechanics of the crimes, instead of figuring out who-has-done-it, which will be most appreciated by fans of Crofts, Connington and Rhode.