Scattershot: Hoch, Line and Sinker

"One's plots are necessarily improbable, but I believe in making sure that they are not impossible."
- Mr. Judd (Edmund Crispin's Buried for Pleasure, 1948)

By the time 1967 came rolling around, the roaring Golden Age of Detective Fiction had calmed down, but many of the stories published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine were like glowing embers that kept flicking in its hearth. The Giant of Short Stories, Edward D. Hoch, penned nearly a thousand of them and during the year mentioned he wrote three that represented the basic approaches to plotting a mystery – a Who, How-and Whydunit and were reprinted together in the January, 1969 issue of EQMM. You'll be surprise to find out which of the three I liked the most, but then again, that just might have given it away. 

Edward D. Hoch

"Murder Offstage" is a Whodunit in the guise of an inverted detective story as the cast/crew of the critically acclaimed Morning Five are plotting the murder of Leonardo Flood, who has been blackmailing them with a collection of negatives of embarrassing photographs. They hatch a plan, however, the person who was supposed to snuff Flood only dims his lights for a few moments and turns up empty handed after searching the apartment top-to-bottom, but one of them went back to finish the job. But who?

The subplot of a missing, hard-to-find object was a nice nod to Ellery Queen and gave the story shades of the locked room mystery, but I think Hoch wanted to be sure we sympathized with the murderer by going for a darker ending than you would expect from a story about a murdered blackmailer. If you bump off a blackmailer in a GAD story, a bored police constable will, for the briefest of moments, allow himself to be distracted from his paperwork to caution you not to clog the Thames with it before waving you away.

"Every Fifth Man" is a hardboiled narrative set in Constanera, a war torn country of cities and jungle villages, where our nameless narrator goes back to fight the government of General Diam, but they're captured and doomed to be executed. A custom of the country for defeated foes is to send down the following order: Kill every fifth man and release the others. This is what the twenty-three captured men have to look forward to, but the devious General Diam has send down five identical execution orders and what ensues is a mathematical battle-of-wits to save as many lives from the firing squad as possible. And than something goes horribly wrong that raises the question how the narrator cheated the figurative hangman. But the coup de grâce was finding out how in your face the two main clues were and with one of those solutions that explains everything in the very last sentence of the story. This is exactly why Hoch will always be a staple of mystery anthologies.

Note for the curious: you can find these hardboiled puzzles in the series Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning, in which recursive reasoning sessions are fought out at gunpoint and bomb races. This fusion of extremely hardboiled situations while maintaining a firm grip on logic can work, that is, if someone who can also plot is writing it.

Finally, we come to "The Nile Cat," in which Professor Patrick J. Boutan of Middle Eastern Civilizations has just finished smashing in the skull of Henry Yardley, a graduate student, in the Egyptian Room of the University Museum. Lt. Fritz is baffled when he learns that the professor had no idea who the man he just murdered in cold blood was and therefore none of the conventional motives apply to him – like money, love or revenge. Professor Boutan begins to explain himself with a story involving one of the artifacts in the room, a statue of a cat representing Bastet, Godess of Joy, recovered in 1922 from the banks of the Nile, and even when only the question of the why has to be answered, Hoch manages to produce something as satisfying as what you'd expect from the best of his who-and howdunits. This ingenious motive was retooled for a TV mystery series from the 1970s, but I can't be more precise than that without giving away Hoch's, because the motive was the only remarkable part about that particular episode. 

Limestone cat of the Goddess Bastet found in 2010 (c)

Hold on! I've found one more story of the interest that I can only describe as the smoking gun proving that the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler has been playing pranks on the members of the mystery blogosphere instead of haunting pubs and hotels to draw in guests like a normal ghost. So if you were one of those doubters who brushed everything away as coincidences, because it's something to be expected within a group of people who read the same kind of books, you can chew on this "coincidence" as an appetizer for crow pie. Richard Curtis wrote a little-known story entitled "Odds Bodkins and the Locked Room Caper."

Godfrey "Odds" Bodkins is the proprietor of a betting parlor off Curzon Street and has a lavishly furnished, soundproof and sealed Horse Room where rich clients can spend their money away from the common people in an environment eliminating any way of information leaking in from the outside. Well, someone has been laboring on an impressive winning streak at the betting table and Bodkins suspect he's being filched – and draws in the help of his friend Tim Tubb. If you just had a sense of déjà-vu, don't worry, it's not a glitch in the matrix, because you can find the premise (and solution) in my barely two month old post "Out of the Tidy, Clipped Maze of Fiction: More Real-Life Locked Room Mysteries."

Luckily, this caper is not just a fictionalized account and Curtis extracts another solution from the actual explanation, which is given halfway through the story, for a fantastic second act with conmen trying to get one over each other – colliding into a genuine treat for a fan of both impossible crimes and shows like Leverage.

Of course, this leaves us with the unsettling, but all telling, question of how likely it's that I found an obscure story in a detective magazine from the sixties that just so happens to be based on a actual locked room mystery that I wrote about only two months ago! You'll probably retort that I read a sizable amount of them/post a lot on the subject and therefore it's not surprising at all that it happened to me, but insist on besmirching the name of a man dead for more than half century in a doomed attempt to translate some of that Golden Age atmosphere to morgue-like sterility of the internet. And that's true, unromantic of you to think so, but absolutely true.

But yes, they're most likely just coincidences, like how I found Curtis' real-life based locked room caper I wrote about through three stories Hoch wrote in 1967, which, coincidently, is the same year the person whose ghost we blame for these coincidences died – making this one, big creepy coincidence. But nothing more than that, I'm sure. ;-)

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