"You're always hearin' that things were better in the good ol' days... I'll tell you one thing that was better—the mysteries. The real honest-to-goodness mysteries that happened to ordinary folks like you an' me. I've read lots of mystery stories in my time, but there's never been anything to compare with some of the things I experienced personally."- Dr. Sam Hawthorne (Edward D. Hoch's "The Problem of the Covered Bridge," from Diagnosis Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, 1996)
Edward D. Hoch was a giant in the field of short form mysteries, having written roughly nine hundred detective stories since his literary career began in 1955, which were published in such famous periodicals as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine – spawning a sundry cast of series-characters in the process. I know that I'm perhaps slightly biased, but my favorite of Hoch's creations is unquestionably Dr. Sam Hawthorne.
Dr. Sam Hawthorne was a physician in the fictitious New England town of Northmont, but stories are his reminiscences, as an older man, on a period that stretched across three decades. The first story in the series, "The Problem of the Covered Bridge," was published in 1974 and took place in March of 1922, while the final one, "The Problem of the Secret Patient," appeared in 2008 and was set in October, 1944. It's an unusual series in that the stories and characters are not frozen in time, which tends to happen with long-running series.
Time passes at a normal rate in the small town and the people who live there, such as the (semi-) regular characters, are not unaffected by the tick-tock of the clock, but there's one element that's constant and insists on returning with the same regularity as the seasons – namely the locked room murders and other seemingly impossible problems!
Northmont has an average homicide rate that dwarfs Jessica Fletcher's Cabot Cove, but crimes in the former insist on defying the laws of reality: a horse-and-buggy inexplicably vanishes from a covered bridge, a man is strangled by the branches of a haunted tree, a murder is committed in a locked, octagon-shaped room and a solo-pilot is stabbed in mid-air inside a locked cockpit. These are merely a handful of examples from the first two collections of excellent stories, Diagnoses Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (1996) and More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2006), but this review will concern itself with the third volume of stories, which is titled Nothing is Impossible: Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2014).
However, before I take a look at the individual stories, I have to make a note here and say that the collection, as a whole, was not as strong as its predecessors. Somehow, the stories lacked that magical touch or failed to live up to their own premise, which really surprised me. Hoch was known for consistency in quality, but that was not on display in this collection. Don't get me wrong: there were a couple of good stories, but none of them as original ("The Problem of the Pink Post Office") or classical ("The Problem of the Octagon Room") as some of the tales gathered in the previous volumes – which really is a pity. Now that I have dampened your spirits and enthusiasm... lets take a look at the stories!
"The Problem of the Graveyard Picnic" was published in the pages of EQMM in June 1984 and takes place in the Spring of 1932. Dr. Sam Hawthorne is moving from his small office in the center of town to a remodeled wing of Pilgrim Memorial Hospital, which is being downsized after the eighty-bed facility had "proven far too large for the town's need." In between moving and seeing patients, Hawthorne pops outside to attend the funeral of a prominent citizen in the cemetery in front of the hospital and comes across a picnicking couple, but the woman gets up and runs away when she sees the doctor – witnesses how an invisible force pushes her over a stone-railing of a swollen creek. A nice, fun little story, but I figured how it was done while the crime was in progress.
|The first collection of Dr. Hawthorne stories|
"The Problem of the Crying Room" appeared in November 1984 issue of EQMM and the story happens in June of 1932. Northmont is in the midst of the centennial celebration and the high point of the festivities is the opening of the town's very first talking-picture palace. The Northmont Cinema is equipped with a glassed-in, soundproof room for families with babies or small children, called a "Crying Room," but the small room attracts the attention of Sheriff Lens and Dr. Hawthorne when the projectionist commits suicide – leaving a note behind confessing to the locked room murder of Mayor Trenton on opening night. However, the opening night is not until the following night!
Mayor Trenton insists on watching part of the movie from the soundproof room, because the would-be assassin is dead, but a single gunshot goes off and wounds the Mayor. Dr. Hawthorne was with him inside the room and Sheriff Lens was guarding the only door, but all of those precautions failed to stop an aspiring assassin from taking a shot at the prospective victim. I loved the premise and the ideas Hoch was working with, but the solution seemed to lack that magical touch of ingenuity and I'm afraid there might be some medical objections to the method – such as the tendency of blood to coagulate. I still tend to like this story though.
"The Problem of the Fatal Fireworks" was first published a May 1985 issue of EQMM and takes place on the 4th of July of the same year as the previous story. It's also the first really disappointing story from this collection. The elements that were carried over from the previous story were nice and the whodunit-aspect was decent, but the question regarding how "half a stick of dynamite" was inserted into a sealed package of harmless firecrackers was hardly worth the label of an impossible crime.
"The Problem of the Unfinished Painting" was published in EQMM in February 1986 and takes place in the Fall of 1932. A very rewarding story, because it showed a negative side effect to playing amateur detective. Dr. Hawthorne is asked by Sheriff Lens to assist in the locked room murder of Tess Wainwright. She was found slumped in a chair at her easel, strangled to death with a long paint-spattered cloth, but all of the windows were latched from the inside and the cleaning lady was in sight of the only door to the studio – which she claimed was closed the entire time she was there. The fun part of the plot is that the murderer was attempting to hammer out a ironclad alibi, but unforeseen circumstances transformed into a "closed-room situation" and that ruined everything. However, while he was out playing detective something happened at the hospital that makes Dr. Hawthorne decide to devote his full attention to his patients.
"The Problem of the Sealed Bottle" was published in EQMM in May 1986 and the story takes place on December 5, 1933, which was the period when Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected President of the United States and delivered on his promise to repeal Prohibition. Slowly, the US is being stocked, legally, with booze and Northmont is no exception, but the first bottle of spirits to be (legally) unsealed contained a potassium cyanide. I thought the background of the story, death of an era, was more interesting than the plot itself.
"The Problem of the Invisible Acrobat" first appeared in the December 1986 issue of EQMM and takes place before the events from the previous story, during the summer of 1933, when the circus came to Northmont. The story has one of the better impossible problems collected in this volume of stories. Dr. Hawthorne takes Sheriff Lens' nephew, Teddy, to the circus where the death-defying stunts of the five Lampizi Brothers are part of the main attraction, but one of the them vanishes in mid-air and only leaves behind an empty trapeze – "swinging back and forth" as if "supporting the weight of an invisible acrobat." The explanation for the vanished trapeze-artist is clever without being incomprehensible, a semi-sentient being should figure out the main gist of the trick, but the vanishing is tied-in with a second plot-thread involving the body of clown covered in stab wounds. I expected more of these type of stories from Hoch in this collection.
|The second collection Dr. Hawthorne stories|
"The Problem of the Curing Barn" originally appeared in EQMM in September 1987 and takes place in September 1934. A wealthy business tycoon, Jasper Jennings, who came to Northmont during the depths of the Depression to grow tobacco, but he soon was murdered after the first harvest – a straight-razor slashed across his throat in a dark barn where the plants are being air-cured. Sheriff Lens is glad that it's "not one of those locked-room murders," because barn has "more holes than a rusty sieve," but there was no opportunity to get rid of the murder weapon. I've seen the explanation for the vanishing murder weapon before in stories, but they post-date this one and wonder if the trick originated in this tale.
"The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin" was published in the December 1987 issue of EQMM and takes place in January 1935, which gave the town of Northmont a much needed break from death and crime. Dr. Hawthorne takes his nurse, April, for a weeklong winter holiday in Maine, but not long after his arrival a retired stockbroker is found murdered in his log cabin. Of course, the surrounding area is covered in a blanket of snow marked only with the paw prints of a roaming bobcat, but not of a human predator, which begs the question how the murderer managed to enter and leave the cabin without leaving footprints in the snow. I appreciated the fact that Hoch tried to be original here, but the explanation seems really impractical. It should also be noted that Dr. Hawthorne loses his nurse in this story to marriage here and the next two stories revolve around her replacements.
"The Problem of the Thunder Room" appeared in April 1988 in EQMM and takes place in March of 1935 and May Russo has replaced April (yes, the joke about their names is played up), but she is deadly afraid of thunderstorms and blacks-out when they happen. May has such an attack when a freak storm surprises the town and when consciousness returns tells Hawthorne she had a dream about "a hammer and people being killed," but the problem arises when a message reaches the doctor that someone was bludgeoned to death during the thunderstorm and a witness swear it was May – could she had been in two places at the same time? Unfortunately, the explanation borders on cheating and is a less successful treatment of the whodunit-aspect from "The Problem of the Invisible Acrobat."
"The Problem of the Black Roadster" was published in the November 1988 issue of EQMM and takes place in April of 1935. The story introduces April's final replacement, Mary Best, who came to town during a deadly bank robbery. I did not care for this story, I'm afraid.
"The Problem of the Two Birthmarks" appeared in the May 1989 issue of EQMM and is set in May of 1935, in which the attempted smothering of a food poisoning victim in Pilgrim Memorial Hospital is tied to the destruction of a ventriloquist’s dummy of a restaurant entertainer and a murder by strangulation in a locked and unused operating room – to which the only key was in possession of a doctor with a cast-iron alibi. However, the locked room turns out to not be a locked room at and is somewhat of a cheat. Hoch seems to have been plain out of ideas during this period, which is especially noticeable in the next story.
"The Problem of the Dying Patient" was published in December 1989 in EQMM and takes place in June of 1935. Dr. Hawthorne gives an elderly patient her medication and she washes the pill away with a swig of clean water, but immediately afterwards dies of what is later determined to be cyanide poisoning – which may cost Hawthorne his license to practice medicine and is even suspected of a mercy killing. What I found so immensely disappointing was how the poisoning was presented, as a genuine and baffling impossibility, but the explanation revealed she had something in her mouth prior to swallowing away her medication. It was explained that the item in her mouth was slowly dissolving during her medical examination and, "when it dissolved enough," the cyanide was released and killed her. However, there were no remnants of this item found in her mouth or stomach during the post-mortem? The only thing that makes the story worth a read is the situation Hawthorne finds himself in, but not for the plot, which is atrocious.
"The Problem of the Protected Farmhouse" originally appeared in the May 1990 issue of EQMM and takes place in the final quarter of 1935. A local and paranoid Nazi-sympathizer, Rudolph Frankfurt, fortified his farmhouse to protect himself from anti-Nazi elements – effectively living "behind an electrified fence and locked doors" that's "guarded by a dog." However, an axe-wielding murderer managed to bypass those security measures, but the explanation is simply practical and workman-like instead of original and inspired.
"The Problem of the Haunted Tepee" was published in the December 1990 issue of EQMM and takes place across two centuries, which stretches from the Old West of the late 1800s to New England of the mid-1930s. Because this is a crossover story! Ben Snow had "been a cowboy during the 1880s and '90s" and a selection of his adventures were gathered in a volume entitled The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Tales (1997), but there was one unexplained episode from his career that has always haunted him. Snow has heard of Hawthorne's "reputation for solving impossible crimes" and decided to tell him the story of a haunted tepee that either killed its occupants or made them sick. It's a nifty variation on the "Room That Kills" theme with lots of historical color that brought a two completely separate series-characters, which is something I love as much as a good locked room mysteries. There are simply not enough crossovers in our genre!
"The Problem of the Blue Bicycle” appeared in the April 1991 issue of EQMM and took place in September 1936, which centers on a girl who went missing as if something from the sky had plucked her from the bicycle. It's an OK story, but nothing special or particular interesting.
Well, that was the final entry in this collection, but I seem to have been slightly more positive when judging the stories on an individual basis. However, the collection as a whole remains the weakest of the three, which is a real shame. I also wish I could've begun this year on a somewhat more positive note, but I happen to pick some less than perfect work. Oh well, better luck with the next one!