"Is there anything that I can do for you?"- Hagar (Fergus Hume's "The Sixth Customer and the Silver Teapot" collected in Hagar of the Pawn-Shop, 1899)
The late Edward D. Hoch was arguably the most prolific mystery writer of short stories from the previous century, producing nearly a thousand stories during his lifetime, which were published in such publications as Famous Detective Stories, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine – most impressively is the unbroken string of monthly appearances in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine that lasted from 1973 to 2008. A streak that will likely never be broken.
During his fifty-three year career, Hoch wrote more than a dozen series and created a whole host of memorable, and popular, detective-characters.
Simon Ark is one of his most iconic series-character, who claims to be a 2000-year-old Coptic priest, but equally popular are his thief-for-hire, Nick Velvet, and Dr. Sam Hawthorne – a country physician specialized in solving seemingly impossible crimes. One of Hoch's lesser-known series-character is Michael Vlado, the Gypsy Detective, who was specially created for an anthology from the mid-1980s.
Bill Pronzini invited Hoch to contribute a short story to The Ethnic Detective (1985), a collection he was editing with Martin H. Greenberg, which might have given us "an Eskimo detective," but the choice fell on a Romanian Gypsy.
Michael Vlado is a leading member of a tribe of Gypsies who stopped wandering the globe over a century ago and settled down in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps in Central Romania where they farm the land and breed horses. Formally, King Carranza is the leader of the tribal village, named Gravita, but the elderly man is crippled and unable to rule. So the power was exercised by Michael and this meant that he presided over "an informal court," called a kris, but his decisions were usually honored by the community and as a community leader he was often consulted on all kinds of problems. Surprisingly, a good portion of Michael's cases are brought to him by Captain Nicol Segar of the Government Militia.
You can say the series brimmed with potential and the fact that they were written by Hoch should've been a guarantee seal of plot-quality, but sadly, the characters, settings and political background of Communist Romania and the political upheavals in Eastern Europe during the late 1980s were used as a gimmick – a crutch that the plots heavily leaned on. Consequently, the plots are notably weaker than those found in the short stories about Simon Ark or Dr. Hawthorne.
On the bright side, the fifteen short stories collected in The Iron Angel and Other Tales of the Gypsy Sleuth (2003) contained only one real stinker and two (minor) gems, while the remainder of the stories managed to be consistent in being pretty average at best. So maybe the overall quality of the stories is not as bad as I made it out to be, but the series is definitely a notch, or two, below Hoch's other work, but for now, let's take the stories from this collection down from the top!
"The Luck of the Gypsy" is the series-opener and was originally written for the previously mentioned anthology, The Ethnic Detective, which introduces the reader to the two main characters, Michael Vlado and Captain Segar – who descended upon the hillside village on official business. A caravan of Gypsies had crossed the border into Romania and underneath one of the trucks several gold ingots were found, but by that time most of the caravan had been ushered through the checkpoint. And now the Communist government fears "counterrevolutionary activities" are brewing and that the gold might have been smuggled into the country in order "to foment unrest."
Captain Segar has been ordered to stay in the area, in case the caravan passes through the village, which is exactly what happens only an hour later, but not an ounce of gold is found inside the vehicle carrying two strange Gypsies. However, the occupants are gunned down a short while later and Michael figures out the culprit based on a dirty license plate. This is actually not too bad a story with a decent enough plot that made good use of an opportunistic murderer who's in possession of a better motive than simply personal greed.
"Odds on a Gypsy" was the first story from this series to be published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM), which appeared in the July, 1985 issue and can best be described as a travelogue. Captain Segar has a brother in the Agriculture Ministry in Moscow, Konrad Segar, who's one of the government officials in charge of running the only horse race track in the capital – a place famously known as the Hippodrome. So a young Gypsy farmhand, named Tanti Slatina, with a passion for horse-riding is given a golden opportunity to race Michael's horse, Rom Way, at the Hippodrome.
Michael accompanies the young member of his tribal village to Moscow and the best aspect of this story is its depiction of "squalid grandeur" of the once magnificent race track, which has badly worn marble steps and soiled walls. A mere shadow of what it was when the building was erected in the 1800s. However, a body is eventually found in the stables of the race track, but the explanation for this murder was rather obvious and this killed the effect the revelation was trying to aim for. Not a bad story, but nothing special either.
"Blood of a Gypsy" appeared in the January, 1986 publication of EQMM and is the first locked room mystery of the series.
Once again, Captain Segar travels to the hillside village of Gravita and asks Michael "to represent his people at a state function in Bucharest," but Michael suggests another respected and educated member of the Gypsy community, Nicolae Gallipeau – who had attended school in Bucharest. Nicolae is also a controversial person who took a younger lover after his wife had passed away, which placed him at odds with his brother and a much younger rival. So there are several potential suspects when Nicolae is found in his home with his throat slit, but the problem is that Michael and Captain Segar were standing in front of the house at the time of the murder. And the backdoor, while unlatched, opened on a field of unbroken snow. How did the murderer managed to do the dirty deed without being seen or leaving footprints in the snow?
Well, the murderer had to improvise the locked room trick, on account of the witnesses at the door, which is well done for the most part, but the last act of the trick is hardly credible.
"The Gypsy Treasure" was first printed in the May 1986 issue of EQMM and takes place a month after the previous story. Michael has taken the place of the murdered Nicolae as a representative of his people at the state function in Bucharest, but longs to return to his wife and home village. However, the journey back home has to be put off when "the daughter of an old Gypsy king" approaches him with news that her uncle, Greystone, had been fatally stabbed. And this compelled Michael to attend a Gypsy festival on the Hungarian border where a long guarded secret from World War II will be revealed.
At the outbreak of the war, the Gypsies of Hungary and Romania "banded together" to "keep their gold and jewelry from falling into the hands of the Nazis." The treasure was hidden on the grounds of the festival and the whereabouts was entrusted to five men, "each of whom was given a portion of the secret." A secret encoded in five worn playing cards with the name of a location scrawled across it and you can actually crack this code, but you have to be observant and know your card games. And in case you were wondering, I embarrassingly failed to notice the obvious and crack the code.
"Punishment for a Gypsy" was originally published in the January 1987 issue of EQMM and is one of the two gems of this collection, which, technically, also qualifies as an impossible crime story!
Michael relates a story to Captain Segar about the day he took a shortcut and passed through a small mountain settlement, a village called Bistritz, where local superstition is compounded by Gypsy lore and vampire myths – which Michael learned first hand when he stopped his pickup truck in the center of the village. A small group of people had gathered at the crossroad and they immediately pulled him out of the truck, while yelling "we have us a Gypsy." One of the men informs Michael that a Gypsy, Arad Bercovia, is to be executed for murder at high noon and they were following an "ancient law" stating that "the first Gypsy met on the road is to serve as his executioner."
Barcovia had seduced the daughter of the local shopkeeper, Marco Rapnell, who swore he would kill the traveling Gypsy, but it was Bercovia who was seen throwing a knife through the open window of the shopkeeper's house and the locals believed "a Gypsy curse guided around a corner to its target" - since the victim was found in the kitchen next to the room with the open window. And all of the other doors and windows were locked and bolted from the inside. So that leaves Michael with only an hour to find a way out of this dire situation and the ending is an unexpected twist in what is arguably the best story from this collection. That's all I can say about this story without giving anything away.
"The Gypsy Wizard" made its first appearance in May 1987 issue of EQMM and brings Michael to the Italian city of Milan. One of the former inhabitants of Gravita, Josef Patronne, left the region of the Carpathian Mountains forty years ago and settled in Northern Italy after the war – where he became known as a wizard. Patronne's brother saw his picture in the newspaper, under the headline "FIFTY WIZARDS KEPT FROM THE POPE," which prompted him to ask Michael to go and check up on his brother.
Patronne claims the power of flight and, not long after Michael's arrival, the wizard's body is found at the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele and the first impression is that he fell to his death after attempting to fly. However, the autopsy shows he had been drugged and could not have climbed to the roof by himself. So not really a bad story, but the ending tore a page from a very famous and celebrated detective novel.
"Murder of a Gypsy King" was first published in EQMM of July, 1988 and is an important story on account of the brutal murder of a relatively important side-character, King Carranza, whose death allows Michael to take his place – officially becomes the Gypsy King of Gravita. The story also introduces a character, Jennifer Beatty, who will return in one of the later stories.
Jennifer Beatty had been touring the Balkans on the backseat of her boyfriends motorcycle, but "the inevitable finish" came and she simply took Peter's ride. She was directed to the village of Gravita by Captain Segar and shortly after arriving there the King is found beaten to death in his home. Plot-wise, the story is not very complicated and the truth behind the murder is a very sordid one. Nevertheless, the story is not without interest, providing an outsider's perspective of Michael's village, and the consequences of King Carranza's death makes this an important entry in the series.
"Gypsy at Sea" comes from the December 1988 issue of EQMM and is a spy-cum-detective story with a predictable sequence of plot-twists. Michael receives a letter from a woman who had known long ago in Greece, but she had drowned in the Aegean Sea twenty-five years ago and he had identified the body himself. So he travels down to Athens to see her and learns she had been working as a spy for a private information gathering agency. As to be expected, shortly after their reunion, she ends up being murdered. The truth behind her death, and the subsequent, twist were very predictable and made for a rather bland crime/spy story.
"The Gypsy Delegate" was originally published in the October 1990 issue of EQMM and takes place mere weeks after the Romanian Revolution of 1989. So Captain Segar now serves the new government, who placed him in charge of the region, but they also have a special mission for Michael.
King Michael I of Romania was forced to abdicate at the end of 1947, when the Communists took over, but the King is still alive (even today at age 95) and has been living in exile in Geneva, Switzerland. The new government wants to send an unofficial delegation to the disposed king and Michael, who was named after the king, was picked as a representative of the Gypsy population of the country. A five-men delegation boards a train to Geneva, but en route a delegate is found stabbed to death in his compartment and Michael's explanation foiled a terrorist plot. However, the solution was balanced on a single clue. So, once again, not a terribly bad story, but not a particular good one either.
"The Iron Angel" came from the October 1992 issue of EQMM and is the second story to involve the American tourist, Jennifer Beatty, who arrived at the village when the previous leader, King Carranza, was murdered in his own home. But this time, she's a person of interest in a drug-related stabbing death of a Gypsy in Bucharest. She was in a cellar, or drug den, getting high when a mortally wounded man stumbled into the place and mumbled something about "the three eyes on the iron angel."
A story with some potential, but hampered by its short length. I believe the story could have been expended into a novella or even full-length novel with the titular angel being as unnerving a presence as The Golden Hag from John Dickson Carr's The Crooked Hinge (1938).
"The Puzzle Garden" was first published in the February 1994 issue of EQMM and involves a treasure hunt in a long-neglected, overgrown garden on an estate that has been returned to the family of the original owners after the overthrow of the Socialist government in 1989. Before the Communists began the collectivization, the Sibiu family buried a valuable statue in the Garden of the Apostles and the only clue mentioned the last Apostle. So this makes for a fun little tale about the search of a hidden treasure and the plot-patterns created when they start digging are pleasing, but the presence of the dead Gypsy, who was found in the garden with a knife in his back, was an unnecessary addition to the plot – slightly spoiling the effect of what was found in the whole they had dug. And the subsequent discovery.
"The Gypsy's Paw" was published in the September 1994 issue of EQMM and is one of the two gems in this collection, which is best described as an impossible crime story reminiscent of John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot – with a dash of G.K. Chesterton.
Michael learns from his wife, Rosanna, that there's "a Rom with magic powers" plying her trade in the neighboring village of Agula. She is an elderly woman, Esmeralda, who carries around an old, severed bear's paw and takes money in exchange for wish-fulfillment, which might lead to trouble down the road. So Michael decides to drive down to the village and, as a local leader, have a talk with the old crone, but what he gets is a front-row seat to a first-rate miracle. She's about to call on "a wealthy couple with a missing son" and Michael accompanies her as an observer.
The demonstration does not work as Esmeralda had planned, because the missing son does not return when he's called upon with the bear's paw and a telephone call tells them their son had drowned several days ago. Suddenly, the loud knocking on the front door freezes everyone solid and the other son of the couple grabs the bear's paw to wish his brother in his watery grave. And when the distraught mother tore open the door, the only they saw was "a line of recent footprints leading to the front door." Whoever made the footprints either walked through "the bolted door" or simply "vanished without a trace."
A splendid story rich in both atmosphere and clues with an eerie impossible situation worthy of the previously mentioned artisans of the locked room story.
"The Clockwork Rat" originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of EQMM and is an unusual, bizarre and colorful tale that takes place in post-Soviet Moscow, which at the time was dominated by the Russian mafia. Michael is visited by Old Caspian who tells him about his grandson, Maksim, who's a dwarf with a talent for training rats. But the debts incurred by his father made him practically a slave to the mobsters who run a fancy nightclub. So Michael has to come up with a way to free Maksim from forced servitude, but that's easier than done and even becomes complicated when mobster dies when a windup toy-rat explodes in his hands.
Not much else I can say about this entry except that it has a decent enough plot and some excellent, almost surrealistic, story-telling that begs to be compared to the detective stories by Craig Rice.
"The Starkworth Atrocity" was published in the September-October 1998 double-issue of EQMM and the story is an absolute train-wreck. An uncharacteristically bad and sloppy job by Hoch.
The political upheavals in Eastern Europe maneuvered Michael in a position that he was constantly "summoned to a faraway place" to plead "the cause of Romanies seeking political asylum." Lately, he was acting on behalf of the European Union to observe the stream of Gypsy refugees pouring into the British Isles. At first glance, the story shaped up to be a politically-tinged narrative, which would have been bad enough, but the plot quickly degenerated when over fifty refugees were gassed to death at the nursing home where they were temporarily stored – which turns out to have been deliberately. Michael does some parrying with the press and solves a throat-cutting that had been thrown in for good measure, but the solution for the mass murder makes no sense and is even incomplete! One of the characters even says, "I suppose we'll never know any more." Really, Hoch?
Finally, "A Wall Too High" from the June 2000 issue of EQMM is more of the same, but with a coherent, if obvious, plot. Michael is commissioned by a human rights organization to go down to the Czech Republic and plead that the wall separating the Roma section in Masarak Street to be torn down. So he simply has to play the role of Ronald "Tear Down This Wall" Reagan, but the situation becomes volatile when a policeman is killed at the wall and authorities issued a twenty-four hour ultimatum for the murderer to surrender – or else the police and militia will clear all Gypsies from Masarak Street. Unfortunately, the plot was rather predictable and my suspicion was confirmed when Michael was told that the body of police lieutenant had been cremated.
Well, that's the end of The Iron Angel and Other Tales of the Gypsy Sleuth, which left me internally very divided. On the one hand, the collection contained two lovely gems and the quality of the remaining stories were consistent throughout. However, as you probably noticed, I was not exactly smitten by the series as a whole and had I read any of the stories beforehand, I probably would have opted for one of the short story collections about Nick Velvet, Jeffery Rand or Ben Snow.
So, yeah, sorry for this lukewarm, overlong and probably poorly written blog-post, but it was cranked out when I was running low on enthusiasm. I guess I'll pick one of those other collections, before too long, to make up for this one.