"I know it's impossible, but impossible things have happened... before this. I should know—I'm becoming something of an expert on them."- Dr. Sam Hawthorne (Edward D. Hoch's Diagnosis: Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, 1996)
Arthur Porges was an American mathematics teacher, assistant professor and an author of hundreds of short stories, covering a wide breadth of genres, but most impressively is that he was one of the most productive writers of locked room mysteries in the detective genre – eclipsed only John Dickson Carr and Edward D. Hoch. I assume Bill Pronzini and Paul Halter have, in recent years, come close or even surpassed the number of impossible crime stories written by Porges.
However, even more impressive than having written forty-five locked room stories is the sheer originality of the problems and solutions, which demonstrated Porges was a clever and inventive writer. A writer who possessed a first-rate brain. Yes, in my world a writer of top-drawer locked room mysteries qualifies as a genius.
The impossible crime fiction of Porges is scattered across a handful of series, and a number of standalone stories, which were published in such periodicals as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, but only a couple of them reappeared in (locked room) anthologies – only two series were book-formed as short story collections in recent history. Richard Simms of the Arthur Porges Fan Site, as Richard Simms Publications, has been collaborating with the estate of Porges to bring as many of his short stories back into the print as possible.
So far, these reprints have mainly consisted or work from other fields of popular fiction, such as science-fiction and fantasy, but also includes a now almost ten-year-old collection of truly excellent detective stories.
The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009) is an almost complete collection of short stories about the titular, wheelchair-bound, character whose extraordinary scientific-mind is often consulted when the police is faced with a seemingly impossible crime. And as great as the plots are the (supporting) characters. Particularly, the genius, but good humored, teenage son of Grey who does most of the legwork for his father. The stories made you yearn for more, but we had to patiently wait for nearly a decade before we were being treated for a second volume of Porges' impossible crime fiction.
No Killer Has Wings: The Casebook of Dr. Joel Hoffman (2017) is an incredibly slender, almost booklet-like, volume of only 86-pages and gathered all six short stories in the short-lived Dr. Joel Hoffman series – which originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine from 1959 to 1963. So one of the stories was actually published during the twilight years of the genre's Golden Age.
Dr. Joel Hoffman is the Chief Pathologist at Pasteur Hospital, situated on the Californian coast, where he acts as "a one-man crime lab" and consultant to his personal friend, Lieutenant Ader, who can't always rely on the local coroner because he's "a political hack." As a result, Dr. Hoffman is called in as an unofficial consultant on all the interesting, seemingly inexplicable, cases in the district. And five of the six of his recorded cases qualify as impossible crimes. So let's start digging into them!
The first story in the collection, "Dead Drunk," is absolutely excellent from start to finish, which opens with Dr. Hoffman and Lt. Ader being on the spot of deadly roadside accident.
A drunk driver killed an eight-year-old boys, who was standing with his mother at the crossroad, but the driver is "a playboy of fifty plus," Gordon Vance Whitman III, who has used his millions and diabetes as a Get Out Of Jail Free Card in previous automobile accidents – collisions that have left several people seriously maimed. However, this is the first time he left a body in his wake. But, once again, he appeared to have gotten away with it. As the courts only suspended his driving privileges.
One year later, Dr. Hoffman is requested by Lt. Ader to perform an autopsy on the body of a man who was found inside "a locked, third-floor apartment." The name of the victim is Gordon Whitman and he had been on "a long binge behind a bolted door," but Ader has his suspicious and the postmortem examinations reveals a surprising cause of death. Someone had directly introduced phosgene gas into the lung's of the victim! So this is not merely a locked room puzzle, but also a scientific conundrum and the explanation deftly combines a practical locked room gimmick with a first-rate scientific trick.
What really makes this an excellent story is the murderer's fate. A character who, no doubt, will have the sympathy of most readers.
The second story, "Horse-Collar Homicide," has arguably the most gruesome murder method in this collection and begins with "the mysterious death of Leonard Bugg Lakewood," which initially looks like a stroke. Lt. Ader doesn't like "the overall smell of the situation" and decided to consult his old friend, Dr. Hoffman.
Lakewood was a not so benevolent family tyrant, in his sixties, with a deep rooted pride in the family history and, once a year, he would throw "a family party in the old style." During these parties, the old man loved to revive "ancient diversions" and bully his "long-suffering relatives into participating for prizes." So these parties were only pleasant for one person, but that changed during the last gathering with an 18th century May Day celebration theme. One of the old-fashioned games "the rural sport of grinning through a horse-collar," but when Lakewood stuck his head inside the horse-collar he immediately had an epileptic fit and fell to the ground – deader than "a salted mackerel."
A second-rate hack would have explained this sudden and inexplicable death with a charge of electricity or a well-timed dose of some sort of obscure poison, but Porges was not a hack. Oh no. The murderous trick he imagined is the stuff of nightmares and, while fast-working, must have really, really hurt like hell. I winced in admiration when I read the solution. A great story that is, perhaps, more of an howdunit than a proper impossible crime story, but perfectly demonstrates that Porges, above all else, was a true original when it came to plotting detective stories.
The next story, "Circle in the Dust," is a non-impossible crime story and tagged by Richard Simms as his personal favorite. As a rabid locked room fanboy, I can forgive Simms for preferring this charming crime story over the brilliant classic that is "No Killer Has Wings." Anway...
Lt. Ader brings Dr. Hoffman "a simple murder" involving "the traditional blunt instrument." The victim is a harmless old lady, Mrs. Valerie Antoine, who lives in a mortgaged house stuffed with trashy furniture, junk and bric-a-brac. Only the termites eat three meals a day there. So who would want to cave in the head of an old, inoffensive widow with barely a penny to her name? Obviously, there was something of value in the house, but the only clues they have to go on is a circular outline in the dust and a sun-blasted shape on the wall opposite from where this object was taken.
An object that turns out to be a genuine rare item that would appear to be completely worthless to everyone except a particular kind of expert. Very clever. So, yes, a good and solid crime story, but somewhat out of place in this series.
|"No Killer Has Wings," AHMM, Jan. 1961|
The fourth story, "No Killer Has Wings," is a shimmering gem of an impossible crime tale and arguably the best no-footprints story ever penned within the locked room sub-genre. This brilliant story opens with Lt. Ader taking his niece, Dana, to Dr. Hoffman and ask him to help them clear the name of her fiance, Larry Channing, who's neck-deep in trouble and currently being held "on a first degree murder charge" by the lieutenant – since only he was in a position to kill his uncle, Colonel McCabe.
Colonel McCabe was bludgeoned to death, while dozing, on his private beach and the physical evidence points an accusatory finger at his twenty-four year old nephew, Larry. On the beach, there were prints of the victim going from the stairs to the water and back to the blanket where he lay down when he was assaulted. A second track of prints, belonging to Larry, lead from the stairs to the body and back again. There are no other prints except those belonging to the victim's dog and the beach is accessible only from the house and the sea.
So that leaves the primary suspect, Larry, in a very tight spot. Luckily, Dr. Hoffman comes up with a devilish clever explanation based on the murder weapon with blood and hair on the wrong spot! You have to read this one for yourself, but take my word for it, the problem of the impossible absence of footprints have never been played better than in this story. And that includes the work by Carr and Hoch!
The fifth story, "A Puzzle in Sand," is a sequel to the previous entry in this collection and even takes place "on that very same stretch of sand" as where Colonel McCabe was beaten to death. Once again, the murder could very well be "another impossible stinker."
After the previous story, the house and private beach were let to Myron Crane. The new tenant was a banker, philanthropist and a church elder, but this respectable pillar of the community has a secret in his past and this made him blackmail material. A man, known as Garrison, was overheard having a violent quarrel with the victim and the murder weapon, "a P-38 war souvenir," was found in his possession, but what appeared to clinch the matter is that only his footprints lead to the body and back. However, Garrison claims he was framed and Lt. Ader is inclined to believe him.
The solution to the impossibility surrounding the murderer's lack of footprints on the beach sand is not as original as in the previous story. As a matter of fact, the solution here is a variation on a rather disappointing, time-worn, ploy that rarely satisfied when used in an impossible crime scenario, because the answer comes across as a cop-out and is soul-crushingly disappointingly. So this story deserves praise for how it handled this particular ploy without disappointing the reader or giving the idea you were cheated. Once again, Porges knew how to write a detective story even when it wasn't as original as his top-drawer work.
|Arthur Porges (1915-2006)|
Finally, the collections ends with, somewhat, of a whimper, titled "Birds of One Feather," but the problem lay more with me than with the story.
Dr. Hoffman is asked to explain how a man and his pet bird, which was always perched on his shoulder, could simultaneously expire from cyanide poisoning while the victim was simply changing a flat tire – a problem complicated by the fact that not a trace of the poison was found in the stomach content. I immediately figured out how the poison-trick was accomplished, but this had very little to do with my own cleverness. The clue of the poisoned bird reminded me of an episode from the 1975 Ellery Queen TV-series, which had a similar kind of problem that involved a dead bird. I would not at all be surprised if the scenarist of that specific episode had been aware of this story, originally published in AHMM in 1963, and reworked the main gist of the trick when he wrote the episode.
So, all in all, No Killer Has Wings: The Casebook of Dr. Joel Hoffman is a very short, but excellent, collection of detective stories with four of the six entries being top-notch examples of either the locked room mystery or the pure howdunit – such as "Dead Drunk," "Horse-Collar Homicide" and the superb "No Killer Has Wings." These stories alone is what makes this volume a must have for (locked room) readers like myself. Only real downside is that these half dozen stories constitutes the entirety of the Dr. Hoffman series. And that's hardly enough.
On the upside, the next collection in this series by Richard Simm might gather some, or all, of the impossible crime stories in the equally neglected Professor Ulysses Middlebie series. I would love to be able to finally read such tantalizing-sounding short stories like "The Puny Giant," "These Daisies Told" and "Blood Will Tell." So here's hoping!