Devil's Soil: Halter, Hoch and Hoodwinks

I know my blog is dominated by locked room mysteries and impossible crimes, which tends to come at the expense of regular detective stories, but the monster that Edgar Allan Poe created still has me firmly in its grip. Just like Vincent, "I'm possessed by this house and can never leave it again." Nevertheless, I do want to spread out my locked room reading in the future, but until then, I crossed two more short stories from my to-read list. Stories by two modern-day champions of the impossible crime story whose dedication and output rivaled that of the master, John Dickson Carr.

Edward D. Hoch's "The Problem of the Devil's Orchard" was originally published in the January, 2006 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and will be collected for the very first time in the forthcoming Challenge the Impossible: The Last Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (20??) – published by Douglas Greene of Crippen & Landru. A collection of short stories representing the closing chapters on a long-running series that was fully dedicated to the impossible crime story, but we can be downcast about this when the time comes.

"The Problem of the Devil's Orchard" takes place during Labor Day weekend of 1943, when the tide of the war in Europe was turning in favor of the Allies, but the war was not the only thing occupying the people of the New England town of Northmont. A young man had miraculously vanished from an apple orchard.

Phil Fitzhugh only recently celebrated his nineteenth birthday, works at the feed store of his family and is dating a girl, Lisa Smith, whom he intends to marry, but her folks won't hear of it. Phil became frantic when he finally received his draft notice.

So Lisa turned to Dr. Sam Hawthorne for help, who enlisted the assistance of Sheriff Lens, but after they pick a drunk Phil up at a bar, where he was "acting a bit unsteady," he escapes from Hawthorne's car and flees into Desmond's Orchard – known locally as the Devil's Orchard. The hundred-acre apple orchard is believed to be haunted and attracts "arcenous children," which is why the owner erected two, eight-feet chain-link fences topped by barbwire. Phil was completely trapped inside the orchard, but a subsequent search by fifty workers only turned up a blood-smeared shirt. And the strip of bare soil along the fences was soft enough to show footprints. Only problem is that the earth showed no signs of having been stood on. So how did he vanish from a locked and watched apple orchard?

Hoch has a deserved reputation of usually delivering one of the better, if not the best, short story in any mystery anthology that he's a part of, but this is not one of his finest pieces of impossible crime fiction.

The clues and hints to the solution where all there, like the stone that was found on the bloody shirt, but the fair play could disguise that the impossibility was weak and uninspired. An explanation that should have been used as a false, throw-away solution. Unworthy of Hoch, the King of the Short Detective Story.

So, now we go from one modern locksmith of the impossible crime story, who's no longer among us, to another artisan who still very much alive.

An English translation of Paul Halter's "The Robber's Grave" first appeared in the June, 2007 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and was translated, as always, by John Pugmire of Locked Room International. The story is a charming one and can be compared to the kind of impossible crime stories from Carter Dickson's The Department of Queer Complaints (1940).

Dr. Alan Twist had taken his car to escape the noisy, bustling city of London and lose himself in "the peaceful English countryside," but had ended up in a "desolate spot" across "the border of darkest Wales." There he stumbles into an inn and listens to the story of a nearby grave site where grass refuses to grow.

A hundred years ago, Idris Jones was denounced by "a couple of blackguards," who claim to have seen him rob and beat a beggar to death, but, despite his heated denials, Jones was hanged as a murderer. On his way to the gallows, Jones asked God not to allow "a blade of grass ever to grow over his grave" and the grass over his grave did turn yellow and then disappeared. And that's the last time green was seen on that patch of ground. An attempt to find a logical and natural explanation has driven a developer out of the village.

A property developer from Bristol, Evans, had bought the land and wanted to turn the grounds into a golf course, but you don't want your patrons to come across a haunted grave when they're doing a relaxing round of golf. So he vowed "to break the ancient curse" or "abandon the project." Evans went to a lot of trouble to prove it was all a trick or misunderstanding.

Evans removed the earth to a considerable depth and replaced it with rich, seeded loam, but the grass had scarcely began to grow when it began to turn yellow, died and a bare patch outlining a grave – which only made him double his efforts. The earth was replaced again and Evans hired the best gardeners in the region, but when even this failed he began to suspect sabotage from the locals. So he built a wall around the fence with a metal grille serving as a gate. Guards and dogs watched over this small fortress and the earth inside was, once again, replaced. But all to no avail. The grass refused to grow.

A good and novel impossible situation with a neat, simple and believable explanation that also betrayed the author is undeniably French.

I believe these type of peculiar problems and unusual impossibilities work best, as is demonstrated here, when the problem-solver of the story acts purely as an armchair detective who listens to these extraordinary accounts and then reasoning a logical answer from that same armchair – doing all of the work in his head. "The Robber's Grave" is not strictly an armchair story, because Twists does leave his seat, but he pretty much functions as one. And he figures out the method when he recalled a mean-spirited prank he played on a nasty neighbor as a child.

So we have a good, fun little detective story and another that began promising, but ended up being underwhelming. Well, we'll have to do with that, I guess, and I'll return with some non-impossible crime novels from the likes of Christopher Bush, E.R. Punshon and perhaps Erle Stanley Gardner. So stay tuned.


  1. I read this particular Halter story last month. It was not bad, but I don't enjoy so much Halter in his short-form. I think he's at his best when the ideas/plots are grand(like Seventh Hypothesis etc). I do agree with the explanation being nice.

    I've only read a single story by Hoch, which was not bad and I've been thinking a lot lately about picking one a recently published collection(all but impossible), but again, I'm a bit hesitant of the short form...
    which is ironic because I write(ok, used to) my stories with length 30-45 pages :)

    1. The short story format allows Halter to fully concentrate on the plot/trick, which has always been his strong suit, while obscuring his weaknesses that tend to come to the foreground in his novels (e.g. characterization or writing within the historical time-and place of his stories). So there are some pros to Halter's short stories, which is why Pugmire serious has to consider publishing that second short story collection.

      If you want to try Hoch, the second Dr. Hawthorne collection was really strong. Or, if you want to try another series, I really enjoyed The Thefts of Nick Velvet and The Ripper of Storyville.

    2. I've read only his best works ...and The Seven Wonders Of Crime(That was horrible) but I really didn't mind the lack of characterization.
      But I found the stories in the Night Of The Wolf too short to be immersed.

      Again like I said it's probably my fault with the short stories

      Thanks for the suggestions

    3. Hey, some readers like short stories and others don't. That one really comes down to personal preferences. So, if Hoch doesn't do it for you, the short story is probably not for you. But you should give Hoch a try first.

  2. Hi,TomCat.Hope you are not mad at me for defending Kanari in our last encounter.On the subject of impossible crime & strange vanishes,two particular cases instantly came to my mind.One was Ellery Queen's Lamp Of God ( in which the house next door vanished ) & another was the Snow Goblin Legend Murder Case in Kindaichi Return Series ( in which a girl just vanished into thin air from her cottage ).Just wanted to know whether you have read those novels,& if you have please share your thoughts.Also recently I watched the BBC adaptation Of And Then There Were None.Have you seen it?If you have,then I will ask you some questions regarding that series.Please do reply.

    1. "Hope you are not mad at me for defending Kanari in our last encounter."

      Don't be silly. I'm not thin skinned. You can say whatever you want in my comments and if you think I'm boneheadly wrong about something, you should say so. I might not agree with you, but you're free to say it.

      I have actually reviewed the anime adaptation of The Snow Goblin Legend Murder Case and think the plot would have worked better had the cabin impossibly vanished alongside the victim. The solution would have been perfect for a vanishing house-style mystery. A missed opportunity. The EQ novella is a classic and have not seen the recent BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None.

  3. Hi Tomcat,after 2 decades the identity of the boss of black organisation in conan has been revealed at last.Have you heard it?What do you think?Did you ever suspect it would be 'HIM'?

    1. I follow the North American releases of Detective Conan and, at the moment, they're at volume 66. So I have to wait a couple of years before I get to that point in the series.