Hoch's Ladies (2020) is the tenth Crippen & Landru collection of short stories from the master of short form detective fiction, Edward D. Hoch, which collects all the stories with Hoch's three female detective-characters, Libby Knowles, Susan Holt and Annie Sears – who share seventeen appearances between them. This collection has, as to be expected, one or two stories of the impossible persuasion!
Hoch's Ladies begins with the eleven stories with Susan Holt, a promotions manager in Manhattan's largest department store, who can be considered as the female counterpart to William L. DeAndrea's Matt Cobb. A corporate, business-minded woman who inexplicably keeps getting herself entangled in dark, murderous plots during office hours or business trips. And even the more puzzle driven stories in the series can be classified as medium-boiled crime stories.
I'll seriously try keep my discussion of each individual story as brief as possible in a futile attempt to prevent this review from bloating to the size of beached wale carcass. So let's dig in!
Susan Holt debuted in "A Traffic in Webs," originally published in the Mid-December, 1993, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM), in which Holt travels to Tokyo, Japan, to view a display of "bizarrely beautiful" spiderwebs – created by Professor Hiraoka who fed weed and LSD to spiders. Holt has to secure the exhibition as next year's Christmas display, but, upon arrival, she's nearly pushed in front of speeding car and the manager of the Japanese store is shot and killed in his office. The quasi-futuristic Japanese setting with its lifelike automatons and talking escalators is the best part of the story, because the plot makes it fairly average crime story. So not exactly a perfect beginning and it takes a couple of stories before the series starts to get really good.
"A Fondness for Steam" was published in the July, 1994, issue of EQMM and brings to Holt to Reykjavik, Iceland, to get a look at a line of quality woolen garments with new designs and colors, but she learns that an employee of the woolen mill was bludgeoned to death near one of the city's swimming pools. Unfortunately, the solution runs along very similar lines as the previous story and makes the story feel like a rewrite with the setting outperforming the plot. Thankfully, the next story is truly excellent!
"A Parcel of Deerstalker" originally appeared in the January, 1995, issue of EQMM and begins with an absolute screamer: the Mayfield's department store is planning to do a Sherlock Holmes promotion and ordered a dozen deerstalkers from Meiringen, Switzerland, but the parcel was delivered "a severed human ear" lay on top of the merchandise – a crime straight out of Conan Doyle's "The Cardboard Box" (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894). Holt has to travel down to Reichenbach Falls to prevent the Swiss side to back out of the deal over the murder, but the Sherlockiana is not merely a gimmick to prop up a weak plot. This is an expertly constructed, fairly clued and beautifully executed detective story with a solution that satisfyingly tied the opening scene to the conclusion. The master has awakened!
The fourth story, "An Abundance of Airbags," was first published in the July, 1995, issue of EQMM and provided this volume with its striking cover, but, more importantly, Hoch found a new scenario and solution to the locked room mystery. Susan Holt flew and drove from Manhattan to Des Moines to organize a fall promotion around the theme of ballooning ("Values Up, Prices Down"), which is why she's meeting a balloon enthusiast, Duncan Rowe. She arrives in an open field with more than twenty, multicolored balloons, but a dark shadow hangs over the motley field of balloons. A balloonist had died the previous week when he fell out of his balloon and Holt is now on scene to witness another balloonist plunging to his death. And they were both all alone when they tumbled out of their baskets.
The story features a brief discussion of some locked room stories by John Dickson Carr and C. Daly King, which revealed one of the clues to have been a red herring, or a clue masquerading as a red herring (you decide), but the solution is delightfully original and relatively simple in theory – strenghtened with an all-revealing clue that was brazenly dangled in front of the reader. Someone was feeling confident when he was penning this story. One of the absolute highlights of this collection!
Curiously, "An Abundance of Airbags" is one of the many short stories and novels Brian Skupin missed in Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). See? I wasn't being an impossible crime fiction junkie when I said we desperately needed another supplementary edition.
"A Craving for Chinese" was originally published in the December, 1995, issue of EQMM and, unusually, opens in a prison where a convicted murderer, David Feltzer, is counting down the last hours of his life. Feltzer was convicted for murdering a hostage during a botched robbery and requested Chinese food as his final meal, but they couldn't prepare that in the prison kitchen and they had to send for it. But he had barely tasted the food when he slumped to the floor. He couldn't have been more dead had they executed him. A cyanide compound was all through the food, but who poisoned the food and how? So how does Susan Holt come into the picture?
David Feltzer's brother, Simon Feltzer, is the promotions manager of Brookline, a chain of department stores headquartered in West Caroline, which has been bought out by Holt's Manhattan department store and she's there to organize a special promotion held when the store changes its name. She smells a case and decides to meddle in it. The plot sticks together well enough, but not very difficult to piece together who and why a man about to be executed was poisoned. A decent story.
"A Parliament of Peacocks" originally appeared in the June, 1996, issue of EQMM and Holt is in London, England, where she saves the life of a nightclub singer who was assaulted and nearly killed by a knife-wielding man and this incident may have a link to the murder of a parliamentary aide – who was found stabbed to death in a hotel room. A little more than a mediumboiled tale about a sordid and seedy kind of crime with a simplistic, uncomplicated resolution. So not outstanding, but not exactly bad either.
The next story, "A Shipment of Snow," first appeared in the December, 1996, issue of EQMM and has a highly imaginative premise and quasi-impossible crime. Holt is flying to Florida to see "a truckload of snow" arriving at the Gulfpalm shopping mall. A large, refrigerated truck is on a two-day, 1500 mile journey to bring some of Buffalo's recent snowfall to Gulfpalm to launch its Christmas shopping season, but it wouldn't be a typical business trip for Holt without a good murder. When the truck is being unloaded, the body of the president of Gulfpalm, Benjamin Vangridge, is found underneath the snow. However, the truck had been on the road, non-stop, for two days and people had seen the president only the day before. So how did his body end up in the back of the truck? A very original premise with an intriguingly posed problem, but the solution reveals the story to be a rewrite of "A Traffic in Webs" and "A Fondness for Steam." Although this version showed a lot more ingenuity.
"A Shower of Daggers" was originally published in the June, 1997, issue of EQMM and famously collected in Mike Ashley's The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006), which helped make the story the best known in the series and one of Hoch's iconic locked room stories – not without reason. The story opens with Susan Holt being held in police custody on suspicion of murder! Holt had flown to LaGuardia to oversee the opening of a new branch store and met with her contact there, Betty Quint, who invited Holt back to her apartment. Quint decided to take a shower with Holt sitting on the toilet seat, talking to her, when Quint screamed that was followed by a thump as her body went down in the tub.
Holt yanked back the shower curtain and stared down at Quint's body with "a slender dagger" sticking out of a bloody wound in her back and "a second, identical dagger lay in the tub near her foot," but otherwise, "the tub was empty." So the police arrested the only logical suspect. I had forgotten how close this story stands to the impossible crime stories by Carr. If you take away the modern trappings, you have a locked room puzzle that could have the graced the pages of a Dr. Gideon Fell novel or a short story in The Department of Queer Complaints (1940). I don't think you can give an impossible crime story a bigger compliment than that.
"A Busload of Bats" was originally published in the November, 1998, issue of EQMM and has a better backdrop than plot that is as American as it can get. Susan Holt is in Phoenix to secure an exclusive, two year promotional deal to handle some of the newer, higher-priced merchandise of a brand new baseball team, Tri-City Comets, but the deal is threatened when the battered body of a woman is found in an abandoned bus. A murder presented as an impossible crime, but completely deflated by plain, uninspired solution. Unfortunately, the last two Holt stories are more of the same.
Susan Holt went on an eight year hiatus and suddenly reappeared in "A Convergence of Clerics," published in the December, 2006, issue of EQMM, which finds her as director of promotions on the maiden transatlantic voyage of one the largest and most luxurious cruise ships afloat, Dawn Neptune – where she's the gauge public reaction to the opening of Mayfield's branch on the ship. The cruise ship is bound for Rome and is overrun with priests en route to a papal conference, but tragedy strikes when one of them is stabbed to death in his cabin. Holt is able to find his murderer by spotting the odd-man-out. So not a particularly clever or memorable story, but the shipboard setting was nicely realized.
The final Susan Holt story, "A Gateway to Heaven," was published in the January, 2008, issue of EQMM and centers on a recurring side-character, Mike Brentnor, who used to the buyer of Mayfield's and appeared, or was mentioned, in practically every story. Brentnor dropped off the radar towards the end and suddenly turned up again to ask Holt is she wants to invest in a racetrack. An offer she politely declines, but soon they're up to their neck hair in trouble when Brentnor is found handcuffed to a radiator very close to a fresh corpse. Solution is more than a little obvious, but it gives the series a nice sense of closure.
The next three stories follows the exploits of an ex-policewoman, Libby Knowles, who dated a crooked cop involved in a cocaine scandal and died when he smashed up his car, which made her decide to resign from the force to become a bodyguard – working closely together with her former colleague, Sergeant O'Bannion. Libby Knowles and the type of cases that come her way reminded me of the private-eye novels and short stories by Anne van Doorn, Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini.
The first story in the series, "Five-Day Forecast," originally appeared in Ellery Queen's Anthology #48 (1983), in which a meteorologist of a private weather-forecasting service hired Libby Knowles to protect his life. Bryan Metzger is afraid that he'll will follow in the footsteps of his colleague and inexplicably kill himself. A few days ago, Horace Fox had leaped out of the seventh floor window of their office and Metzger has since found himself "drawn to the window behind his desk." Libby suspects there's more to his request than meets the eye and uncovers a criminal application for weather forecasting. An interesting character debut, to say the least.
"The Invisible Intruder" made it first appearance in the Mid-December, 1984, issue of EQMM and is a good example of a story that could have easily been written by Van Doorn or Pronzini. Libby Knowles is hired by Frederick Warfer, an industrial consultant, whose home is fitted with a "highly sophisticated burglar-alarm system" that "not only wired the doors and windows," but also threw "a pattern of invisible beams across rooms and doorways" – someone keeps getting in at night and setting off the alarms. Someone who never leaves any "sign of forced entry" and vanishes without a trace. Warfer believes someone is trying to harm him. And this person is getting closer!
Libby Knowles is now spending the nights at the home of her new client, sleeping fully dressed with a snub-nosed Cobra revolver under her pillow, but it's not until the second night that she finds an answer to the titular intruder. But as she finds an answer to one impossibility, she immediately discovers a second one. Someone had found a way to the enter the locked house and slice Warfer's throat open without being seen by Knowles. An excellent and well-constructed detective story showing that Hoch knew his classics.
The last Libby Knowles story, "Wait Until Morning," appeared in the December, 1985, issue of EQMM and is a music-themed detective story in the spirit of Paul Charles' The Ballad of Sean and Wilko (2000). Knowles is hired by music promoter and manager, Matt Milton, who represents the young rock singer, Krista Steele. He wants to hire her to help him keep Krista away from drugs. An unusual, but relatively easy, case that pays and nothing that could really go wrong. Until a master tape with three songs is stolen and a fiery car crash takes someone's life. A nicely plotted little story, but what makes it standout is the original motive and the rock music background.
Hoch's Ladies closes with the only three cases starring Annie Sears, a homicide cop, who moved from El Paso to San Diego and her stories are firmly rooted in the American police procedural, but she first appeared as a passing amateur snoop in, what has to be, one of the oddest stories Hoch has ever penned.
"The Cactus Killer" was originally published in the October, 2005, issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and has Annie Sears making a stop on her way to San Diego, in Cactus Valley, to watch the town's annual festival – where she learns of the oddest active serial killer in America. Over the past two years, someone has been going around with a high-powered rifle and drilling the cactuses, some over a hundred years old, full of holes. So why would anyone drive around and shoot cactuses? I can already tell you that my answer (because 'merica!!!) proved to be incorrect, but "The Cactus Killer" is a very inventive and intricate detective story. Sadly, it's also the shortest story in this collection.
"First Blood" made its first appearance in the March, 2007, issue of AHMM and covers Annie Sears first day on the job in San Diego. She immediately dispatched to Essex Jewelers, in Emerald Plaza, where the vice-president of the company was shot and killed during a robbery. The security tape showed a person, clad in a long black coat, gloves and rubber Batman mask, shooting the vice-president, but soon its proven that this was an inside job. A story easily solved, if you can spot the tale-tell clue.
Lastly, Hoch's Ladies ends with the last Annie Sears story, "Baja," which was originally published in the September, 2008, issue of AHMM and has Annie Sears accompanying Detective Sergeant Frank Munson to Baja California, Mexico, to bring back a prisoner being extradited to the United States. Dunstan Quentis killed a police officer during a robbery, but Sears makes a mistake during transport and Quentin manages to make his escape. So the hunt begins of, what appears to be, a very contemporary crime story. Nevertheless, the final part of the story and solution revealed the plot of this very modern crime story had some surprising puzzle aspects and clues hidden in it. Not a very complex or intricate plot, but good enough to close out this collection.
So, on a whole, Hoch's Ladies is a solid collection of short stories shining a light on the contemporary side of Hoch's expensive catalog of detective stories, but with most of the plots still slanted to the traditional, Golden Age-type mystery and topped with the occasional locked room puzzle – something that will always have my personal seal of approval. "A Parcel of Deerstalkers," "An Abundance of Airbags," "A Shower of Daggers," "The Invisible Intruder" and "The Cactus Killer" were the gems of this collection and completely overshadowed the handful of stories that were a little underwhelming. A welcome addition to the growing list of Hoch collections.
On a final, related note: Hoch's Ladies announced that, after twelve years or so, that Funeral in the Fog: The Occult Cases of Simon Ark is finally forthcoming in 2020! At this rate, we might get that second Ben Snow collection before 2025!