Tailing the Devil

"If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it. If he says something is too terrible to hear, hear it. If you think some truth unbearable, bear it."
- Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton's "The Purple Wig," from The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1914) 
The late Edward D. Hoch was a giant during his lifetime as one of the most prolific mystery writers of short stories, which are the bedrock of the genre, and Hoch put nearly a thousand of them to his name – published in such magazines as Famous Detective Stories and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

A number of popular series characters emerged form these stories, but, arguably, the most memorable and timeless figure from Hoch's cast of detectives is Simon Ark.

Simon Ark appeared in Hoch's first short story, "Village of the Dead," in 1955 and was characterized over the years as a wandering soul, "searching the world for a long time, perhaps for centuries, in hopes of meeting the devil in combat," who may've been a Coptic priest in the early centuries of Christ – roughly 2000 years ago!

City of Brass and Other Simon Ark Stories (1971) collects one novelette and two short stories, in which Ark detects and vanquishes a variety of evils.

The first story in the collection is the titular novelette, "City of Brass," which originally appeared in the 1959 September issue of The Saint Mystery Library and it reminded me of the Wrightsville stories from the Ellery Queen series.

The place where this short novel takes place, Baine City, is larger and denser populated than Wrightsville, but the flavor was similar due to the plotting being toned down in favor of the (religious) themes with a dash of characterization.

Baine City is an upstate New York town dominated and depended on a single industry: Baine Brass. However, it has made the city a prosperous and peaceful slice of America, which slowly comes to an end when rumors begin to circulate about sinister and unethical experiments at Baine University – carried out by Professor Wilber.

The murder of a graduate student, Cathy Clark, seems to be connected to Wilber's experiments and possible motives and suspects are entwined in all of the social layers of the town. Ark investigates the murder alongside his nameless narrator over a Fourth of July weekend, which comes to a dramatic close at the funeral of the victim.

I don't think the explanation will manage to surprise anyone who's consumed even half the amount of detective fiction that Hoch produced during his lifetime, but the fairness in clueing was appreciated and it was a nice, charming story to read. Once again, I recommend this novelette to fans of the Wrightsville novels by Ellery Queen (e.g. Calamity Town, 1942).

"The Vicar of Hell" is the second story in the collection and was first published in Famous Detective Stories in August of 1956. 

The tale is set in London and concerns a lost tome, The Worship of Satan, published in the 17th century, but copies were confiscated and destroyed by the government. The volume discussed two suspicious deaths from 400 years ago, which are the poisoning of James Butler in 1548 and the sudden passing of Sir Francis Bryan – whom Oliver Cromwell once revered to in a letter as the Vicar of Hell.

Three centuries has passed and a copy has resurfaced! However, the person wanting to sell the book was found murdered under circumstances that would draw the envy of the writers of Midsomer Murders: pinned against the wall like a cross with three arrows and pentagram scrawled in blood on the floor.

Simon Ark and the nameless narrator are primarily occupied with tracking down a band of roving Satanists, which gives the story a trashy and pulpy flavor, but the hiding place for the book was genuinely clever and sidestepped the pitfall that usually befalls detective stories involving lost manuscripts – e.g. Edmund Crispin's Love Lies Bleeding (1948) and John Dickson Carr's The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933). I suspect this bit of the story was refurbished as a Nick Velvet story, because it's too perfect not to have used it for one of his thefts.

The final story, "The Hoofs of Satan," was first published in Famous Detective Story in February 1956 and listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991), but it's not an impossible crime story.

Obviously, the inspiration for this story came from an incident from 1855 in East and South Devon, England. A trail of hoof-like marks appeared after a snowfall and ran for miles, which even appeared in normally inaccessible places for none-winged creatures – such as on top of houses, narrow walls and enclosed courtyards and gardens. The hoof-marks in this story never perform any of those incredible feats, but form two lines coming and returning to the nearby woods. There presence is merely strange, but not impossible.

The explanation is well clued and motivated, but hardly original and Hoch lessened some of the effect of revelation by revealing in the opening there would be a murder. That should've been part of the revelation and something the reader could have anticipated based on the hints.

The 1855 incident was discussed in depth in Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts (1929) by Rupert T. Gould, which I reviewed here.

So, all in all, a short and decent collection of short stories, but not the best example of Hoch's talent as a mystery writing machine.

On a final note, the next couple of reviews will also be of recent releases and include such writers as Yukito Ayatsuji, Paul Halter and Case Closed.


  1. By my count, there are 61 Ark stories. Hoch wrote them throughout his career, the last one being in 2008 ("The Christmas Egg" being a reprint from 2006). They are my favorites of his output, but only a few of them have been collected in English (just three volumes worth). Ho-Ling reports, on the other hand, that the Japanese are well on the way to translating and reprinting the whole series. Crippen and Landru have been reporting they will be publishing a volume of Ark stories, Funeral in the Fog, for forever, but I see no hint of it being published and they do not respond to inquiries.

    The pulpy feel of the early stories should not be surprising; they were written in the final days of the pulps and have the feel of that era.

    1. Well, the list of upcoming releases for Crippen & Landru was always a slow lane. I remember the Cornier collection being on that last for ages, before it was finally released.

  2. I talked with Ed Hoch at Bouchercon in Chicago when he stopped by my table. I asked about reprinting the Simon Ark stories since the Mysterious Press hardcover editions were in a limited run and were very pricey now that they've become collector's items. Even the two paperback editions (the other is JUDGES OF HADES) are starting at $35 and up. He mentioned a collection was in the works and I think it was supposed to be from Crippen & Landru. They've done several volumes of the Sam Hawthorne stories and a couple of other obscure characters like the Gypsy detective, Michael Vlado. That was in 2006. Here it is seven years after his death and still no sign of the Simon Ark collection. I don't think it's ever coming out. But for all those who are into digital books it's good to see the Open Road Media and Mysterious Press have released them.

    1. There's another volume that was announced somewhere around the same period as the Simon Ark collection, entitled Hoch's Ladies, but that one is at the bottom of the page of upcoming releases.

      That they are on the upcoming release page means they are being worked on and will be released, but the question is when...

      I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for that multiple volume edition of The Complete Detective Stories by Edward D. Hoch.

  3. Hi, this is Origami(we frequented the aniway forum)

    In light of never-to-be-translated-to-Englishbefore mystery novels:

    I know, like me, you read Tokyo Zodiac Murders. So I thought might give you a friendly heads-up.