Originally, I had planned to use this particular blog-post for either Christopher Bush, Bruce Campbell or Paul Doherty, but my previous read left me with a stronger-than-normal craving for impossible crime fiction and one serving was not going to satisfy it. Naturally, this brought to one of the most prolific locked room artisans of all-time, Edward D. Hoch.
During his long, storied career, Hoch wrote close to a thousand short stories and created a dozen, or so, series-characters such as Simon Ark, Ben Snow and Nick Velvet, but my personal favorite will always remain Dr. Sam Hawthorne – a small-town country physician often called upon to solve seemingly impossible crimes. Dr. Hawthorne practiced as a country doctor in the fictional New England town of Northmont, but this unassuming town has a higher murder-rate rivaling that of Cabot Cove and Midsomer County. And to complicate matters, all of the crimes are utterly bizarre and usually appear to be impossible nature!
However, what makes this series amazing is not only the incredible volume of locked room and impossible crime scenarios, but also the sheer variety in original premises and solutions. Hoch was not just content with bodies found behind locked doors or in the middle of a field of unbroken snow or wet sand. Oh, no. He imagined such puzzling situations as a horse-and-buggy vanishing from within a covered bridge. Fresh corpses turning up in a long-buried coffins or metal time-capsules. A murderous tree with a penchant for strangling people or a cursed tepee that nobody emerges from alive. These are only a handful of examples of the miracle problems Dr. Hawthorne solved over the decades.
Crippen & Landru has published four volumes of Dr. Hawthorne stories and the most recent title in this series is All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2017), which is collection of fifteen short stories originally published between 1991 and 1999 in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM). So let's dig right in!
"The Problem of the Country Church" was first published in the August, 1991, issue of EQMM and brings Dr. Sam Hawthorne to the Greenbush Inn, a popular mountain resort in Maine, owned by Andre Mulhone – who had married his former nurse, April (see "The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin" from Nothing is Impossible: Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, 2014). They recently had their first child, a boy, who they named after Dr. Hawthorne and asked him to be the child's godfather.
During the baptism service, the baby is inexplicably taken from its bassinet and replaced by "a curly-haired Shirley Temple doll" with a fifty thousand dollar ransom note stuck it. I'm not too big a fan of kidnap stories, because they're rarely any good, but this was a pretty decent effort. The trick used to switch the baby for the doll was not too bad, but almost immediately figured it out as it reminded me of another impossible situation, also set in a church, from a TV-series. I can hardly lay the blame for that at Hoch's feet. So a fairly decent curtain-raiser for this fourth volume.
"The Problem of the Grange Hall" was first published in the December, 1991, issue of EQMM and Pilgrim Memorial Hospital is celebrating its eighth anniversary with a community dinner and dance at Grange Hall. Usually, eighth anniversaries aren't worth celebrating, but "the Depression had been hard on Pilgrim Memorial" and the hospital needs money for new equipment. So they used the anniversary as an opportunity to raise money. The committee has even brought in a big New York band, Sweeney Lamb and his All-Stars, for the dance.
Dr. Lincoln Jones of Pilgrim Memorial went to high school with the trumpet player of the band, Bix Blake, but their reunion ends tragically when they fail to come out of a locked dressing room during the dance. The door is broken down and, upon entering, they find Dr. Jones kneeling next to the body of the trumpet player holding an empty, hypodermic needle in one hand – which had been "full of codeine." Dr. Jones claims Blake began to have trouble breathing and that there was no needle in the room when this happened. This is, admittedly, a fascinating impossible crime scenario with an uncommon murder weapon that makes the murder look even more impossible, but the experienced (locked room) mystery reader should have no problem piecing this puzzle together. And perhaps do so even quicker than Dr. Hawthorne.
"The Problem of the Vanishing Salesman" was first published in the August, 1992, issue of EQMM and is one of the innumerable detective stories playing with Dr. Watson's reference, in "The Problem of Thor Bridge" from Conan Doyle's The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927), to the unfinished tale of Mr. James Phillimore – "who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world."
Mr. James Philby is a traveling salesman who returned to Northmont in the Spring of '37 to sell lightening rods, but pulls a vanishing act on the porch Abby Gaines with Dr. Hawthorne as the sole witness. Shortly thereafter, Philby reappears as if nothing has happened. However, Philby disappears a second time, on exactly the same spot, but this time its after shooting and killing a man. Dr. Hawthorne and Sheriff Lens watch him open the storm-door and vanish through a door that was locked and bolted from the inside! And he's nowhere to be found on the premises! The explanation for this vanishing trick is a little bit workmanlike, but this fitted the character of the murderer like a glove and made for a fun take on the inverted detective story.
"The Problem of the Leather Man" was first published in December, 1992, issue of EQMM and can now be counted as one of my favorite stories from this series.
The Leather Man is a remarkable character who really existed: "a laconic wanderer," rumored to have been of French decent, who dressed in a homemade leather suit and walked a 365-mile circuit between Connecticut and eastern New York State for thirty years during the late 1800s – which he did until his death in 1889. Hoch used the lore of the man in tattered leather to pen one of the more memorable entries in this series.
During the summer of 1937, the ghost of the Leather Man returned to Northmont and appears to have been involved with a fatal automobile accident. Dr. Hawthorne becomes fascinated by the story and assumes "someone is retracing the old route" for "reasons of his own." So he decided to follow the trail and eventually spotted "a slim, brown-clad figure." The man claims to be an Australian, Zach Taylor, who's "on a trek" and Dr. Hawthorne begins to walk along with the man. Along the way, they come across several of Dr. Hawthorne's acquaintances and, by the end of the day, they decide to stay the night at a Bed & Breakfast.
On the following morning, Dr. Hawthorne discovers that his leather-clad companion has disappeared from their shared room and the owners of the B&B tell him he had checked in all alone. Smelling of booze. All of the people, he had come across the previous day, swear they had not seen the Leather Man. Dr. Hawthorne had been walking by himself.
An absolutely marvelous, first-class premise with not one, but three, separate explanations that form together one single solution. Sheriff Lens has a point that this is "stretching coincidence a bit far," but, if you're going to use a patch-work of coincidences, this is the way how it should be done. A grand take on the 1880s urban legend of "The Vanishing Lady," which also inspired Basil Thomson's "The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser" (Mr. Pepper, Investigator, 1925), John Dickson Carr's 1943 radio-play "Cabin B-13" and Simon de Waal & Dick van den Heuvel's Spelen met vuur (Playing With Fire, 2004). Only thing you can say against it is that, technically, it doesn't exactly qualify as an impossible crime story. But, as you can see, that did not prevent me from enjoying this story.
"The Problem of the Phantom Parlor" made its first appearance in the June, 1993, issue of EQMM and, plot-wise, is one of the better and stronger entries in this volume. Dr. Hawthorne receives a twelve-year-old girl, Josephine Grady, in his office who staying a week in Northmont with her aunt, Min Grady – who, according to the girl, is "sort of spooky" and her house has a ghost-room. There's a large, elaborate china closet, but sometimes there's "a little parlor" behind the double doors with a sofa, chairs and pictures on the wall. A parlor that appears and disappears at random.
Dr. Hawthorne gives Josephine his home phone-number and tells her to call him whenever something strange has happened, but, when she calls him, it's to tell him that she has found her aunt's body in the phantom parlor. When Dr. Hawthorne and Sheriff Lens arrive, the body is lying in the hallway and the parlor, once more, is nowhere to be found. This is a truly excellent and original story with a cleverly constructed impossible crime trick.
My only complaint is that the solution to this story has somewhat diminished my high opinion on another contemporary locked room novel, because the central idea from that novel obviously came from this short story. Not only the idea behind the locked room trick, but also the clue of the previous, long-dead resident of the house. Hoch originated the idea with this wonderful story.
"The Problem of the Poisoned Pool" first appeared in the December, 1993, issue of EQMM and Dr. Hawthorne is invited to the clambake party of Ernest Holland, published of the Northmont Blade, who tells everyone to bring their bathing suits – because the pool is open. During the party, his brother, Philip Holland, miraculously emerges from an empty swimming pool and is challenged by Ernest to do the trick in reverse by diving into "the pool and disappear." Philip accepts the challenge and dives back into the pool, but dies almost immediately of cyanide poisoning.
Unfortunately, this is not a good story at all and pretty much cheats the reader, because the correct solution to the impossible appearance was suggested early on and rejected. Only to be brought back on stage as the correct solution with a minor addition used to explain the poisoning part. Hoch should have known better, because, if I remember correctly, Carr mocked a variation on this solution in A Graveyard to Let (1949) – which also involves an impossibility in a swimming-pool. So not one of Hoch's better impossible crime stories.
"The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse" first appeared in the June, 1994, issue of EQMM and is, regrettably, not much better than the previous story. After a night out, Jack and Becky Tober are driving home when they come across a roadhouse where they accidentally hit a man with their car. Or so it appears. At the hospital, they find that the dead man has a bullet wound in his head, but when they return to the scene of the crime, the roadhouse has disappeared. I think Aidan of Mysteries Ahoy! described this story best when he said it was "awkward and unconvincing." I concur!
"The Problem of the Country Mailbox" first appeared in the December, 1994, issue of EQMM and is an improvement over the previous two stories, but still has its problems. The story takes place in the Fall of '38 and Northmont is experiencing a population growth, which brings change to the town and one of these changes is a small, private college that's being built in a neighboring town – encouraged a man named Josh Vernon to open a bookstore in town. Vernon has an impossible problem for Dr. Hawthorne concerning one of his customers, Aaron DeVille.
Three times, Vernon has left books DeVille had ordered in his mailbox and they simply disappeared. Sometimes, the books disappeared in less than a minute or two. Vernon placed a book in the mailbox and DeVille immediately stepped outside, to get it, only to discover an empty mailbox. Dr. Hawthorne decides to take this hungry mailbox to the test and personally delivers a copy of War and Peace, but when the package is opened, which contained a harmless book moments before, DeVille is blown to pieces by a bomb! A good premise and story-telling with an interesting solution.
However, I have one (tiny) problem with the explanation: why, from all the books in the house, would [redacted] pick that specific book? I think that's one hell of a coincidence. Still, all things considered, this was a good story.
"The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery" first appeared in the May, 1995, issue of EQMM and was famously anthologized by Mike Ashley in The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000), which was my first exposure to this series and, I believe, even Hoch. So I have a particular fondness for this story.
Spring Glen Cemetery used to be more of a park than a graveyard, bisected by a creek, which sometimes overflowed and flooded the graveyard when the warmth of spring melted the winter snow on Cobble Mountain – slowly eroding the soil on the banks of the creek. This resulted in the lost of several acres of cemetery land. So many of the graves had to be cleared and reburied, but Dr. Hawthorne, who was to oversee the procedure, is soon confronted with another a baffling impossible crime. One of the recently unearthed coffins, buried for more than twenty years, turns out to contain the body of a recently murdered man. A baffling situation with an explanation as simple as it's practical. I liked it for more than one reason.
"The Problem of the Enormous Owl" first appeared in the January, 1996, issue of EQMM and is a minor story about a playwright, Gordon Cole, who's found in the middle of a field with a crushed chest and feathers found on the body – identified as belonging to a great horned owl. More of an howdunit than an impossible crime. Only interesting aspect of the story is that Sheriff Lens is the one who solved the how-part of the crime. A role usually reserved for Dr. Hawthorne, but he gets to correctly identify the murderer.
"The Problem of the Miraculous Jar" first appeared in the August, 1996, issue of EQMM and is a good, old-fashioned and uncomplicated locked room mystery.
Proctor and Mildred Hall, two prominent citizens of Northmont, returned from a two month holiday in the Mediterranean region and brought back a stoneware jar from Cana where Jesus had performed the first miracle at the wedding feast – by turning water into wine. Hall's give this Canaanite jar to one of their friends, Rita Perkins, but the wonder it performs to its new owner is a poisonous miracle.
Shortly after the jar is given, Dr. Hawthorne is called by Perkins to tell him she drank from the jar and is feeling "terribly dizzy." He rushes to her home, which is entirely locked from the inside and surrounded by unmarked snow. Dr. Hawthorne breaks a window and, inside the home, finds the body of Perkins. An autopsy revealed she had been pregnant and died from cyanide poisoning, but the question is how the poison was introduced into the locked house. The answer to this question also reveals the identity of the murderer.
So a pretty good, competently plotted locked room story and, had this story actually been written and published during the late 1930s, the motive and murder method would probably have shocked some readers.
"The Problem of the Enchanted Terrace" first appeared in the April, 1997, issue of EQMM and has, together with "Phantom Parlor," one of the best and most original impossible crime scenario and solution in this volume – a truly novel way to make a person vanish as if by magic. Dr. Hawthorne is one a long overdue, well deserved holiday together with his nurse, Mary Best, and two friends, Winston and Ellen Vance. They make a stop at New Bedford to visit newly opened Herman Melville museum and there they learn of "a haunted terrace" that attracts lightening strikes during thunderstorms.
Dr. Hawthorne experiences the paranormal quality of terrace first hand when he witnesses "a strange greenish light," which quickly vanishes, followed by the inexplicable disappearance of a man from the same terrace. The terrace was surrounded by walls or wet, unmarked brown soil. Somehow, a man had vanished from this place in the blink of an eye! As said above, the solution to this miracle problem is as novel as it original. You can almost say it was cartoon-like, but really appreciated the originality of the trick. Only weakness is the unconvincing motive. Granted, motives have always been a particular weakness of this series.
"The Problem of the Unfound Door" was first published in the June, 1998, issue of EQMM and is a pretty minor story about a miraculous disappearance during an inspection of an Anglican convent. However, the only notable aspect of this story is not the locked room trick, but how Hoch's attempt to invert the expectations of long-time mystery readers. A spirited attempt that has to be appreciated.
"The Second Problem of the Covered Bridge" was first published in the December, 1998, issue of EQMM and had the promise to be the standout story of this collection, but the story failed to live up to its premise and ended up absolutely hating it.
The story takes place in January, 1940, when Northmont celebrates its centenarian and the town wants to mark the occasion by dramatizing "the four most memorable events in Northmont history." One for each season. For winter, they want to memorialize the first impossible problem Dr. Hawthorne ever solved in Northmonth, "The Problem of the Covered Bridge" collected in Diagnosis: Impossible – The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (1996), which took place eighteen years ago – when Dr. Hawthorne settled down in Northmont in 1922. Mayor Sumerset is to drive through the covered bridge on a horse-and-buggy, exactly 18 years ago, but halfway through the covered bridge, watched from both sides, he's shot through the head at close range. A marvelous premise using the history of the series itself, but completely soiled by using the same kind of solution as the one from "The Problem of the Voting Booth."
An unimaginative, cop-out solution that stopped being clever after Conan Doyle used it and writers really have to stop using it. You're not being clever and the only thing it achieves is killing potentially good (locked room) detective stories. I hate this solution so very much.
Finally, we have "The Problem of the Scarecrow Congress," culled from the pages of the June, 1999, issue of EQMM and is a relatively minor story with a nifty impossible situation: a body of a shot man who, somehow, appeared inside a scarecrow that was part of a competition. The trick here is not bad, a play on a technique Hoch often employs for his locked room stories, and is properly clues, but marred by a poor and unconvincing motive. So this collection ended with a bit of whimper.
In summation, All But Impossible is the traditional mixed bag of stories you like, dislike or feel indifferent about in turn, but, as a whole, they still form a pretty solid collection of impossible crime tales with "Leather Man," "Phantom Parlor," "Crowded Cemetery" and "Enchanted Terrace" as the standout cases. Overall, a definite improvement over the stories collected in the previous volume (Nothing is Impossible: Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, 2014) and very much enjoyed my return to Northmont. One of all-time favorite fictitious places. And it's always a pleasure to listen to Dr. Hawthorne narrate his old cases.
Lastly, Crippen & Landru have one more Dr. Hawthorne collection in the offing, apparently titled Challenge the Impossible – The Last Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (20??), but a definite publication date is, as of yet, not known. Personally, I think a book-title along the lines of Not As Impossible As It Seems: The Final Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne or Is It Really Possible?: The Last Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne is better fitted for the truly last collection of one of the greatest specialists of impossible crimes.