Challenge the Impossible: The Final Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2018) by Edward D. Hoch

Edward D. Hoch was "a legendary figure in the history of contemporary crime fiction," debuting in 1955 in Famous Detective Stories with "The Village of the Dead," who died in 2008 with "almost a thousand short stories" to his name and appeared in every issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM) from May, 1976 until his death – a literal Giant of the Short Detective Story. John Dickson Carr said of Hoch that "Satan himself would be proud of his ingenuity" and this may have something to do with his propensity for locked room and impossible crime fiction.

During his five decades as a writer, Hoch created "a village of unforgettable series characters," such as Simon Ark, Ben Snow and Nick Velvet, who have all come across one or two crimes of the impossible variety. Only one of his series-detectives exclusively dealt with locked room murders, impossible disappearances and other miraculous mysteries, Dr. Sam Hawthorne.

Dr. Hawthorne is a country physician in Northmont, a small, fictitious town in New England, during the first half of the twentieth century and the series follows the chronology of history. The series began in March, 1922 and ended two decades later in 1944. Ordinarily, long-running series and characters tend to get frozen in time, but here nobody is exempt from the ravages of time. Not even Dr. Hawthorne!

Last year, Crippen & Landru published Challenge the Impossible: The Final Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2018), which completed their collection of Dr. Hawthorne stories comprising of Diagnosis: Impossible (1996), More Things Impossible (2006), Nothing is Impossible (2014) and All But Impossible (2017). Five volumes packed with locked room and impossible crime stories! Sadly, this is the last time Dr. Hawthorne will pour the reader "a bit of libation" to go with his stories.

The stories collected in Challenge the Impossible take place during the Second World War, between 1940 and 1944, and the shadow of war looms ominously over the town of Northmont. And greatly impact the plots. So this volume had the added bonus of being one of those rare, WWII-themed collection of short stories. Let's see what's inside!

"The Problem of Annabel's Ark" was originally published in the March, 2000, issue of EQMM and introduces a new character, Annabel Lee Christie, who's a veterinarian with her own animal hospital "halfway between Northmont and Shinn Corners." Sabbath is a Siamese cat and the first patient of Annabel's Ark, but the poor animal has been strangled in its cage when the place was closed and locked up for the night. So she turns to "the local Sherlock Holmes," Dr. Sam Hawthorne, to help her expunge this blemish from her animal hospital.

A pretty decent opening story with an unusual, but good, impossible crime scenario with a perfectly acceptable explanation, which is only marred by the clumsy handling of the central clue – immediately giving away half of the locked room-trick. Still liked the story as a whole and love it Shinn Corners is only a short car drive from Northmont (see Ellery Queen's The Glass Village, 1954). It makes me wish there was a Dr. Hawthorne story in which he visited Theodore Roscoe's Four Corners.

EQMM, July, 2000
"The Problem of the Potting Shed" was originally published in the July, 2000, issue of EQMM and is possibly, plot-wise, one of the most perfect detective stories Hoch has written during his storied career. Sheriff Lens telephones Dr. Hawthorne to tell him he has something that's right up his alley: Douglas Oberman had been found "dead inside a locked potting shed," padlocked from the inside, with a bullet-wound in his right temple. Clues are liberally strewn across the pages that spell out the truth and I figured out "the how and the who and the why" exactly at the same time as Dr. Hawthorne. An original, rock solid impossible crime story with clever plot that inexplicably never turned up in any of the locked room anthologies from the past nineteen years.

"The Problem of the Yellow Wallpaper" comes from the March, 2001, issue of EQMM and is an homage to the Victorian-era Sensational novel. Dr. Hawthorne has a Dutchman as patient, Peter Haas, whose wife, Katherine, appears to have gone crazy and has to keep her locked in an attic room – a room with faded yellow wallpaper ripped away in places. Katherine has nightmares of "a prisoner in these walls," inside the wallpaper, "trying to claw her way out." Something quite the opposite happens when Katherine disappears from the attic room when she talking through the locked door with Dr. Hawthorne. And she left behind portrait of her own face staring out from her torn, wallpaper prison.

Admittedly, the scheme behind the plot is hardly original, especially the motive, but liked how the premise of a Victorian-era melodrama was used as a premise for a vanishing-act from a locked, barred and watched room with a very simple trick. So a fairly minor, but pleasant enough, short detective story.

"The Problem of the Haunted Hospital" was originally published in the August, 2001, issue of EQMM and begins when Dr. Hawthorne is consulted by Dr. Lincoln Jones on a patient of his, Sandra Bright, who claims her private, one-bed room in Pilgrim Memorial Hospital is haunted – swearing she saw "a hooded figure" outlined against "the moonlit window." On the following day, another patient is found smothered to death in the haunted hospital room where a year previously a wounded police suspect had been killed by a deputy during a botched escape.

So the reasons behind the ghostly presence and murder were pretty obvious, but they were nicely tied to the identity of the murderer and the vanishing-trick, which had a simple and elegant solution played to great effect. Another minor, but good, locked room story. This is story in which Dr. Hawthorne and Annabel get engaged.

"The Problem of the Traveler's Tale" was originally published in the June, 2002, issue of EQMM and brings a seasonal hiker, Graham Partridge, to Northmont with an interesting story for the police. Last year, Partridge had came across an abandoned, two-storied house boarded-up, but this year the house appeared to have people living in it. There was a middle-aged couple and he recognized the man as Clifford Fascox, "a Chicago swindler," who had worked "a Ponzi scheme on thousands of small investors," but after posting bail he disappeared along with five million dollars – everyone assumed he had fled the country. Two years later, he appears to have turned up in a secluded, out-of-the-way house.

Dr. Hawthorne accompanies Sheriff Lens to the house, but they find it locked up tight and through one of the windows they spot a body sprawled on a carpet. What they find inside looks like a murder-suicide had it not been for the absence of scorch-marks around the bullet-wound in Fascox's right temple. Unfortunately, the solution to the locked house is an old one, but the reason why the murderer had to take a stupendous risk was a clever touch to an otherwise average detective story.

EQMM, December, 2002
"The Problem of Bailey's Buzzard" originally appeared in the December, 2002, issue of EQMM and the story begins on the day before infamy, December 6, 1941, when Dr. Hawthorne and Annabel Christie exchanged their wedding vows. There was much kidding about the wedding day being "interrupted by a locked-room murder," but it was a party without any bloodletting and the following day they began to pack when the news broke “Japanese planes were attacking Pearl Harbor” in Hawaii! The nation was at war. And they have to postpone their honeymoon in Washington.

So they get invited by a friend, Bernice Rosen, to come to her horse farm and this drops two problems in Dr. Hawthorne's lap. One is a historical mystery pertaining to the missing remains of a Civil War hero, General Moore, whose casket held "the remains of a very large bird" and the murder of Bernice – who appears to have been snatched from her horse surrounded by snow only marked by hoof prints. As if she had been picked up by a large bird of prey. I very much enjoyed the historical sub-plot, but the idea behind the impossibility has been used before and much better by John Dickson Carr and Baynard Kendrick.

"The Problem of the Interrupted Séance" was originally published in the September/October, 2003, issue of EQMM and the murder in this story is a direct consequence of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

One of the boys of Northmont, Ronald Hale, had aboard "the ill-fated battleship Arizona" and his mother, Kate, is a patient of Dr. Hawthorne and this is how he learns she's has fallen in the hands of a spiritual medium, Sandra Gleam. Dr. Hawthorne warns her mediums are known to prey on the grieving, but Gleam has convinced her to conduct a private séance at her home together with her husband, Art. Dr. Hawthorne and Sheriff Lens are present as outside observers, who stand outside of the room, but, when the door is opened, they find the Hales unconscious and Gleam with her throat slit. There's no weapon found inside the room.

This is a pretty decent story, as far as these "debunked séances" goes, but not anywhere near as good as Clayton Rawson's classic "From Another World" (collected in The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective, 1979).

"The Problem of the Candidate's Cabin" was originally published in the December, 2004, issue of EQMM and has an interesting backdrop, but plot-wise, easily the weakest, most disappointing and unimpressive story of this collection. Sheriff Lens is running for his seventh and final term in office, which he usually does unopposed, but this time the election is heating up as a young candidate, Ray Anders, is vying for his spot – calling for younger men and new blood in the county sheriff's department. The election is thrown in disarray when the campaign manager of Anders is murdered and Sheriff Lens is the only person who could have pulled the trigger.

A story that began strong, but the plot was mediocre and didn't care at all about the lame locked room-trick.

The following story is "The Problem of the Black Cloister" and have read the story before in Mike Ashley's The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Murders (2006), but disliked the story and didn't want to reread it. So moving on.

EQMM, July, 2005
Fortunately, "The Problem of the Secret Passage," originally published in the July, 2005, issue of EQMM was incredibly fun to read with an inventive and imaginative locked room setup. Meg Woolitzer is the editor of the Northmonth Advertizer, a weekly newspaper, who wants to organize a scrap-metal drive to support the war effort. She wants to run a weekly feature with someone dressed like Sherlock Holmes, complete with deerstalker, cape and magnifying glass, who goes around town looking for scrap metal to be donated to the war effort and he even has a great moniker – namely Unlock Homes! Absolutely brilliant! Dr. Hawthorne's reputation as an amateur detective and even his initials makes him "a perfect scrap-metal Sherlock." So he reluctantly accepts the role on behalf of Uncle Sam and the men fighting over seas.

Meg Woolitzer has arranged their first photo-shoot in the home of the elderly Aaron Cartwright, who has a barn-house full of junk, but offers them to show them his secret passage. One of the bookcases in the library is a hidden door, opening on a dark staircase, leading to "a plain metal door" without knob that can only be opened from the other side with a combination-lock and only Cartwright knows the combination. Well, the following day Cartwright is murdered in the library and the door was bolted from the inside, while the metal door in the secret passage was securely closed. So how did the murderer enter and leave this hermetically sealed room? Hoch has found the best use for a secret passage in an impossible crime story and has a simple, but elegant, solution to the confounding locked room situation. So, yeah, I enjoyed this one.

The following story is "The Problem of the Devil's Orchard," but have already reviewed it separately here.

"The Problem of the Shepherd's Ring" was originally published in the September/October, 2006, issue of EQMM and has a plot that reminded me strongly of Paul Halter's L'Homme qui aimait les nuages (The Man Who Loved Clouds, 1999). Julias Finesaw broke his leg when his tractor rolled over and has been ranting and raving from his sickbed how he's going "to kill Ralph Cedric for selling him that defective tractor," saying nobody can't stop him, because "he can make himself invisible" and "walk down the road" to kill Cedric – or so he says. Apparently, Finesaw made good on his promise and all of the evidence indicates he has killed Cedric, but this is a physical impossibility.

A good, imaginative detective story ending with the news that Dr. Hawthorne and Annabel are expecting a child.

"The Problem of Suicide Cottage" was first printed in the July, 2007, issue of EQMM and the Hawthornes decided to wait out the final month of Annabel's pregnancy at a cottage on Chesterlake. Unfortunately, their cottage has an history of suicides and not long after their arrival a woman appears to have hung herself in their cottage, which was locked up at the time, but this locked room-trick was disappointingly simple. Something that only served to give the story an exciting climax. The only notable point about this story is that it revealed this series is narrated by an eighty-year-old Dr. Sam Hawthorne in the 1970s and the identity of his listener.

EQMM, November, 2007
"The Problem of the Summer Snowman" originally appeared in the November, 2007, issue of EQMM and had an unexpectedly dark back-story and motive, which strikes an unnerving note with the problem of a snowman that was seen entering a house right before a children's birthday body – leaving behind a puddle of water and a dead body inside a locked house. A routine, time-worn explanation is given to the problem of the locked house, but the answer to the snowman was genuinely clever. So not a perfect story, but certainly a memorable one. Particularly in this series.

Finally, "The Problem of the Secret Patient," originally published in the May, 2008, issue of EQMM and shares the same strength and weaknesses as the previous story. A weak story with a memorable elements dabbling in alternative history. Dr. Hawthorne is visited by Special Agent Barnovich, of the FBI, who tells him Pilgrim Memorial Hospital has been chosen to bring in a secret patient, whose head had been bandaged to conceal his identity, to have a medical checkup. Presumably, the patient is a well-known, high-ranking defector from Germany and rumor has it he's being fixed up to meet President Roosevelt. However, the patient is poisoned under seemingly impossible circumstances before he can be moved again. Sadly, the murderer was rather obvious and the poisoning method is another golden oldie, but the identity of the secret patient gives this series the sendoff it deserves. No. It's not Hitler.

Quality-wise, Challenge the Impossible is an above average collection of short stories with mostly good stories ("Haunted Hospital," "Traveler's Tale" and "Secret Passage"), one classic locked room story ("Potting Shed") and only a few I disliked ("Candidate's Cabin" and "Black Cloister"). So not a bad score at all and comes warmly recommended to locked room enthusiasts, readers of historical detective stories and long-time fans of Hoch.

I'm afraid my next read is going to be another contemporary impossible crime novel, which came recommended by JJ. So stay tuned.


  1. I'm afraid my next read is going to be another contemporary impossible crime novel, which came recommended by JJ.

    ...well, that's not at all ominous.

    1. No, no, no! Not like that. What I meant is that the next review is of yet another locked room novel, because I do them a lot despite my promises to spread them out a little more.

      Surprisingly, I agree a good deal with you in that review, but I suppose you can call that omnious as well.

    2. Man, my horoscope is gonna be off the chart this week.