Edward D. Hoch wrote nearly a thousand short stories and created a retinue of detective characters, some with more storied careers than others, who were, as Mike Grost so astutely described it, custom designed "to personify different mystery subgenres" – allowing him to write or indulge in any kind of detective story and trope. Hoch pretty much used his series-characters as a set of skeleton keys to go from the locked room mystery to the historical mystery, police procedural or the spy story. Clever guy!
So everyone has their own favorite series-character, or characters, that tend to reflect their personal taste to some degree. Unsurprisingly, my personal favorite is Hoch's 1930s New England country physician, Dr. Sam Hawthorne, who exclusively solves locked room murders and other seemingly impossible crimes. Dr. Hawthorne is nipped at the heels by Ben Snow and Nick Velvet.
The most important difference between these three divergent characters, a country doctor, a gunslinger and a professional thief, is that there have been multiple short story collections featuring Dr. Hawthorne and Velvet, but only one that stars Snow – namely The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Tales (1997). Since C&L have no immediate plans to publish a second volume, I decided to make up my own collection (all in my head) with uncollected stories.
Ben Snow is a turn-of-the-century gunslinger roaming the Americas around the time modern civilization began to encroach, and tame, the Wild West, but not without a fight. Old customs and legends lingered on, up and down, those dusty trails. Such as Snow's remarkable resemblance to that notorious outlaw, Billy the Kid, who had been reportedly shot and killed in New Mexico! So he regularly comes across people who either want to take a crack at the ghost of Billy the Kid or hire the fastest gun in New Mexico.
I assembled a six-shooter loaded with, as of now, half-a-dozen uncollected Ben Snow tales with story titles or plot descriptions that sounded promising. Yes, my selection includes more than one locked room and impossible crime story. Let's hit the trail!
"The Victorian Hangman" appeared in the August, 1988, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM) to the town of Oceanfront, California, where he's hired by the owner of the Oceanfront Hotel, Douglas Rutherford. A guest had apparently hanged himself from the bandstand roof with "the traditional thirteen turns of the rope such as hangmen use," but his wife claims he couldn't even tie a square knot. Shortly after his death, the hotel received an ominous note in the mail: "ONE FOR THE HANGMAN. MORE TO COME." A promise that's kept during Snow's short stay at the hotel and the key to solving the murders is finding the motive linking the victims together. An unusual, but well done, serial killer/whydunit story.
"The Headless Horseman of Buffalo Creek" was published in the June, 1991, issue of EQMM and opens with Snow heading south to avoid the Montana winter, which, one evening, brings him to Buffalo Creek just after sundown. In the gathering gloom, Snow sees with his own eyes a rider, "dressed like a cowhand and urging his horse on with a beating of the reins," who has no face or head! A headless horseman!
Snow meets a local newspaper reporter, Thelma Blake, who tells him that the headless horseman is a recent addition to the town and she has been staking out the place where a regular appears, near the Clayton ranch, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the ghost – which is why he decides to accompany her the next night. They're rewarded with a headless horseman, but, this time, it's not a ghost or someone playing a ghost. It's a headless body riding a horse! Something had just whisked off the head as he rode, but there's no sign of a wire. Very clever to immediately eliminate the possibility of a stretched wire, because it added to the overall mystery.
I'm not sure whether, or not, to classify "The Headless Horseman of Buffalo Creek" as an impossible crime story, but the explanation is excellent and has a first-class, double edged clue alluding to both the who-and how. The answer to the subplot of the ghostly horseman places the story squarely Scooby Doo for grownups territory. One of the better stories in the series with a solid plot, clever clueing and a satisfying end.
"The Granite God" was published in the June, 1995, issue of EQMM and is a minor story, compared to the others reviewed here, which begins when Snow is hired by a retired cavalry officer, Colonel Faraway, to bring back his maid, Esmeralda. Colonel Faraway tells Snow she had "gone to the mountains to see the Lord." The mountain in question is near a silver mine, where they were blasting rocks, when the image of God appeared on a slab of granite. So people began to flock to the granite image, which is where Snow finds Esmeralda, but she's stabbed to death while kneeling in front of the image. I appreciated what Hoch tried to do here, but somehow, it left me completely underwhelmed. So moving on!
"The Bullet from Beyond" was published in the August, 1998, issue of EQMM and brings a creature to turn-of-the-century Oregon commonly found roaming "musty castles and fog-bound streets" of the Old World – an alleged vampire! Snow returned from the Yukon Territory, in Canada, to Grants Pass where he had stabled his horse five months previously. Something had changed since he was away. Six weeks previously, someone, or something, started killing animals and "the veterinarian who examined them said the blood had been drained out of their bodies." Snow is roped in to confront this alleged vampire, Ray Ridge, who's suspected of having "killed his wife up north about twenty years ago" and now lives as a recluse in an isolated cabin in the woods. But what he gets to witness is an impossible murder.
Ray Ridge is shot in front of his eyes, shots were heard outside, but "the windows were unbroken" and "the walls unpunctured," which means that the three armed men outside couldn't have fired the silver bullet. And the two other people inside the cabin were unarmed. So is there's any truth in the old legend that a silver bullet can penetrate a wall, or window, without leaving a mark and still kill a vampire?
Hoch naturally provides the story with a rational explanation, which is not one of his most ingenious locked room-tricks, but a footnote revealed that the solution was plucked from the pages of history. I checked it and, sure enough, it's true. You can read about it here (spoiler warning). So, on a whole, a pretty decent and readable locked room story.
"The Daughters of Crooked River" was published in the November, 1999, issue of EQMM and has Snow arriving in the middle of a racially charged dispute in the small town of Crooked River, Saskatchewan, part of the Northwest Territories – a place settled a generation ago by French-Canadian hunters and fur trappers. Indian women bore their children, the Metis, who now claim the land as their own. But the railroad has opened Saskatchewan to eastern wheat farmers and immigrants who want their share of the land. A complicating factor in the dispute is the death of the Metis leader, Anatole Dijon, who was shot and killed in his cabin with the door bolted on the inside. Only representative of the law, a Mountie, concluded that “his dog put its paw on the trigger of his rifle and fired it.” But not everyone is willing to swallow that story.
Usually, Snow's detective work is limited to observing and noticing small mistakes or incongruities, which spells the truth to him, but here we actually get to see him do some old-fashioned detective work. Snow tries to reconstruct the shooting in the victim's cabin, before realizing that he approached the locked room problem from the wrong angle. The locked room-trick is a good one and neatly fits the exact circumstances of the murder, but it's a variation on a trick that has been used before in the series. However, it's different and original enough to justify it being reused here.
"The San Augustin Miracle" was published in the January, 2001, issue of EQMM and Snow has drifted south to Tucson, a city of about 7,500 residents, located on the often-dry Santa Cruz River. Snow decides to stay when he hears a balloonist, Pancho Quizas, is en route with an hot-air balloon to give an exhibition, but he's not the only one looking forward to see the balloonist. A gruff, old-school gunslinger, Scooter Colt, is waiting for him with his right hand resting on the butt of his gun, but it never comes to confrontation as Pancho miraculously vanishes from the balloon basket as it descended. This situation becomes even more impossible when an irate Colt begins firing his six-shooter at the sky. Believe it, or not, but "the sky fired back." Colt dropped to the ground with a bullet in his eye!
A marvelous setup for one of those rare, two-way impossibilities with the strength of the solution laying in how these two impossibilities, minutes apart, connect and not how Pancho disappeared or how Colt was shot – which, by themselves, are nothing special. But with everything stitched together, you have a good and entertaining detective yarn.
So, all in all, my random selection of stories turned out to be a strong sampling of the Ben Snow series with the quality of stories ranging from outstanding ("The Headless Horseman of Buffalo Creek") to fairly decent ("The Granite God"), which is not a bad score for a hypothetical short story collection. Hopefully, this review will help a little bit in helping justify that second (official) volume.
A note for the curious: Nothing is Impossible: The Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2014) collects a rare crossover story, "The Problem of the Haunted Tepee," in which an elderly Snow meets Dr. Hawthorne. I love crossovers almost as much as a good locked room mystery and would love to see Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller writing a crossover in which Snow crosses paths with their 1890s San Francisco gumshoes, John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter. I know they'll treat Snow as if he was one of their own characters.