Diagnosis: Impossible — The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, by Edward D. Hoch

ImageTitle: Diagnosis: Impossible — The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne

Author: Hoch, Edward D.

Publication data: 1996. A collection of short stories written between 1974 and 1996, collected by Crippen & Landru, ISBN 0739418963 in hardcover, 1885941022 in paperback.

Edward Hoch is famous as a writer of short stories, and he was a very, very prolific author.  Amazon says he’s known for several novels and over 950 short stories. Apparently Crippen & Landru collected a bunch of themed ones in various series, which was good of them; it’s hard to find outlets for short stories these days.  As I understand it, Hoch had a short story in every single edition of EQMM for decades.

Dr. Sam Hawthorne is a series character in 1920s New England who solves impossible crimes and locked-room mysteries, etc.  Now, I am well-known for having been fanatical about such stories in my youth: John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson, Ellery Queen, Clayton Rawson, etc.  I’ll suggest that this gimmick — for gimmick it is — works best at the novel length because it allows the remainder of the story to swirl around this central premise.  All the above-named writers had the knack of posing the impossible problem and then distracting the reader from its premise by dint of furious and often bizarre action.

In the short story format — well, even with my well-known enthusiasm, I cannot muster up much for the stories in this collection.  This may well be a function of age and familiarity having bred contempt, because I find myself increasingly unable to return to Queen, Carr et al. as once I could easily do. But really, I felt during this volume like I was watching an earnest eight-year-old do card tricks.  Literally, it’s all about the trick.  Everything in the story is subsumed by the need to progress towards the solution, and you know that things like plotting and characterization are secondary.  Indeed, if there is characterization, you know it’s in there because it contributes towards the solution.  If a character is described as stingy or old-fashioned, it’s because if he were not stingy or old-fashioned, the central trick probably wouldn’t have worked.  (Without giving anything away from this volume, think of Dorothy L. Sayers in Busman’s Honeymoon, who needed the victim to stand in a certain position at a specific time every night overlooking a radio console overshadowed by a hanging cactus plant, and thus made him obsessive about hearing the evening news.)

The most interesting story, to me, was the first in the series, “The Problem of the Covered Bridge”.  The central trick seemed to grow organically out of the story and be based on realistic characters.  The rest are merely trick stories, by and large.  It’s as if Hoch thought to himself, “Hmm, how can I kill someone in a voting booth?”  and went from there, rather than starting with characters and coming up with the voting booth as a result of their interactions.  I’m not saying that one creative path is more correct than another, but in this case the path is really painfully obvious, and that makes the stories the literary equivalent of Sudoku.  Which I dislike.

There is usually only one character in each story who’s fit to be the murderer.  Most of the time, it’s someone unpleasant, and the rest of the time it’s someone nice who got into a bad position through no fault of their own.  And quite often the trick would not work without the active participation of the victim. So once the trick is described, you simply have to create a logical chain of events between victim and murderer. I don’t regard myself as especially brilliant for having worked out most of these before the end of the story; honestly, all I had to do was stop for a minute, make a cup of coffee, and think about it a little bit.  I suspect that most readers do not approach these stories in this way but instead prefer to race to the solution and assure themselves that, yes, they could have figured that out if they had bothered to give it a shot.

I enjoyed “The Problem of the Old Gristmill” more than the others, mostly because the central trick was inventive and unexpected. With quite a few of these solutions it was impossible that there could be more than one path to the answer because of the boundary conditions — the victim is seen going into the voting booth and is under observation the whole time — but this particular story had an interesting ambiguity about it.

I would certainly recommend this collection to aficionados of impossible crime stories and locked-room mysteries, although it may well be already known to them.

Notes for the Collector: I have to say that I tend to think of volumes like this, from Crippen & Landru, as collectibles, which means that there is usually a premium to get a copy.  And I note that the lowest price for this on Amazon, used in hardcover, is $10.25 which is quite a bit more than I paid for my volume.  Is it worth the $20 it’s likely to cost you to get it to your home?  Not as much as similar volumes, I suggest, unless you are a devotee of the “Five-Minute Mystery” school of literature or a fan of short stories over novels.  I am neither.  This may be a function of age or taste; your mileage may vary.

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