Too Many Magicians, by Randall Garrett (1966)

2262290596What’s this book about?

Lord Darcy is the Chief Investigator for His Royal Highness Richard of Normandy. If you’ve never heard of Richard of Normandy, that’s because this is both a novel of detection and of fantasy; specifically, in the sub-genre of “alternate history”. What if Richard the Lion-Hearted had survived that archer’s arrow in 1199 and then financed the research that codified the Laws of Magic? Fast-forward to 1966, to a world where magic works and science is in its infancy, where men wear swords and where the major enemy of the Angevin Empire (after Britain conquered France once and for all) is the Polish Empire of King Casimir X, and the two empires are currently in the middle of a cold war.

907891267In the middle of some espionage activities that have produced a corpse for the investigative attentions of the great detective Lord Darcy, his “Watson”, forensic sorcerer Sean O’Lochlainn, is attending a meeting of the Royal Thaumaturgical Society at a London hotel. When the Empire’s Chief Forensic Sorcerer, Sir James Zwinge, is found dead behind a locked door in the hotel (and one that has been well-protected by magic spells), Lord Darcy and Master Sean have two cases to investigate that soon reveal international ramifications at the highest diplomatic level. Lord Darcy and Master Sean are inveigled into solving the case by the machinations of the Marquis of London and his assistant Lord Bontriomphe, ordinarily loyal allies but in this case needing to push to achieve fast results. Meanwhile, the relationship deepens between handsome Lord Darcy and Mary, Dowager Duchess of Cumberland, and a young prince of Mechicoe finds a way to express his rare magical talents in a way useful to the investigation. The story proceeds at a rapid pace, pausing only as Lord Darcy rescues a beautiful Polish sorceress from the icy waters of the Thames, and ends up at a gambling club, the Manzana de Oro, where the crimes are brought home to a guilty party who should be a surprise to many readers.

275352632Why is this worth reading?

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care for the idea of a fantasy detective story in an alternate timeline where magic works, then you are not likely to find much of interest here. That’s a shame, because this is a very clever story written by someone who was well-read in both the fantasy and mystery genres. Randall Garrett died regrettably young, and so only produced three volumes about Lord Darcy; this novel, and two volumes of short stories. But his fellow writer and friend Michael Kurland knew there was a great demand for more stories of murder and magic, and produced two further novels in the series.

And why was there such demand? Well, there are two major reasons I see for this set of stories being so popular. The first and foremost is that Garrett got the balance right between fantasy and mystery, and that’s very difficult to do — and satisfying to read.

When you begin with a premise like this, there are two competing sets of storytelling themes that have to be balanced. Yes, it is fascinating to speculate on what a gambling club would be like in a world where people have a Talent to affect the laws of chance, or how everyday items like refrigerators and house keys would have developed when based on magical principles. But if you stop for a lecture every time a character in the book opens the fridge or the front door, the action of the book soon grinds to a halt and gets bogged down beyond redemption. Garrett managed to give the reader just enough to interest, and titillate the imagination, without delving too deeply into details.

10562694527The other theme that has to be balanced is the need to have an internally consistent world-view that produces a fantasy murder mystery, without solving the crime by merely making up the rules. For instance, if you tell the reader that only women can use a particular magic spell, but then solve a crime by revealing in the final chapter that a male criminal had come into possession of the long-lost Amulet of Nermepherr that allowed him to cast that spell — well, you’ve just lost my interest once and for all. That’s the equivalent of a Golden Age of Detection writer introducing a master criminal in the last chapter who’s disguised as the local vicar; not fair and not interesting. I can tell you, there are a number of well-known authors who haven’t managed to pull off that balancing act, including the pseudonymous J.D. Robb, where all the technology is cutting-edge 2060 and half the social attitudes are 1985.  Here, it’s balanced beautifully. You learn the details of the spells that the sorcerers are talking about, their limitations, their effects, and everything you need to know to solve the crime. But the actual locked-room mystery itself is clever and very fair. (I don’t think it will be giving away too much to reveal that Garrett was familiar with a specific Carter Dickson novel and a specific Agatha Christie novel to produce this plot, but if you’re relying on what you think you recognize, you’ll be fooled. Very pleasantly, I may add.)

The second reason why these stories were so popular is that Randall Garrett had a very unusual sense of humour that is present in nearly every sentence and paragraph of his stories. I think it’s a conceit that’s based on the idea that in a parallel universe, familiar people and things from our own universe might be barely recognizable; here, Garrett allows himself every opportunity to drag in references to fictional characters from our universe, sometimes in a very hard-to-understand way.

TooManyMagiciansMost of my audience, being familiar with the Nero Wolfe canon, will find themselves smiling at the idea that the gourmandizing and horticultural Marquis of London never leaves his townhouse and employs a womanizing investigator named Bontriomphe to do his legwork. Bon = good; triomphe = win, therefore the gentleman is Archie Goodwin, and that’s an easy example of the kind of referential and macaronic wordplay with which these books are riddled. (See if you can figure out why his chef’s name is Frederique Bruleur.) But Garrett goes much, much further than that, and buries his punning references in the depths of obscurity.  For instance, I mentioned above that Lord Darcy rescues a Polish sorceress; her name is Tia Einzig, and she makes reference to her uncle Neapeler Einzig having escaped Poland and found safety on the Isle of Man. Those facts have very little to do with the story per se, but when you begin to dig into the etymology of the words and their possible cognates in other languages — Tia = Aunt, and Einzig is a bastardized translation of, essentially, “one in a zillion” — “Solo”.  Neapeler is a German word for Neapolitan, a person from Naples; again, a bastardized translation might be Napoleon. So her uncle is Napoleon Solo — the Uncle from Man.

In this volume, there’s a long, long chain of explanations that leads you to a moment where you slap your forehead, because a man named Barbour is a Pole by birth. There’s another set of allusions grafted into a short story that reference, believe it or not, bidding conventions in contract bridge. (If you play bridge, the explanation of why a “short club” was used to hit the victim will leave you giggling uncontrollably.) There’s a James Bond character, hidden references to the Grey Lensmen and the Pink Panther … one of the attendees at the magicians’ meeting is named Gandolphus Gray, which refers to Lord of the Rings. I will hold out temptingly the idea that it’s clear to me that there are other references in these books to people in our own universe but I just don’t know enough to know what they are; some are science fiction writers. The victim, Sir James Zwinge, is apparently based on the famous “magical debunker” James Randi. And to complete the circle, Garrett’s collaborator and continuation writer, Michael Kurland, is here represented as Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Coeur-Terre.

I think why this works so well for the reader is because I suggest that the kind of mind that enjoys solving murder mysteries is the same kind of mind that can look at “Neapeler ” and think “Neapeler = Naples-ian = Napoleon” and from there get to Napoleon Solo and the Man from U.N.C.L.E, and then be amused by the Uncle from Man. If you don’t like that sort of thing, then you will not actively dislike this book for that reason; it’s quite easy to overlook every instance of such wordplay if you’re simply not looking for it. But once you realize it’s there, and you do like that sort of thing — you’ll want to read this book to find out whodunnit, certainly, but you may also re-read it to see if you can catch yet another layer of wordplay that’s been buried by the clever Mr. Garrett.

So for mystery fans, you have a difficult locked-room mystery (and a light espionage plot). For fantasy fans, you have a clever alternate-history story and the interesting idea of state-regulated magic. And for paronomasiacs, you have the kind of word play that is only available when a dedicated and widely-read punster devotes considerable time and effort to burying a level of humour in a novel that’s only there if you look hard for it. I really enjoy this book, and all the Lord Darcy stories; I hope you do too.

Lord DarcyMy favourite edition

This volume and all the Lord Darcy stories have a complicated publishing history, but an interesting one. This novel originally appeared broken into sections in successive issues of Analog magazine, devoted to science fiction stories; so that’s the true first. It was then published in hardcover by Doubleday and the first paper is an ugly edition from Curtis. Someday I’ll write a monograph on how Curtis did nearly everything wrong as a publisher, mostly with covers, but choosing Garrett was one of the few good publishing decisions they ever made. All the Lord Darcy pieces by Garrett have been collected into a single compendium volume, Lord Darcy, and I think this is my “favourite” volume. My favourite is frequently the most valuable and/or the most beautiful, but in this case, it’s the most functional. If you need to flip back and forth to trace the appearance of a single character through different stories, this is how you want to do it.

Three Plots for Asey Mayo, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1942)

Three Plots for Asey Mayo, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1942)

Three Plots for Asey MayoAuthor:

Phoebe Atwood Taylor, whose Wikipedia entry is found here. Mrs. Taylor wrote a series of 24 books from 1931 to 1951 about “Codfish Sherlock” Asey (Asa) Mayo, an old-timey Cape Codder who solved mysteries against the homespun background of his home location. The books usually contain humour, car chases, wickedly insightful material on personality, and the plots move at an extremely high speed.

Taylor also wrote a series of 8 mysteries about Leonidas Witherall, “The Man who Looked Like Shakespeare”, as by “Alice Tilton”, between 1937 and 1947; these are more outright farce. The Witherall character became the main character in a radio show in 1944, The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1933 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fourth under “E”, “Read a short story collection.” This may be considered a bit of a cheat, since these are technically novelettes; your mileage may vary. See the end of this post for my current progress.

Publication Data:

The three stories here seem to have been published before 1942 (one copyright date at least is 1939) and assembled for publication in 1942. I am unable to confirm this information, but it was a common practice in 1942 for authors to sell shorter works featuring their series characters to various magazines and then assemble the stories for publication in book form. 

635016309.0.lAbout this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

Three stories make up this volume, each about 100 pages long, and I’ll deal with each in order. Incidentally, it seems likely from internal evidence that each story had a different title upon original magazine publication. 

“The Headacre Plot” concerns Colonel Tiberius “Ty” Head, whose estate, “Headacre”, contains his collection of wooden sculptures like merry-go-round horses, cigar store Indians, and other such folk art. The Colonel’s niece Lora and her husband David Arlington are on the scene, as are the Colonel’s brother Jules (not Lora’s father) and Jules’s daughter Penny, and the treasurer of the Head Company, Charles Sewall. David and Lora have been personae non grata at Headacre but they have visited at the Colonel’s request. When asked to find the missing Lora, Asey Mayo immediately discovers the body of the Colonel, shot through the forehead, lying near some of his wooden statutes, and begins to investigate. He soon discovers the presence of Fritz von Harburg, Penny’s principal beau, and an exciting chase ensues; then Jules is found dead, shot in approximately the same location. But it seems as though everyone concerned has an alibi.

Asey investigates and sets a trap for the killer — or, rather, he apparently agrees to spring the same death trap that has already accounted for the brothers Ty and Jules. I’ll omit a discussion of the trap itself, and who rigged it, in case you want to read this charming volume; however, I do recall that upon first reading this story the central clue stood out for me like a sore thumb. Someone says something that couldn’t be true, and Asey and I came to the same conclusion at about the same time.

“The Wander Bird Plot” has to do with a young woman, Cordelia Alcott, and her uncle Wilbur. They win a “Wander Bird” house trailer in a contest put on by the Tootsy-Wheetsy cereal company and go on vacation — coincidentally to the area where Nora Latimer lives, and she owns Tootsy-Wheetsy and a dozen other companies. Also present is Nora’s friend Lizzie Chatfield, whose curiosity (and the lengths that she’ll go to assuage it) are legendary; and Nora Latimer is paying for the hotel bills and lifestyle of a handsome young painter, Jere Warren, who has had a past tumultuous romantic relationship with no one other than Cordelia.

3152When a man going by the name “John Smith” is found murdered in a Wander Bird trailer — there are a couple of identical ones around to complicate the story — Asey takes a hand.  The story moves quickly and is very complex, but in exactly the same way as the first story, the murderer says something casually in explanation and then proceeds to demonstrate physically that the explanation cannot be true. In this story, however, the clueing is more precise and this really is a fair-play story; an action is described to us that makes a nonsense of the explanation, but you have to have a little common background knowledge and put two and two together to identify the lie and thus the murderer.

The final story is “The Swan Boat Plot” and this one, unusually, takes place in the city of Boston rather than Asey’s Cape Cod home. Asey is meeting his cousin Jennie Mayo in the Public Garden and discovers the body of photographer Rudi Brandt close to a public facility that he’s been using to take pictures — a swan boat that can be rented by the public. The salty and homespun Jenny (I always have a mental image of her as being played by Marjorie Main) takes a major hand in the investigation and the pair run the investigation back to the family and romantic interests of model Liss Lathrop. Barring the fast-moving action and the active participation of Jennie Mayo, there is little here to interest the reader and the average reader will be neither surprised by nor interested in the identity of the murderer.

Jennie Mayo is a fairly constant presence in the Asey Mayo series; it’s frequently Jennie whose public-spirited activities set the actions of the plot in motion. She is plain-spoken, dumpy and fairly clearly of the lower social classes; her husband Syl is a sort of handyman and quohaugger (what other areas might call an oysterman). In the stories, she’s very useful as an expositive character; Jennie always fills Asey in on the doings of their neighbours when he returns “from away”. Although Jennie is a fairly constant presence in the series, this story is really the only time that I can recall where Jennie takes an active hand in detection. Most frequently she does something idiosyncratically that impedes the investigation and Asey is forced to manoeuvre around her.

At the end of the first two stories, Asey makes note of the idea that the “story” of these events will naturally have a punning title that refers to it.  I can’t tell you the one associated with “The Headacre Plot” because it might reveal the answer to you, but the “Wander Bird” story would be referred to as “Trailer” — “trail her”, as in cherchez la femme.  I have no idea where these stories were originally published, if at all, but my sense is that the mention of these potential story titles was reflected in their original titles. Taylor did like to pun with her titles, most notably with The Tinkling Symbol and The Perennial Boarder.

Why is this book worth your time?

There is not much of interest here, barring the fact that there seem to be only six extant Asey Mayo short stories and so this will comprise half your opportunity to read a shorter Asey Mayo story. Taylor’s talents seem much better suited to the novel form; she has the knack for keeping a plot moving at blistering speed and concealing her central clues under an avalanche of information and fast-moving events. You literally have no time in her novels to think about what’s happened before the next urgency is moving into view. In the shorter form, though, the stories are (two out of three) based on a central “trick” and you are given one opportunity to spot the vital clue; if you identify the trick, you identify the murderer. I always associate this style of story with Ellery Queen, who wrote dozens of them (if you can figure out the “dying clue”, for instance, you’ve solved the mystery instantly). 

I’d say that this would be of interest to Asey Mayo completists and people interested in the historical American context; the “Swan Boat Plot” and “Headacre Plot”, for instance, both contain references to the wartime concept of the Fifth Column and it’s important as a potential motive for murder. And I must add that any Asey Mayo volume has a good deal of charm and intelligence and wit; Phoebe Atwood Taylor is always worth your time even at her least inspired.

Notes for the Collector:

I wrote this post using the 1991 paperback from Foul Play Press that is seen at the top of this post. Further down we see the U.S. first edition’s jacket in facsimile. You can get a Very Good plus copy from Abebooks for US$325 (the listing agrees with my suspicion that these stories were originally published in magazines, but gives no authority); there are also a couple of what seem to be better copies at around the US $100 mark and I suggest that this is a more reasonable price. There are a couple of cheaper reprint editions available and you can get a paperback for as little as $3. I think there are — or should be — people who are collecting the output of Foul Play Press and if you are only wanting a paperback, then I recommend the 1991 edition shown at the top of the post.  FPP did a uniform paperback edition of every single Taylor (except the scarce Murder at the World’s Fair, a non-series novel as by “Freeman Dana”) and used the same simple illustration style that I have found grows on one.

Vintage Challenge Scorecard

The Wall Street Mystery (1931)

The Wall Street Mystery

Author: The authorship is credited prominently to S.S. Van Dine, writer of the Philo Vance novels. “Adaptation and dialogue” by Burnet Hershey, for whom IMDB gives 65 writing credits, almost all of which are short subjects.  Hershey wrote a bunch of other entries in the 12 short subjects instigated by Van Dine.

S.S. Van Dine is worth reading about but Wikipedia has done such a thorough job there is no need for me to repeat it here.

Other Data:  November, 1931, according to IMDB.  Directed by Arthur Hurley, who also appeared to specialize in short subjects, for Vitaphone (Warner Brothers).

SS Crabtree 2Cast: Donald Meek (see left) as Doctor Crabtree, hero of 11 of the 12 short films that Van Dine wrote between 1931 and 1932.  John Mailton as Inspector Carr (who appears in all 12), Frances Dale, Hobart Cavanaugh, and a black man I am unable to identify who deserved better than the comedy-relief role of the elevator operator.

About this film:

I believe this to be the second of 12 shorts written by S. S. Van Dine, featuring Donald Meek as Doctor Crabtree in all but one.  It is 17 minutes in length and there’s not a lot of time to get anything across to the audience except the bare bones of what’s going on.  Two stockbrokers are found shot to death in their Wall Street office; a beautiful secretary is found locked in a closet in the office, and a disgruntled investor had had an appointment with one of the stockbrokers the night of the crime.  “There’s nothing mysterious about a killing in Wall Street,” chuckles Dr. Crabtree, criminologist.  “I know — I made one myself.”

The story is not especially mystifying and the solution really depends entirely on forensic evidence — the angle of the bullet wound in one of the victims. In fact, none of the hugger-mugger with the other suspects is even necessary since a competent CSI would have solved the crime in no time flat.  But everything is competently handled by the director, writer and cast and my interest was sustained for the entire 17 minutes; difficult not to be!

Donald Meek will be very familiar to fans of old mysteries; most of the rest of the cast is unknown to me. The script, unfortunately, descends to the use of a comedic African-American elevator operator with amusing speech patterns and a general air of cowardice. He is really the most interesting character in the film, at least to me, because I was trying to figure out what the point was of his being in the film in the first place. He offers no evidence and seems meant as comedy relief — of course, this sort of comedy relief is extremely painful to the modern viewer by dint of its racism. It’s just incomprehensible to me because I am not old enough to have been immersed in a cultural milieu which cheerfully accepts its own horrific racism, and even uses its victims as figures of fun. Most such characters I’ve seen were played by Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland; this actor is not credited and IMDB does not identify him.

The film uses an interesting and noteworthy technique, considering that it’s 1931. As Dr. Crabtree is explaining both who- and how-dunnit, the actors are seen as phantom figures — the background is solid but the actors are transparent. They act out the crime before our eyes while Meek, in voice-over, describes the action.

Notes For the Collector:

This film is extremely scarce and I have never seen it before; I recorded a copy quite by accident the other day when I was recording a copy of The Mystery of Mr. X on TCM and this short subject filled the space until the next film started. Of the dozen Van Dine shorts, this is only the second one I have managed to see; TCM also showed “Murder in the Pullman” within the last couple of years. Unfortunately TCM does not to my knowledge announce in advance what its short subject offerings are going to be, except as a forum post a week or so in advance. No copies are available on Amazon — nor are any of its 11 brothers. If anyone from TCM is listening, please PLEASE package these 12 shorts for purchase; I badly want to see what S.S. Van Dine had to say in them, based on the two I’ve managed to view.  I have not even managed to find still photographs from the film to illustrate this piece and could only provide a photo of Donald Meek from something similar.

The Best of Jake Winkman, by Don Von Elsner

Title: The Best of Jake Winkman

Author: Don Von Elsner

Publication Data:  A collection of short stories originally published in magazines (probably Popular Bridge Magazine) with two stories as first published here, according to the foreword.    This edition: 1981, first edition, trade paperback format, Max Hardy.   ISBN 0939460165.

About this book:

This book has an extremely limited audience; people who like mystery short stories who are also reasonably skilled players of duplicate bridge.  All five of us enjoyed this book, I’m sure.  It’s a fairly safe bet that you will not.

Jake Winkman, according to the publisher’s foreword, is “Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, Omar Sharif, and your own favorite International bridge star, all rolled into one”.  Well, no, he’s not; not even close.  He is the protagonist of three cheesy novels (paperback originals) from the 1960s and three collections of short stories that were usually published in magazines written for bridge players.  Bridge players do not have high standards when it comes to fiction that contains lots of bridge, it seems; Von Elsner is a lousy writer. Mr. Winkman is a professional bridge player and part-time international espionage agent.  Yes, he is. This was a period of time that produced both James Bond and Matt Helm and a host of imitators, and Jake Winkman is the bottom of that particular barrel.

He is not even remotely anything like Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason.  He is something like Omar Sharif in that both play bridge at the international tournament level, and both have the reputation of having sex with a lot of women.  Omar Sharif, however, has class.  (From reading his autobiography, I can tell you that he was not as much of a cocksman as people think, but he certainly has class.) Since Von Elsner obviously has no experience of sex outside marriage, Jake Winkman is — well, his antics are roughly what a 13-year-old boy might imagine a smooth-talking guy would do and say in order to get a woman into bed.  And since these novels were written in the 1960s, there are no “dirty parts”; the sex is implied.  Lots of “filmy negligees” and “swelling breasts” and stuff.

The bridge is not too bad, though.  If you are not an aficionado of bridge literature or even duplicate bridge, you will not find this book of any interest at all; Von Elsner cannot write realistic characters, plots or dialogue.  (His other series, about a spy named David Canning, is even worse — more fake sex, more ridiculous espionage, less redeeming bridge.)  He can, however, write about bridge hands in an entertaining and instructive way.  The problem is that there are too few of them sprinkled through the stories.

In fact, the stories divide into two groups; poorly-plotted stories where a knowledge of bridge is required in order to understand the denouement, and stories that dispense entirely with plot, character and dialogue and pretty much just talk about bridge.  (These are listed in the table of contents as “system stories”.)  Unfortunately bridge bidding has moved on considerably in the 50 intervening years since first publication and the reader will not find as much to astound in the explanation of, say, reverses, which were once esoteric and are now vieux jeu.  I have to admit that Von Elsner has the knack of illustrating the play of the hand in an interesting way but again, there is not enough of this to make it worthwhile to plough through the stodge, poor writing and filmy negligees.  The first story is the best, in which Winkman proves at a trial that a doctor friend of his still has all his marbles by demonstrating that he can analyze bridge hands.  This is fairly unbelievable, but the rest of the stories are so nonsensical as to make this one reasonable by comparison.

If you know someone who has about 100 masterpoints in the ACBL, this will perhaps make them one of the very, very few people who will bother to finish this book.  Consider yourself warned.

Notes For the Collector:

Max Hardy was at one time an assiduous publisher of books about bridge.  These are mostly textbooks aimed at a very specialized market, which I can describe generally as the intermediate bridge player.  (They’re too difficult for beginners and written by the experts.)  However, there is a small category of fiction about bridge.  Some of this is written by good writers like Victor Mollo and David Bird; good writers are not the ones published by Max Hardy, by and large.

Collectors of this sort of literature will find over time that while Mr. Hardy’s enthusiasm for bridge books brought a lot of books into print, his lack of knowledge about the mechanics of publishing a book meant that half his efforts fell apart as soon as you finished reading them.  The type is ugly and amateurish, the layout is misguided and awkward, and there are particular problems with all Max Hardy books with cover stock and, particularly, binding and glue.  Thus, like comic books and early paperbacks, the value of an intact book increases through no fault of the publisher; anything that survives intact is worthwhile.  The cover price is $5.95. I paid $9 for my copy of this, probably at a dealer’s table at a bridge tournament; I seem to have overpaid, since offers 10 copies, the most of expensive of which is $8 plus shipping.  My copy is perfectly bound and glued, though, which makes it something of a rarity.

And, honestly, have you ever seen such ugly amateurish cover art in your entire life?  It’s cited as being by one “Jon McDonald”, which means it is not by the high-school-aged daughter of the publisher, much to my surprise.  At least today’s self-publishers usually have the good sense to avoid such distasteful covers.  Its very ugliness may actually give it some future camp value.



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.