Edward D. Hoch: Nothing is Impossible (2013) – Part 2 of 3

Looking at stories #6 through #10 in this collection of impossible-crime stories featuring Dr. Sam Hawthorne, country medico and amateur sleuth in 1930’s New England. Part 1 is here.

“The Problem of the Invisible Acrobat”

What seems to happen: The Bigger & Brothers Circus has come to Northmont, which means the five Flying Lampizi Brothers will be performing their death-defying trapeze act. At the end of the performance, though, only four of them have come back down to ground level. Later, the missing brother is found murdered…

A classic problem with a classic solution you’ll spot in no time if you’ve read enough classic mysteries. If you’re new to the genre, Hoch does a pretty good job of hiding the clues.

“The Problem of the Curing Barn”

What seems to happen: tobacco magnate Jasper Jennings and two of his employees are in  a curing barn when one of them cuts his throat, practically under Dr. Sam’s nose – but neither man has a weapon on his person, nor is there one anywhere near.

If you read this story up to the point where Dr. Sam tells us “suddenly I knew I was right” and then do a re-read, you’ll probably spot the phrase that indicates the secret of the impossibility. The solution satisfies but is not all that well-hidden.

“The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin”  

What seems to happen: You can guess, can’t you? Ted Shorter enters his cabin in the Maine woods; snow falls; the next morning he’s found dead with no weapon or killer inside – and no tracks outside.

There’s nothing quite like a good no-footprints problem, and this is a good one, one that had me fooled. Before Dr. Sam figures out the truth he offers a solution that turns out to be false, but would have been good enough to be the real one.

“The Problem of the Thunder Room”

Not the typical locked-room or impossible-disappearance situation that usually confronts Dr. Sam. Instead, May Russo is lying on an examining table in his office at the exact time that witnesses swear she was several miles away, murdering Hank Foster.

Like “Invisible Acrobat,” the basic solution to this one is not original, but Hoch does give a fresh spin to an old classic.

“The Problem of the Black Roadster”

It’s the era of John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, so naturally masked men hold up the Farmers & Merchants Bank and clean out all the cash. Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens happen to be driving by as the getaway car zooms off, but even though Lens has the state police throw up roadblocks all around Northmont, the robbers don’t go through any of them. And there’s no place they could be hiding within the perimeter.

The weakness of this one is that the impossibility does not seem all that airtight – a witness even says that the bad guys could have gone past one of the checkpoints before the roadblock was set up, and the best comeback a state cop has is “I doubt it.” That said, the way the robbers escape detection is a clever one, and for once it’s not Dr. Sam who figures things out, although again he comes up with a decent wrong explanation.

To be concluded eventually!

Lamb chops and pineapple

In Carter Dickson’s 1940 novel And So to Murder, Hollywood scriptwriter Tilly Parsons swears by a diet of lamb chops and pineapple as a great way to take off those extra pounds. (Her colleague Bill Cartwright calls it a “hellish combination”.) I assumed John Dickson Carr was parodying fad diets and had just made up an unlikely combination when I read this passage, but I’m in the middle of rereading Anthony Boucher’s 1941 The Case of the Solid Key, and at one point Fergus O’Breen suggests he and Norman Harker have lunch at a movie studio commissary: “Watch buxom blondes, brooding brunettes, and ravishing redheads – all eating lamb chops and pineapple?”

So I checked Wikipedia and sure enough, “lamb chops and pineapple” was a real fad diet back in the day! Apparently the idea was that the protein in the lamb and the sugar in the pineapple would give you strength, while the acid in the pineapple would dissolve the fat in the lamb, or something like that. Like so many fad diets, it turned out to be unhealthy because eating just two foods meant you were missing out on a lot of essential nutrients.

The things you learn reading classic mysteries!

Public Service Announcement: Anthony Boucher

I don’t know how long this has been going on, but Amazon Kindle is now selling Anthony Boucher’s Fergus O’Breen mysteries – The Case of the Crumpled Knave, The Case of the Solid Key, The Case of the Seven Sneezes – as well as The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, which does not feature Fergus but takes place in the same universe. Kindle also has Boucher’s short-story collection Exeunt Murderers. If you don’t have these books, this is a chance to get copies (well, e-copies) at a reasonable price.

Edward D. Hoch: Nothing is Impossible (2013) – Part 1 of 3

Beginning a look at the fifteen stories in the third collection of stories about Dr. Sam Hawthorne, Edward D. Hoch’s solver of small-town impossible crimes. The tales in this collection take place from 1932 to 1936.

“The Problem of the Graveyard Picnic”

What seems to happen: As Dr. Sam watches from a river bank, a young woman is pushed (or pulled?) off the opposite side by some unseen force, falls into the raging waters, and drowns.

Old-timers in the impossible-crime field are not likely to have much of a problem figuring out how this one was done, but to avoid spoilers, I won’t say exactly which classic it reminds me of.

“The Problem of the Crying Room”

What seems to happen: the day before the brand-new Northmont Cinema is scheduled to open, projectionist Freddie Bay commits suicide, leaving a note confessing to the locked-room murder of Mayor Trenton on opening night, and explaining how he pulled off the impossibility. That’s right, he confesses to all this before any of it has happened. At the actual movie-house opening, Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens are both guarding the mayor, but someone shoots him in a locked (or technically, observed) room anyway. And whoever did it didn’t use Freddie’s method…

The first story in this book to hit a home run, with a well-hidden culprit and method. A “crying room,” by the way, was apparently a soundproof room where people who were watching the show could take any screaming babies or toddlers.

“The Problem of the Fatal Fireworks”

What seems to happen: It’s the Fourth of July and brothers Teddy and Billy Oswald are fooling around with firecrackers – a box they just bought and unsealed. Yet when Teddy sets one off, it turns out to have been adulterated with dynamite, and that’s it for Teddy.

Another one that probably won’t stump you. One of the clues is very good, though.

“The Problem of the Unfinished Painting”

What seems to happen: Artist Tess Wainwright goes into a room where all the windows are locked from the inside, and the one door is under constant observation by her housekeeper, Mrs. Babcock. Yet someone manages to strangle her with one of her own painting cloths.

I’m afraid this is yet another fairly simple one when you ignore the misdirection and look at the evidence. The most interesting thing about the story is that Dr. Sam spends so much time on the case he neglects a dying boy patient and blames himself for not being there for him at the end (although Hoch is careful to point out that his presence wouldn’t have saved the child or even prolonged his life). He swears off solving mysteries at the end of the story, and sticks to his decision for over a year, but I have a feeling he only holds back for that long because it’s a year before the next impossibility presents itself.

“The Problem of the Sealed Bottle”

What seems to happen: It’s the end of Prohibition in the U.S., and Dr. Sam is part of a group celebrating the occasion at Molly’s Café in the appropriate manner. Mayor Cresson opens a bottle of sherry that had been sealed at the bottling plant and takes his first legal drink in fourteen years. It turns out to be his last one ever, thanks to a dose of potassium cyanide. (Did Hoch have a thing against mayors?)

Another “how could anyone have tampered with this when it came straight from the manufacturer?” puzzle, but a much better one than “Fatal Fireworks”, although there is one piece of physical evidence someone might have spotted before Dr. Sam explains all.

To be continued…

Ellery Queen in real-life legal drama


Excerpt in case this link goes dead:

“The jig is up!

“In a twist straight out of a pulpy page-turner, a son says he discovered his late mystery-novelist father’s signed books had been stolen — after seeing them go up for auction at Sotheby’s, according to a new lawsuit.

“Upper West Sider Richard Dannay — son of detective-fiction author Frederic Dannay — claims 33 of his dad’s signed books were stolen by his step-mom Rose, passed to her son Terry Koppel and eventually given to Sotheby’s for auctioning, according to a Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit filed late Wednesday.”

Carter Dickson: She Died a Lady (1943) – this review contains spoilers!

This review spoils the identity of the murderer, the secret of the impossible crime, and some other good stuff. You have been warned!

It’s the summer of 1940 and war has come to Britain, not least to the town of Lyncombe on the north Devon coast. As Hitler expands his empire and southern England faces a possible German invasion, country doctor Luke Croxley is watching a more private drama unfold: Alec Wainright’s beautiful (and much younger) wife Rita is keeping company with handsome Barry Sullivan. Will they run off together? Will one of them end the affair? Or will they do something else? When Dr. Luke, visiting the Wainrights, finds two sets of footprints leading to a cliff overlooking the sea – and none coming back – it seems clear Rita and Barry killed themselves by jumping off at low tide. But when their bodies wash up on shore, it turns out they died from gunshot wounds…

She Died a Lady was one of the first books by John Dickson Carr I ever read, and I’ve long held it in high regard for a number of reasons – the ingenuity of the solution, the atypical viewpoint character (an elderly man who doesn’t fall in love during the story), and the sharply drawn picture of daily life during the first year of World War Two. I recently reread it and while my affection for it remains unabated, I have been asking myself… does Carr play 100% fair in this one?

Let’s review the impossibility. It appears that during a narrow window of time while it was low tide, Rita and Barry walked to the edge of the cliff and jumped off – a safe thing to do at high tide, but fatal when they did it due to the rocks below. A police examination of the footprints proves that two people did walk out to the edge without coming back – there is no chance one person pulled the old trick of walking out in one pair of shoes and back in another. There is one strange thing about the prints, though – the two people who left them were walking in step. Why would they have done that? And if the murderer wasn’t hanging in midair while shooting them, how were they killed?

Dr. Luke eventually figures out an explanation – the set of prints he saw were indeed left by one person doing the walking-backwards trick. Hours later, after the tide had come in – but before the prints could be checked – Rita and Barry walked out to the edge, pushing a garden-roller ahead of them, obliterating the previous sets of prints and leaving the in-step ones. They let the garden-roller fall into the water and dove in after it, swimming to what they thought was a safe place – only to find the murderer waiting for them with a gun.

When Dr. Luke tells H.M. what he thinks the method was, and his choice for the killer of Rita and Barry (local artist Paul Ferrars), H.M. sadly tells him he thought of the same solution, but he had the bottom of the cliff checked, and there was no garden-roller there. 

At which point Chapter 19 ends, and we have a brief interlude written by Ferrars in which he tells us that Dr. Luke was killed in an air raid shortly after writing the manuscript we just read, and that he never realized that the real murderer was his own son, whom he treated in the story more as a part of the background than as a suspect. 

And in Chapter 20, also by Ferrars, H.M. explains that Dr. Luke was right about the garden-roller all along, and the reason it wasn’t where it should have been was that H.M. paid some guys to remove it before the truth could come out and break the old man’s heart. 

Now, lying is a perfectly acceptable weapon in the armoury of any detective, real or fictional. At the same time, I couldn’t help feeling let down – I began Chapter 20 expecting an even more ingenious solution to the footprints puzzle, and of course I didn’t get it.

However, having thought things over, I have to acquit Carr of not playing fair here. There’s one book of his where the detective tells a flat-out lie to a character regarding his suspicions in the case, and says in the last chapter he’d had to do it, due to the effect it would have had on the character if he’d been truthful. This is pretty much the same thing – in trying to figure things out, you have to take into account that while H.M. might be telling the truth about “no garden-roller”, he might also be lying for some strategic reason. 

So while I’m still a bit let down that there was no “true” explanation of the impossibility, I still rate this as one of the top H.M. novels, my only real criticism being that this is the point in the saga where his non-hilarious slapstick antics start to take up too much room in the stories. I blame that on the fact that things were still looking grim when Carr wrote the book, and he wanted to do something to alleviate the gloom… and by the time the war ended, he’d fallen in love with his comedy skills too deeply to give humour up.

A.A. Fair: The Knife Slipped (written in 1939, published in 2016)

In January 1939, William Morrow & Company published The Bigger They Come, Erle Stanley Gardner’s first novel under the pseudonym of A.A. Fair, marking the debut of the private-eye team of Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. in April of that year, Gardner sent in the second in the series, The Knife Slipped – and Morrow rejected it. Rather than trying to revise TKS, Gardner filed the manuscript away and wrote Turn on the Heat, which was accepted… and that was how matters stood for the next 75 years. Gardner published 29 Lam/Cool novels from 1939 till his death in 1970, but The Knife Slipped never saw the light of day.

Until 2016, at least, when Hard Case Crime released it to the public for the first time ever, and Gardner fans got a chance to enjoy it and see how it stacked up against the rest of the Fair corpus.

I won’t waste much time on the plot – Bertha assigns Donald to get the goods on a probably-unfaithful husband, there’s a murder, the cops get tough with both members of the team, and as in any of their other cases, there are a lot of complications before the solution is revealed.

Editor Russell Atwood provides an afterword in which he mentions several ways in which TKS differs from the rest of the Lam/Cool saga:

  • Bertha is a better detective here than in any of the other books, figuring out a lot of the solution by herself, although it’s still Donald who pins the killing on the guilty party
  • Donald, fresh off his first case, is still a rookie private investigator and makes the kind of rookie mistakes that you won’t find him making in Turn on the Heat or later books
  • Bertha goes easier on Donald when he messes up than she would later on (although she still chews him out quite a bit) and makes a positively sentimental gesture at the end

Atwood speculates that Donald making mistakes might be the reason Gardner’s editor, Thayer Hobson, declined to publish the book, and that may have had something to do with it. However, there are several paragraphs in Francis L. Fugate’s book on Gardner, Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer, that offer other reasons.. although I have to admit they leave me more confused than anything else.

Hobson wrote a rejection letter to Gardner, quoted in Secrets, in which he said in part, “I think it is cheap – crude without being effective. All Bertha Cool does is talk tough, swear, smoke cigarettes, and try to gyp people… And I don’t think much of the story itself. If that manuscript had come to me in the ordinary way… I would have stopped reading about page 70…”

By contrast, when Gardner sent in Turn on the Heat, Hobson enthused, “Jesus Christ, here Bertha Cool is Bertha Cool and she is flesh and blood and she is grand. So is Donald Lam. Now, damn you, Erle, you know perfectly well that these are the characters who have been in your mind and not those stuffed shirts who came wobbling into the office a few months ago.”

All of which perplexes me, because hey, the Bertha of the other 29 novels talks tough, swears (only words that were publishable in the Forties, of course), smokes cigarettes and, well, tries to get a good fee for the agency’s services. And the story itself is of a piece with the kind of cases she and Donald would investigate over the coming decades. Maybe Hobson was having a bad day?

So if you like the Lam/Cool novels and haven’t read this one, it’s a perfectly good companion to the other 29.

(By the way, the title has nothing to do with stabbing anyone. Several times in the story, Bertha says she likes to “cut herself a piece of cake,” meaning she likes to make money off of a potentially lucrative situation, but this time “the knife slipped” – meaning she got in trouble when she tried to horn in on someone else’s action.)