First of a two-part look at More Things Impossible, the second collection of short stories about Dr. Sam Hawthorne, the New England country doctor who solved impossible crimes from the 1920s to the 1940s. This and the next three books in this five-book series contain fifteen stories each; we’ll look at the first eight here. They were originally published between 1978 and 1983.
“The Problem of the Revival Tent”
What seems to happen: Boy faith-healer Toby Yester and his entourage make Northmont the latest stop on their sawdust trail. Dr. Sam, who doesn’t care for competition, decides to switch from solving murders to committing them.
Okay, I’m kidding. What really seems to happen: Dr. Sam is alone with Toby’s father in the crusade’s tent when someone stabs the latter to death.
Not a great one to start off with, as the solution is pretty obvious. And we know Dr. Sam’s in no danger of arrest, since he has to be back to solve the next case.
“The Problem of the Whispering House”
What seems to happen: Dr. Sam and a professional ghost-hunter watch a man walk into a room with no other ways in or out. When they enter the room, the man’s been knifed to death, and the killer is absent.
There’s a lot more to this story than the brief synopsis above, and almost all of it is good – but I found the secret of the impossible murder was the one letdown.
“The Problem of the Boston Common”
What seems to happen: While Dr. Sam is attending a medical convention in Boston, people walking across the famous Common are suddenly collapsing in death. Examination shows they’ve been poisoned, but how?
The first story in this collection to really score, with a clever murder method and a surprise killer.
“The Problem of the General Store”
What seems to happen: Maggie Murphy and Max Harkner are alone in his general store when someone kills him with a blast from a shotgun. Maggie swears she didn’t do it, but all the doors and windows are locked from the inside.
Another good one, with a genuine damn-it-I-should-have-seen-that moment when Dr. Sam explains all.
“The Problem of the Courthouse Gargoyle”
What seems to happen: Dr. Sam is sitting on a jury when the presiding judge takes a fatal sip from a glass of poisoned water that no one could have come near.
And another good one. Maybe this “another good one” business is getting monotonous, but it’s for the right reasons.
“The Problem of the Pilgrims (sic) Windmill”
What seems to happen: A man is murderously attacked while he’s inside a windmill, but both his testimony and the evidence of footprints in the snow outside say there was no one else there.
Pretty good, but not the first time I’ve seen this method used in a story. One thing I don’t understand is why a windmill traditionally associated with the Pilgrims wasn’t called the Pilgrim’s Windmill or the Pilgrims’ Windmill. The story introduces Dr. Lincoln Jones, a black doctor, and it’s a little jarring to have him repeatedly referred to as as “black” instead of the (non-insulting) words Dr. Sam and everyone else would really have been using in 1929.
“The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat”
What seems to happen: Four people are aboard a houseboat that’s under observation. When the boat starts to drift and Dr. Sam boards the craft to see what’s going on, nobody’s on board, even though they couldn’t have left without being seen doing so.
This Mary Celeste story with an impossible-crime twist is yet another in a string of good ones. The perpetrator, once exposed, is one of Hoch’s more memorable characters.
“The Problem of the Pink Post Office”
What seems to happen: The day of the 1929 stock-market crash, an envelope containing a $10,000 negotiable bond disappears from the Northmont post office. Everyone who was in the place at the time is searched, along with the post office itself, but the bond does not turn up.
Dr. Sam admits he’s being a bit of a show-off in this story, and so is Hoch: no fewer than seven possible solutions are offered and dismissed before we get to the true one. And it’s pretty good.
So there you have the first eight stories in the collection. So far, the average is a lot better than in Diagnosis: Impossible, the previous book in the series. But will the second half be as good? Stay tuned…