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…