Edward D. Hoch: All But Impossible (2017) – Part 1 of 3

Beginning a look at Edward D. Hoch’s fourth collection of impossible-crime stories featuring Dr. Sam Hawthorne, 1930s New England’s greatest amateur sleuth.

“The Problem of the Country Church”

What seems to happen: Dr. Sam’s former nurse, April, and her husband Andre ask him to be their newborn baby’s godfather. At the christening ceremony, all is going well until someone switches the baby for a doll and a ransom note, without anyone present noticing what happened.

A simple solution, but one that Hoch conceals well with a lot of misdirection. I don’t think the switch would have gone as smoothly in real life, but this is still one of the better cases in the book.

“The Problem of the Grange Hall”

What seems to happen: Sweeney Lamb and his All Stars are performing in Northmont. Bix Blake, the band’s trumpeter, is supposedly an old friend of Sam’s colleague Dr. Linc Jones, but Blake dies from an intravenous injection of codeine while he and Linc are alone in a room together… just the two of them and the hypodermic needle in Linc’s hand…

Not a bad one, but I think you need to know a bit about poisons for the solution to play completely fair.

“The Problem of the Vanishing Salesman”

What seems to happen: At some point, any mystery writer who deals in impossible crimes has to do his own variation on that untold case of Sherlock Holmes’ that involved Mr. James Phillimore, who went back into his house to get his umbrella and vanished. Here it’s Mr. James Philby, who goes back into someone else’s house to get a lightning rod, but with the same result.

I always like an impossible-crime problem that has one or more well-worked-out false solutions before you get to the true one, and “Vanishing Salesman” has a good one. The real answer is a bit of a letdown by comparison.

“The Problem of the Leather Man”

What seems to happen: A different kind of impossibility for a change – a wanderer named Zach Taylor tags along with Dr. Sam as our hero walks around the Northmont area and encounters several locals – but later, everyone Sam met swears he was quite alone.

Any mystery of this kind will have to involve either a grand conspiracy, which is as bad as having a secret passage to a locked room, or a series of unlikely events. The eventual explanation of what really happened isn’t bad, but it didn’t dazzle me.

“The Problem of the Phantom Parlor”

What seems to happen: Another classic gambit, this one the room in a house that randomly appears and disappears without a trace.

A pretty good resolution, but as with “Country Church,” I doubt things would go as smoothly if you or I actually tried to pull this off.

To be continued…

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