Edward D. Hoch: More Things Impossible (2006) (Part 1)

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…

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John Dickson Carr: The Crooked Hinge (1938) – this review contains spoilers!

Warning! While this review does not name the murderer in The Crooked Hinge, it does give away the book’s big secret. If you haven’t read it yet, proceed no further!

Twenty-six years before the story begins, a boy named John Farnleigh was a passenger on the doomed Titanic. He survived the disaster and continued his journey to America, where his parents were shipping him off to live with a relative. He returned to England in 1935 when he inherited his older brother’s baronetcy and estate. Now, though, a certain Patrick Gore has turned up, claiming to be the real John Farnleigh. The two of them, he says, switched identities as the ship was sinking, and the fake Farnleigh tried to seal the deal by knocking him out and leaving him for dead. While Gore makes a convincing circumstantial case, hard evidence is needed, and there is a man who can provide it: Kennet Murray, who has a set of the boy’s fingerprints, taken before he sailed off. In keeping with the expectations of a mystery reader, a dead body soon turns up on the Farnleigh estate… but it is not Murray who’s been killed…

Much as there is to like about The Crooked Hinge, at base I consider it one of Carr’s misfires, a failure as a fair-play mystery. (Kind of the reverse of The Cavalier’s Cup, which has a fair puzzle but practically nothing else going for it.)

Why am I being so hard on TCH? Well, if you’ve read it, you know that a certain character turns out not to have any legs, which has allowed him to pass himself off as different people of varying heights with the help of artificial legs of different lengths. It also helped him when it came time to kill his victim. Carr prepares us for the revelation by telling us that this character’s walk is a bit clumsy.

To paraphrase a certain cartoon horse: No, sir, I don’t believe it. Specifically, I don’t believe that, with the medical technology available in 1938, a double leg amputee could walk, unaided, well enough that no one who saw him would suspect he didn’t have his original legs. Telling us his walk is “a bit clumsy” is not a fair description of what someone in his situation would look like trying to walk without a cane or crutch. Of course, we’ve come a long way since then, but it’s worth noting that the artificial legs of today that allow a double amputee to move about gracefully do so at the expense of looking anything like a natural leg… so this trick wouldn’t work even today.

I concede that someone who had two amputations below the knee might pull the trick off, but “I have no legs” indicates to me that far more of the original legs were destroyed.

Before the final revelations, there is an Ellery Queen-esque penultimate chapter where Dr. Fell presents us with a false solution, complete with a false murderer and a false method for committing the crime. I admit I had decided on this character and method before reading this chapter… but all the same, I think TCH would have been a stronger work if they’d turned out to be correct!

(By the way, remember the final chapter of The Eight of Swords – no spoiler here if you have not read that one – where a character says “The public will only glance at this chapter, to make sure it hasn’t been cheated by having evidence withheld”? I think Carr was afraid a lot of readers would do that with TCH and never get to the real solution, so he had viewpoint character Brian Page think, “This case is not finished” as a way of encouraging them to keep going.)

There are some other criticisms to make: Page is practically a cipher, someone to stand around while everyone else says and does things; his girlfriend Madeline Dane is also kind of blah; and the business of the Golden Hag is one of those subplots whose main function seems to be to pad the story out to book length. But the central gimmick, being unworkable, is far and away TCH‘s most serious flaw. It’s a tribute to Carr’s skill as a writer that I found it an enjoyable read, and reread, anyway… and that I still rate it higher than some of his other books.

Banacek: Season Two (Part 2)

Wrapping up our look back at the brief but colourful career of Thomas Banacek, solver of impossible thefts. The previous instalments are here, here and here.

Unfortunately the final four episodes include only one gem, plus two so-so outings and one that gets a failing grade. I have been told by a commenter here that George Peppard quit doing the series because of a divorce he was going through, but if the show was running out of steam anyway, maybe it was just as well it ended when it did. 

“Horse of a Slightly Different Color” by Harold Livingston (who also wrote a lot of Mission: Impossible episodes) and Jimmy Sangster

What seems to happen: Oxford Don, a thoroughbred insured for $5 million, begins his morning run while being filmed. When the run is over, the jockey is now sitting on a different and far less valuable horse.  

Like “The Vanishing Chalice” from earlier in the season, this one has an audacious opening and a vanishing (or substitution) method that I don’t believe could work.

“Rocket to Oblivion” by Robert Van Scoyk

What seems to happen: In a teaser that would have delighted the heart of Charlie Chan, an experimental rocket engine weighing 600 pounds is on display in a transparent case at a trade show when the lights cut out for a few seconds. When they come back on, guess what’s no longer in the case?

If you don’t figure this one out once you’ve sifted the clues, consider your amateur detective’s badge revoked!

“Fly Me – If You Can Find Me” by Harold Livingston

What seems to happen: A jetliner, carrying a flight crew but no passengers, develops engine trouble and has to put down at a rural airport. The crew all go to a local hotel for the night, leaving one of the pilots on guard. When they come back in the morning, the plane is gone, even though it could not have been repaired, towed away or taken apart during the night. Oh, and the pilot’s been killed. 

A very clever solution, and it’s a shame this one wasn’t the last Banaeck instead of…

“Now You See Me, Now You Don’t” by Stanley Roberts

What seems to happen: There’s a warrant out for the arrest of magician Bradley Merrick, who goes onstage one last time to perform his famous escape from a locked trunk. As it turns out, he’s not only escaped from the trunk, he’s escaped from the theatre, even though all the exits were guarded.

The only one of the 17 Banaceks that has a solution that does not play fair with the viewer, which left a very bad taste in my mouth when I first watched it. Seriously, if you’re going to buy the DVDs and watch the series, get this one out of the way and save one of the good ones for last. There are plenty of those – and this is not a show where the order in which you watch the episodes matters.

Banacek: Season Two (Part 1)

Continuing our look at TV’s impossible-crime specialist of the early 1970s. Entries on Season One are here and here.

“No Stone Unturned” by Stephen Lord, Robert Van Scoyk, Lee Santley and George Sheldon Smith.

What seems to happen: a three-ton statue disappears from the art gallery where it was about to be unveiled, even though nobody could have come near it with the kind of equipment needed to move (or destroy) it. 

Like last season’s “The Two Million Clams of Cap’n Jack”, this episode has a surprisingly large number of people sharing writer credit, and like “Cap’n Jack,” it’s a really good one. The solution is both ingenious and fairly clued. I also have to give my younger brother full marks on this one; he was able to spot how it was done when I couldn’t. At age ten. Sometimes I hate my younger brother. 

“If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn’t He Tell Us Where He Is?” by Robert van Scoyk.

What seems to happen: a supercomputer disappears from a locked, guarded building overnight. 

You can tell this episode was written during the era of movies like “I Could Never Have Sex With Any Man Who Has So Little Regard For My Husband” and “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds”. The solution is not a bad one, but somehow I found it a letdown.

“The Three Million Dollar Piracy” by Stanley Ralph Ross, Robert Van Scoyk (this guy got around, didn’t he?) and Jack Turley.

What seems to happen: A coach (the kind drawn by horses), studded with valuable jewels, is packed in a protective crate and loaded into the hold of a ship. When the crate is inspected before the ship can sail off, the coach is gone, and the only clue is a hole burned into the side with a blowtorch – one far too small for the coach to have gone through.

Another very good one, with some great misdirection. You can usually find a similarity between a Banacek solution and at least one story written earlier, but the mechanics of this one actually remind me of a later mystery written by an author who knows his way around an impossible crime. I won’t be any more specific than that!

“The Vanishing Chalice” by Morton Fine.

What seems to happen: As in last season’s “A Million the Hard Way”, something valuable is on public display and in full view of lots of people. When they all take their eyes off it for a brief moment, it disappears.

Not a good one. I don’t believe for a moment that the method could work, although the identity of the culprit was well-concealed.

To be concluded with the last four Banaceks in due course!

John Dickson Carr: the Bencolin short stories

Before John Dickson Carr’s first novel, It Walks by Night, came out in 1930, he wrote a number of short stories that were published in The Haverfordian, the literary magazine of Haverford College (where Carr was a student). Four of these stories were impossible-crime mysteries featuring Henri Bencolin, the same detective who would go on to star in IWBN and four other Carr novels. They were reprinted in The Door to Doom and Other Detections, edited by Douglas G. Greene, which came out in 1980, three years after Carr’s death. Some of the information here is taken from Greene’s introduction to the book.

These four stories were written by a man in his early twenties, but there is nothing about them that smacks of juvenilia; they’re polished, assured, and above all entertaining. They’re written in the third person, from the point of view of an omniscient narrator; there’s no sign of Jeff Marle, the “Watson” of the first four Bencolin novels, or of the third-person “juvenile lead” who’s the viewpoint character in most of Carr’s books (including the last Bencolin, The Four False Weapons).

It’s interesting to see Bencolin evolve as a character in these four stories; in the first, he’s brilliant but not infallible, unafraid to confess that he’s stumped at one point before he figures out the solution; by the last, he’s the theatrical, pseudo-demonic manhunter of IWBN, who sneers at everybody and is nearly always master of the situation. 

So what happens in the four stories? With no spoilers:

“The Shadow of the Goat”: “I saw Cyril Merton go into a room that had only one door, which was bolted and which I was watching. The room had only one window, barred, with locked shutters. There was no fireplace, nor was there any secret means of egress; the walls were stone. Exactly that. It was a stone box. But I tell you Merton went into the place – and vanished.” And then the murders begin.

“The Fourth Suspect”: “There was nobody else in the room except that grotesque dead man – nobody else. I examined it with care. No one hiding. There was one full-length window, fastened on the inside with sliding bolts and a catch. Obviously it would have been impossible to step outside and lock that window from the inside. And as for LaGarde locking it after he had been shot, that was just as impossible; death was instantaneous. We had both been watching the door of the room, and we had seen nobody leave. Certainly the person who killed LaGarde could not have left, yet that person was not in the room.”

“The Ends of Justice”: murder in a room where the door was under observation; there was an open window, but the murderer could not have escaped that way without leaving traces in the fresh snow outside.

“The Murder in Number Four”: another locked-room murder, this one in the compartment of a train. Carr saw fit to leaven this one with humour, but he’s hit and miss when it comes to comedy, and here it’s a miss.

Where I have to criticize the stories is in the detection: Carr would evolve into a master of cluing, but he wasn’t quite there yet when he wrote these. For the most part, we’re given the impossibility; Bencolin asks some questions and then tells us how it was done; and that’s it. There are some clues, but where I was able to see the solution coming, it was because I’d read other locked-room stories where the same basic idea was used, not because I was reading a full-fledged fair-play mystery.

It’s interesting that a few characters in these stories have names that Carr later re-used in novels; they’re definitely different people, though. Sir John Landervorne, a character in the Bencolin novel The Lost Gallows, appears in three of the four stories.

Bencolin had one further case published in The Haverfordian: a short novel titled “Grand Guignol”, which was later expanded into the full-length It Walks by Night. It would be interesting to compare the two versions of the story, but the shorter one is not in The Door to Doom, and I don’t know of any place where it has been reprinted. (Update: as you’ll see in the comments, it’s available online.)

The Case of…

In the course of his career, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 82 novels and four short stories about Perry Mason. All had titles on the pattern The Case of the [Adjective] [Noun]. He wasn’t the first to use this pattern, but it became so associated with Mason that I’m surprised other writers ever dared use it. Some did, though, and here’s a look at the best “cases” in my library. Interestingly, they all came out within a decade of each other; I guess after a while “The Case of…” became Gardner’s almost exclusively. To keep some balance, I’m only going to include one Mason in the list…

The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) by John Dickson Carr – If you read Carr, you probably already know that this is one of Dr. Gideon Fell’s greatest cases, with two different locked-room murders and a memorable setting in the Scottish Highlands during World War Two. If you don’t read Carr, this would be a great place to start.

The Case of the Crooked Candle (1944) by Erle Stanley Gardner – I haven’t found most of the Perry Mason mysteries I’ve read to be all that impressive considered as detective stories – the plots have plenty of twists and turns, and of course there are usually some entertaining goings-on in the courtroom, but only rarely do I finish one thinking I had a fair chance at the solution. Well, here’s one of the exceptions – when it was published, Anthony Boucher called this story of murder on a yacht “an intricate puzzle of tide movements which would delight Freeman Wills Crofts”. And any Crofts fan ought to check it out. 

The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) by Edmund Crispin – Crispin’s first novel, starring Oxford professor Gervase Fen, who would go on to become his series detective. This is one of his better ones, with a clever impossible crime, a vivid array of suspects and a vivid backdrop of Oxford University in wartime (World War Two seemed to bring out the best in a lot of mystery writers). The main weakness, surprising since it’s one of those books where the murder victim was widely hated, is that the murderer’s motive seemed pasted-on.

That said, I have one other thing to get off my chest about Gilded Fly. Chapter One introduces us to, among other characters, a famous playwright named Robert Warner and “his Jewish mistress, Rachel West”. Since nothing is made of Rachel’s Jewishness throughout the rest of the book – it isn’t even mentioned – I do wonder why he brought it up in the first place. Maybe I’m just a little hyper-aware after coming across the real anti-Semitism in other mysteries from this period. 

The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937) by Anthony Boucher – Boucher’s first novel and my favourite among them, even if it isn’t his best on technical grounds. Fast-paced, suspenseful, the jokes are funny – my only real complaint is that the detective, Dr. John Ashwin, didn’t appear again in a published novel. (There’s an unpublished novel in the Boucher papers that stars him, as well as a single short story… I hope they are released to the world one day. Also, at the end of Seven there’s a reference to another Ashwin case, apparently involving an impossible murder on a funicular railway – I don’t know if Boucher had an actual idea for this one or just intended it as a Conan Doyle-type throwaway reference; I suspect the latter.)

The Case of the Turning Tide (1941) by Erle Stanley Gardner – I said I would only include one Perry Mason book in this entry, but Gardner wrote a few books with this title pattern that didn’t have Mason in them. This one and the later Case of the Smoking Chimney star one Gramps Wiggins, a colourful old coot who I suspect would have got along famously with Sir Henry Merrivale the way Harry Truman did with Winston Churchill. I wish Gramps had appeared in a few more novels, and I wish Gardner had plotted more of his books the way he did this one – not as many surprise twists as in a Mason (or a Selby or a Lam & Cool), but a solid and convincing mystery. 

Columbo: Season Two (Part 2)

Concluding our look at Columbo’s second season. Part one is here.

“Requiem for a Falling Star” by Jackson Gillis

Former movie queen Nora Chandler (Anne Baxter) once produced a movie and did a lot of creative accounting while doing it. Gossip columnist Jerry Parks (Mel Ferrer) knows too much about it; Nora sets a deathtrap…

In many ways this is a typical Columbo, with a perfect crime and several plot twists before the killer is arrested, but somehow there’s less to chew on than in most episodes. I think it’s because there’s nothing really new here – the murder isn’t particularly ingenious, and the twists were all pretty familiar ones, even on TV, by 1973. It adds up to an acceptable, forgettable outing.

“A Stitch in Crime” by Shirl Hendryx

Dr. Barry Mayfield (Leonard Nimoy), heart surgeon, knows he could really go places with his research if only his superior, the eminent Dr. Edmund Heidemann (Will Geer), weren’t holding him back with his conservative approach. When Heidemann himself needs a cardiac operation, Mayfield sabotages the procedure so that the patient will die in a few days, apparently of natural causes. Nurse Sharon Martin (Anne Francis) catches on to what Mayfield is doing, so now he has another murder to plot…

It’s interesting that several of the best Columbos were written by authors who never did another episode. “A Stitch in Crime” is one of them. While the medical background is vital to the plot, it never gets confusing, and is the source of several ingenious clues. And the way Columbo springs the final trap on Mayfield gives us one of the show’s cleverest endings.

And a word about the performances of Falk and Nimoy. For once, Columbo is up against an opponent so very arrogant that at one point he actually shows a moment of raw anger. It’s a startling departure and would not work nearly as well if Nimoy hadn’t set it up by being wonderfully insufferable for the past hour.

“The Most Dangerous Match” by Jackson Gillis, based on a story by Gillis, Richard Levinson and William Link

Grandmasters Emmet Clayton (Laurence Harvey) and Tomlin Dudek (Jack Kruschen) are in Los Angeles to play for the chess championship of the world. The night before the opener, they bump into each other at a restaurant and play an impromptu game. Dudek wins so handily that Clayton decides to kill him in a staged accident rather than face humiliating public defeat…

This episode was clearly inspired by the 1972 chess championship contested by Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, but the fictional players in this episode are entirely original characters. Clayton is unusually nervous and insecure for a Columbo killer, and Dudek is a sympathetic and grandfatherly grandmaster who gets more screen time than most of the show’s murder victims. Clayton’s scheme and Columbo’s unraveling are both clever, but the ending is problematic. And since I can’t discuss it intelligently without committing a massive spoiler, I’m going to put the next paragraph in rot-13. 

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“Double Shock” by Steven Bochco, based on a story by Jackson Gillis, Richard Levinson and William Link

Identical twins Dexter and Norman Paris (Martin Landau) both need money and lots of it, but though we see one of them kill their wealthy uncle, we don’t know which one it was. Columbo faces his first (from our perspective) whodunit, albeit one with only two suspects.

A clever variation on what had already become the “classic” Columbo formula, and Martin Landau is good in any role, but the chain of reasoning that leads our hero to the solution isn’t one the viewer has a real chance to come up with independently.

So the second half of Columbo’s second season give us one gem, one bog-standard TV mystery, and two episodes that are flawed but still well worth watching.

To be continued with Season Three eventually…