Diagnosis Impossible - Edward D. Hoch

During the late 90s someone in the Swedish publishing world had a brainwave and started publishing a couple of short story collections with Edward D. Hoch. As I think everyone could have foreseen, this couldn't last, and the attempt at introducing Hoch to Swedish mystery readers was aborted after four collections had been published.

But, within those four collections we managed to get quite a few of interesting stories by the versatile Mr. Hoch. And the relevance for this post is that the entire content of Hoch's first collection of Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories - "Diagnosis Impossible", if you hadn't guessed - was translated into Swedish.

Hoch has several characters he's made into series regulars. They all have some kind of hook that differentiate them from the other characters: Simon Ark has cases that touch upon the occult and the religious, Captain Leopold has the cases that need to be investigated by the police, Rand is the spy, Nick Velvet is the gentleman (well...) thief, and so on.

But what interests us most here is that the Sam Hawthorne stories are all of the impossible crime variety. It has to be said that almost all Hoch characters have had to deal with impossible crimes from time to time, but Hawthorne gets them all the time. Over time, there were a bit more than 70 cases for Hawthorne to cut his teeth on, and all except the final fifteen have been published in collections by Crippen & Landru. All stories are called "The Problem of..." - with one single exception, which we'll return to in a later post.

"Diagnosis Impossible" starts off with the oft anthologised "... the Covered Bridge". In it, dr Sam - as he's called by everyone in the city of Northmont, where most of his cases take place - is in his car following a young man driving a horse and carriage, but when Hawthorne and his fellow passenger reach the covered bridge, the tracks in the snow just end and the man, horse and wagon simply disappear.

It's a lovely setup, and the explanation is nothing to sneeze at either. Hoch plants the relevant clues so we as readers can - but won't! - pick up on them. A very good introduction to a wonderful series of stories.

Next comes "... the Old Gristmill", wherein an author is preparing to leave Northmont, and asks Sam to transport his trunk to the station. Later that same night, the old mill burns down and the author is found dead inside. And when Dr Sam retrieves the trunk to see if there are any clues inside, it's quite empty...

This wasn't quite as good as its predecessor. The trick used here is of the kind that a reader has to question - could anyone really get through with that without anyone realising? The solution to the impossibility itself is not the greatest either. So, in all a bit of a disappointment here.

"... the Lobster Shack" is better. Dr Sam is invited to the wedding of a colleague's daughter. At the wedding party, the featured entertainment is a magician whose escape routine becomes something different when he is found dead in the shack he was supposed to escape from...

I've always liked these "escape from chains and locks" stories. The solution to the impossibility is enjoyable, though slightly technical. An improvement on the previous story.

In "... the Haunted Bandstand" the mayor of Northmont is killed - you will soon notice that being the mayor of this town is not a particularly desirable position to have - just as he's supposed to make a Fourth of July speech. He is stabbed by the supposed bandstand ghost, right in front of everyone.

And that's the problem. Hoch writes it all very well, but there's just no chance that you can get me to believe that the trick used for the impossibility would work in front of such a crowd as we have here.

Dr. Sam is travelling by train when an impossible murder takes place in "... the Locked Caboose". Inside the caboose is a solitary guard who is found stabbed to death, and the valuable jewels that were stored in a safe have been stolen.

Dr. Sam is lucky the train had so few passengers, otherwise he'd probably have had a harder time finding the culprit. The explanation for the impossibility is fairly obvious for the experienced reader, but Hoch still manages to work it all into a fine story.

Northmont also has a small school, and in "... the Little Red Schoolhouse", one of the boys suddenly vanish while out on the schoolyard between classes. Even though a teacher kept her eyes on him almost the entire time, she couldn't see any sign of where he vanished to. And then the parents get a ransom letter...

Again, this is one of those stories where you have to question if that kind of misdirection really would work. Still, Hoch turns a run-of-the-mill kidnap story into something more exciting and makes it all worthwhile in the end.

The next story is "... the Christmas Steeple" where we have a band of gypsies who suddenly appear in Northmont. They are invited into church by the friendly pastor, but after the service is over Dr. Sam and sheriff Lens see the pastor go up in the steeple. They follow him, but when they reach him at the top he is dead - stabbed by a gypsy dagger - and only the leader of the gypsy band is there with him.

Now, this is only an impossible mystery if you believe that the gypsy leader is not the murderer, so of course we don't... It's yet another example of that questionable misdirection, but I can just about see that it might have worked in this case. Hoch manages to cram in quite a lot on these few pages, it's a joy to behold.

Then, as a kind of homage to Jacques Futrelle's famous short story "Cell No. 13" we get "...Cell 16". In this story, a wanted criminal is arrested in Northmont, and sheriff Lens puts him inside his new jail, while waiting for the Boston police to come and transport him away. Nonetheless, one night later the criminal has somehow managed to escape from his locked cell.

The Futrelle homage mainly amounts to a shoutout to the story - there really isn't that much in common between the stories otherwise. The explanation to the disappearance of the criminal is actually all right, I guess. I do think that Hoch takes some liberties with the way he tells the story that makes it appear that certain moves by the criminal were not possible and then the solution just says that it was possible after all. So, maybe a bit of a cheat in that regard.

"... the Country Inn" comes next. Here, the owner of the titular inn is murdered. His manager tells a tall tale about robbers who came to rob the inn, but having shot the owner turned and ran out through the kitchen door. Only problem is - that door was locked and could not have been opened.

The solution uses the reader's expectations against him/her. Some would call it a cheat, but I think it just about works. In that regard, it's a bit unfortunate that it follows the previous story, though.

The next story, "... the Voting Booth", makes up for all that though. In it, a newcomer to Northmont is challenging sheriff Lens for the sheriff position. During the election, he enters the booth to put down his vote, but when he exits, he has a stab wound and dies. Yet the knife cannot be found, though a thorough search is carried out.

This is a great story. Hoch manages to get in several false leads and red herrings to thoroughly confuse the reader, and then it turns out that the solution is so very simple and elegant. I'll dock one point because the reason for the impossibility is a little far-fetched.

"... the County Fair" has another great impossible setup. The people of Northmont are planning to bury a time capsule, and everyone is putting different things in it. However, a man disappears and when the capsule is dug up the next day he is found within it.

The setup is great, but I think the solution is a slight letdown. It's a bit too mechanical and the killer had to do a whole bunch of stuff that seems... well, it's just a bit too much. Still, it's not a bad story for all that. The motive works, the setup is great, as I said, and all in all it's a pretty great story.

The final story, "...the Old Oak Tree", continues the winning streak. A film crew has come to Northmont to film some aerial scenes on a field outside the town. A stuntman jumps out of the plane with a parachute, but manages to land in a tree. And when Dr. Sam and everyone else reaches him, he is dead...

This was the very first Hawthorne story I read, and what a great introduction. The solution is perfect in its simplicity. As always with this type of revelation, one has to wonder why on earth the victim would help his killer the way he did, but I guess it's kind of a genre convention that we don't scrutinize it too closely. A killer story, nonetheless.


This is not the best of the Hawthorne collections - we'll get there - but it's still darn tooting good! Hoch manages to use quite varied impossible setups and solutions, so you never feel that you get the same story over and over, which is always a risk.Yes, it is obvious that there is a difference in quality between the lesser works and the great ones, and that difference is also bigger here than in Hoch's later Hawthorne stories.

Nevertheless, at this point I think I'll just make things easy for myself and include everything in my project. The stories really are good enough to my mind.

The Puzzle Doctor over at "In Search of the Classical Mystery Novel" had a quick look at this collection quite a few years ago: https://classicmystery.wordpress.com/2010/12/23/diagnosis-impossible-the-problems-of-dr-sam-hawthorne-by-edward-d-hoch/


  1. I'm remiss in still not reading a Hoch colletion beyond his Sherlock Holmes storie -- something I need to address, I'm aware. Okay, I shall schedule some of Hoch's impossibilities as soon as I get my hands on a copy of a collection, because as a locked room fan I acknowledge how slapdash it is of me not to've read him yet. Watch this space...

  2. You certainly should.

    There's nothing wrong with his Holmes collection (in fact, it has at least one impossible mystery that I can remember) and I think he is quite good at the "Holmes voice", but his own characters are more fun to me.

    You'll see the three other Hawthorne collections here over the coming days.