The fourth volume of Dr. Sam Hawthornes cases contains the penultimate batch of stories about the good doctor. All signs point to the fifth and final collection to be published by Crippen & Landru in the not too far future, something we all look forward to, I think.
In these tales we get to follow Dr. Sam and his new nurse Mary throughout the late 30s and the march towards WWII. It's fair to say that Mary has a bigger role to play than Sam's previous nurse, April. Sometimes, it's even Mary who explains the impossibilities. It's interesting to follow this development through the stories.
Interestingly, the book shares its name with an anthology edited by Mr. Hoch. We'll return to that anthology later, I promise.
The first story is "... the Country Church". Sam is invited to the christening of former nurse April's first child, young Sam. Dr. Sam is going to be the godfather of the child, and together with the godmother - an old friend of April's - they carry the infant into the church in a bassinet which is put down on the pew next to them. However, when they are about to bring the baby to the blessing, there's just a doll in the bassinet.
So, a problem that hits close to home for Dr. Sam who now has to help his old friend to find out who took the baby, and how it wsa done. The impossibility isn't all that hard to solve, so it's good that Hoch imbues the story with some extra tension for Sam, knowing the victims as he does.
In "... the Grange Hall", a jazz band has come to Northmont to play on a dance hosted by the Northmont Hospital. One of Sam's doctor colleagues is an old friend of the trumpet player, and after the performance, they have a private conversation in an adjoining room. However, during that conversation, the trumpet player dies, and Sam's friend is found with a hypodermic needle in his hand.
This is another one of those stories that only becomes impossible if we believe the witnesses, but since it's Sam's old friend and colleague I guess we have to. The solution, it must be said, is actually pretty damn good, and well hidden. Hoch manages to pack in quite a deal into a short story.
"... the Vanishing Salesman" is a bit different to the usual Hawthorne fare, and also a homage to the famous Doyle throwaway line about "James Phillimore, who went back to collect his umbrella and vanished without a trace". In this story, it's a salesman who manages to vanish on the porch of a house while Dr. Sam has him in his sights - twice! But he's not the one who turns up dead, it's a different man.
An all right story, this, nothing more. It's obvious who the villain is - Hoch doesn't even care to disguise it - and I think the explanation of the impossibility is a bit far-fetched. Dr Sam should be seasoned enough to pick up on it almost from the beginning, since he was the witness and everything.
"... the Leather Man" is a bit more like it, though. Northmont is haunted by stories about the so called Leather Man, a man wandered around the northeastern part of the USA some 30 years ago. Dr. Sam comes across another wanderer, and they take a room in an inn. When Sam wakes up the following morning, his wanderer friend has disappeared and none of the people they came across the day before will acknowledge that he and Dr. Sam were together.
That's a pretty good impossibility, you gotta admit. And the solution is really good as well. Perhaps a little bit obvious, but I was still scratching my head with only three pages to go. Interestingly, the main part of the story is only tangentially related to a crime. One of the highlights of this volume.
Dr. Hawthorne has to search for a room that vanishes in "... the Phantom Parlor". He gets a phone call from a young girl who's living with her aunt. The aunt is worried about her niece's mental behaviour, and when the girl maintains that she's been up at night and seen a room in the house that simply isn't there the next day, Sam must decide who to believe.
So, is it an impossibility or just an imaginative young girl? The answer becomes fairly obvious after a while, and I'm sure you can guess which it is. But Hoch sets it up beautifully and the explanation is nicely and very fairly clued.
Then we come to "... the Poisoned Pool". Dr. Sam and nurse Mary are invited to Ernest Holland, the local newspaper publisher who's having a clambake. While they're chatting with the guests, the publisher's brother Philip suddenly appears from the swimming pool, which was previously empty. The two brothers argue, and Philip says that he will repeat the impossibility by diving into the pool and then disappear. He does dive into it, but when the guests come closer, he's lying dead at the bottom of the pool - with no one anywhere near.
Another really great impossibility (or rather two), which might just be an homage to a certain John Dickson Carr story. The explanation for these situations are wonderfully imaginative in all its simplicity.
In "... the Missing Roadhouse", a farmer and his wife have been out dancing, and perhaps drinking a glass or five, and on the way home they're getting a bit lost. While on their way, they come across a roadhouse they've never seen before. While turning their car around in the dark, they hit a man with their car. They transport the man to the hospital, but when the police go to find witnesses at the roadhouse, it's vanished!
The solution here is just a bit far-fetched. I think even a somewhat drunk driver would be able to see exactly what the roadhouse was. But the final culprit of the story was well hidden and Hoch managed to pull off a surprise there. So all in all, the story's still a success.
The following tale, "... the Country Mailbox", gives Dr. Sam a problem where he needs to find out why three delivered book packages have disappeared from a mailbox. The problem is compounded when the next package turns out to be a bomb, killing the recepient.
A very nice problem with just enough entanglements to keep this reader on his toes the entire time. I liked the separate explanations that made up a fulfilling whole.
And then we have yet another highlight in "... the Crowded Cemetery". It seems Dr. Sam is a member of the board at the Spring Glen Cemetery - of course he is - and some of the graves are threatened due to rising water in the nearby creek. So, the graveyard workers are ordered to dig up some of the graves to save the remains and re-inter them somewhere else. However, during the digging one Sam notices some blood on one of the coffins. They open it, and inside is one of the other board members.
As you can see, we get yet another fine impossibility here. And the solution lives up to it. There's just one minor detail - the clue that finally points out who the murderer is - that I think is a bit too flimsy. Still, Hoch is definitely on a roll with some great stories here.
In "... the Enormous Owl", Dr. Sam is called out to a farm when it turns out that the farmer has been killed. He is lying alone on a field with a crushed chest, and there are some bird feathers on his body. Could it be an owl that killed him? How else could he have ended up there?
I'm sorry, but I don't see any impossibility in this story. I mean, if there's nothing that could have killed the man on the field, surely the explanation for what happened is obvious? Still, Hoch manages to get in a couple of twists and turns that keeps the reader guessing as far as the murderer goes. So, as a mystery story, it's a good one, but I wouldn't ever call it impossible.
"... the Miraculous Jar" is a bit better in that respect. Sam and Mary are visiting with a couple who recently returned from a visit in the Middle East, where they bought a jar. A woman at the gathering fills the jar with water and both she and Sam drink from it. Soon after the gathering has ended, the woman calls Sam suspecting she has been poisoned. And sure enough, when Sam returns he finds her dead, and the water in the jar has turned into poisoned wine!
Fortunately, there's also no footprints around the house, which explains why this is an impossible story. The murderer could be a bit better hidden, but the rest of the solution is very imaginative.
In "... the Enchanted Terrace", Dr. Sam is at the home of a Ken Ainscott who's got a backyard terrace which is said to be haunted. One evening Dr. Sam is following right behind Ken out on the terrace, and he just disappears, right in front of Sam's eyes!
And then he turns up dead, as I'm sure you could guess. This is to be honest a bit poor, at least solution-wise. I like the build-up to the impossible situation, but it's unfortunately much too easy to spot the killer (there's really only one person you can suspect) and I think the solution to the disappearance is pretty much crap. There's absolutely no way it would have gone so quickly that Sam didn't notice what was happening, at least not the way Hoch describes it. Still, it IS an imaginative way to dispose of a body.
"... the Unfound Door" has another imaginative setup. Sam is visiting a community of nuns together with the mayor of Northmont. Mayor Stokes is out in the garden conversing with the nuns while Sam is making his way over to them. Sam looks away for a moment, and when he looks back the mayor has disappeared, and none of the nuns will confirm that he was there at all.
Yes, you guessed it, it didn't turn out well for the mayor. The most hazardous job in Northmont. I'm in two minds about this story. The solution to the impossible disappearance isn't particularly bad, if perhaps not wholly original. But the reason for the nuns' behaviour is flimsy at best. I mean, come on.
"The Second Problem of the Covered Bridge" is the only Hawthorne story with a slight variation in the title, and that's because Hoch is writing a homage to his own first Dr. Sam story. Northmont is celebrating its centennial, and for some reason, the town has decided that Dr. Sam's first case needs to be re-enacted. So the new mayor is taking the place of the murder victim of that case and drives out onto the covered bridge. This time, however, everyone is watching him drive his horse and cart. And then suddenly a shot rings out and the mayor falls down, dead.
Hazardous, I said? It's literally lethal... I think Hoch had to go through a bit much manoeuvring here to set everything up to look like his first Hawthorne story, but if you can look past that it's quite a fine story. The explanation works, it's actually got a fairly elaborate background that Hoch handles well, and I guess in the end I can accept why the perpetrator did what he did.
We end this volume with "... the Scarecrow Congress". The new mayor announces a competition for the best scarecrow, so several inhabitants exhibit their scarecrows in Congress Park. Meanwhile, Dr. Sam gets a visit from one of the contestants who's telling him about a breakin during the past night. Just one hour later, the contestant turns up dead - inside one of the scarecrows in the park.
Now, there's only one explanation to how a corpse can turn up inside a scarecrow that's been hanging where everyone could see it the whole time. And yet Hoch got me so bamboozled that I didn't stumble upon it. This was a really good story to end the collection with.
Compared with the previous volume, this was a definite step up. There are several really great mysteries here. If I had to rank the four volumes of Hawthorne stories, I might actually rank this first. It's a toss-up between this and collection no. 2, "More Things Impossible". There are one or two low points here, but out of fifteen stories that's not particularly bad.
They will all go into my project, and then I'll have to evaluate whether the non-impossible ones are eligible at all, once I've gathered (and translated) all stories that I want.
The Puzzle Doctor liked this volume as well over on In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: https://classicmystery.wordpress.com/2017/11/10/all-but-impossible-by-edward-d-hoch/