And so we reach the third volume of Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories. These stories are set in the early to mid 30s, and we get to follow the world on the road to war, as it appears to an inhabitant in a small town in north eastern USA.
We also get to follow Dr. Sam's private life - well, at least we get to follow his nurse problems, because his trusted April quits in this volume, and then he has to find a new one. But most of all, we get fifteen impossible crime stories, and that's what we're here to enjoy.
The first story is "... the Graveyard Picnic". Dr. Sam is burying one of his patients. While in the cemetary, he bumps into a young man and woman who are having a little picnic. When Sam approaches them, the woman starts and runs away, in the end falling into the rushing creek.
This story is a bit different from other Dr. Sam cases, because there's no immediate impossible situation for him to solve, it's more of an inexplicable one. There are also several different loose plot points that are only tied together towards the end. It's still a good read, though.
"... the Crying Room" follows. Here the new mayor of Northmont is killed in the titular room at the opening of Northmont's first cinema. He enters the room with Dr. Sam, and suddenly a gunshot rings out, hitting him, even though no one else was present. To compound everything, the day before a man died after confessing to the murder of the mayor.
So, another indication why you wouldn't want to ever be mayor of Northmont... The impossibility is quite fun, but the way it's written, it's fairly easy to spot who's behind it all. Still, I enjoyed the whole setup and the solution is quite fitting.
In "... the Fatal Fireworks" we get another Fourth of July crime. Two brothers own a garage together, but another businessman is trying to get them to sell it. On the National holiday the younger brother is about to set some fireworks off that he just took out of the cabinet, but he can't get the matches to work. The brother goes to help out, but somehow the firecrackers have now turned into a bigger explosive device, killing the older brother and seriously injuring the younger one.
Again, the impossibility is a minor thing in this story - how did the firecrackers turn into dynamite? It's a bit unfortunate, since the impossibilities are the big draw of the Hawthorne stories. For the rest, it's relatively easy to find who the culprit is. Hoch pads it out a bit with FBI agents and whatnot, but the story doesn't quite work, to my mind.
A woman artist is killed in "... the Unfinished Painting". She'd been working alone in her studio since her husband left her earlier the same day, and the room was locked and her housekeeper heard her move about before the murder.
This is a setup we all recognise from many, many other impossible mysteries, and there's really never any doubt about who the murderer is. But Hoch still manages to throw in enough here that the reader cannot ever be completely sure he's not drawing the wrong conclusion.
In "... the Sealed Bottle", Northmont's first cafe is opening. Northmont's new mayor is there with other luminaries, including Dr. Sam, to celebrate. The woman who owns the cafe opens a new sealed sherry bottle and pours a glass to the mayor, but when he drinks it he falls to the floor, poisoned.
To be honest, this is the first original impossible situation we get in this volume. But what a great setup! And the final page is quite nicely written by Hoch - I got a bit of a chill there. Is there still anyone who wants to become mayor of Northmont?
The circus is coming to town in "... the Invisible Acrobat". A troop of trapeze artists are doing their routine when suddenly one of them vanishes in the middle of the performance. Just a day later, his body turns up in a nearby farm - killed.
After a bit of a lull during the early stories in this collection, Hoch is turning on the heat now, because this is another excellent tale with a great impossibility. Sure, the explanation of the impossible disappearance is exactly what I think everyone will suspect, but there's still that whole bit of where the acrobat went and how he turned up dead the next day to explain. Another great story.
"... the Curing Barn" is used by one of the tobacco companies in Northmont. One day, there is a power cut and the owner has his throat cut while surrounded by two of his closest men. And yet none of them saw anything, and the weapon has disappeared!
This is another good 'un. A bit more run of the mill than the previous two stories, perhaps, but Hoch can always be relied on to come up with the goods. In this case, while I'm sure most of you will spot the killer, the explanation for the vanished knife is the really great bit.
When you read the title "... the Snowbound Cabin", you're already bound to get your hopes up for another great winter impossibility. In this case, Dr. Sam and his nurse April are taking a few days off and they travel in his car to an inn in New Hampshire. While there, they go out for a walk with the innkeeper and come across a dead man in a cabin. And guess what, there are no tracks leading to or from the cabin!
We get offered the obvious solution here, but it's a false solution, so Sam has to do some more digging before finding the correct one. That solution is a bit of a stretch, but I guess I can just about accept that the killer could do it. But it's rather coincidental that he then botches the whole suicide plan...
Nurse April leaves Dr. Sam in "... the Thunder Room", so he employs a new one, May (yes, all the obvious jokes are referenced in the story). However, during a thunderstorm - which scares May terribly - a man is killed, and the wife is confident that the killer was May.
So, not a terribly good start to that partnership, and in fact, nurse May isn't Sam's employee after this story. The solution to the impossibility is one of those "Nah, wouldn't ever work in real life", and thus a bit of a disappointment.
In "... the Black Roadster", a gang of robbers hit the Northmont Bank, driving off in a getaway car. When the sheriff and Dr. Sam enter the bank, they find the manager shot to death.
This is hardly an impossible mystery at all. The only marginally impossible thing is what happened to the getaway car, but that's only an impossibility because of the way Hoch decided to end the tale. But otherwise, this is a fine mystery. Dr. Sam even gets the whole thing wrong, and his new acquaintance Mary gets to shine instead.
"... the Two Birthmarks" is the next tale of the collection, wherein Dr. Sam is showing his new nurse around the hospital. They meet a few of the patients, and then go to take in a show where they find a ventriloquist with a dummy that looks just like one of the patients. Someone takes a hammer to the dummy, crushing its head, and the next day, Dr. Sam is informed that someone attacked the hospital patient the same night. A nurse goes missing, and is later found dead.
So, an interesting and quite original setup here. However, I never really had any doubt as to what was going on. The main thread of the investigation stood clear to me. But Hoch still managed to work in some extra stuff that kept me guessing, so I still enjoyed the whole thing.
During one of Dr. Sam's visits "... the Dying Patient" suddenly dies from poison, and now he has to start another investigation to clear himself from suspicion.
Since it was Dr. Sam himself who administered the glass of water and the pill she was taking, only we as readers (and he himself) know that it's an impossible mystery. Hoch does good here. Because of the setup, there's not many who could have killed the old lady, and yet he still manages to pull of a bit of a surprise with the whole situation. All in all, I found it pretty good.
In "... the Protected Farmhouse", a man is killed inside his own home which is surrounded by several fences, and to top it all off there was an FBI man sitting guard outside the house the entire time - and yet he saw no one who entered the house.
One of the main problems with short stories is that if the author puts in some extraneous characters who do things that seem totally separate from the main plot, either they'll turn out be just that, utterly irrelevant, which is incredibly irritating to the reader, or it will be the other alternative - that they are implicated in the crime, and that can never come as a true surprise to the reader. As you might guess, this story is one example of that. And that's unfortunate, because the impossible situation is great, and on the whole, I think that Hoch creates a solution that lives up to it. Okay, the motive for creating the impossible situation is admittedly crap, but otherwise it works out nicely.
"... the Haunted Teepee" is one of Hoch's crossover stories. Here, we get a meeting between Dr. Sam and Ben Snow, another of Hoch's main problem solvers. Hawthorne gets a visit from Snow who's heard that the former has a good reputation for solving impossible crimes. So Snow tells a tale from 1890, when he was riding through the Dakota plains. He's invited to stay with a band of Sioux indians, who tell him stories about the chiefs teepee - about how it's haunted and how men have died inside it. Then during the night the chief dies in his teepee, and only his daughter-in-law was present. Yet she saw nothing.
It's fun to get this type of story (Hoch has written one or two others), but the solution to at least one of the deaths isn't that hard to figure out. Since Ben Snow is supposed to be a good detective as well, it does beg the question how he couldn't solve it himself. But the whole story is quite involved, so I guess I'll forgive him.
The final story of this collection is "... the Blue Bicycle", where some teenagers are out riding their bikes. One of them speeds ahead a bit, but when the others go around the turn they can only see her bicycle lying along the road and she is nowhere to be found. Several days later, a young woman is found dead, but it's not the same girl...
This is a pretty damn good impossibility, with an equally fine solution. Hoch manages to get you guessing the entire way through and gets in a surprise or two along the way as well. A fine way to end this volume.
This might be the most uneven of the Hawthorne collections. As I've said before about Hoch, he will always have something in his stories that makes them worthwhile, but some of the earlier stories in this volume are a bit slight, to be honest.
Still, as you've probably guessed, I'd find it hard to remove one of the Hawthorne stories from my impossible collection, because they form a great whole. So again, the plan is to use them all.
Over on Beneath the Stains of Time, TomCat had this to say about this volume: http://moonlight-detective.blogspot.se/2016/01/far-from-impossible.html
The PuzzleDoctor over on In Search of the Classical Mystery Novel is quite agreed with both TomCat and me: https://classicmystery.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/nothing-is-impossible-further-problems-of-dr-sam-hawthorne-by-edward-d-hoch/