Stray impossibilites - part Hoch

This final part of these stray impossibilities is dedicated to one of the masters of the impossible short story - Ed Hoch. He wrote so many impossibilities that there's a lot of them that haven't been collected in anthologies or collections dedicated to impossible mysteries.

Here, we will go through a number of Hoch stories. Most can be found in the numerous Hoch collections published so far, though a couple haven't been collected - at least not yet.

Captain Leopold and the Ghost Killer (1974)

A woman has been killed, and five witnesses swear that it was her husband who was the murderer. Problem is: the husband himself died in a car crash the same evening, before the killing took place!

A very clever setup which Hoch handles with panache, delivering a very good solution to explain it all. Leopold is one of my favourite Hoch characters, grounded yet able to see through many a tangled web.

China Blues (2007)

International couriers Stanton & Ives are sent to China with a package of medicines and supplies. When they arrive, it turns out that the recipient has been kidnapped by a local warlord who demands to see the package. But when it's opened there is only blank paper inside.

To call this an impossible crime is perhaps a bit too much - and the solution also shows that Hoch probably never really focused on that part. His Stanton & Ives aren't really suited for this subgenre, bordering on being hard-boiled mysteries.

The Gravesend Trumpet (2005)

Simon Ark is told of a trumpet that is said to hail from ancient Egypt. When it was found, someone blew on it and died almost immediately, from old age even though he was only in his forties. The present owner is heard to blow on it as well, and when Simon and his companions enter the room, she is found dead - many years older than she actually was.

Yeah, the aging bit doesn't hold water at all - as soon as any expert investigated it would have been exposed - but otherwise this is a cleverly crafted story with a bit of an extra surprise towards the end. Well worth reading.

Gypsy Gold (2007)

A gold mining corporation has come to Michael Vlados part of the world, and he travels to meet one of their representatives. They enter a mechanic's office, and suddenly the representative keels over and turns out to be dead from a knife wound. But Michael was alone with him at the time.

This impossibility is not too bad. As usual it's never too hard to solve this kind of setup, and I do question whether the murderer would actually have brought the murder weapon the way he did. But otherwise a fine story, and it's interesting to note that it's actually not Michael Vlado who solves it.

The Hoofs of Satan (1956)

Simon Ark is investigating a case in Britain where tracks of something that looks like hoofs have been left in the snow.

This is one of Hoch's earliest stories, and it's clearly noticeable that he hadn't yet settled on his writing style. This is much more florid than the style he would later adopt - lots and lots of ellipses... The impossible situation is actually treated almost as a secondary matter - it's not really clear there is an impossible situation until Ark actually reveals the solution. It's still a very good story, it just could have been improved a bit if the impossibility was placed as the lynchpin of the whole thing.

The Leopold Locked Room (1971)

Captain Leopold is somewhat reluctant to visit the wedding reception of a couple of relatives, because he knows his ex-wife will be there. While there, she drags him aside to have it out with him, and then suddenly a shot rings out and she dies. And the forensic technicians are certain that the bullet comes from Leopold's gun!

One of my favourite Hoch impossibilities, this is a true classic. It's not all that hard to find the solution for a reader who is well versed in impossible crimes, but Hoch keeps the reader's attention by focusing on the sticky situation that Leopold has ended up in. Really good stuff.

A Melee of Diamonds (1972)

A robber breaks the glass of a storewindow and gets away with a handful of diamonds. He is immediately followed by a bystander and is wrestled to the ground. But even though he had no opportunity to get rid of the jewels, they simply cannot be found.

Another Captain Leopold case. This is perhaps a touch slighter than the previous one, but still a really good read. Hoch sets up a false solution that most readers will probably fall for, only to turn everything on its head for the final reveal.

The Oblong Room (1967)

Captain Leopold and Sergeant Fletcher are called to a dorm room where a young man has recently been found stabbed to death. His room mate has been sitting there for eleven hours next to the corpse, but is he really the killer?

Is this really an impossible crime? Weeeeell, probably not. But it easily could have been, though if it were, it would have robbed the story of its incredibly powerful ending. One of Hoch's very best stories.

Paris Masque (2004)

Retired spy Jeffrey Rand attends a masquerade in the Eiffel Tower, where Swedish magnate Ivor Lindgrad is the guest of honour. Just before the unmasking, the lights are turned out and when the light returns Lindgrad is found dead with a bullet wound between the eyes. And yet no one heard a shot...

Rand doesn't have too many impossible crimes to solve, focussing more on cryptograms and ciphers. But this is an okay case for him. The solution to the impossibility is merely all right, no fireworks. Hoch is never truly disappointing, but this is fairly run-of-the-mill for him. And that name is never Swedish.

The Return of the Speckled Band (1987)

Sherlock Holmes returns to Stoke Moran, the setting of his most famous case half a year after it was closed. A man feels that he and/or his wife are being threatened by his brother, who is reputed to have taken care of a deadly snake. When Holmes comes to Stoke Moran, the man is sitting dead in his sitting room with two puncture wounds in his neck.

Hoch was obviously(?) a better mystery writer than Doyle, because this is a much better story. Even though he has to feature a deadly animal he creates something much more involved and the whole thing comes off as an interesting impossible mystery with a fine solution.

Robe to Mandalay (2004)

Stanton & Ives are hired to transport a bejewelled robe from the US to Burma. When they arrive after a long flight the robe has disappeared from its bag, and not long after they are threatened by robbers.

Again, the impossibility of the story is downplayed quite a bit. The solution is also quite a letdown if you're looking for one of those great Hoch explanations.

Sword for a Sinner (1959)

Simon Ark is called in by a priest in a small town and learns that a cult has taken residence nearby. This seems to be a self-flagellating sect where people come to get tied to a cross and hang there for hours on end. During one of their sessions a local bar owner is killed with a sword while hanging on the cross.

This story is seldom referred to as an impossible one, but surely it is. How could a murderer enter a room full of people hanging on crosses and kill one of them with a sword? Okay, I'm not going to say that the solution is full of fireworks - in fact, the explanation is a bit of a letdown - but I do think the rest of the story makes up for it. At the beginning of his career Hoch could concoct truly bizarre situations - particularly in his Simon Ark stories.

The Theft from the Empty Room (1972) 

Nick Velvet is hired to steal something from a store room, but unfortunately his employer is at the hospital and collapses before he can tell him exactly what. So Nick goes to the store room, only to find it empty... So now he needs to not only manage to set up a theft, but also find out exactly what it is he's supposed to be stealing.

This is kind of an inverted impossible mystery - not in the sense that "inverted mystery" is usually used, but rather that Nick Velvet has to consider the impossible of stealing nothing. It's a very good read, but not quite the impossible mystery that we aficionados tend to look for.

The Theft of the Venetian Window (1975)

Nick Velvet travels to Venice in order to steal a window that is said to be a gateway to another world. He meets the owner who scoffs at this idea, but is not willing to part with his property. But when Nick returns to steal it, the owner is found dead in his locked apartment with his throat cut.

Hoch manages some twists and turns on the way to the solution, but it has to be said that the whole plot is rather far-fetched. But the solution to the impossibility itself is excellent in all its simplicity, so it's still quite an enjoyable yarn.

The Theft of the White Queen's Menu (1983)

Nick Velvet has new competition in the form of Sandra Paris, the White Queen, who is another thief accepting strange or impossible tasks. She has managed to steal the entire furnishings of a room, and later the roulette wheel from a casino. And to cap things off, Nick bets that he will be able to steal her menu without her knowing it.

So, three impossible crimes in one single short story. Yeah! This is great fun, and one of my favourite Nick Velvet stories. (Nick seems to be the favourite Hoch character for many, but I don't particularly like him all that much.) I think the reveal for the theft of the menu is probably the best in all its simplicity, but the theft of all the furniture is also explained in a great way.

Tram to Tomorrow (2004)

Simon Ark is approached by a man who says he's lost an entire day. It seems he was about to place a bet on a boxing fight, but when he exited the tram he took to the casino where the bookmaker worked, it turned out that it was one day later than when he started.

It's definitely an interesting setup, but I think the solution here is rather too involved and implausible for this to be an entirely successful story. Still, Hoch manages to throw in an extra surprise towards the end, so it's not a total loss.

The Vanished Steamboat (1984)

Ben Snow is hired by the female owner of a Mississippi shipping company to find out where her steamboat is. It seems it left Vicksburg, but never reached the next stop, Greenville. Even though people are out searching for it, the vessel simply cannot be found.

This is the only impossible mystery featuring Ben Snow that I've read (apart from the one where he shares the spotlight with Dr. Sam Hawthorne). A simple solution for an original setup. A good read.

The Vanishing of Velma (1969)

A teenager gets on a ferris wheel in an amusement park. Her boyfriend remains on the ground, as he feels poorly. However, he waits in vain at the ground as she never returns from her ride.

Another fine impossibility for Captain Leopold to solve. Hoch turns to the seedier parts of life to come up with the motive to this story, which is clearly of its time. Still, a great solution to a stunner of an impossibility.

The Witch of Park Avenue (1982)

Simon Ark is visited by a lawyer who tells him about one of his clients, an old woman who claims to be a witch. She was visited by her former husband, put a curse on him and some time later he died in somewhat mysterious circumstances. The husband's brother dies some time later, in full view of everone in a rotating door.

It's interesting to contrast this Ark story with the much earlier ones before. By this time, Hoch had found his voice and knew exactly what he was doing. I'm not going to call his writing formulaic, because that's a disservice to the man. Anyway, this is yet another good yarn by one of the masters. Hoch manages to weave in quite a lot in this short story, and also gets in another really good explanation for the impossibility.


As I said in the first post, most of these stories are tales that I like, and I therefore want to include as many as possible in my project. So therefore it's easier to list those stories I won't be using instead.

First, the following by G. K. Chesterton: "The Actor and the Alibi", "The Arrow of Heaven", "The Blast of the Book", "The Curse of the Golden Cross", "The Hammer of God", "The Man in the Passage", "The Red Moon of Meru" and "The Song of the Flying Fish".
Then the following by Jacques Futrelle: "The Lost Radium", "The Crystal Gazer" and "The Roswell Tiara".
A couple by Edward D. Hoch: "China Blues", "The Oblong Room", "Paris Masque", "Robe to Mandalay", "The Theft from the Empty Room", "Tram to Tomorrow"
Finally, I'll skip these three stories as well: Adrian Conan Doyle/John Dickson Carr - "The Adventure of the Deptford Horror", Dorothy Sayers - "Talboys" and Rex Stout - "The Fourth of July Picnic".

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