2018-07-10

The Man at the Top - the short fiction of Edward D. Hoch

On the excellent "Mysteries Ahoy" blog, Aidan very recently had a post on one of Edward D. Hoch's recent short story collections. In the comments section, Aidan asked for recommendations on other Hoch collections. I started typing away, but very soon realised that my reply was much too long for the comments section, and instead I'm formatting the whole thing into a post here on this blog - where the cobwebs need to be cleared out anyway after a long draught.

So, Hoch's short story collections. Let's first discuss Hoch's short story writing, because a man who wrote between 500 and 1000 short stories obviously has some things that are worth discussing.

First, Hoch has several series characters. And by several, I mean lots. And they're not just characters who appeared just here and there, many of them are present in several dozens of stories. Why don't we go through them one after one? I will leave out Dr. Sam Hawthorne, since I've already featured the collections with him here on the blog.

Simon Ark

Simon Ark is Hoch's perhaps 2000 year old sleuth who is seeking the devil and therefore gets involed in many bizarre cases. 2000 years old? Well, that obviously refers to the "wandering Jew" myth, though Ark is a Coptic priest. Look it up at Wikipedia if you want to know more...

Simon Ark was Hoch's first regular detective, and many of the stories are from Hoch's early career when he was more clearly influenced by Carr. And when I say that he was influenced by Carr, I mean writing-wise, not plot-wise. There are a few impossible crimes among the Ark stories, but he's not like Dr. Sam Hawthorne who ONLY solves impossible crimes.

There's three collections with Simon Ark.

CITY OF BRASS 1971
City of Brass
The Vicar of Hell
Hoofs of Satan

THE JUDGES OF HADES 1971

Village of the Dead
The Hour of None
The Witch is Dead
Sword for a Sinner
The Judges of Hades

THE QUESTS OF SIMON ARK 1984

Village of the Dead
The Man from Nowhere
The Vicar of Hell
The Judges of Hades
Sword for a Sinner
The Treasure of Jack the Ripper
The Mummy from the Sea
The Unicorn’s Daughter
The Witch of Park Avenue

As you can see, there's some overlap between the last one and the first two, but you'll need them all if you're a completist.

I like these stories. Ark is one of my favourite Hoch protagonists, and I quite like the somewhat Gothic quality to the earlier stories. (It should be said that as Hoch's writing career progressed, his writing style changed and became more prosaic and matter-of-fact.)

Nick Velvet 

Probably most people's favourite, I've never been quite as interested in Hoch's "gentleman" thief. The word "gentleman" is perhaps not the most appropriate, Nick does some things that a gentleman thief would never do. Velvet's shtick is that he steals only valueless objects, though what is valueless in his eyes may just be incredibly valuable to his employer...

Nick Velvet appears in three different volumes of short stories, though one of them is shared with one other Hoch character, Jeffery Rand. The two collections that are entirely dedicated to Velvet are:

THE THEFTS OF NICK VELVET 1978

The Theft of the Clouded Tiger
The Theft from the Onyx Pool
The Theft of the Toy Mouse
The Theft of the Meager Beavers
The Theft of the Silver Lake Serpent
The Theft of the Seven Ravens
The Theft of the Mafia Cat
The Theft from the Empty Room
The Theft of the Crystal Crown
The Theft of the Circus Poster
The Theft of Nick Velvet
The Theft of the General’s Trash
The Theft of the Bermuda Penny

THE VELVET TOUCH 2000

The Theft of the Venetian Window
The Theft of the Sherlockian Slipper
The Theft of Nothing At All
The Theft of the Four of Spades
The Theft of Cinderella's Slipper
The Theft of Gloria’s Greatcoat
The Theft of the White Queen’s Menu
The Theft of the Overdue Library Book
The Theft of the Cardboard Castle
The Theft of the Faded Flag
The Theft of Leopold’s Badge
The Theft of the Bald Man’s Comb
The Theft of the Snake Charmer’s Basket
The Theft of the Birthday Candles

There's no overlap between the two collections. The final six stories of the later collection all feature Sandra Paris, aka the White Queen, who is one of Velvet's competitor and sometime partner-in-crime. Also note "The Theft of Leopold's Badge", which is a crossover with another one of Hoch's main detectives.

As I said, I'm not quite as fond of the Velvet stories as many others seem to be - he's always referred to as people's favourite Hoch character - but I won't dispute that several of the stories are still very good. There is the odd impossible crime among them, but on the whole they're a varied bunch. Well, as varied as a story can be when they're about a thief who's hired to steal something apparently worthless. I do think that the earlier collection is on the whole better than the later one.

Jeffery Rand

We might as well continue with spymaster Jeffery Rand. He works for some part of the British secret service and therefore  mainly handles cases from that part of the world. They are quite varied, sometimes they are about codes that need to be cracked, sometimes about "regular" murders of spies and defectors, and other times Rand just gets involved in unrelated cases.

Like Nick Velvet, Rand has three collections dedicated to him (one of which is that split collection). Let's begin with the two that are entirely Rand's.

THE SPY WHO READ LATIN 1990

The Spy Who Came to the Brink
The Spy Who Read Latin
The Spy Who Traveled With a Coffin
The Spy Who Collected Lapel Pins
The Spy Who Came Back from the Dead

THE OLD SPIES CLUB 2001

The Spy and the Nile Mermaid
The Spy in the Pyramid
The Spy at the End of the Rainbow
The Spy Who Took a Vacation
The Spy and the Cats of Rome
The Spy in the Labyrinth
The Spy Who Was Alone
The Spy Who Wasn’t Needed
The Spy and the Healing Waters
Egyptian Days
Waiting for Mrs. Ryder
The Old Spies Club
One Bag of Coconuts
The Man from Nile K
The War that Never Was

There's no overlap between these two collections either. The first one collects all the stories with Rand and his Soviet counterpart Taz. The second is a collection of later stories, featuring Rand's later wife Leila.

The first one is short-ish, with just five stories, but are quite interesting as they follow a certain arc and we get to see how Rand and Taz match wits with each other. I'm somewhat less enamoured of "The Old Spies Club". It's never boring, but the stories generally feel a bit run of the mill. They do not capture Hoch at his best.

Let's move on to the collection which is split half-way between Rand stories and Velvet tales.

THE SPY AND THE THIEF 1971

The Spy Who Came to the Brink
The Spy Who Had Faith in Double-C
The Spy Who Took the Long Route
The Spy Who Came to the End of the Road
The Spy Who Purchased a Lavender
The Spy and the Calendar Network
The Spy and the Bermuda Cipher
The Theft of the Clouded Tiger
The Theft from the Onyx Pool
The Theft of the Brazen Letters
The Theft of the Wicked Tickets
The Theft of the Laughing Lions
The Theft of the Coco Loot
The Theft of the Blue Horse

If you've got sharp eyes, you've seen that there is a bit of overlap between this one and the other Velvet & Rand collections. On the whole, this features the best of the Rand stories, and the Velvet stories are also quite good, so I'd recommend this above almost all of their own collections.

Before we leave Rand, I should perhaps mention that there is another collection with many Rand stories. This one is called "Tales of Espionage". I don't have it and haven't read it, but as I understand it, it contains a couple of other spy stories by Hoch and also some stories by other authors. There's some overlap between this and the other Rand collections, but a completist should still want to own it. I know I do.

Captain Jules Leopold

Leopold is Hoch's police problem solver (and his first name is a nod to Georges Simenon's Maigret). In the stories about Leopold we get to follow him and his colleagues over the years. In the final few stories, Leopold is even retired and his former sergeant Fletcher has taken over his position. Apart from Fletcher, female criminal investigator Connie Trent is also present quite often in the Leopold tales - there are even a few stories featuring Trent on her own.

There's just one collection with Leopold stories.

LEOPOLD’S WAY 1985

Circus
Death in the Harbor
A Place for Bleeding
Reunion
The House by the Ferris
The Oblong Room
The Vanishing of Velma
The Rainy-day Bandit
The Athanasia League
End of the Day
Christmas is for Cops
The Jersey Devil
The Leopold Locked Room
A Melee of Diamonds
Captain Leopold Plays a Hunch
Captain Leopold and the Ghost-Killer
Captain Leopold Goes Home
No Crime for Captain Leopold
The Most Dangerous Man Alive

Leopold is also one of my favourite Hoch characters, mainly because many of his cases are great. They're a bit more grounded than the others we've discussed and obviously have some more focus on police procedures and investigative work. But they are still mysteries in the GA vein, rest assured. This is one of my favourite Hoch collections, though since there are so many stories there's the odd one that isn't quite as successful as the rest.

Ben Snow

Ben Snow is Hoch's Western character, a gunman who is sometimes mistaken for Billy the Kid. The Western setting doesn't generally do anything for me, but Snow does have his shares of interesting cases and is a likeable character.

There's one collection of Snow stories.

THE RIPPER OF STORYVILLE 1997

Frontier Street
The Valley of Arrows
Ghost Town
The Flying Man
The Man in the Alley
The Ripper of Storyville
Snow in Yucatan
The Vanished Steamboat
Brothers on the Beach
The 500 Hours of Dr. Wisdom
The Trail of the Bells
The Phantom Stallion
The Sacramento Waxworks
The Only Tree in Tasco

It's quite uneven in quality. There's one fine impossible crime that I've mentioned before here, but the rest are of a varied kind, mysteries of all types and fashions. I'd recommend it mainly for Hoch fans.

Michael Vlado

Vlado is a gypsy from Romania who solves cases of various nature. In later stories he becomes the gypsy "king", which gives Hoch more opportunities to send Vlado all over Europe.

Vlado also has one volume dedicated to him.

THE IRON ANGEL 2003

The Luck of a Gypsy
Odds on a Gypsy
Blood of a Gypsy
The Gypsy Treasure
Punishment for a Gypsy
The Gypsy Wizard
Murder of a Gypsy King
Gypsy at Sea
The Gypsy Delegate
The Iron Angel
The Puzzle Garden
The Gypsy's Paw
The Clockwork Rat
The Starkworth Atrocity
A Wall Too High

This is perhaps Hoch's least successful collection. There's one or two stories here that are quite poor (though of course they're mainly readable, or better), and I'm not sure I think the setting and the character(s) work(s). Generally, Hoch is very successful in his milieus and storytelling, but I don't feel that Hoch truly has the grasp of what gypsy life is.

Sherlock Holmes

Yes, that guy. He's featured in one collection:

THE SHERLOCK HOLMES STORIES 2013

The Most Dangerous Man
The Return of the Speckled Band
The Manor House Case
The Christmas Client
The Adventure of Vittoria, the Circus Belle
The Adventure of the Dying Ship
The Adventure of the Cipher in the Sand
The Christmas Conspiracy
The Adventure of the Anonymous Author
The Adventure of the Domino Club
The Addleton Tragedy
A Scandal in Montreal

It's Sherlock Holmes and it's Ed Hoch, so it's a very fine combination of the world's most famous detective and a master mystery writer. If you like Holmes and you like mysteries, seek this one out.

Other recurring characters

The above characters are the ones who have at least one collection dedicated to them. I've already mentioned that Leopold's sidekick Connie Trent has a couple of stories of her own. But Hoch has several other characters that unfortunately have never been collected. Let's just go through them quickly, for completeness' sake.

Al Darlan - a private eye who gets to solve those crimes that fit a private eye. Perhaps a bit seedier than some other Hoch stories, but still firmly grounded in the GA mystery genre. In one or two stories, he was called Al Diamond before Hoch changed his name to avoid confusion with TV show protagonist Richard Diamond. I've not read too many of these stories, but I can't say that they are my favourites by Hoch.
Alexander Swift - the stories about Swift are set in the late 1700s when the US of A had just come into being. We get to meet several of the important historical figures of the time, and Swift gets to solve some mysteries as well. This is another series that I don't really find all that exciting. I'm sure they are of much more interest for someone who's interested in that turbulent time period.
Susan Holt - had a couple of adventures in the 60s and 70s and was later resurrected again by Hoch to feature in another few stories. Holt is a PR executive for a large department store chain and therefore gets to travel a bit to different places where these stores are situated. Her best cases are really good, and she might be the Hoch character I'd be most interested in seeing a collection with. (Though preferrably I'd like to see them all collected...)
Stanton & Ives - Walt Stanton and Juliet Ives, that is. They are couriers travelling all over the world with items that people want delivered. There's some similarity with the Nick Velvet stories in that our protagonists need to figure out why these items actually need to be transported by courier. The stories are set in the modern world - they were Hoch's last enduring recurring detectives - and I feel that on the whole, their cases are a bit slighter than those of his other characters. Fairly breezy reads, but if you want fireworks you're better off looking elsewhere in the Hoch canon.
Father David Noone - one might expect this character to be an homage to Chesterton's Father Brown, but if he is, I don't really see it. Father Noone travels through the modern urban milieu with some quite seedy cases to solve. I have only read one or two of his stories, so I won't say too much about this character. But I do want to see more.

Other collections

There are three other Hoch collections. These feature stories that do not have any recurring character.

THE NIGHT MY FRIEND 1992

Twilight Thunder
The Night My Friend
The Suitcase
The Picnic People
Day for a Picnic
Shattered Rainbow
The Patient Waiter
Too Long at the Fair
Winter Run
The Long Way Down
Dreaming is a Lonely Thing
In Some Secret Place
To Slay an Eagle
They Never Come Back
The Only Girl in His Life
It Happens, Sometimes
A Girl Like Cathy
What’s It All About?
First Offense
Hawk in the Valley
The Ring with the Velvet Ropes
Homecoming

THE NIGHT PEOPLE 2001

Inspector Fleming’s Last Case
The Man Who Was Everywhere
The Passionate Phantom
The Night People
Festival in Black
I’d Know You Anywhere
The Way of Justice
The Empty Zoo
Ring the Bell Softly
Stop at Nothing
Another War
The Impossible "Impossible Crime"
The Way Out
The Man at the Top
Burial Monuments Three
The Scorpion Girl
The Price of Wisdom
Second Chance
Three Weeks in a Spanish Town
The Rattlesnake Man

THE FUTURE IS OURS 2016

Zoo
The Last Paradox
The Wolfram Hunters
The Times We Had
God of the Playback
Cassidy's Saucer
Unnatural Act
The Boy Who Brought Love
Co-Incidence
Versus
The Future Is Ours
The Forbidden Word
Computer Cops
Night of the Millennium
The Homesick Chicken
The Daltonic Fireman
The Maze and the Monster
The Faceless Thing
In the Straw
The Thing at the Lake
ExĂș
The Weekend Magus
Just One More
Bigfish
Remember My Name
The Last Unicorn
Who Rides with Santa Anna?
The Maiden's Sacrifice
The Other Phantom
Dracula 1944

The first two are quite similar, not just in name but also in content. Both collect stories from the 60s/early 70s. Most of the stories in them are of the thriller type and feature very little detection. And each of them has one impossible crime, both of which are fantastic examples of that sub-genre. Unfortunately, the rest of the stories aren't really my cup of tea at all, but if you enjoy 60s and 70s psychological thriller mysteries, you should enjoy these two a lot.

As for the third collection, it's one I haven't yet read, I just recently bought it. It collects stories with an SF slant - some hard SF, some mysteries. I've read two of the stories previously, but they are so different from each other that I can't really say anything about the general quality here. I can only say that I'm looking forward to reading it...

4 comments:

  1. This is fantastic! I really appreciate all of the work you did listing and grouping these and the commentary you provide. There are several characters and settings that jump out at me - Ben Snow in particular - so I will seek some of those collections out as I make my next steps with Hoch. Thank you (and thanks for the compliment about my blog)!

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and if you were helped by any of it, I'm very pleased.

      Most of these collections are still quite easy to find (on Amazon, for instance), so if you decide to pick any of them up you shouldn't have too many problems finding them.

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  2. Let's see if BlogSpot will do me the favor of linking my actual blog and username after like three tries...

    Excellent list. I'm more fond of The Old Spies Club and The Iron Angel than you are, I admit (although I admit the latter is weaker). I'd be interested in seeing more Hoch collections, but what I really want is The Complete Fiction of Edward D. Hoch. For light reading, obviously.

    I'm now reminded that I need to go through your blog and actually read and comment instead of just skimming, you have great content here.

    ---The Dark One

    (On a side note, from what I've read of Velvet Hoch doesn't always hit the ingenuity I expect, the items usually have an obvious value. But sometimes he hits it, like in "Bronze Letters.")

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    1. As you see the comment was finally put through. I'll keep an eye out for further comments just in case BlogSpot lets them through as well. :)

      Thanks for the kind words. A "Complete Fiction of EDH" would be high on my Christmas wishlist as well, though I'm happy that at least we'll be getting that final fifth Hawthorne collection soon.

      Unfortunately, Crippen & Landru's "Upcoming Releases" page is quite out of date, so I don't know whether we'll ever see that Simon Ark collection they've promised for a while now. Most of the other volumes listed there have been published, so here's hoping.

      For some years they were teasing us with a collection featuring Hoch's female protagonists, but it seems this has fallen through, because now it isn't even listed on that page.

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