Challenge the Impossible - Edward D. Hoch

Things have been a bit sporadic here on the blog the last few weeks, mainly because it's summer. And after this post, I will take a longer summer holiday, which means that you should not expect new posts here during at least July and August. Cue Cliff Richard song from 1963 here.

However, before this well-deserved time off, I will leave off with the final collection of stories in the Dr. Sam Hawthorne saga by short story maestro Edward D. Hoch. "Challenge the Impossible" collects the final fifteen Hawthorne tales, all published in the 00s and now collected by the always reliable Crippen & Landru. As always, all stories are called "The Problem of..."

We start off with "... Annabel's Ark", wherein a new veterinarian has moved to Dr. Sam's corner of the world, and one night someone kills a cat in her establishment - even though there was no way of entering the building.

A slight-ish tale to begin with, which mainly seems to exist so Dr. Sam can meet his future wife Annabel. Of course Hoch tries to inject the story with a bit more so we're not just stuck with the impossible killing of a siamese cat, but I don't think he really succeeds with this one. A bit of a disappointment, to be honest.

"... the Potting Shed" follows. In this story, a man is killed in his potting shed and the only means of entry and escape is a small window. Most suspects can alibi each other, and the only other suspect is a pregnant woman...

This is definitely a bit better, though I'm not convinced by Hoch's solution here. It's audacious and will make the reader's eyes bulge, but I don't think it works, because it assumes that Dr. Sam is rather stupid.

In "... the Yellow Wallpaper", Dr. Sam has lost his previous nurse, Mary, who goes off to join the war effort, but is saved by the return of old nurse April. In this tale Dr. Sam comes across a woman who's been locked into her attic by her husband because she is mentally not all there. However, as he comes for another visit, the woman has suddenly disappeared from the locked attic.

We haven't had the best of starts to this collection, and this tale is not entirely convincing either. The trick played to explain the vanishing... I just don't think that it would fool two reasonably clever people. I'm not going to say that it's a total loss - I think we're on an upwards trajectory here - but it would have been a lesser effort in any of the previous Hawthorne collections.

In "... the Haunted Hospital", a patient is complaining about seeing a ghost in her room for two nights running. Then, a little later, another woman is found dead inside the same room - even though it was under watch during the entire night.

Now we're getting somewhere. The culprit is easily found, and the subplot about the robber is a bit hokey, but this had a working solution. Not one of the greatest Hawthorne tales, but an entertaining read.

"... the Traveler's Tale" gives us a story where a hiker reports having seen a man and a woman dead in a house somewhere off in the woods. When sheriff Lens and Dr. Sam come to investigate, it turns out that the entire house is locked and sealed.

This is clearly the best tale so far, giving us a true locked room mystery (or even a "locked house"). Again, I don't think the villain is very well hidden, but the solution to the impossibility makes up for that.

Dr. Sam and Annabel are newly married in "... Bailey's Buzzard", and are visiting on a ranch belonging to a friend of Annabel's. When Annabel and her friend are out riding, the latter suddenly vanishes into thin air - only to turn up murdered some distance away.

I liked the setup of the problem here, but felt some disappointment with the solution. I'm sure it was just me, but it felt to me that Hoch obfuscated some information that would have helped the reader in solving the crime. Mind you, it's not a total loss, I just have some reservations about parts of the narrative.

"... the Interrupted Séance" gives us a married couple are trying to come into contact with their son who's gone missing after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor - well, it's mainly the wife who wants to - and have engaged a medium to conduct a séance. But even though Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens are right outside the room where the séance takes place, the medium is somehow killed and no weapon can be found inside the room.

So, not a whole lot of suspects here, and I think the motive is almost impossible for the reader to work out. And yet this is a very entertaining tale with some fine misdirection by Hoch. He introduces a couple of extra characters just to keep the reader guessing, and the explanation of the impossibility isn't bad either.

In "... the Candidate's Cabin", Sheriff Lens is about to contest his last election. His competition is fighting a bit dirty, and one morning the sheriff gets a distress call from the campaign manager. When Sheriff Lens arrives he is lying dead in his cabin, and all signs point to Lens being the murderer...

Another really good story here where everything looks very black for Sheriff Lens until Dr. Sam comes to a late rescue. The motive is perhaps a little bit too obscure, but that doesn't really stop this from begin the highlight so far.

Northmont's having a war-bond rally to support the military efforts in "... the Black Cloister", and an actor with ties to the town has been invited by the mayor. However, as the event begins, a man comes at him with a gun - loaded with blanks - and the actor falls over, dead.

This is structured a bit differently than other Hawthorne stories. There's hardly a crime in it - there's a subplot where Dr. Sam becomes interested in a fire that killed a young man, and this subplot is where the impossibilites come in. However, that being said, it's still a very good story, very entertaining and also perhaps a bit more plausible than several other stories in the Hawthorne saga. Also, the mayor survives this tale, so that's gotta count for something too, right?

In "... the Secret Passage", Dr. Sam is pressured into taking on the role of "Unlock Homes", collecting scrap metal as another initiative for the war effort. Along with some newspaper reporters, he visits an old man who has a secret passage between his study and his bedroom. However, just a little later, the old man is found dead in his study, which is locked and seal - even the secret passage!

The solution is so easy and yet satisfying. The main drawback here is that the motive is entirely hidden and just revealed during the denouement which makes it incredibly hard for the reader who wants to play along and find the murderer. But a very clever story nonetheless.

A young man is despondent because he is about to be drafted, and this at the same time as his girlfriend has found out that he is pregnant. So, after a night on the town, he is driven home by Dr. Sam when he escapes from the car and dives into "... the Devil's Orchard". And even though the exits are being watched and there are no tracks leading to the wall surrounding the orchard, he simply cannot be found the next day when the whole place is searched.

The solution felt just a tad like a cheat, to be honest. I don't think the clueing gives the reader much chance to find out how the miracle was worked. It's a fine problem and a fine story, I just feel that Hoch could have done better with his misdirection here.

A man with delusions and a leg in a cast claims that "... the Shepherd's Ring" can make him invisible. And as he has a major grudge towards a neighbour, there's some worry that something might befall the latter. So Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens are guarding the neighbour's house when one night they see the delusional man outside the door - and when they enter, the neighbour is dead...

This was fun. Perhaps it's a bit too easy to find the culprit - the cast of characters is a bit too skimpy to hide the villain in - and I don't think this scheme could have worked in a million years, but the explanation to the impossibility is nevertheless not bad.

Dr. Sam and Annabel take a bit of a holiday in "... the Suicide Cottage", a building where at least two people have been found dead after taking their own lives. Unfortunately, Sam and Annabel go out for dinner, but as they return one of their neighbours is hanging dead from the ceiling in their living room, even though the house was locked and no one could have entered.

This is another highlight of the collection. The only drawback is the killer hiding where they did, which stretches plausibility too far. The rest of the story, the setup, the impossibility, the characters, the explanation, etc. is very good indeed.

In "... the Summer Snowman", a young man is found killed in his own house. Dr. Sam is one of the first on the scene, but he cannot find any weapon in the house, where the doors were locked and bolted.

Another fine story, with yet another motive that is much too hidden from the reader who wants to play along. However, the culprit stands out somewhat, because I think Hoch is a bit obvious in some of his clueing.

And then we get to the final Hawthorne story, "... the Secret Patient", in which a war prisoner is placed in Northmont's hospital, with Dr. Sam being responsible for his well-being. However, the prisoner is killed one night by poisoning, even though he was not given anything that was not tasted by any of the guards.

Yeah... Unfortunately, Dr. Sam didn't really get to go out on a high. Everything here is much too obvious - I don't know, is there really anyone who won't realise who the prisoner is? Or for that matter, who the culprit is? The only good bit is how the poison was administered, which is clever. I only wish it was married to a better tale.


This is perhaps the weakest of the Hawthorne collections - it starts off  badly and finishes with one of the stories that are easiest to see through. That doesn't mean that this is a total washout - not by any means! There are a number of very fine stories (everything from "... the Interrupted Séance" to "... the Suicide Cottage" is a very entertaining read), and it's obvious that Hoch's imagination was flowing freely even in his later years. If you liked the earlier collections, there's absolutely no reason why you shouldn't get this one as well.

It's been a privilege to follow along with the Hawthorne saga, and it's with some sadness and melancholy that I finished the final tale here. But Crippen & Landru have promised further collections from Hoch - there's at least three in the pipeline - and even though they won't feature exclusively impossible crimes, I am 100 % certain that they will give us a lot of entertaining and puzzling mysteries.

As usual, TomCat likes all the wrong stories - and dislikes all the wrong ones as well - but he seems to have enjoyed this volume just as much as I did, over on Beneath the Stains of Time. The Puzzle Doctor over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel is much more correct in his evaluations of the individual stories. :)

Let me wish you all a wonderful summer, and I'll see you again here when we reach the autumn months!