Edward D. Hoch | Impossible Crimes | Dr. Sam Hawthorne | Simon Ark | Rand mystery-spy tales | Nick Velvet | Captain Leopold | Michael Vlado, the Gypsy Sleuth | Ben Snow Mystery-Western Stories | Alexander Swift | Susan Holt | Stanton and Ives | Other Series Tales | Plot Structure and Clues
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
The Quests of Simon Ark
Uncollected Simon Ark stories
The Night My Friend
The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Tales
Uncollected Ben Snow stories
Harry Ponder stories
Uncollected Captain Leopold tales
The Spy and the Thief
The Spy Who Read Latin and Other Stories
The Old Spies Club
Uncollected Jeffery Rand stories
Diagnosis: Impossible, The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne
More Things Impossible, The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne
Uncollected Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories
The Thefts of Nick Velvet
The Velvet Touch
Uncollected Nick Velvet stories
The Iron Angel, and Other Tales of the Gypsy Sleuth
Uncollected Michael Vlado, the Gypsy Sleuth stories
Paul Tower, the Lollipop Cop tales
Al Darlan tales
Libby Knowles stories
Connie Trent tales
Sebastian Blue and Laura Charme of Interpol tales
Charles Spacer tales
Susan Holt tales
Alexander Swift tales
Ellery Queen tales
Father David Noone tales
Stanton and Ives tales
Annie Sears tales
Uncollected Non-Series Mysteries
The above is not a complete list of Hoch's fiction. Rather, it is a list of stories by Hoch that I enjoyed reading, and recommend to others. It selects the stories in each of Hoch's book collections that are outstanding, and also lists many recommended uncollected tales that have appeared so far only in magazines or anthologies.
Among his current books in print, the best introductions to his work are the Rand mystery-spy tales in The Old Spies Club, the Nick Velvet mystery-ingenious theft tales in The Velvet Touch, and the impossible crime stories in More Things Impossible, The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne. One wishes these three books were available in every newsstand and bookstore, but one will usually have to order them by mail from a book seller, or from their small press publisher, Crippen & Landru. (I am not associated with Crippen & Landru, and have no financial ties with them whatsoever. The link here is merely designed to help readers find Hoch's books.)
Much of Hoch's work centers on series detectives, many of which have been featured in long-running sequences of short stories. Many of Hoch's series detectives tend to personify different mystery subgenres. Captain Leopold tales are police procedurals; Dr. Sam Hawthorne, impossible crimes; Nick Velvet, Rogue thieves who turn detective; Jeffery Rand, the mystery tale based in espionage; Ben Snow, the historical mystery. Hoch can shift to any of these genres simply by altering his series protagonist. It is a clever arrangement.
The best essay I've seen on Hoch's work is Francis M. Nevins' introduction to the Captain Leopold collection Leopold's Way (1985). This contains biographical information on Hoch, and a detailed look at his many detective series. Leopold's Way is available in many libraries. Amazingly enough, it still seems to be in print in hardback, after all these years. It also has a bibliography of Leopold stories by Hoch. The Crippen & Landru collections of Hoch's stories also contain bibliographies. There is also a useful if incomplete on-line bibliography of Hoch's magazine appearances. An interview with Hoch, conducted by Steve Lewis, is available in Lewis' on-line journal, Mystery*File. By the way, Hoch's name is pronounced to rhyme with "Coke".
Not surprisingly for such a prolific author, Hoch's tales are uneven in quality. Some are far more imaginative than others. The lesser Hoch tales tend to have puzzle plots whose solutions are too easy to guess, although they are still solidly crafted, fair play mystery tales. Hoch's lesser works also tend to suffer from gloom, especially in his early writing of the 1960's. While it is the duty of the critic to point out such problems, it is also the duty of the critic to highlight the huge number of brilliant tales that Hoch has written. These outstanding works form the largest body of first rate mystery fiction of any contemporary author. This article will concentrate on Hoch's major works.
I've read 300 of Hoch's stories. While this is a large body of fiction - collectively they are twice as long as The Lord of the Rings, for instance - it is still just one third of Hoch's 900 published tales. So the article below has huge gaps as a systematic study of Hoch's works. Please take it as a work in progress, designed to shed at least a partial light on Hoch's oeuvre.
Book stores and most other publishers have not made it easy for readers to find their way into Hoch's huge body of work. Many outstanding short stories by him are not available in book form, and are best found in back pages of mystery magazines, especially Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which publishes a Hoch story in every issue. Many of Hoch's earlier short story collections were put out only in limited editions, and are long out of print.
Hoch is among the most gifted contemporary creators of impossible crime stories. In fact, Hoch has published well over 120 impossible crime stories, making him the all-time most prolific creator of impossible crime works. John Dickson Carr also created over 100 impossible crime tales. The two men are far more prolific in this genre than any other writers: number three is Arthur Porges, who wrote forty-five such short stories, and number four Joseph Commings, with thirty-eight short tales. Number five is the contemporary author Paul Halter, with at least 28 separate novels and 9 short stories - although Halter has created a number of novels with multiple impossible crimes, and probably these should be counted as multiple works, which would make him the number three all time most prolific impossible crime writer. All of these statistics mainly derive from Robert Adey's indispensable bibliography, Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991).
Many libraries and used book stores contain anthologies with Hoch short story gems in them. Four locked room / impossible crime tales by Hoch in anthologies are especially recommended. The Locked Room Reader (1968) edited by Hans Stefan Santesson includes "The Long Way Down" (1965); Locked Room Puzzles (1986) edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Bill Pronzini includes "Day of the Wizard" (1963); Death Locked In (1987) edited by Douglas G. Greene and Robert C. S. Adey includes "The Magic Bullet" (1968); Detective Duos (1987), edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, contains "Interpol: The Case of the Modern Medusa" (1973).
"The Theft of Cinderella's Slipper" (1987) (in The Velvet Touch) resembles "The Long Way Down" (1965) in being an impossible crime story set in the world of skyscraper business offices. These are some of Hoch's purest and most delightful impossible crime tales. They are in the Chesterton-Carr tradition. Another fun story in the same mode is "Captain Leopold and the Vanishing Men" (1979).
Another series of Hoch tales deal with objects that impossibly show up in sealed chambers. "The Magic Bullet" (1968) contains a bullet that fires through a locked door; in "The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery" (1995), an extra corpse shows up in a sealed casket. "The Problem of the County Fair" (1978) is also in this mode. These sorts of situations have not been dealt with by many other writers, so they give Hoch plenty of room to develop novel impossible crime ideas.
Hoch has written a long series of impossible crime tales, starring his series sleuth New England physician Dr. Sam Hawthorne. It is easy to recognize a Sam Hawthorne tale by its title: most begin with "The Problem of".
The impossible crime stories in More Things Impossible, The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne are especially inventive. These tales were written in 1978-1983, a period in Hoch's writing that centers around impossible crimes. Some of the best tales in other Hoch series in these years also involve such miracle problems: "Captain Leopold and the Vanishing Men" (1979); the Rand story "The Spy and the Snowman" (1980), reprinted in Tales of Espionage; "The Vanished Steamboat" (1984), the story that caused Hoch to revive his cowboy detective Ben Snow, available in The Ripper of Storyville. In 1983, at the end of this period, Hoch invented Nick Velvet's antagonist, master thief Sandra Paris, the White Queen. The White Queen tales usually lead Nick Velvet into solving impossible crimes, as well. The White Queen tales have been collected in The Velvet Touch. This book, along with More Things Impossible, The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, shows Hoch's abilities with the impossible crime at their fullest.
A story that deals nicely with an impossible disappearance is "The Problem of the Vanishing Salesman" (1992). Like other of Hoch's disappearance tales, this has a welcome vein of humor. Hoch sees something fundamentally comic about such disappearances. They are like magic shows, or entertaining stunts. It is the plot itself that Hoch sees in a comic light. This story is an attempt by Hoch to build a story around an incident Doyle mentioned in his Sherlock Holmes tales, but which Doyle never turned into a story. This is the vanishing of Mr. James Phillimore, referred to by Doyle in "The Problem of Thor Bridge" (1922). Both John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen have written their own attempts to explain Doyle's intriguing situation: Carr's The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945) and "The Adventure of the Highgate Miracle" in The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1954), and Ellery Queen's radio play "The Adventure of Mr. Short and Mr. Long" (broadcast January 1943, published 1944) in The Adventure of the Murdered Moths, and the Q.B.I. tale "Double Your Money" (1951). A re-reading of Doyle's tale suggests that Doyle did not necessarily intend Phillimore's vanishing to be an impossible crime, a form of mystery that Doyle rarely attempted. But Queen, Carr and Hoch have all treated it as an impossible crime in their writings, ever since Ellery Queen took this approach in his 1943 radio play.
Hoch likes to set his impossible crime tales against outdoor landscapes. These often include a small building inside of which the crime takes place, hidden from human eyes. Around the building is a complex landscape, with strategically poised watchers, footprints in the snow, and various unusual outer buildings where people can potentially hide. Examples include "The Problem of the Hunting Lodge" (1983), and a later story in a similar vein, "The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin" (1987). Both stories develop original ideas for impossible crimes in such settings, ideas which have a family resemblance. Some Dr. Sam tales take place against even bigger outdoor landscapes that stretch across the countryside, such as "The Problem of the Gypsy Camp" (1982), "The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse" (1994) and "The Problem of the Devil's Orchard" (2006). Hoch only rarely goes to the sort of indoor locked room situation of say, John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins (1935). This might reflect a sociological change since the 1930's: Hoch does not usually set his tales in vast houses with unique and complex architecture, the setting of so many Golden Age stories. Also, the outdoor setting allow a disparate group of the general public to be present, instead of the single large households of the 1930's mystery. The Rand story "The Spy and the Snowman" (1980) is another fine impossible crime tale with an outdoor setting in a snow covered estate. "The Theft of the Satin Jury" (1972), a non-impossible crime mystery, is also set against a delightfully complex outdoor landscape, as is the unusual railroad that is the locale for the Ben Snow tale, "The Sugar Train" (2006). When Hoch does set a mystery inside a building, it tends to be something highly creative and unusual, as in "The Spy in the Pyramid" (1972) or "The Problem of the Pilgrims Windmill" (1980).
Hoch has written a series of stories that attempt to explain 19th Century riddle tales, puzzling works which were originally designed to set up situations so baffling that they could have no possible solution. Two of Hoch's "riddle story solution" tales are set in creepy old mansions, and show Hoch's interest in the Golden Age mystery tradition of unusual architecture. "The Problem of the Phantom Parlor" (1993) explains Madeline Yale Wynne's "The Little Room" (1895). Recently, Hoch has developed an impossible crime version of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892), in "The Problem of the Yellow Wallpaper" (2001). A non-impossible crime tale, "The Spy and the Mysterious Card" (1975), cleverly explains Cleveland Moffett's "The Mysterious Card" (1896). "The Problem of the Leather Man" (1992) is Hoch's version of the tale of the woman at the Paris Exposition; other versions have been written by Anna Katherine Green and John Dickson Carr. The Nick Velvet "The Theft of the Silver Lake Serpent" (1970) explains, not a riddle story, but something similar: the folk tales about sea serpents in lakes, such as the Loch Ness monster. Such folk tales are as fantastic as the riddle tales, and equally hard to find a rational explanation for. This tale differs from most Nick Velvet tales in that the actual theft plays little role in the story. Instead, the focus throughout is on the mystery of lake serpents. "The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat" (1981) comes up with a new solution to the real life Mary Celeste mystery. "The Things That Are Caesar's" (1996) is an inverted mystery, that reworks the well known historical account of Julius Caesar's assassination into a new and different crime plot. There is also a parody of the mystery in Robert Bloch's Psycho (1959) in "The Cactus Killer" (2005), with a completely new solution by Hoch. Psycho is not a folk tale, but it has become so archetypal that it can serve a similar purpose - the story clearly presupposes that the reader is familiar with the plot.
"The Problem of the Pink Post Office" (1981) is an impossible theft tale, of a classic type going back to Anna Katherine Green, and often practiced by Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer, in which an object vanishes within a well-watched and searched room. Hoch shows virtuosity, in coming up with multiple solutions, in this delightful tale. I thought I knew the answer to this tale; it merely turned out to be solution #3, and not anywhere as ingenious as the tale's actual answer!
"The Problem of the Octagon Room" (1981), the sequel to "The Problem of the Pink Post Office", also falls into a standard kind of impossible crime, the "locked room created by a physical device or approach". Hoch mentions S.S. Van Dine right in the story, who was a practitioner of this sort of tale; it is also a kind of problem much tackled by Edgar Wallace. Hoch's approach is indeed original, and represents an innovative contribution to this ancient sub-genre of locked room tale. The Captain Leopold "The Murder in Room 1010" (1987) also comes up with another physical approach to a locked room - a fairly rare occurrence in Hoch's numerous impossible crime tales. Like Carr, Chesterton and Futrelle, Hoch tends to prefer a more imaginative and inventive look at a wide variety of impossible crime situations.
Hoch's first series detective is Simon Ark, a man who claims to be a 2,000 year old Coptic priest, a man on a quest for mystical truth. Hoch has been writing Simon Ark tales from the 1950's through the present day.
Some of the Simon Ark stories are impossible crime tales. "Day of the Wizard" (1963) is one of Hoch's most Carr like stories, with its magician character and its multiple impossibilities. Its spy background in North East Africa anticipates Hoch's later gem, "Waiting for Mrs. Ryder" (1994) (in The Old Spies Club). The central situation is "Wizard" is delightfully full of what is a tradition in puzzle plot stories, The Complication. In Complication stories, the central mystery idea is elaborated, to make extra mysteries in the plot. The central mystery gimmick, which is of course concealed from the reader, enables other parts of the plot to be twisted mysteriously as well. These twists create further false impressions in the reader, and add further mysteries to the plot. Intuitionist writers, in particular, are always on the look out for a good Complication in their plot. Hoch does this very well here.
A Simon Ark tale that is not an impossible crime is the novella "City of Brass" (1959). This gently melancholy tale involves both religious symbolism, and Hoch's thoughts on the nature of human existence. The story is filled with a poetic mood. It is not one of Hoch's cleverest puzzle plot stories, but it is highly readable and effective in mood throughout. The title of "City of Brass" perhaps recalls an episode of The Thousand and One Nights, which similarly deals with man's mortality and transience. Hoch returned to the subject matter of this tale in his non-series story, "Two Days in Organville" (1973). Like "City of Brass", this takes place in an upstate New York town dominated by a single industry, in this case organ building. Both stories are full of Roman Catholic religious symbolism. In fact, "Two Days in Organville" is probably the only hard-boiled detective story ever written whose plot centers around the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. Hoch himself lives in an upstate New York city, so this is his home turf. Such cities also recall the New England town of Wrightsville, in Ellery Queen. The jaundiced look at the life of one of the characters that opens "City of Brass" seems especially Queen-like.
Hoch's stories tend to take place in communities. These are people who know each other, and who share at least some common purposes. They can include the smaller cities of upstate New York and New England, such as those we find in "City of Brass", the Leopold or Dr. Sam Hawthorne tales. They can be the Gypsy village of Gravita, Romania, in which Michael Vlado lives. Or they involve the spy communities within which Rand operates. This community focus differs from many Golden Age mysteries, which tend to be set either in a big city, or in a single household. Hoch often looks at the leaders of such communities. They often have difficult problems on hand, which need resolution. The problems get interwoven into the mystery plots. The problems can involve controversial, unpleasant or illegal activities by members of the community, which the leaders need somehow to police. Often times the options open to the leaders seem limited, and it is very unclear how to deal with the sticky situation. Leadership has few glamorous qualities in Hoch. Instead, it consists of cleaning up unpleasant messes, with which it is often very problematic to deal. The detective often helps some with this situation, by at least solving the mystery, and making the situation in the story clearer. The leaders themselves are often far from good people; instead they can opportunistically exploit a situation to obtain power or money.
While the Simon Ark tales tend to explore Roman Catholic themes, other religions are also featured in the tales. "The Vultures of Malabar" (1980) depicts Parsee religious customs, in Bombay, India. Parsees had also appeared in Nicholas Meyer's Sherlock Holmes pastiche The West End Horror (1976), so perhaps something was in the air at this time. Both authors' treatments are sympathetic and respectful.
Religious groups not associated with any specific world religion also sometimes pop up in the Ark stories. "The S. S. S." (1986) deals with a small modern day organization. It recalls a bit in subject matter Hoch's non-series tale about a small religious fringe group, "Too Long at the Fair" (1964) in The Night My Friend. Both groups meet in unexpected places. "The S. S. S." explicitly mentions M. P. Shiel's story "The S. S." in Prince Zaleski as the ancestor of such tales. "The S. S. S." has an exemplary solution to whodunit, in which the guilty party is identified through reasoning about clues in the story, and the events of the crime.
The stories about Jeffery Rand, the British spy make up more of a story sequence than do many of Hoch's works. They have continuing characters who reappear in tale after tale. They also involve on-going political situations and life changes for their casts. This gives them interest beyond their mystery plots: the reader is interested in seeing how the characters will evolve over time. Many of the best Rand stories were collected recently in The Old Spies Club. The Old Spies Club contains related works, dealing with Rand's courtship and marriage to his wife Leila. Another common thread throughout the tales: Leila is Egyptian, and many of the tales have a Northeast African setting.
Hoch does not have a consistent tone to his tales. Some of his stories take place in the most bland and banal of everyday settings; others are wild surrealistic extravaganzas, sometimes set in exotic climes. I much prefer Hoch when he is in full surrealistic motion. A tale like "The Spy in the Pyramid" is more of an adventure than a mystery, but its wild storytelling makes it a fascinating work. In general, Hoch's tales about spy Jeffery Rand tend to have more imaginative settings and surrealistic tone than his Leopold or Sam Hawthorne works.
The Rand tales are unusual among spy fiction in that they typically contain a puzzle plot mystery for Rand to solve. This makes them personal for Hoch, who loves to create whodunits, but atypical for the spy genre as a whole. Hoch developed this approach early on in the series. The fourth Rand tale, "The Spy Who Took the Long Route" (1966), is already a full puzzle plot mystery. This puzzle plot is set against, and based on, an elaborate espionage background, set in another country to which Rand travels on assignment: also a frequent feature of this series. These espionage situations allow Hoch to create a wealth of unusual story material from which he can create mystery plots. One of Hoch's strengths as a writer is his ability to come up with countless different stories, plots and background situations. His fertility in plotting and story construction recalls that of Erle Stanley Gardner.
"The Spy Who Took the Long Route" (1966) seems to make a pair with "The Spy and the Intercepted Letters" (1974). Both stories have ingenious puzzle plots; both plots have a sort of family resemblance, dealing with intercepted communications. Each story shows original ideas, as well.
Rand is head of Concealed Communications, the department of British Intelligence that deals with codes and ciphers. "The Spy Who Didn't Remember" (1972) contains a simple but pleasant code as part of its mystery. This secret code aspect is integrated into one of Hoch's well-constructed puzzle plot stories. "The Spy Who Was Expected" (1972) of the same year also deals with an intercepted message in a creative way. Hoch works this into a pleasant traditional puzzle plot of the "three suspects" kind.
"The Spy Who Didn't Exist" (1967) is a sort of "spy procedural", detailing several aspects of Rand's work life. Like several early Rand tales, it involves an actual cipher as part of its mystery puzzle plot. The story also shows Hoch's interest in Samuel Pepys, the 17th Centuray diarist; this will return in "The Spy Who Stayed Up All Night" (1981).
Hoch's work often takes a structure found in Ellery Queen, and develops it into a new specific mystery plot. "The Spy at the End of the Rainbow" (1974) recalls the architecture of The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934): "extravaganza of detail smothering crime hides hidden logical pattern". This is one of Hoch's best stories.
Hoch's spy stories often open with some non-Rand scene, showing a crime from the point of view of the victim. These sections often explain some things about the crime, while leaving other facts mysterious. These facts and mysteries are woven into the puzzle plot of the tale, forming part of the mystery of the story. Often times the reader knows far more than Rand himself. This is an unusual technique. It is completely fair play, and consistent with high standards of craftsmanship. But it is atypical of the mystery field as a whole, where the reader typically knows precisely what the detective knows, and no more. Something similar was often done on The Avengers TV series, where the opening would give us partial facts about some bizarre crimes. The audience would then be challenged to figure out what was going on. A good example of this technique is found in Hoch's "The Spy at the Spa" (1985). It allows him to construct a fair puzzle, that is yet very different in form from those of most traditional mysteries.
"The Spy at the Crime Writers Conference" (1976) has a real life background, depicting the 1975 conference in London. Hoch's portrait of this event is amusing, and filled with mini-appearances by real life mystery writers. Its puzzle plot is more routine. It does contain seeds of story ideas that Hoch will develop much more fully in his later gem, "The Old Spies Club" (1997), which has one of Hoch's hardest to guess puzzle plots.
"The Spy Who Knew the Future" (1986) has a well researched background of North Yemen. Its portrait of another culture, mixed with Cold War intrigue, reminds one of the Michael Vlado Gypsy tales that Hoch was beginning to write around this time. The puzzle plot of the tale, with its emphasis on time, recalls a little "Captain Leopold and the Ghost-Killer" (1974).
"Waiting for Mrs. Ryder" (1994) shows Hoch's skill with that Ellery Queen favorite, the dying message. For once, a writer comes up with a sound, logical reason for a cryptic dying message to be left. "The Spy and the Greek Enigma" (1992) also involves riffs on the dying message, as does (in a hidden way), one of the Nick Velvet tales of the period.
Hoch has also written a long series about Nick Velvet, a professional thief who only steals objects of no value, at substantial fees for his clients.
Even though the stories in The Velvet Touch (collected 2000) were written over a twenty-five year period, they are remarkably similar in tone, and content. The book seems more like a Story Sequence than a mere collection of stories. There are three types of recurrent subject matter in the book: 1) impossible crimes, especially impossible thefts; 2) strange, often humorous criminal schemes, usually done by comic crooks that Nick meets; and 3) Nick's efforts to steal out-of-the-ordinary objects, usually to aid the crooks in these schemes. The schemes tend to be bizarre, but not at all menacing or sinister. Several, once their details are revealed, tend to involve wish fulfillment fantasies for readers, such as being able to obtain money from Swiss bank accounts. Both the schemes, and Nick's clever methods of stealing objects, involve considerable plotting ingenuity. Together with the impossible crimes, this means that the stories are overflowing with plot ideas.
The tone of The Velvet Touch is comic throughout. There is a tone of sophisticated wit. All of the plot events attempt to be elegant and stylish, with gracefully executed criminal schemes, and thefts. Such elegance is part of the Rogue tradition. Hoch's Velvet stories outside of this collection are by no means uniformly humorous in tone. The tales here, both those involving the White Queen or not, are unusually comic for Hoch. The aspect of elegant thefts and capers here is also much more pronounced than in many Velvet stories, which can often seem more like pure mystery tales.
Some of the tales in The Velvet Touch are actual puzzle plot mystery tales. These include the two best stories, "The Theft of Cinderella's Slipper" (1987) and "The Theft of Leopold's Badge" (1991). Both of these stories are gems of mystery fiction.
Other tales are essentially stories of criminal schemes. These are fun, and well done, but probably less ambitious than the true mysteries. Such stories include "The Theft of Nothing at All" (1977) and "The Theft of the Four of Spades" (1980). Other stories in the Velvet series, "The Theft of the Mafia Cat" (1972), "The Theft of the Lucky Cigar" (1991), also mainly emphasizes the theft elements of the tales.
The impossible crimes in "The Theft of the Faded Flag" (1988) are of a kind frequently employed by Hoch. The hero of the tale is in a public place. He removes his eyes from something for just a minute. When he looks again, some major crime has occurred. It is hard to explain how anything could have happened so quickly, and without anyone around noticing. Such a crime is not "impossible", in the strictest sense of the term, but is still astonishing and very difficult to explain.
The most important of the very early Velvet tales is the second story in the series, "The Theft from the Onyx Pool" (1967). This well done tale sets the full paradigm for the series. It includes Nick Velvet being commissioned to steal a bizarre and apparently worthless object; his clever, light-hearted method of stealing the same, even though it is hard for the reader to figure out how he is possibly going to do it; and a mystery subplot about why the client wants Nick to steal such an apparently valueless object in the first place. All of these elements are well done here. It should be considered as the true start of the series, the one in which Nick becomes "himself".
"The Theft From the Empty Room" (1972) deals imaginatively in the theft of apparently nothing. It reminds one of one of Isaac Asimov's best essays, "Nothing", in which the good doctor looks at the concept of a total vacuum, space with absolutely nothing in it. This is one of Asimov's most Borges like essays, perhaps because in the approach to nothing, it begins to approximate the infinitely small. Hoch's story has a paradoxical feel to it as well, and is also very Borges like. Another Hoch tale that deals with an empty room is the Simon Ark story "The Vicar of Hell" (1956). Such stories are related to Hoch's impossible crime tales, in which something either appears or disappears in an apparently sealed chamber. All of these stories show imagination centering around "a room and its contents".
"The Theft of Twenty-Nine Minutes" (1994) is a light-hearted, inventive extravaganza about an ingenious theft of time. It has thematic ties to the earlier Ben Snow story "The 500 Hours of Dr. Wisdom" (1984). "The Theft of Twenty-Nine Minutes" also offers some playful variants on the basic paradigms of the Velvet tales.
"The Theft of the Canceled Stamp" (1994) gets Nick involved in an especially complex whodunit. Like some other Hoch works of the same era, the Ben Snow tale "The Passion of Lizzie B." (1993), the Dr. Sam "The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse" (1994), the Susan Holt "A Craving for Chinese" (1995), it eventually involves a surprising back-story. "The Theft of the Canceled Stamp" also shows Hoch's ability to have his characters inter-relate with each other in an intricate network of relationships.
"The Theft of the Wedding Doves" (2002) and "The Theft of the Empty Paint Can" (2005) show Hoch's interest in modern technology. Hoch is at the forefront of writers who employ the latest in communications and computer technology in their tales. It helps give a fresh background to the stories. Hoch also integrates such devices deeply into the puzzle plots of the tales.
Before Hoch created Nick Velvet, he wrote stories about clever thefts. "A Girl Like Cathy" (1966) in The Night My Friend has an entertaining caper much like those to come in the Nick Velvet tales. It also includes the twists in the progress of the caper that will often appear in the Velvet stories. This story lacks the whodunit mystery aspects of the later Velvet series.
Hoch's most prolific series deals with Captain Leopold, a policeman in a city that rather resembles Hoch's native Rochester, New York. However, the Leopold stories do not contain the sort of "local color describing a real city" that is often found in the police procedurals of other writers. Hoch tends to reserve such looks at real life locales for his other series, such as the Rand and Gypsy stories. Of the nearly 100 Leopold tales, 19 were collected in Leopold's Way (1985). The series represents roughly 10% of Hoch's entire output.
"Death in the Harbor" (1962) is an early Leopold tale, and the first to appear in EQMM. Already, this tale shows the full paradigm of the later Leopold stories to come. This is one of several Hoch tales which deal with a series of killings, somewhat in the tradition of Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders (1936). The villain is fairly easy to spot, but there are some good plot developments along the way. Aside from this story, the tales from 1970 on in Leopold's Way show much higher quality than the pre-1970 works, which tend to be gloomy and depressing.
"The Rainy-Day Bandit" (1970) contains two linked mysteries, both given ingenious solutions by Hoch. The tale is in the tradition of the "modular" police procedural, in which the police work on two or more crimes at once. In other authors these tales are usually stretched out over a whole novel. It shows Hoch's fecundity with puzzle plot ideas, that he can incorporate two in a single brief short story.
Part of the appeal of the police procedure genre as a whole is in its attempt to paint an in-depth look at how the police function as an institution. "Christmas Is for Cops" (1970) is in this tradition: it has one of the most detailed looks inside the police in the Leopold series. It features a large cast of police officers, both returning regular characters and newcomers, and looks at many aspects of police life. It also reflects Hoch's fascination with technological devices and gimmicks. Several of the recent Rand spy tales have hooks based on high tech developments in computers.
"Leopold and the Cemetery Bandits" (1988) is another tale that looks inside the world of the police. It is richly plotted, and has some good logical surprises in it.
"The Jersey Devil" (1971) deals cleverly with a theft. All aspects of this story relate to its background of stamps and post offices. One suspects from the Corflu subplot that Hoch has been reading Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). The story also refers to Chesterton. Literary references aside, this is one of Hoch's most satisfying puzzle plot tales. Hoch will return to this subject in one of his Nick Velvet stories, "The Theft of the Canceled Stamp" (1994).
"Captain Leopold Plays a Hunch" (1973) has links to the inverted tale, especially the pulp magazine version of inverteds, in which a clever murderer is tripped up by some mistake in his calculations. The story also has links to the Michael Vlado take, "A Wall Too High" (2000), which also has his hero looking for alternatives to the obvious explanation for a shooting.
Before Hoch created impossible crime specialist Dr. Sam Hawthorne in late 1974, he wrote a number of Leopold tales that feature impossible crimes. "Captain Leopold and the Ghost-Killer" (1974) is especially elaborate and imaginative. Its look at an impossible crime centering around time puts it into the mainstream of the Zangwill-Chesterton-Carr tradition of "impossible crimes based on rearrangements in space and time", and it is a landmark in such time-centered mysteries. The Dr. Sam "The Problem of the Whispering House" (1979) does things with time, that are in the same mode as Hoch's earlier tale.
Both "Captain Leopold and the Vanishing Men" (1979) and "The Murder in Room 1010" (1987) are impossible crime tales, as is "Leopold and the Broken Bride" (1987).
Other writers in EQMM, such as Harry Kemelman, James Yaffe and Isaac Asimov, specialized in armchair detective tales. Hoch usually avoided this form. "No Crime for Captain Leopold" (1975) shows that Hoch could execute such a tale with skill. As in Kemelman's "The Nine-Mile Walk" (1947), Leopold uses a chain of pure deduction to discover the facts behind a puzzling little incident.
"The Most Dangerous Man Alive" (1980) deals with a sinister hitman. The character is like a more evil variation on Nick Velvet, only where Velvet plots ingenious thefts, the hitman commits murder. Leopold is shocked that anyone could be such a criminal, just as he is later shocked and appalled by Nick Velvet himself, when the two men encounter each other in "The Theft of Leopold's Badge" (1991). Leopold will also be appalled with the comic rogue Benedict Corflu he meets in "The Jersey Devil" (1971). One suspects that unlike Leopold, that Hoch is amused at these rogues' antics, at least at those of such non-violent crooks as Velvet and Corflu. There is a pleasing element of high comedy here in the collision between Leopold and these various villains.
"No Holiday for Captain Leopold" (1977) reuses and improves ideas from a tale in another Hoch series, "Interpol: The Case of the Devil's Triangle".
"Captain Leopold and the Three Hostages" (1978) startles by getting Leopold involved in a popular kind of TV police melodrama of its era. Naturally, Hoch turns this into a fair-play mystery puzzle. Just as many of the Nick Velvet tales turn on the mysterious motives Velvet's customers have for the thefts, so does this story focus on the mystery of the killer's motive for the crime. Hoch explores not just one motive, but three different ones. His ingenuity in exploring multiple plot implications of the situation is a most pleasant technique used elsewhere in the series: note the very rich plot development of "The Second Captain Leopold" (1983). The formal unfolding of that tale is especially beautiful, considered as a formal pattern of plot.
Hoch also wrote some stories solved by Captain Leopold's police colleague, Sergeant Connie Trent, a series character in the Leopold stories. "The Crime in Heaven" (1988) is pleasant for its strange initial mystery set-up, and the nice unraveling of same.
For a while, Leopold was dating pathologist Dr. Lawn Gaylord. They met in "Captain Leopold Looks for the Cause" (1977), a creative work that may or may not be a medical mystery - Hoch keeps the reader pleasantly guessing. This story is inventively plotted. Leopold is still the main detective in these stories with Gaylord. But they tend to have a medical or scientific feel.
"Captain Leopold on the Spot" (1979) is another police procedural involving Dr. Gaylord. It shows absorbing storytelling with a complex plot, and has some solid clues as well, relating to scientific murder investigation. This is not Hoch's typical turf, but he does it well.
Hoch also writes a series starring detective Michael Vlado, king of a small tribe of Romanian Gypsies. These have recently been collected as The Iron Angel, and Other Tales of the Gypsy Sleuth. The political background of these tales can be interesting: they are set behind the Iron Curtain, and follow the progress of this region towards political freedom, since the series began in 1984. A few of the stories also involve Middle Eastern politics. It is good to see stories taking place in Transylvania that have nothing to do with vampires. After all, Transylvania is a real region with a rich history: it was the first country in Europe to have religious freedom in modern times, for instance. "The Gypsy and the Pilgrims" (1989) ends with a full scale plea by Hoch for people to respect each other's differences. Hoch's stories often conclude with messages promoting peace. His Rand stories set in the Middle East have denounced the pointlessness of that feud, which benefits no one. And the early thriller "I'd Know You Anywhere" (1963) and the Leopold tale "People of the Peacock" (1965) express harsh condemnation of US militarism. Hoch's point of view has been consistently liberal over the years. He has never expressed any sympathy for Communism, nor for any right wing political movements. Several of his best Sam Hawthorne tales also involve liberal political figures or issues: "The Problem of the Revival Tent" (1978), "The Problem of the General Store" (1979) and "The Problem of the Pilgrims Windmill" (1980).
The first Vlado tale, "The Luck of a Gypsy" (1985) gets the series off with a bang, with one of Hoch's ingenious puzzle plots. It sets the basic pattern for most of the later Gypsy tales, being a pure detective story, with a puzzle plot, clues, and fair play detection leading to Michael Vlado's solution. There will be a low key, seemingly modest, but rigorous insistence on real detection throughout the entire rest of the series.
Among the early Vlado tales, "The Luck of a Gypsy" (1985) and "Murder of a Gypsy King" (1988) contain the most detailed look at the Gypsy village in which Michael Vlado lives. "Murder of a Gypsy King" seems to echo settings and characters used in the earlier story. It shows what Vlado's Romanian village might look like, to an outside visitor from the United States. These are the best two early Vlado tales.
"Murder of a Gypsy King" centers on the reconstruction of a crime, based on trails of evidence left behind at the crime scene. This is an ancient and honorable tradition in detective fiction, dating back to the 1860's and the pioneering detective novels of Émile Gaboriau. Hoch does this very well, and mixes it with his own puzzle plot traditions.
"The Hiding Place" (1993) is a later tale, that returns to the village setting of these earlier stories. It has a continually escalating sense of mystery, with events growing more and more baffling throughout the tale. Hoch develops the ideas of this tale further with "Leopold Undercover" (2007), a work with a startling solution. This Captain Leopold story is in some ways much more like a Vlado tale, with Leopold traveling around, and encountering mystery in an exotic entertainment setting: features one associates with Vlado.
While the two best early tales look at Vlado's Gypsy village, two of the best later stories get him involved in the changing world of post-Communist politics: "The Gypsy Delegate" (1990) and "A Wall Too High" (2000). The latter story is notable for its protest against the prejudice shown to Gypsies. Its mystery plot revolves around a mysterious shooting. Hoch also explored such a shooting mystery in "Captain Leopold Plays a Hunch" (1973). Most of the Vlado stories instead focus on stabbings. It seems notable that "The Luck of a Gypsy", "Murder of a Gypsy King", "The Gypsy Delegate" and "A Wall Too High" have both the most realistic and detailed sociological backgrounds in the series, and many of the best crafted puzzle plots as well.
The other best story in The Iron Angel is "The Puzzle Garden" (1994). It is full of religious themes and symbolism, in a way similar to that of Hoch's Simon Ark tales. Its antiquarianism and search for a hidden treasure based on intellectual clues recalls the world of R. Austin Freeman. So does the unfolding puzzle plot. Two more tales, "The Crypt of the Gypsy Saint" (1990), and "The Butcher of Seville" (1995), also involve the sleuth in European religious practices. The first is minor, but the latter has a well-concealed puzzle plot.
"The Gypsy Treasure" (1986) is an earlier work in which cryptic clues spur a treasure hunt. The tale shows good craftsmanship in the twists and turns of its puzzle plot, with Hoch exploring many different plot developments and alternative solutions to the mystery.
"The Gypsy's Paw" (1994) has a clever impossible crime plot, in the tradition of G. K. Chesterton. However, this story is too grim in its surrounding storytelling to be truly entertaining: the Vlado tales tend to suffer from melancholia.
Michael Vlado raises horses for a living; this series, like the Western tales of Ben Snow, allow Hoch's love of horses to shine through. "Odds on a Gypsy" (1985) is mainly notable for its well researched background of horse racing at the Hippodrome in Moscow. Such a "tourist attraction in a Communist country" will also show up in the Stanton and Ives tale "Cuba Libro" (2003). It combines the possibilities of an exotic entertainment setting, with the sinister politics of a Communist thriller. "The Clockwork Rat" (1996) returns Vlado to Moscow. While "Odds on a Gypsy" gives a relatively realistic look at an apparently real institution, "The Clockwork Rat" develops a flamboyantly bizarre nightclub setting. It is a story for the connoisseurs of the surreal and way-out. It shows good storytelling and atmosphere. There is also humor to be derived from that favorite locale of 1930's hard-boiled fiction, the night club run by mobsters, transformed grotesquely by its setting among the Russian Mafia. "The Vampire Theme" (2002) also looks at bizarre show biz in a former Communist land. This story has some inventive mystery plot ideas. "The Nameless Poison" (2006), like "Odds on a Gypsy", has a well developed realistic background of horse racing, this time in Paris. It combines this with a scientific detective story, dealing with the poison of the title. "The Butcher of Seville" had also been a scientific mystery, and this is an approach that runs through some of the later Michael Vlado stories.
"The Starkworth Atrocity" (1998) is most notable for the strange events that happen in its early stages. The story oddly echoes the approaches used by the contemporary science fiction and avant-garde author, J. G. Ballard. I have no idea if Hoch has ever even read Ballard, or whether the similarities are coincidences. As in Ballard, the tale contains a horrifying, disaster-like crime, one that surrealistically mirrors modern day political traumas. The tale also echoes Ballard's concern with the media, with TV journalists among the characters in the tale. It is also set in Ballard's Britain. The title recalls Ballard's collection, The Atrocity Exhibition.
Ben Snow is another one of Hoch's series detectives. His stories take place in the old US West, from 1882 to 1908, and form a series of mystery puzzle plot tales with a Western background. The first fourteen Ben Snow tales were collected in The Ripper of Storyville, in 1997. Historical mysteries were still quite rare when Hoch began his Ben Snow series in 1961, aside from the works of Lillian de la Torre and John Dickson Carr. Some of the tales, such as "Brothers on the Beach" (1984), succeed as works of historical fiction, even if they are perfunctory as mysteries. I like Ben Snow very much as a character. But the first seven of these tales, written in the early 1960's, are generally weak. The last seven tales, written after Hoch resumed the series in 1984, are much better, and so are several of the subsequent tales in the series, which Hoch has continued to the present day.
The best of the early stories is "The Flying Man" (1961). Hoch often builds both focus and suspense to his stories, by making the mystery center around some anticipated event. In "The Flying Man", this event is the much publicized medicine show. The characters spend most of the first half of the story discussing this up coming demonstration. When it finally shows up, it contains the murder mystery. This sort of construction helps give shape to a tale. It also helps lay down "ground rules": because the event is so much discussed and anticipated, the reader knows what should happen at it, and can compare it with what does happen at it. This is typical of the strategies of the mystery story. The reader is always in a state of criticism of the events of the tale: analyzing what has happened, comparing to ideals, looking for flaws in the logic of events, and so on. Much of this criticism occurs when the reader is trying to solve the mystery in the second half of the tale; this "anticipated event" technique allows critical examination of plot events by the reader to occur in the first half of the tale, as well.
The event approach also enables surrealism: the event often goes murderously wrong with maximum surrealistic effect.
Some of the best Ben Snow stories follow in the tradition of Ellery Queen. "The Vanished Steamboat" (1984) is in the tradition of Doyle's "The Lost Special" (1898) and Ellery Queen's "Snowball in July" (1952), as Hoch points out in his introduction. Hoch comes up with a new solution here to the impossible crime riddle of these tales, different from both previous authors' solutions. This solution has a special beauty. A subplot in "The 500 Hours of Dr. Wisdom" (1984) echoes elements in Queen's The American Gun Mystery (1933). "The Trail of the Bells" (1985) has a deductive finale recalling Queen's masterpiece The Tragedy of Z (1933). Elements of Hoch's gem "The Theft of Leopold's Badge" (1991) also have a similar construction. Ever since I read Z as a kid, I've wanted to see other authors learn from it, and attempt similarly ambitious solutions. Here finally is an author creative enough to try. I want to point out that the influence of Queen on Hoch here is a structural influence. Hoch's mystery ideas here are entirely original. Queen is Hoch's favorite mystery writer. It is impressive the way that Hoch can follow in Queen's great tradition. Few mystery writers have the skill to develop such plots.
Another Ellery Queen like feature of Hoch's tales: his ability to make the criminal be someone the reader has never suspected. Hoch has repeatedly surprised me with ingenious choices of murderer, someone in the tale that did not fall under suspicion. Yet these choices are always fair, someone present in the tale, and with clues pointing towards the criminal's identity. This is especially hard to do in the space of a short story. One can bury a murderer far more easily in a 200 page novel than in a 20 page short story. Hoch has also come up with some surprising motives. They too are often far removed from the conspicuous motives discussed in the body of the story; yet also fairly present and clued.
The general store setting of "The Passion of Lizzie B." (1993) recalls the Sam Hawthorne tale "The Problem of the General Store" (1979). Both small businesses sell numerous weapons, among other items. Both tales also feature strong-willed, progressive women who move into towns, and who form a challenge to the men there. The White Queen also forms a challenge to Nick Velvet, in the tales collected in The Velvet Touch.
While many of Hoch's tales have roots in Ellery Queen, "Gunfighter's Honeymoon" (2002) offers variations on a classic novel by Agatha Christie. This tale is particularly gracefully done. It has a musical quality, as the numerous plot details seem to flow out harmoniously like a piece of music. The story takes place near Hoch's home town of Rochester, New York, and is rich in historical recreation of that city. It also offers nice developments in Ben Snow's personal life, that will please long term fans of the character.
While official mystery writers rarely used Old West settings, Western stories frequently had crime and even sometimes mystery plots. The veteran mystery pulp writer Merle Constiner combined mystery fiction with the Western in Short-Trigger Man (1964) and The Four from Gila Bend (1968). The Man from Blackhawk (1959-1960) was a TV series about an insurance investigator in the Old West. The Lone Ranger was a masked crime fighter who brought law and order to the West on radio and TV. A somewhat similar Western comic book character was the Vigilante. He was masked, wore a fancy cowboy costume, and fought crooks. Like other comic book crime fighters, such as Batman, he had a secret identity, in this case a singing cowboy known as Greg Sanders, the Prairie Troubadour. Some of his stories were actual mystery plots, such as "The Forgotten Men of Ghost Town" (Action Comics #181, June 1953). This story has a mystery puzzle plot, complete with clues and a surprise solution. Its ghost town setting is not uncommon in mystery-Westerns, such as Allan Vaughan Elston's XXX and Hoch's "Ghost Town" (1961).
Ben Snow, like Simon Ark, is a figure with mystery in his past. Both men might have something to do with eternal life. Ben Snow is frequently accused of being Billy the Kid, who allegedly died some years previously. And Simon Ark might be a 2,000 year old priest. Both sleuths are ambiguous: we never learn if these stories are true. Most of Hoch's later detectives are much less mysterious figures.
Alexander Swift is a trouble-shooter for George Washington, in a still active series of historical detective stories. Swift works as a counter spy during the US Revolution, like Hoch's modern day counterspy Rand. The first story, "The Hudson Chain" (1995), is an elaborately researched historical drama, with a small but surprising mystery plot embedded within it. The tale has much more about technology in it than do many Hoch stories. It is set in Hoch's home turf of upstate New York.
"The Sword of Colonel Ledyard" (2000) combines vivid historical writing with an impressive locked room mystery plot. The puzzle has a bit of an affinity to the Vlado tale, "The Gypsy's Paw" (1994).
"St. John and the Dragon" (2001) is another tale with rich historical research, including technology. The murder mystery is simple but satisfying; the mystery aspects not related to the murder are far more inventive.
"Constant Hearses" (2002) succeeds as a well-researched historical tale. But aspects of the mystery plot are implausible, especially the way that various crooks are willing to let large sums of money out of their sight.
"The Orchard of Caged Birds" (2003) flashes back to the setting of the first Swift case, "The Hudson Chain", the upper Hudson during Revolutionary War times. The two stories' puzzle plots have family resemblances, too.
"Swift Among the Pirates" (2007) brings the Alexander Swift series to its conclusion. The tale's coda, which resolves the main plot thread of the series, is haunting and powerful. The ending is unconventional, and drastically different from much contemporary fiction. A lot of today's second-rate entertainment glorifies vengeance and violence, suggesting they solve problems. Hoch's finale is the exact opposite.
Susan Holt works in promotions for a department store; she travels around the world making business deals and, incidentally, solving mysteries. She starred in a short lived series in the mid-1990's, all of which have titles in the pattern "A quantity preposition noun". She's awfully bland as a personality, which is perhaps why the series didn't stick. But "A Parcel of Deerstalkers" (1995) has one of Hoch's complex, well constructed puzzle plots. It also has a bizarre and inventive Sherlock Holmes background, somewhat reminiscent of the Nick Velvet "The Theft of the Sherlockian Slipper" (1977). The way the heroine arrives in a small town during an elaborate festival, also recalls several Ben Snow tales. Such festivals seem to be Hoch's personal approach to the Van Dine school tradition, of setting mysteries among show business activities.
"A Fondness for Steam" (1994) has good storytelling, and a nicely realized Iceland background, but its solution is easy to figure out. It relates to Hoch's Gypsy tales, in its portrait of modern Europe.
"A Shower of Daggers" (1997) has a startling and unexpected impossible crime, which is hard to solve. The tale is full of a sense of creepy menace, involving Susan Holt with a normal-looking bunch of people that turn out to have dark sides.
"A Busload of Bats" (1998) has a good background of American Baseball. The baseball theme also leads to a nice plot surprise. But it suffers from its choice of murderer and motive, which breaks the artistic unity of the story, adding coincidence to the plot.
Susan Holt debuted with "A Traffic in Webs" (1993), which set up her character. The most recent tale in the main series (1993 - 1998) of Holt tales seems to be "A Busload of Bats" (1998). Hoch unexpectedly revived Susan Holt eight years later in "A Convergence of Clerics" (2006).
Recently, Hoch has started a new series about Stanton and Ives, a young couple who travel the world and have light-hearted adventures while solving mysteries. Their titles involve puns. The couple show a welcome sense of humor. The humor and the sleuthing both recall the light hearted films of Alfred Hitchcock. The stories have a joie de vivre and pleasant escapist tone, that is especially welcome as a contrast to much of today's grim crime fiction. The globe trotting characters also recall all the traveling done by Rand, Susan Holt and Simon Ark.
Stanton and Ives are usually hired as couriers, which get them involved with mysteries surrounding their clients. Stanton and Ives are not really amateur detectives in the strict sense. They are hired professionals. However, they are so new at their job that they can seem more like an amateur couple taking on cases. Many of the situations in the tales involve danger and fairly hard-boiled characters, which form a contrast to the sleuths.
"Cuba Libro" (2003) has a well-done puzzle plot. As a formal detective tale, this has a family resemblance to the Rand tale, "The Old Spies Club" (1997).
"Midsummer Night's Scheme" (2004) shows Hoch's fondness for surrealist backgrounds, with its complex setting of the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. Like "The Flying Man" and "The Haggard Society", it is a tale centering around an anticipated performance. It appeared the same year as the non-series mystery "Money on the Red" (2004), which also looks inventively at the most surreal parts of show biz performance.
Libby Knowles is a former cop who now works as a bodyguard. Her name is a neat evocation of woman's lib. She appeared in a handful of tales in the mid-1980's. Her bodyguard work recalls Ben Snow, who also was revived as a series character around the same time. Written at the height of the music video era, "Wait Until Morning" (1985) is a surprisingly credible rock music mystery. The story shows Hoch's skill with puzzle plotting. Later, the Nick Velvet tale "The Theft of the Wedding Doves" (2002) will show satiric sparkle with a detailed look at a big star's wedding. Hoch has no trouble with keeping abreast with media developments.
During the 1970's Hoch wrote a short-lived series about con man Ulysses S. Bird, who mainly preyed upon other crooks. Unlike the Nick Velvet stories, which usually involve a whodunit plot, the Bird tales lack any mystery, being rather mild tales of scams. The third tale in the series, "The Credit Card Caper" (1974), makes pleasant reading.
Al Darlan is a private detective, about whom Hoch has been writing on and off since 1957. The Darlan stories have mainly appeared in out-of-the-way periodicals, and I've only read a few of them. Darlan is a distinctly unglamorous and hard luck character, whose cases tend to get him in trouble. Darlan lives in a mid-size city, much like Captain Leopold, and his cases take place in a similar medium-boiled milieu as Leopold's. While police officer Leopold is a respected member of the community, the honest but two-bit Darlan is just managing to stay in business. "The Girl Next-Door" (2007) shows the good idea of involving Darlan in show biz scandal, with some nice satiric surprises along the way.
Father David Noone is a parish priest, who has solved a handful of cases since his debut in 1964. Hoch has attempted a realistic, respectful look at the daily life of a parish priest in these stories. Noone's last name suggests he is spreading the sunshine of truth through his sleuthing. It is typical of Hoch to give his detectives such descriptive last names. Father Noone is one of Hoch's few purely amateur sleuths, along with Dr. Sam Hawthorne and Susan Holt. Unlike Hawthorne, who has a consulting role with the police in the Van Dine school tradition, Father Noone works largely on his own. "The Hand of God" (2003) has an interestingly constructed puzzle plot. Some plot ideas here recall the Leopold story, "The Christmas Tree Killer" (1999).
"The Circle of Ink" (1999) is a pastiche of Hoch's favorite mystery writer, Ellery Queen. It is especially strong at recreating the plotting style of the Queen books, notably the works of the late 1940's and early 1950's. Most writers who do pastiches are oriented towards literary mannerisms and verbal style, but a plot-creative writer like Hoch is picking up on puzzle plots, instead. The Ben Snow tale, "The Victorian Hangman" (1988), also has elements reflecting the same late EQ novels.
Annie Sears is a young woman sleuth, who is at the start of a new series in "The Cactus Killer" (2005). This gem constructs a wildly inventive plot in a small space. The story show's Hoch's interest in science and modern technology. It also takes place at that frequent Hoch setting, a festival. Her second tale "First Blood" (2007) is an intricately plotted work whose complex unfolding eventually develops some impossible crime features. "Baja" (2008) is simpler in plot than the first two tales, but it has some unusual and imaginative clues to the killer's identity.
"The Haggard Society" (2000) is a non-series tale, that mixes suspense with a puzzle plot mystery. This tale has some of the most magical storytelling and atmosphere in Hoch's work. "The Fading Woman" (2000) is another mixture of mystery and suspense, one with some good plot ideas. Both stories center on an intelligent woman, trapped in a mysterious and menacing situation. The emphasis is on mysterious: in both cases, the sinister events she encounters are complex, baffling, and hard for either her or the reader to explain. Of course, Hoch proceeds to a full explanation in both stories, in the puzzle plot tradition. This structure allows Hoch a complete fusion between mystery and suspense.
Generally, most authors' non-mystery "suspense" crime fiction is not as well plotted as true mystery tales. Hoch's "The Ring with the Velvet Ropes" (1968) is an exception, which is imaginatively and ingeniously plotted throughout.
Hoch's fiction is rich in clues. Most of his puzzle plot tales offer multiple clues to the mystery and the killer's identity.
Comparisons of a number of Hoch tales (chosen at random) suggests the structural approaches Hoch used for constructing plots and clues. The Rand stories "The Old Spies Club" and "The War That Never Was" in The Old Spies Club, the Annie Sears tale "Baja" and the non-series "The War in Wonderland" all have a hidden scheme. This scheme is a hidden plot, only revealed at the end, that involves concealed, elaborate activities by the bad guys. This scheme is the core of the mystery puzzle plot in the four tales. Hoch drops bits of plot throughout the tale, that will eventually be revealed to be be aspects of the hidden scheme. These aspects serve as clues. Some of them point to the actions of the scheme. Others can point to the guilty person's involvement with the scheme.
In two of the tales, the existence of such a scheme is indicated fairly early. There is no apparent motive for the killing in "The War in Wonderland": so the reader can conclude that something unknown must be happening that provides a motive for the murder. And in "The War That Never Was", a borderline impossible situation demands an explanation, also indicating that there is a major back-story that will explain it.
By contrast, in "The Old Spies Club" and "Baja", the fact that there's a hidden scheme is a complete surprise at the end. Only the fact that mystery fiction often has such schemes, alerts the informed reader to look out for the possibility of such a scheme.
In all cases, the existence of the scheme delights the reader. This is what puzzle plot mystery fiction is for: to unleash logical but surprising plot solutions on the reader. The hidden scheme is thus a major artistic attribute of the story. It in fact helps make these tales into puzzle plot fiction. Anyone can write a simple tale in which there is a crime, and at the end of which we learn whodunit. Hoch goes beyond this, in developing a whole hidden plot scheme, that serves as a puzzle for the reader.
A clue in "Baja" is especially ingenious. It is an ambiguous statement (the whispered statement of the woman). It can be read one way, in the surface plot of the story - and another, in terms of the hidden scheme. This is the most complex clue related to the schemes in any of the tales. The other clues are are straightforward indicators, pointing to one plot element or another of the hidden scheme.
Hoch also has clues, especially to the identity of the killer, that are logically separate from the scheme itself. These often involve a discrepancy between the killer's statements, and facts that have been set forth in the rest of the story. In two of the tales, this discrepancy involves time. Everything from minutes to years, can be found to be "off" in the killer's statements. In another tale, "Madam Sing's Gold", the discrepancy involves geography. A discrepancy clue in "The Old Spies Club" involves neither time nor space, so Hoch is far from limited to these two approaches.
Hoch has other kinds of clues as well. There is an element with hidden meaning in "Baja" (the tattoo).
Hoch has clues that relate to the aftermath of the crime in "The War in Wonderland".
Finally, "Baja" has a suspect saying something that only the killer would know. (An example, not from Hoch. A cop will say to a suspect: "Where were you when the killing took place?". Suspect: "I was at a bar when the victim was shot." Cop: "How did you know the victim was shot? I never said so. You must be the murderer.") This kind of clue is completely fair. But I think it is one of the least interesting kinds of clue in mystery fiction. It does not hurt "Baja": there are two other far more interesting clues in the tale. Why do I value such clues less? For one thing, they have no logical connection to the rest of the story - they are not connected to a hidden scheme, for example. Secondly, they can be created almost at will, showing little real imagination in most cases. They are fair, and part of detective fiction's repertoire of techniques - but not very inventive.
The above discussion of hidden schemes and clues does not cover every plot aspect of these tales. For one thing, "The Old Spies Club" has a completely separate subplot, about a search for a hidden object. This kind of mystery plot was a favorite with Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer. It makes a good addition to "The Old Spies Club", one logically separate from the hidden scheme plot in the story.
For another, Hoch also uses ingenuity to make the killer be an unlikely suspect. This approach is most notable in "The Old Spies Club". MAJOR SPOILER: Here the hidden scheme is interesting as a mystery puzzle in itself. But it also seems to remove the real criminal from suspicion. Hoch develops a profile for the killer, and makes it look like it has to be one of three spies. But the hidden scheme shows that the actual villain could also have been involved in espionage, and thus is a potential criminal - something we never suspected during the story.