Edward D. Hoch

Mystery Plots: Series Detectives | Impossible Crimes | 1978-1983: Impossible Crimes | Hidden Schemes | Visual Puns | Clues | Search for a Hidden Object | Unlikely Suspect | Color | New Explanations of Old Tales

Detective Series: 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 | Libby Knowles | Annie Sears | Stanton and Ives | Father David Noone | Al Darlan | Ulysses S. Bird | Paul Tower, the Lollipop Cop | Sir Gideon Parrot | Ellery Queen Pastiche | Non-Series Tales

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Edward D. Hoch

Recommended Works:

City of Brass The Quests of Simon Ark Funeral in the Fog: The Strange Mysteries of Simon Ark

The Night My Friend

The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Tales

Uncollected Ben Snow stories

Harry Ponder stories

Leopold's Way

Uncollected Captain Leopold tales

The Spy and the Thief

The Spy Who Read Latin and Other Stories

The Old Spies Club and Other Intrigues of Rand

Uncollected Jeffery Rand stories Diagnosis Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne Nothing Is Impossible: Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne Challenge the Impossible: The Final Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne The Thefts of Nick Velvet The Velvet Touch: Nick Velvet Stories 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 Sir Gideon Parrot tales Connie Trent tales Sebastian Blue and Laura Charme of Interpol tales Charles Spacer tales Hoch's Ladies

Alexander Swift tales

Ellery Queen tales

Father David Noone tales

Stanton and Ives tales

Mystery-Suspense 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.

Edward D. Hoch

Edward D. Hoch published 950 short stories. Hoch is the leading contemporary writer of true puzzle plot mysteries.

Among his current books in print, the best introductions to his work are:

One wishes these three books were available in every newsstand and bookstore, but one will usually have to order them by internet or 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.)

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.

Information on Hoch

The best print 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, after all these years. It also has a bibliography of Leopold stories by Hoch. Nevins' introduction to The Night My Friend (1992) has an updated look at Hoch's series. And a bibliography of Hoch's non-series tales. A version of these articles appears in Nevins' critical collection Cornucopia of Crime.

The Crippen & Landru collections of Hoch's stories also contain bibliographies.

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".

A large amount of well-researched criticism of Hoch's stories is at Beneath the Stains of Time. Please keep clicking on the "Older Posts" link at the end of each batch of articles: more articles will appear.

An introduction in EQMM says that Hoch had served for many years on Rochester's library board. Hoch lived for much of his life in Rochester, New York. This is a sizable city: the Rochester metropolitan area currently has over a million people.

Series Detectives

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 and the Western-mystery. Hoch can shift to any of these genres simply by altering his series protagonist. It is a clever arrangement.

Impossible Crimes

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 Theft of Cinderella's Slipper" (1987) (in The Velvet Touch: Nick Velvet Stories) 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).

Impossible Appearances. Another series of Hoch tales deal with objects that impossibly show up in sealed chambers. SPOILERS:

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.

A Plot Structure. A number of authors have used this plot structure for an impossible crime mystery:

  1. First, the detective figures out how the impossible crime was committed.
  2. Then, from this solution, it becomes clear who committed the crime. They are the only ones who had the opportunity to pull off the impossible crime.
Examples of this structure in Hoch include "The Stalker of Souls", "The Problem of the Country Church", "The Problem of the Protected Farmhouse", "The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse", "The Problem of the Poisoned Pool", the main impossible crime plot in "The Problem of the Curing Barn".

1978-1983: Impossible Crimes

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: "Lady of the Impossible" (1981), the first story about Sir Gideon Parrot, appeared in this era. It is an impossible crime tale.

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: Nick Velvet Stories. 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.

Hidden Schemes

MILD SPOILERS AHEAD

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.

"The Avenger from Outer Space" is also structured around a hidden scheme. The main clue to the killer's identity is linked to this scheme - it is not part of the murder mystery, strictly speaking.

"The Problem of the Old Gristmill" (1975) also centers on a hidden scheme. One whose existence is a surprise to readers at the end of the story. Added to this is an impossible crime puzzle. This puzzle is linked to the scheme through motives, and shared technical means used to pull off both the scheme and the impossibility. Both the hidden scheme and the impossible crime are developed with much plot detail. Both the hidden scheme and the impossible crime, have separate clues to their solutions. The clues to the impossibility are technical: clues to how the impossibility was physically committed. By contrast, the clues to the hidden scheme point to aspects of the scheme.

A character is a writer named Henry Cordwainer. This is perhaps a reference or tribute to the major science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith. And the tale's repeated admiring references to Thoreau are an example of Hoch's liberal politics. They also help establish New England cultural traditions.

"The Problem of the Yellow Wallpaper" also mixes a hidden scheme with a separate impossible crime. In this tale the hidden scheme is simple, while the impossible crime is detailed and imaginative. The hidden scheme has affinities with the one in "The Problem of the Old Gristmill". "The Problem of the Yellow Wallpaper" also resembles "The Problem of the Old Gristmill", in focussing on new residents in Northmont.

"The Problem of Santa's Lighthouse" is a bit unusual, in that the hidden scheme is revealed and solved midway through the tale, rather than at the finale.

In both "The Problem of Santa's Lighthouse" and "The Problem of the Crying Room", Dr. Sam unexpectedly insists on making a trip, to a locale that has only been mentioned in the story, rather than having been seen "on-stage". In both tales, this leads him to uncovering details of a hidden scheme.

The Simon Ark tales "The House of a Hundred Birds" and "Prisoner of Zerfall" share common structural features:

The second scheme in "Prisoner of Zerfall" is very simple, and benefits from this simplicity, being something readers might fairly guess. By contrast, the second scheme in "The House of a Hundred Birds" is highly complex. It's imaginative - but not something readers might easily figure out. SPOILERS. This second scheme echoes the real-life mystery of Maelzel's chess player.

"No Blood for a Vampire" has a hidden scheme. It is a bit unusual in that:

The scheme and the murders in "No Blood for a Vampire" are so closely linked, that they seem to form one overall pattern of plot. This plot is imaginative and unexpected.

Visual Puns

SPOILERS. In "The House of a Hundred Birds", a witness sees an event. But thinks it is something other than what it really is. What the witness thinks they are seeing, and what they are actually seeing, look exactly alike, even though they are in fact very different. The two serve as what one might dub a "visual pun": an event that looks just like a different event.

"The Problem of the Yellow Wallpaper" also has an event that is seen but misinterpreted by the detectives and the reader. This event looks simple, but has hidden complexities.

"The Problem of the Boston Common" contains a visual pun in its solution. SPOILER. This enables Dr. Sam to identify the killer, and show how he could have committed the crime.

"The Problem of the Black Cloister" has two visual puns, one for each killing in the story. SPOILERS:

"Christmas Is for Cops" (1970) has a visual pun as the main idea in its solution.

The strange illusionistic painting of the villa in the Ben Snow tale "The Phantom Stallion" (1985), is perhaps related to the visual puns.

Clues

Hoch's fiction is rich in clues. Most of his puzzle plot tales offer multiple clues to the mystery and the killer's identity.

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".

"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.

"The Problem of the Pink Post Office" has a search for a missing object. "The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat" has a search for people who have disappeared.

Unlikely Suspect

Hoch also ingenuity to make the killer be an unlikely suspect. This approach is 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.

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.

Color

Some Hoch tales use color to highlight key elements in the mystery plot.

Examples: "The Problem of the Pink Post Office", "The Problem of the Curing Barn", "The Problem of the Blue Bicycle", "The Problem of the Enormous Owl", "The Problem of the Enchanted Terrace".

Please see my Color in Ellery Queen, which documents Queen's extensive use of this technique.

New Explanations of Old Tales

Hoch wrote 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: Hoch developed an impossible crime version of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892), in "The Problem of the Yellow Wallpaper" (2001). Like "The Problem of the Phantom Parlor" this is set in a creepy old mansion. Both tales show Hoch's interest in the Golden Age mystery tradition of unusual architecture.

Related tales by Hoch, that build on traditional stories and concepts, often with new explanations and solutions:


Dr. Sam Hawthorne

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".

Popularity. During much of Hoch's pre-2000 career, his Captain Leopold and Nick Velvet tales seem to have been his best known works. But today, the Dr. Sam stories seem to be the popular favorites among Hoch's series. Some possible reasons:

  1. Crippen & Landru have published all 72 Dr. Sam tales, in five large volumes. So they are easily found by today's readers.
  2. Impossible crimes are one of Hoch's strengths as a mystery plotter.
  3. Comments by reviewers show they like the historical fiction elements of the Dr. Sam stories. The tales are set from 1922 to 1944.
  4. Amateur sleuth Dr. Sam is often involved with cases, through his personal or professional life. So we learn a great deal about Dr. Sam's activities and character. Today's readers like richly drawn characters.
In his Introduction to More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, Hoch discusses reasons #2 and #3 above. On #3: Hoch says the stories show "the life and times" of Dr. Sam. And "tell the reader something of the world in which he lived."

The editor's introduction to "The Problem of the Candidate's Cabin" (EQMM, July 2004) says that though the Dr. Sam series "was even conceived by the author as a series that might prove appropriate for TV, it has never proved as popular with producers as some of the other Hoch series, especially that featuring offbeat thief Nick Velvet".

Van Dine School: Sleuths. S.S. Van Dine and many of his followers, such as Ellery Queen, featured mysteries solved by genius amateur detectives who worked in close collaboration with friendly police. This is the same paradigm Hoch used in his Dr. Sam stories. Dr. Sam is a brilliant genius and amateur sleuth, and works closely with Sheriff Lens.

The Dr. Sam tales begin in the 1920's. This is the decade when S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen started publishing mystery novels.

Hoch created other amateur sleuths: Simon Ark, Susan Holt, Father David Noone. But none has the steady long-term relationship with a series cop like Sheriff Lens.

Covered Bridge. The first Dr. Sam tale "The Problem of the Covered Bridge" (1974) establishes the three most important series characters: young Dr. Sam, his nurse April, and lawman Sheriff Lens. It also establishes that Dr. Sam has just moved into the small New England town of Northmont. However, unlike later tales, Northmont is not much of a presence yet. Instead, the tale concentrates on three farm families who live none-too-close along a country road. There is an atmosphere of "tragedy in an isolated rural area among traditional farm families", that perhaps recalls Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers" (1916). This sort of extreme rural isolation will not be the dominant mode in later Dr. Sam tales, which will more look at small town life.

"The Problem of the Covered Bridge" contains references to Doyle, and Doyle's tale "The Problem of Thor Bridge" (1922). Hoch was a mystery historian as well as a fiction writer. His tales sometimes refer to classic mystery authors, always knowledgeably.

"The Problem of the Covered Bridge" includes the phrase "a small libation". It will become a comedy catch phrase in the series. It's a quote from an old comic poem, often attributed to Oscar Wilde.

A few of Hoch's "impossible disappearance" tales, have solutions that require the victim to collaborate in his own disappearance. This approach seems a bit less ingenious, than tales that do not require such collaboration, as part of their solution. SPOILERS. These include "The Problem of the Covered Bridge", "The Way Up to Hades", "Master of Miracles". These three stories have related impossible crime premises, too. However, their solutions are all quite different. "The Way Up to Hades" and "Master of Miracles" share imagery of "fire as part of stage magic".

The same victim-collaboration is present in some impossible crime tales: "The Gravesend Trumpet".

Landscapes. Hoch likes to set his Dr. Sam 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. "The Problem of the Protected Farmhouse" (1990) has a rather similar setting. "The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery" (1995) has a unique, if small, landscape, closely linked to the tale's impossibility. Some Dr. Sam tales take place against even bigger outdoor landscapes that stretch across the countryside, such as "The Problem of the Covered Bridge" (1974), "The Problem of the Boston Common" (1979), "The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat" (1981), "The Problem of the Gypsy Camp" (1982), "The Problem of the Blue Bicycle" (1991), "The Problem of the Leather Man" (1992), "The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse" (1994), "The Problem of the Enormous Owl" (1996), and "The Problem of the Devil's Orchard" (2006). See also the cityscape in "The Problem of the Black Roadster" (1988).

Hoch less often 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).

Revival Tent. Tales like "The Problem of the Revival Tent" (1978), "The Problem of the General Store" show Hoch can execute traditional locked room puzzles with imagination.

"The Problem of the Revival Tent" condemns faith healing. It also casts a jaundiced eye at the revival meeting context that promotes the faith healing. The later Simon Ark "Master of Miracles" (1999) has a negative look at the similar meetings of a cult group.

Whispering House. "The Problem of the Whispering House" (1979) shows enthusiastic storytelling in its treatment of that mystery standby, the spooky mansion. The tale has lots of plot inventiveness.

The tale avoids the Old Dark House plot, where strangers gather at random in the house, taking shelter from a storm. SPOILERS. Instead, everyone in the tale except Dr. Sam, has some sort of logical connection to the mansion, and to each other. Watching the connections grow and develop, is part of the interesting plot of the story. A "web of growing connections" recalls The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939) by Erle Stanley Gardner.

The house has links to U.S. history. This too adds to the plot richness of the tale. It also offers some good social commentary and perspective.

The story shows the interest in architecture prevalent in traditional mystery fiction.

"The Problem of the Whispering House" uses secret passages, something normally considered a cheat in impossible crime stories. However, Hoch tries to justify such passages, by:

The tale has something rare in the Dr. Sam series: a mention of the State Police. In many mysteries by other authors, the State Police get called in, after any crime in the countryside. The troopers are professional, experienced, intelligent, and have access to modern labs and technology. Please see my list of the State Police in classic mystery fiction. One suspects that Hoch doesn't use the State Police, so that Dr. Sam and Sheriff Lens can solve all the crimes in Northmont.

Boston Common. The solution of "The Problem of the Boston Common" (1979) comes in a series of stages. Each stage involves creative ideas. SPOILERS. One of the best parts is the mathematical analysis Dr. Sam gives in his speech. (A later Simon Ark tale "The S. S. S." also uses math in its solution. And there is simple, but revealing, math in the solution of the Ben Snow tale "The Passion of Lizzie B.") In addition to the mathematics, Dr. Sam concludes his analysis-during-the-speech with two unexpected, imaginative conclusions. These conclusions are in part based on the math ideas.

Dr. Sam's analysis in "The Problem of the Boston Common" synthesizes a wide variety of story elements, into a unifying plot pattern. Such a synthesis is always intellectually exciting in mystery fiction.

Gingerbread Houseboat. "The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat" (1981) is one of the handful of of Dr. Sam tales that are NOT impossible crimes.

Instead, "The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat" offers another standard type of mystery puzzle: the situation which is hard to explain, and which just does not make sense. In such stories, no logical explanation looks possible, for most of the tale. But a logical explanation for the mystery is eventually offered, at the tale's finale. Such tales show ingenuity, in coming up with any logical solution for their mysteries.

Hoch's solution in "The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat" is indeed logical.

"The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat" recreates the situation of a famous real life mystery in this category: that of the ship Mary Celeste.

"The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat" also includes that favorite, the exhaustive search. Such searches typically look for small hidden objects, such as a jewel or a document. SPOILERS. This story differs in looking for large objects: four bodies, alive or dead. The tale offers a clever clue, that enables Dr. Sam, and potentially the reader as well, to figure out where the missing people are.

The paired identical cottages, recall paired identical houses in Mary Roberts Rinehart stories like The Album (1933) and "The Burned Chair" (1953). The cottages are an example of traditional mystery fiction's interest in architecture. For that matter, the houseboat is mainly described in terms of its rooms: also architectural. The lake is an example of the related interest in landscape, in classic mystery fiction.

Pink Post Office. "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 these an object vanishes within a well-watched and searched room. The vanishing is mysterious, and looks impossible. 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 simple architectural layout of the Post Office, recalls that of "The Problem of the General Store". The two tales have different puzzles and solutions, though.

"The Problem of the Pink Post Office" has a festive, maybe even comic quality. Like "The Problem of the Crying Room", it takes place on the gala opening day for some new Northmont institution. As the tale points out, there is no murder. The motives for the theft are pure greed, less dark than many motives for murder.

Octagon Room. "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.

Tin Goose. "The Problem of the Tin Goose" (1981) starts out pleasantly, with a look at the activities and careers of some barnstorming pilots. There is a lot about various planes.

However, the locked room puzzle is a cliche of the genre, widely used for decades by earlier authors. This robs the story of mystery interest.

Santa's Lighthouse. "The Problem of Santa's Lighthouse" (1983) has an opening story situation that recalls "The Two-Headed Dog" (1934) by Ellery Queen. Both:

The mystery plots of the two tales are completely different.

Northmont is inland, far from the ocean. So if Hoch wanted to write a lighthouse tale, he had to set it while Dr. Sam was away from home. Other mysteries with lighthouses:

Crying Room. "The Problem of the Crying Room" (1984) has Northmont getting its first "movie palace" theater, in 1932. Hoch's interest is mainly architectural, focusing on the theater's "crying room" for babies. Architecture often played a key role in traditional mystery fiction. Unusual architecture like the crying room was especially prized.

The extravagant, detailed story telling in this tale, is especially good.

The plot involves two linked crimes, separated by a time interval, and which seem joined together in a way that looks impossible. In this, the plot resembles Hoch's classic "The Long Way Down". The resemblance is not perfect, and perhaps not even close. Still, the plot draws upon a similar aspect of Hoch's plot-creating skill.

The films showing at the theater, Winner Take All (Roy Del Ruth, 1932) and The Miracle Man (Norman Z. McLeod, 1932), are authentic. But they are obscure works that have rarely if ever attracted the interest of film historians. The story mentions their famous stars, James Cagney and Chester Morris, and one suspects Hoch picked them as 1932 releases with "name" actors. Please also see my picks for the Best Films of 1932.

The story at first calls the theater Northmont's first talking-picture palace: which is believable. But later the Mayor calls it Northmont's first movie theater - which is unbelievable. Movies had been wildly popular in the U.S. for decades before 1932. Surely Northmont would have had some sort of theater. Earlier, "The Problem of the Old Oak Tree", set in 1927, had said that there was no theater in Northmont, and that to see silent films one had to drive to cities like Hartford and Springfield. This just doesn't sound believable.

Curing Barn. "The Problem of the Curing Barn" (1987) has two parts to its solution. Both are ingenious. Both are fairly clued:

  1. The first part explains the impossible crime. Its solution points to the identity of the killer.
  2. The second part involves left handed vs right handed people. This was a favorite topic in Ellery Queen. This part shows how the killer was enabled to commit the crime.
SPOILERS. Aspects of the impossible crime solution, return in "The Problem of the Country Church" (1991). They are simpler and much more plausible in "The Problem of the Curing Barn".

"The Problem of the Curing Barn" suffers from its unpleasant characters. They make the story less enjoyable than it might be. The uncomfortable personal relations in this story, anticipate those in the Simon Ark tale "The Graveyard Ghoul" (1996).

Protected Farmhouse. "The Problem of the Protected Farmhouse" (1990) has two solutions, a false and a true one:

  1. The first false solution is simple but ingenious. It also seems to be original. This solution has two components. Both derive from elements that are fairly shared with readers.
  2. The second solution is complex, and involves carefully thought through, storytelling detail. It is solidly done. But it centers on an old idea in impossible crimes. John Dickson Carr used versions of it in the 1930's.
The super-elaborate protections at the farmhouse have a comic dimension. They take the standard ideas of a locked room, and exaggerate them for effect. "You want a locked area - we'll get you a locked area!" might be their motto.

The tough Feds, complete with fedoras, also have a comic edge. However, one wonders if they are more in touch with the political reality of this serious situation, than Dr. Sam or the other townspeople are. This might be one case where Dr. Sam is not as knowledgeable as he might be.

Vanishing Salesman. 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 all treated it as an impossible crime in their writings, ever since Ellery Queen took this approach in his 1943 radio play.

Leather Man. "The Problem of the Leather Man" (1992) is one of the longest Dr. Sam stories. It needs the space, to set forth the numerous incidents of the tale.

The Leather Man might be a sort of psychological double for Dr. Sam. In "The Problem of the Enchanted Terrace", Dr. Sam will meet an actual physical double of himself. Both men are ultimately sympathetic, and friendly to Dr. Sam.

Poisoned Pool. "The Problem of the Poisoned Pool" (1993) has an inventive pair of impossible crimes. The two impossibilities center on the same character, and are closely linked.

The first impossibility, is part of a detective story tradition. The story accurately compares it to the mystery in an earlier impossible crime novel The Dragon Murder Case (1933) by S.S. Van Dine. However the premise of "The Problem of the Poisoned Pool" is different, although related. And Hoch's solution is original.

"The Problem of the Poisoned Pool" portrays the workings of a Northmont newspaper. It is one of those Hoch tales which portray a work environment, and have the workers as witnesses and suspects. Other Dr. Sam tales show us Northmont papers: "The Problem of the Tin Goose", "The Problem of the Enormous Owl". But "The Problem of the Poisoned Pool" goes deeper in its portrait.

Missing Roadhouse. "The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse" (1994) has much in common with "The Problem of the Leather Man":

Crowded Cemetery. "The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery" (1995) has ideas inspired by Ellery Queen:

"The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery" looks at some of the possibilities of women's careers and opportunities. The tale is contemporary with Hoch's Susan Holt tales, about a skilled working woman turned amateur sleuth.

Enormous Owl. "The Problem of the Enormous Owl" (1996) has that standard Hoch subplot construction, the "hidden scheme". But this scheme is set up differently. Often the existence of such a scheme is kept a secret from the reader, and revealed only as part of a surprise solution at the tale's end. But here the reader learns halfway through the tale, that some scheme is going on, from the witness testimony of neighbor Pete Antwerp. This then creates a puzzle plot: what is the nature of the mysterious scheme? This puzzle plot is solved a page later. The solution is surprising, but admirably it is fairly clued.

The murder in the impossible crime, is also a how-done-it. In a how-done-it, the physical mechanism of how the crime was committed, is mysterious and unknown. The detective and the reader have to figure out how the crime was done, as a physical act.

The majority of impossible crimes are not how-done-its. For example, "The Problem of the Candidate's Cabin" is not a how-done-it. It is clear that the victim has been shot. There is nothing mysterious about this! The murder method is clear. By contrast, in "The Problem of the Enormous Owl" how the murder was actually committed, is a major puzzle.

Second Problem. "The Second Problem of the Covered Bridge" (1998) is a sequel to the first Dr. Sam tale "The Problem of the Covered Bridge". The sequel has new, different characters, but takes place at the same covered bridge. The impossible crime in the sequel is better than other story aspects, which suffer from being morbid and downbeat. Merits of the impossible crime:

Haunted Hospital. "The Problem of the Haunted Hospital" (2001) suffers from slim plotting:

One the plus side, the mystery plot is logical, and with a plausible solution. SPOILERS. There is a sound, clever reason for the hood.

There is some pleasant storytelling. SPOILERS. And a key development in Dr. Sam's life.

Candidate's Cabin. "The Problem of the Candidate's Cabin" (2004) pleases by the profusion of mystery subplots it contains:

The hidden scheme brings together a number of unexplained aspects of the plot, giving them explanations as part of the scheme. Such a joining together of unexplained events into a logical pattern, is always a most pleasing aspect of mystery tales.

SPOILERS. The solution of the impossible crime, bears some resemblance to that of "One More Clue" (1958) by Craig Rice. However, there are differences between the two solutions too.

"The Problem of the Candidate's Cabin" has an extensive Background, showing politics in Northmont. We also learn more about the Sheriff's department that Sheriff Lens runs, than in most other tales.

Vera Lens conducts an unofficial telephone poll, as part of the political campaign. Polling was already big in the US in the 1940's. Susan Ohmer's book George Gallup in Hollywood (2006) shows polling in the 1940's film industry.

Black Cloister. "The Problem of the Black Cloister" (2004) is one of the few Dr. Sam tales that is not an impossible crime.

Another unusual feature of "The Problem of the Black Cloister": it refers back to a crime that happened before Dr. Sam arrived in Northmont. Its shows crime investigations as being poor and medically incompetent, before the era of Dr. Sam. But there are otherwise no big historical revelations about Northmont, or about the series characters.

"The Problem of the Black Cloister", like "The Problem of the Unfound Door" (1998), deals with a religious order that sets up a self-contained compound on the fringes of Northmont.

The bond rally is treated as an example of performing arts, with "fictional" activities dramatized on-stage. Performing arts are a perennial interest of Van Dine school writers.

The career of the tough guy Hollywood actor in the tale, does not correspond with Hollywood realities:

Northmont: Size. The second Dr. Sam tale "The Problem of the Old Gristmill" calls Northmont a "little town". And throughout the series Northmont has a small town feel. "The Problem of the Crying Room" implies Northmont has 860 residents. However, Northmont has so many institutions, businesses and colorful residents in the 72 tales, that Northmont seems more like a sizable city. All these institutions would be impressive in a city of several hundred thousand people, let alone a small town like Northmont.

A major event in the series is Northmont getting its own hospital, in "The Problem of the Pilgrims Windmill". The hospital has 80 beds, although these are not all in use, but installed in anticipation of future growth in Northmont. This indicates the size of Northmont, suggesting it has many more than a thousand people.

Northmont: World-Building. The hospital is repeatedly referred to, in later stories. Dr. Lincoln Jones and Dr. Bob Yale, who work there in "Pilgrims Windmill", return in "The Problem of the Grange Hall". Dr. Lincoln Jones also appears at the start of "The Problem of the Haunted Hospital". These are examples of world-building: the introduction of elements that will be repeatedly used in later tales or episodes. More examples:

However, I think such world-building is relatively rare in the Dr. Sam series. Most of the characters, businesses and institutions in the tales are one-shots, appearing in just one story.

It is unclear if there is a standard definition of "world-building". The previous discussion treated only elements that are repeated as examples of world-building. But it is possible that every person and institution in Northmont should actually be seen as world-building, whether it is repeated or not. In that case, world-building in the Dr. Sam tales is on a massive scale, indeed.

David Bordwell's essay Rex Stout: Logomachizing has much to say about world-building.

Northmont: A Representative Place. Several Dr. Sam tales start with a real-life event, then show how the trend exemplified in the event is playing out in Northmont. For example, "The Problem of the General Store" starts with a mention of Amelia Earhart's flying the Atlantic in 1928. The story then goes on with Northmont residents discussing women's possibilities, and the arrival of a feminist in Northmont.

Such tales imply that Northmont is representative of trends in the United States as a whole.

Modernity. The Dr. Sam tales focus strongly on the era in which they are set, 1922-1944. One consequence, is that the tales are NOT dominated by Colonial or other early New England traditions. People in the stories are rarely described in terms of their 1600's Puritan ancestors. And society in the tales is 20th Century American, not some relic of Colonial times.

The stories often depict new things coming to Northmont or the United States as a whole, including innovations in technology or society. The tales often embody what academics call "modernity": a focus on modern, innovative life in the 20th Century.

An example: "The Problem of the Boston Common" is set in 1928. It emphasizes how much the city of Boston has changed over the last ten years. The fancy hotel where the characters stay was built in that period. The tale also mentions such modern institutions as a medical research laboratory, and that innovation of the 1920's, the movie palace. Intermixed with all these modern elements, is a detailed description of the Boston Common, one of the most historic features of Boston. The tale is very interested in the Common, but does not even mention its historic aspect.

In the aviation tale "The Problem of the Tin Goose" Dr. Sam wonders if the dashing flyers "were the forerunners of a whole new world". He also wonders if he Dr. Sam is missing out on such things. This celebrates the promise of modernity.

In "The Problem of the Crying Room" the opening of the movie palace is called "a step into the future for us" in Northmont. Please also see my list-with-links Movies and Modernity: British Crime Fiction.

Dr. Sam is regularly shown reading medical journals. Journals were a primary way doctors in that era kept up with new developments in medicine.

Ideologies to Avoid. Some popular-in-real-life ideological beliefs just don't seem present in the Dr. Sam tales:

Neither of these ideas help one understand the Dr. Sam stories.

A possible example of city vice / country virtue in Hoch: "The Problem of the Revival Tent" has its "city slicker" conman refer condescendingly to his Northmont victims as "ignorant people". Still, this is one conman, not a whole city of villains. This tale is balanced by many other stories, showing homegrown corruption in Northmont.

Time Sequence. Each Dr. Sam tale is firmly set in some historic time period. The 72 tales tales were published in strict chronological order, with each tale being set a little later than the previous one.

I don't know of many models in other authors for this time structure in the Dr. Sam tales. Such strict time sequences are most popular in science fiction. The 8 long tales that make up most of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy (1940's) were published in chronological order. So mainly were the 1940's short stories in City by Clifford D. Simak.


Simon Ark

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 throughout his career.

Publishing. The narrator and "Watson" in many of the Simon Ark tales works for a New York City publishing firm. He thus has the same profession as Jerry North, the series sleuth in the Mr. and Mrs. North books by the Lockridges. However, Hoch's narrator seems less glamorous and more like a working stiff than Jerry North. In both authors, the publishing connection can get the characters involved in a mystery. The specific books we hear about from the narrator's firm, tend to be nonfiction.

In both the Lockridges and Hoch, this look at publishing is part of the Van Dine school's interest in media.

Museums. Museums are settings for such Simon Ark tales as "The Society of the Scar", "The Gravesend Trumpet". See also the museum in "The Problem of the Enchanted Terrace". Museums were locales in S.S. Van Dine and some of his followers.

City of Brass. 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.

Day of the Wizard. Some of the Simon Ark stories are impossible crime tales. "Day of the Wizard" (1964) 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 in "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.

Funeral in the Fog. "Funeral in the Fog" (1973) contains an unusual impossible murder. The story shows Hoch's fondness for setting impossible crimes in landscapes. There is one landscape in Java, told about as a backstory. And two more in contemporary times. The landscape in the backstory is closely linked to the impossibility.

A subplot about an impersonation is colorful. It gets its own elaborate clue. SPOILERS. This clue helps identify the person who is the impostor.

Simon Ark keeps coming up with new revised versions, of what really happened in the backstory. This gives an unusual structure to the tale.

The Avenger from Outer Space. "The Avenger from Outer Space" (1979) shares a broadly similar kind of subject matter, with "The Singing Diamonds" (1949) by Helen McCloy. Both:

The specific events and their solutions are very different in the two tales, however.

The Weapon Out of the Past. "The Weapon Out of the Past" (1980) has impossibilities that have a similar pattern to those in Hoch's non-series classic "The Long Way Down". The two tales' solutions are quite different however.

SPOILERS. Each tale has a linked pair of two impossibilities. There is a similar pattern to the link in each tale. And a curious gap in time between each tale's first impossibility and second impossibility.

Prisoner of Zerfall. "Prisoner of Zerfall" (1985) exemplifies an approach to mystery construction, frequently used by Rex Stout. That is to have the mystery center around some institution or business. And have the suspects be the people who run the institution, along with key employees. "Prisoner of Zerfall" centers on an institution: a prison. And the four prison directors and the prison doctor are central characters. Similarly "The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery" has the cemetery board of directors and superintendent as suspects.

The S. S. S.. While the Simon Ark tales tend to explore Roman Catholic themes, other religions are also featured in the tales. 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. SPOILERS. The main set of clues deals with knowledge: who knew about a key fact.

Master of Miracles. "Master of Miracles" (1999) has an original, unexpected "impossible crime" premise. This is the best feature of the tale. Unfortunately the solution of the impossible crime is easy to figure out. SPOILERS. "The Problem of the Covered Bridge", "The Way Up to Hades", "Master of Miracles" have related impossible crime premises.

Also good: the "bird screen", something I'd never heard of. This gives an architectural dimension to the plot.

However, this tale is gloomy and has horror elements, which make it remote from my tastes.


Rand mystery-spy tales

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 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.


Nick Velvet

Hoch wrote 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 tales in The Velvet Touch: Nick Velvet Stories (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:

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: Nick Velvet Stories 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: Nick Velvet Stories 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: a "hidden scheme". "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.


Captain Leopold

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 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.


Michael Vlado, the Gypsy Sleuth

Hoch also writes a series starring detective Michael Vlado, king of a small tribe of Romanian Gypsies. Many of these have 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 and Other Tales of the Gypsy Sleuth 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.


The Ben Snow Mystery-Western Stories

Ben Snow. 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 stories were collected in The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Tales 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.

Ben Snow wanders around the Old West, going to a different locale in each tale. This recalls such popular 1950's Western TV series such as Maverick, and especially, Cheyenne. It also recalls such globe-trotting Hoch sleuths as Simon Ark and Rand.

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.

I like Ben Snow very much as a character. But the first seven of the stories in The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow 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 many of the subsequent tales in the series, which Hoch has continued to the present day.

Ben Snow sometimes works as a bodyguard. Other times he is employed as a private detective, as in "The Passion of Lizzie B." Sometimes he solves mysteries on his own, essentially as an unpaid amateur sleuth, as in "The Phantom Stallion". However, calling Ben Snow an "amateur" in such cases is likely going too far. Lots of professional detectives, like police or private eyes, occasionally solve a case while off duty and unpaid. This does not usually turn them into amateur detectives. They are still professionals. The term "amateur" is best reserved for sleuths like Dr. Sam, who are unpaid as detectives throughout their entire career.

EQ Traditions. Some of the best Ben Snow stories follow in the tradition of Ellery Queen:

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.

The Flying Man. 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.

Brothers on the Beach. Some of the Ben Snow tales, such as "Brothers on the Beach" (1984), succeed as works of historical fiction, even if they are perfunctory as mysteries.

The Phantom Stallion. "The Phantom Stallion" (1985) starts out well, with a description of an early air-conditioner on a west Texas ranch. This shows Hoch's interest in technological advances, and the idea of Modernity. As a steam-powered machine in older times, it anticipates the Steampunk movement.

The alleged "villa under construction" is also an interesting image. SPOILERS. I was hoping this would play a part in the mystery plot - but it does not.

Unfortunately, the tale goes downhill after this. It offers two solutions to its locked room mystery, both standard cliches of the genre. Its characters are grim and downbeat.

The Nude Over the Bar. "The Nude Over the Bar" (1988) has an original, startling mystery premise. The premise is surreal, and a bit eerie. And the tale eventually comes up with a logical, surprising explanation of why the premise is happening. The premise and its explanation are the best features of the story.

The heroine is also good. Her unusual social position, in opposition to society that insists on defining her, anticipates the even more interesting protagonist of "The Passion of Lizzie B."

"The Phantom Stallion" included a painting. There is much more about paintings in "The Nude Over the Bar", including a visit to an artist's studio, and a look at his working methods. Art was a perennial interest of the Van Dine school. This tale emphasizes the making of art, as much as the finished product.

Unfortunately, some of the tale's other aspects seem mechanical and routine. Most of the other characters are uninteresting. Few of the horse racing elements have freshness or originality.

This is one of those Ben Snow tales, where he arrives at a locale that is building up to some festive event that will serve as the tale's climax: in this case, a horse race.

Five Days in a Texas Town. The title "Five Days in a Texas Town" (1992) echoes that of a Western film, Terror in a Texas Town (Joseph H. Lewis, 1958). Hoch also wrote a non-series tale "Three Weeks in a Spanish Town" (AHMM, December 1978).

The Passion of Lizzie B.. The hardware 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: Nick Velvet Stories.

"The Passion of Lizzie B." has a well-done mystery plot. In fact, this is a model of a brilliantly plotted detective story. It should be studied in schools. SPOILERS. The solution is both logical and fairly clued on the one hand - but seems to come out of left field, on the other hand. This is an excellent pattern and structure. And one almost guaranteed to make a good mystery. It is not the only suitable pattern for quality mysteries - lots of other approaches are also sound. But if the author can pull this pattern off, it will lay the foundation for a well-done detective tale.

A good mystery solution should be both logical and surprising. That of "The Passion of Lizzie B." qualifies in abundance.

The title "The Passion of Lizzie B." is ambiguous. It could refer to romantic passion, or Lizzie B.'s passionate pursuit of goals. SPOILERS. But it also could have a religious meaning, of Lizzie B.'s tragic suffering, like Jesus' Passion.

The San Agustin Miracle. "The San Agustin Miracle" (2001) involves impossible crime. SPOILERS. Actually, there are two linked impossible crimes. The premises of both are pleasantly surreal. Both premises are original. Unlike "The Long Way Down" and related tales, the two impossibilities do NOT form a unified pattern. In fact, they seem startlingly separate and disconnected.

"The San Agustin Miracle" contains a rare bit of verse in a Hoch tale. It is clearly custom created for the tale: it retells the events of the story. Presumably Hoch wrote it himself. The verse is pleasing and shows some skill, although it is not virtuosic.

The woman who creates the verse in the tale's storyline, is an anachronism. She resembles more a 1950's Beat reciting poetry in a coffee house, than anybody in the Old West. Oddly, this anachronism is pleasing. It adds to the color of the tale. Like the impossible crime premises, she is a surprising development in the story.

SPOILERS. A surprising fact the sleuth learns half-way through the tale, recalls a similar revelation in the Simon Ark "The Avenger from Outer Space". In both stories, this discovery turns out to be a red herring, playing no role in the solution of the mystery. A related revelation is in the solution of "The Problem of the Black Cloister". It is relevant to the mystery, in this tale.

Gunfighter's Honeymoon. 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.

Mystery-Westerns. 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).


Alexander Swift

Alexander Swift. Alexander Swift is a trouble-shooter for George Washington, in a series of historical detective stories. The Swift, Ben Snow and Dr. Sam stories are Hoch's main series of historical mystery fiction. Swift works as a counterspy during the American Revolution, like Hoch's modern day counterspy Rand.

A film with broadly similar subject matter is The Scarlet Coat (John Sturges, 1955). It also deals with espionage during the Revolutionary War. Both works include secret messages. The Scarlet Coat is set in 1780, while the Alexander Swift series begins in 1778.

The Hudson Chain. The first story, "The Hudson Chain" (1995), is an elaborately researched historical drama, with a small but surprising mystery plot embedded within it.

BIG SPOILERS. Part of the mystery's solution, recalls the solution of "The Problem of the Little Red Schoolhouse". However, the overall solutions in the two tales are quite different.

The tale has much more about technology than do many Hoch stories. It also has a manufacturing background. By contrast, manufacturing is rare in the Dr. Sam tales. Dr. Sam's town Northmont is not a manufacturing center, unlike Ellery Queen's city of Wrightsville.

It is set in Hoch's home turf of upstate New York. The story stresses how connected New England is to the rest of the United States: both are vital to the new nation. It doesn't use the term "New England": it calls the region "east of the Hudson River", and the rest of the country "west of the Hudson River".

Alexander Swift is 28 in this first story. Dr. Sam was also in his twenties, at the start of his series.

The tale also introduces Swift's girlfriend Molly. SPOILERS. The heroine unexpectedly has gifts as a sketch artist. This is another example in Hoch's work, of the Van Dine school's interest in the arts.

A character is named Colonel Clay. This might be a homage to the crime book An African Millionaire: Episodes in the Life of the Illustrious Colonel Clay (1896-1897) by Grant Allen.

The Sword of Colonel Ledyard. "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. "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. "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 title is a quote from a poem by Philip Freneau, "Pestilence".

The Orchard of Caged Birds. "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. "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.

The introduction to "Swift Among the Pirates" in EQMM quotes Hoch: '"I envisioned this as the thirteenth and last Alexander Swift tale," Ed Hoch told EQMM, "but I've never really ended a series yet, so it's possible that Swift might return sometime."'


Susan Holt

Susan Holt. 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.

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).

A Fondness for Steam. "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 Parcel of Deerstalkers. "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, 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 Shower of Daggers. "A Shower of Daggers" (1997) has a startling and unexpected impossible crime, which is hard to solve. SPOILERS. The solution is a new variation on an old idea in impossible crime fiction.

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. Or is the tale suggesting that Middle America has a dark side? The non-detective characters are all white, middle class, and living in an unnamed mid-sized city in upstate New York: what is often thought of as "typical Middle America". And they all turn out to be corrupt, to one degree or another. SPOILERS. Hoch has a cause for this corruption: drug use and the drug trade. But while the corruption starts with drugs, it doesn't end there.

Hoch also has Susan Holt express disdain with the polished appearance of some non-suspect men: co-worker Mike Brentnor and lawyer Irving Farber. The 1990's were a high point in dressy looks for men; Holt is a skeptic about this. While Holt doesn't like this, the story goes no further: it does NOT link such polished looks to corruption or fraud. Please see my analysis of Men's Fashion Magazines of the era. The year before Hoch included a punk teenager in a black leather motorcycle jacket, in "The Graveyard Ghoul" (1996). This too is designed as an image statement by the teenager. He turns out to be a red herring with little to do with the mystery plot - rather like the polished non-suspects in "A Shower of Daggers". Once again, detective Simon Ark and the narrator are disapproving of his appearance, recalling sleuth Susan Holt's disapproval. By contrast, Dr. Sam mainly approves of the title character in "The Problem of the Leather Man". His leather clothes are compared to Western buckskins.

A Busload of Bats. "A Busload of Bats" (1998) has a good background of American Baseball. The baseball theme also leads to a nice plot surprise.

But the mystery plot suffers from its choice of murderer and motive, which breaks the artistic unity of the story, adding coincidence to the plot.


Libby Knowles

Libby Knowles. 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.

Wait Until Morning. Written at the height of the music video era, "Wait Until Morning" (1985) is a surprisingly credible rock music mystery. The Simon Ark "The Way Up to Hades" (1988) and Al Darlan "The Girl Next-Door" (2007) also have a rock music milieu. 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.

The story shows Hoch's skill with puzzle plotting.


Annie Sears

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 shows 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 impossible crime features.

"Baja" (2008) is simpler in plot than the first two tales, but it has unusual and imaginative clues to the killer's identity.


Stanton and Ives

In 2002 Hoch started a new series about Walt Stanton and Juliet 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 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. "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. "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.


Father David Noone

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.

In his 2004 Mystery*File interview, Hoch told Steve Lewis there were 7 Father Noone stories at that time.

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 Sweating Statue. I don't share the general enthusiasm for "The Sweating Statue" (1985). The mystery of the statue itself, is solidly done. But the story around it is grim. The tale has negative depictions of both believers (Mrs. Wilkins, Celia) and nonbelievers (the boyfriend, the media). They all come across as bad people. And what has the media actually done wrong, to merit the criticism they get? The extreme passivity of Father Noone throughout the story is also disturbing. All the gloom in "The Sweating Statue" is perhaps deliberate, an attempt to achieve a noir approach.

The mix of religion and an impossible crime recalls the Simon Ark tales.

The name Xavier for the investigating priest, suggests St. Francis Xavier, a founder of the Jesuits. This invokes the Jesuits, and their scholarly, intellectual tradition. Monsignor Xavier is very much depicted as brainy and intelligent.

Father Noone has been transferred to a parish full of poor Hispanics. This recalls Jack Webb's series of mystery novels about the team of Jewish policeman Sammy Golden and Catholic Father Joseph Shanley, starting with The Big Sin (1952).

"The Kindergarten Witch" about an alleged paranormal event in a hall run by a Catholic parish, anticipates "The Sweating Statue" about an alleged miracle in a Catholic parish church. However, the alleged paranormal event in "The Kindergarten Witch" is NOT linked to the Catholic religion or teaching, while the purported miracle in "The Sweating Statue" is very much a possible Catholic miraculous event.

The Hand of God. "The Hand of God" (2003) has an interestingly constructed puzzle plot. Some plot ideas recall the Leopold story, "The Christmas Tree Killer" (1999).


Al Darlan

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.

In his 2004 Mystery*File interview, Hoch told Steve Lewis there were 16 Al Darlan stories at that time.

The Pulp Artist's Wife. "The Pulp Artist's Wife" (2006) starts off decently, with Al Darlan and his younger partner Mike Trapper involved in a conference that showcases vintage cover artists for pulp magazines and paperbacks. The subject matter is an example of the Van Dine school's interest in the arts. It is nice to see references to artist Salter and private eye writer Wade Miller.

However, the crime tale that ensues is both uninteresting and grim.

The Girl Next-Door. "The Girl Next-Door" (2007) shows the good idea of involving Darlan in show biz scandal, with some nice satiric surprises along the way.

The most creative features of "The Girl Next-Door" are motives. There are clever answers to two questions:

By contrast, the murder mystery is perfunctory. Motive aside, it is routine and uninventive.

The opening of "The Girl Next-Door" tells the unusual source of income, that is keeping Al Darlan's private eye agency afloat. This too is inventive. The income source is mainly linked to Darlan's partner Mike Trapper.


Ulysses S. Bird

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.


Paul Tower, the Lollipop Cop

Hoch published three stories about Paul Tower, a policeman whose assignment was to speak to young children in schools about police work. Paul Tower would hand out candy to the kids, and was known as the Lollipop Cop.

The Kindergarten Witch. "The Kindergarten Witch" (1975) takes place not in school, but at a bingo game. It has two mysteries: an impossible crime, and a murder. Both come to clever, unexpected solutions.

Despite the word "witch" in the title, the tale does not have any witches or other supernatural aspects. Instead, the story is about something possibly paranormal.

The impossibility involves a seemingly paranormal event. The detective eventually comes up with a completely non-paranormal explanation of the event.

However, the story does not flatly deny the existence of the paranormal. Instead, the sleuth shows that even if paranormal powers were real, they could not be used to explain the events of the tale. Looked at strictly as a piece of reasoning, the detective's reasoning about this is sound.

As a complete nonbeliever in the paranormal, I find this approach disturbing. I prefer impossible crime tales to reject the paranormal out of hand.

As best I can tell, Hoch never used this dubious approach to the paranormal in any other tale. That's a Good Thing.


Sir Gideon Parrot

The Sir Gideon Parrot tales, are affectionate evocations and spoofs of Golden Age mystery stories.

Lady of the Impossible. "Lady of the Impossible" (1981) is the first Parrot story.

The narrator of "Lady of the Impossible" recalls the series narrator in the Simon Ark tales:

The narrator is explicitly called a Watson in the story. Watsons - friends of the detective who narrate his cases - used to be common in mystery fiction. They are present in Hoch's Simon Ark and Sir Gideon Parrot tales, but not many other Hoch series. Some Golden Age detective tales had Watsons; many did not. Still, if one is trying to invoke Golden Age tropes, having a Watson in a pastiche of Golden Age fiction like "Lady of the Impossible" is virtually mandatory.

Many Golden Age mystery plots were enormously complex. Hoch includes plenty of plot complexity in "Lady of the Impossible". This complexity is helped by the presence of that Hoch favorite, the "hidden scheme".


Ellery Queen Pastiche

The Circle of Ink. "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.


Non-Series Tales

"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.