All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne by Edward D Hoch

ABIA word of warning before you begin – this is easily my longest post on the blog to date and, if you follow the Read More link, it contains story-by-story commentary on each of the fifteen cases contained in this volume. I don’t spoil the solutions but I do describe the premise of each story so if you don’t want to know the problems then I’d stay clear of those comments.

All But Impossible first came onto my radar when I read a very positive review of the collection from Puzzle Doctor who is a fan of these short stories which first appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine between 1991 and 1999. I was excited and immediately went ahead and added all four volumes onto my wish list but, being an idiot, I wrote them down in reverse order and only realized my mistake when I was two stories into this collection.

Whoops.

I am happy to report though that I thoroughly enjoyed working my way through these stories. The various premises of the stories are varied and genuinely puzzling, almost all of them being impossible crimes or puzzles with an impossible element. There is no repetition between the stories here and many of the solutions are ingenious in their neatness and simplicity.

What particularly impressed me though are the handful of stories that are not only cleverly plotted but which pack an additional punch with a final paragraph revelation that may stick with you. I particularly recommend The Problem of the Country Mailbox and The Problem of the Enormous Owl in that regard.

As with any short story collection there are some weak points though only The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse and The Problem of the Unfound Door really disappointed me, each feeling less imaginative that the other stories in the collection. I would also add that the Kindle edition I read suffers from some issues with the formatting putting unexpected breaks in the middle of paragraphs which were initially quite distracting. Fortunately the quality of the stories here soon had me absorbed enough to overlook it but some may find this frustrating.

Overall I was very impressed with this first taste of Hoch’s work and I will look forward to exploring more of his work. If anyone has any recommendations beyond the Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories I would be glad to hear them!

The Problem of the Country Church

Dr. Hawthorne is invited to the christening of a child named in his honor. The party arrives at the church with the baby in a bassinet but when it comes time to carry out the service the baby is gone and in its place is a doll with a ransom note attached.

I felt that this was a simple but clever story. I felt I knew who had done it but I didn’t pick up on how it was done.

The Problem of the Grange Hall

A benefit concert at Sam’s hospital turns deadly when a musician friend of one of his colleagues is found dead in a small room locked from the inside with no windows or effective hiding places. The colleague is found knelt over the body with a hypodermic syringe in his hand containing the poison.

An interesting little locked room puzzle where all the physical evidence seems to firmly point in one direction. The explanation of what happened makes sense, even if it doesn’t necessarily appeal to the imagination. Hoch mostly plays fair although there is some evidence included in Sam’s explanation that the reader is not privy to (though I don’t think it is necessary to get to the truth).

The Problem of the Vanishing Salesman

A salesman is observed entering a widow’s home but when Dr. Hawthorne follows a couple of minutes later there is no sign of him in the house and the owner says she did not see him come in. He turns up a while later but denies he ever went missing. Then he appears to do the same thing again while being chased by the Police.

This is howdunit territory with a puzzle for the reader to consider. I appreciated the Holmesian reference within the story and appreciated the simplicity though I am not sure I ever visualized the space well enough to stand a chance of getting the solution here.

The Problem of the Leather Man

Dr. Hawthorne is called to the scene of an accident where a man is found dead in a ditch having apparently swerved to avoid hitting a pedestrian. The curious thing is that the pedestrian bears some similarity to a long-dead local figure called The Leather Man who continuously walked a circuitous route in the area towards the end of the nineteenth century. Hawthorne decides to try to track the man down but after spending a day with him he is shocked when everyone who saw them together swears he was alone.

I thought that this was an entertaining and intriguing story and I appreciated the simple explanations for what had taken place, even if that leads to a slightly more convoluted set of circumstances. I also felt that one aspect of the solution incorporated a little more information than the reader actually is given though I would still say it plays fair.

The Problem of the Phantom Parlor

In this very solid story, a twelve-year-old girl who is staying with her aunt tells Dr. Hawthorne that the house she is staying in is haunted. He goes to investigate but soon finds himself asking other questions.

I do think that the concept of the story is quite clever and the piece holds together pretty well.

The Problem of the Poisoned Pool

Dr. Hawthorne attends a pool party where he is seated near to the water and is surprised when, after a while, the host’s brother suddenly emerges. Later he is challenged to repeat the trick in reverse but a few minutes after jumping into the pool he is found dead in the water.

There are two mysteries for the reader to solve – the question of how the brother managed his trick and who killed him and why. Both are interesting though I was particularly curious how the swimming pool trick was worked and appreciated the simple but clever solutions.

The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse

A couple are driving home from a night out a little the worse for wear when they stop at a Roadhouse. After talking with a man in the parking lot the driver begins backing up only to be told he has hit someone. They put the injured man in the back of the car but find he has died and drive to the hospital to report it. The problem is that the Police can find no evidence of the Roadhouse having ever existed.

I found this story to feel awkward and unconvincing. Hoch’s story draws heavily on world events of the period and the solution struck me as convoluted and unlikely though I did appreciate some aspects of the execution. The first miss in this collection for me.

The Problem of the Country Mailbox

A bookseller tells Dr. Hawthorne about how books he is placing in a mailbox are inexplicably going missing, sometimes within minutes. He asks him to keep a watch on the mailbox the next time to see if he can come up with an explanation.

This is a really powerful story that not only interests in terms of its impossibility but also in terms of some elements of the ending. A rich, rewarding and really impressive short story that only goes to show that any opinions I may once have expressed about short form crime fiction were totally wrong.

The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery

A meeting is called to discuss the problem of a cemetery lot that is getting flooded and a decision is taken to dig up and relocate some graves. The next day when the work commences Dr. Hawthorne notices that one of the coffins that is dug up has blood seeping out of the side. The coffin is opened and a member of that board who had been at the meeting the previous day is inside, even though the coffin was buried twenty years earlier.

This is a solid story that does feature an intriguing impossibility to resolve. The explanation is quite simple and logical though it perhaps lacks the imagination that we see in some of the other stories but overall I found it to be quite satisfying.

The Problem of the Enormous Owl

A writer is found with his chest crushed and several owl feathers are located on his body. There is no obvious implement to hand to explain the injuries and Dr. Hawthorne notes that an owl would have to be enormous to be able to do that, seeming to rule out that explanation too.

Much like The Problem of the Country Mailbox, this story has impact primarily because of the manner of its resolution. Unlike that story, here the explanation does not have a surprise factor but I think the execution of those final few paragraphs is superb and elevates one of the less remarkable crimes in the collection.

The Problem of the Miraculous Jar

Dr. Hawthorne attends a gathering where the host is gifted a jar from Cana by a couple who have just returned from a Mediterranean trip. She is persuaded to fill it with water to see if it will turn into wine and Sam is among those who taste its contents. After everyone leaves he receives a phone call from the host in which she begins to tell him there is something wrong. Finding her body, he detects a scent of poison lingering in the jar. Snow had fallen and was undisturbed around the house eliminating the possibility of a return visitor so how was the murder done?

I thought that this was an interesting problem and appreciated how well the clues are laid to its resolution. If I were looking for a complaint I would say that there is a little material here that neither advances character or plot but otherwise this is very solid.

The Problem of the Enchanted Terrace

Dr Hawthorne and Mary, his nurse, take a weekend’s vacation to see some friends. While there they meet a man who lives in a house with a striking terrace designed by a stonemason who seems to resemble the doctor. They are talking with the man when he suddenly dashes onto the terrace and when the small party follows him moments later he has vanished without a trace.

There are some interesting ideas here but I think there are some weaknesses too such as the motivation for what happens. I also think that the method is a little too complex to be workable though it is certainly a striking idea, if hinted at a little too directly at one point.

The Problem of the Unfound Door

A very slight story in which a group of Anglican nuns have petitioned the town council to allow them to provide housing for English schoolchildren who need to be evacuated. When things do not look favorable for their proposal, the nuns invite the council to inspect the facility for themselves. During the inspection however the mayor disappears without explanation.

The way this problem was worked unfortunately struck me as very obvious and there is no unique point of interest in the story. It’s not badly written but in a collection filled with imaginative and creative scenarios, this feels distinctly underwhelming.

The Second Problem of The Covered Bridge

The penultimate story in this collection is apparently a callback to the very first Dr. Hawthorne short story in which a horse and buggy vanished while riding across a covered bridge. This adventure sees the town looking to commemorate that event with a recreation in which the mayor steers the buggy but the townspeople are shocked when he is shot while riding across the bridge at short-range with no one around him.

Once again I liked some of the ideas here but feel that it is a little uneven. One of the clues in particular struck me as too weak to build a case around. Still, it is quite readable and engaging.

The Problem of the Scarecrow Congress

The new town mayor decides that it would be a neat idea if a contest were held in which thirteen scarecrows were decorated and displayed on lampposts throughout the town. Things take a nasty turn however when Sam notices one of the scarecrows is bleeding and, on removing the sacking that makes up the head exposes the corpse of one of the townspeople.

The collection is closed out with an inventive story that certainly appeals to the imagination. I loved the idea of a scarecrow congress and I do think this story has a couple of strong moments but I didn’t find the story as emotionally compelling as some of the others in the collection.

29 thoughts on “All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne by Edward D Hoch

  1. “A rich, rewarding and really impressive short story that only goes to show that any opinions I may once have expressed about short form crime fiction were totally wrong.”

    Welcome to the Short Side, Aidan. We’ll make you a believer yet! 🙂

    We seem to be very much in agreement over the stories here. We found the same stories disappointing and highlighted the same stories. On the whole, I feel that this is (together with the second volume) the best of the Hawthorne collections. So, depending on how you see it, it was good/bad that you started with this one. 🙂

    I guess we can look forward to you having a look at the other three collections soon then?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks – I am definitely getting there. This is easily the most consistent short story collection I have read. Based on this experience I will definitely follow up with the other 3 now.

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  2. I’ll differ a bit and say that I think that the first one is the best, but then I was very new to locked rooms and to Hoch in general when I read that one. The second one is good, but the solutions didn’t feel as ingenious. Better hidden killers tho. But then, most Hoch is worth your time.

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    1. Thanks for sharing! I will be interested to see what each of the collections have in store. Are there any other Hoch collections or novels you would particularly recommend?

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      1. Hoch only wrote five novels, and none of them have a particularly excellent reputation. I’ve only read two of them – “The Blue Movie Murders” published as by Ellery Queen, and “The Fellowship of the Hand”, the second in his trilogy about Crader and Jazine.

        I can’t say that I remember them well. They were probably okay reads, nothing more.

        As for Hoch’s collections of short stories, well, it goes without saying that all Hawthorne collections are highly recommended. Then it’s really depending on what you like.

        Your question about his short story collections inspired me to write a long answer, which I now cancelled and will instead publish on my blog as soon as I can. So you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled there for my recommendations. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Christian could give better recs than me! I’ve enjoyed most of Hoch’s stories, barring the third Dr. Sam collection (and even that has some good parts). He’s a consistently good puzzle plotter, and really most all of his stuff is worth your time.

        (Having skimmed his post I’ll say that I liked The Old Spies Club and The Iron Angel more than he did, though I’ll freely admit that The Iron Angel isn’t his best. I will say that The Spy and the Thief is pretty good. The Spy Who Read Latin is an excellent sample, but a little too short for me to fully rec.)

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      3. Thanks for your feedback anyway. I am planning on doing the Dr. Sam stories in order so I am pleased that means that I will be tackling the ones your enjoyed more first. Thanks for the second opinions on some of those titles Christian had written about.

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  3. Glad you’re enjoying Hock and his impossible crime expert, Dr. Hawthorne. I have not yet read this collection, but it’s on the big pile. I have to agree that the second volume of Hawthorne stories is the strongest so far.

    “If anyone has any recommendations beyond the Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories I would be glad to hear them!”

    Dr. Hawthorne is my favorite Hoch character for obvious reasons, but last year I read The Thefts of Nick Velvet and The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Tales, which are highly recommended. Velvet and Snow are great characters and their cases were excellent takes on rogue fiction and the historical detective story.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I did a post on my blog (https://justiceforthecorpse.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/the-best-impossibilities-of-edward-d-hoch/) listing my favourite Hoch impossible-crime stories specifically. Only one was a Dr. Sam story (The Problem of the Covered Bridge, from the first collection). The rest are scattered throughout various other books. It’s true that his novels are not all that great, but the short story was his natural length and I think he knew it. I think my favourite collection of Hoch short stories is The Spy and the Thief, half of which is about Rand the secret-service man and half about Nick Velvet the purloiner of worthless items.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not that it has anything to do with this discussion, but I just remembered that one of the stories in The Spy and the Thief is called The Theft of the Wicked Tickets. In it, Nick Velvet steals tickets to a Broadway show called “Wicked”… which was a complete flop. Of course it was written decades before a real show with that title became a smash hit!

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  5. You may be interested to know that a number of Sam Hawthorne stories were dramatized for radio in the 70s and can be streamed on the EQMM Mystery Magazine Podcast channel. These include all 12 of the stories in Diagnosis: Impossible (with “The Problem of the County Fair” renamed to “The Problem of the Time Capsule”), as well as the story, “The Problem of the Whispering House.” They’re a bit cheesy, but worth a listen.

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      1. The final Sam Hawthorne volume titled CHALLENGE THE IMPOSSIBLE is now available directly from Crippen and Landru in paperback. The kindle edition will be released after about six weeks.

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