Last month I declared that Ed Hoch’s All But Impossible did the unthinkable and made me a believer in the short form mystery. Having enjoyed that one so thoroughly I was keen to jump straight back in and decided I would like to try one of his other characters this time.
Though I am no expert of this particular period of American history, I do find it to be quite fascinating and felt it made for an inspired backdrop for these mystery stories. Many of the stories are quite action-focused and I think Hoch mostly does a good job with those sections.
The collection’s protagonist, Ben Snow, is an interesting creation who frequently falls into the Western trope as a hired hand or because someone mistakes him for Billy the Kid who had died several years earlier. He doesn’t really look out for trouble but it always seems to find a way to him.
Christian Henriksson very kindly has acted as a sort of sherpa for my explorations of Hoch’s work, compiling a frankly amazing blog post where he discusses all of the Hoch short story collections currently available. His view on this particular one is that it is uneven though he thinks there is a standout impossible crime.
My own favorite stories within this collection were The Ripper of Storyville, The Vanished Steamboat and The Sacramento Waxworks. Each of those stories strikes a strong balance between historical details, characterization and scenario and I think the crimes in each of the three stories are interesting.
Some of the others stories hit home too but the overall impression I had of this collection was that it was inconsistent, particularly if you are only in this for the clues. For fans of historical mysteries or this particular time period, there is plenty to enjoy here and some great, striking concepts to puzzle out.
Len Antioch, owner of a gambling house and bar, approaches Ben to offer to pay him to kill the Sheriff’s Deputy who has been investigating him. A short while later Ben learns that Len has been killed and, as a recent arrival in town, he is the prime suspect.
I think that this story does a good job of introducing Snow and gives him a credible reason to look into this crime. The mystery itself is told more as an adventure with Ben finding something that is not shared with the reader. The conclusion is pretty punchy though.
The Valley of Arrows
Ben travels to Fort Arrowhead to inform the commander that he suspects that an officer within the fort is in league with the Native American forces that surround it but it quickly dismissed. A short time later that commander is found dead with an arrow through his throat.
Perhaps more western than mystery, The Valley of Arrows certainly helps flesh out Ben’s character a little. The killer’s motivation is weak at best though. I did appreciate that Hoch attempts to show a little more balance in his presentation of a racial conflict than is common in the few westerns I have read from this period but that aspect of the story shows its age.
Ben comes upon a ghost town named Raindeer that he is told is actually haunted. In spite of this he decides he will spend the night there but gets ambushed by a group who are also camped out there for the night. While he is tied up, one of the group is found dead with a harpoon through his chest and with a puddle of water in the shape of a body near the corpse.
Once again this story feels more of an adventure than a mystery although Ben shows some good deductive skills towards the end of the tale as he works out the killer’s identity. The ending is punchy and effective and sums up the tale nicely.
The Flying Man
Ben has been staying in a peaceful town for half a year when Doc Robin arrives in town to show off his hanging glider machines that he says will let men fly. Promising a demonstration the next day, Robin approaches Ben to offer him a job protecting him from harm until he skips town which Ben refuses. During the demonstration the next day the salesman dies when he is shot during his flight, apparently with a rifle, but no one was seen with a weapon.
Aspects of the setup for this story echo that of the first in the collection but this is a little richer in its characterization and development of a central theme. The mystery is fine and of the type where I had to go back and check to make sure it played fair. I’m not sure about the credibility of an aspect of the solution (the location of the murder weapon) but I enjoyed it anyhow.
The Man in the Alley
Ben hires Musset, a Pinkerton man, to investigate whether there are any signs that Billy the Kid really did survive his supposed death. The detective and Ben go to investigate a possible lead but Musset is found dead with a knife through his throat.
The action of this story is written around a historical event which may add interest for some readers though the nature of the mystery only really becomes apparent in the final few pages. There is really only one answer for the problem however so the only point for the reader to ponder is how Ben will prove his suspicion. While the history is interesting, the story didn’t do much for me.
The Ripper of Storyville
A dying man who is estranged from his daughter asks Ben to go to New Orleans where she is working as a prostitute to get her to come home. He not only wants to make sure she is provided for after his death but he is concerned about news of a killer stalking prostitutes in the city’s red light district.
The title case for the collection is an interesting one in part because of its setting but I think it is a good, solid adventure on top of that. The solution is clever and effectively clued and there is some wonderful historical detail here.
Snow in Yucatan
Ben is asked to go to Mexico to find and kill a man who deserted during a battle causing his comrades to become overrun. Upon arriving he discovers that the man has set himself up as a general commanding a native Mexican army in an uprising but he dies suddenly a short time after Ben’s arrival, creating chaos in the camp.
I liked this story a lot beginning with its premise which raises a number of questions. How did this failed soldier gain control of an indigenous army, who kills him and how? I think the answers to each of these questions are interesting and the clues are ingenious.
The Vanished Steamboat
The steamboat Ben’s friend Eddie is aboard travelling down the Mississippi vanishes between two stops without a trace. The owner hires Ben to investigate and he agrees, keen to find his friend.
A superb story that consciously evokes a Conan Doyle tale about a disappearing train. The solution here is different from that though, fairly clued and shows Ben’s skill as a detective.
Brothers on the Beach
Ben is hired to guard a beach in Kitty Hawk near the site where the Wright brothers will be testing their plane but he is drawn into a murder investigation when a Professor is stabbed to death.
Once again we have Ben Snow interacting with a historical event but here it really just forms the background to the case which I think is an effective choice. The case itself is one of the simpler ones in the collection with not many suspects on hand and a pretty clear motive but it is a fun read nonetheless.
The 500 Hours of Dr. Wisdom
Set before the events of Frontier Street, this story sees a salesman turn up in a small town selling parcels of time. He promises an experiment the next day, offering investors an extra hour for one dollar which the town’s banker offers to bankroll for the whole town. Soon after his demonstration however he is shot to death prompting Ben to look into the case.
I enjoyed this story quite a lot, though the murder is probably its least interesting aspect. Dr. Wisdom’s scam is simple but cleverly worked and while I guessed what he would do, Hoch tells his tale well. That premise deserved a more interesting murder though than the one we get…
The Trail of the Bells
Ben is tracking a gunman through the desert and comes upon one of the man’s companions who with his dying breath tells him to listen for the bells. Ben cannot be sure whether this is advice or a trap but as it is his only lead he follows it and ends up at a Mission. Before he can interview a possible lead the man is found dead of a knife wound.
This is an effective story that puts Ben in a traditional bounty hunter role but there is some solid deductive work here as he tries to figure out his quarry’s identity (no one living has ever seen Poder’s face). I am not sure that the reader could reason their way to the solution although I did appreciate the subtlety of the clue pointing to that person’s identity.
The Phantom Stallion
While working as a ranch hand during a quiet spell, Ben’s employer is discovered dead in a locked room with his skull crushed from an attack with a horseshoe.
This story works well in several respects and was, for me, one of the highlights of the collection. Firstly I think the characterizations are interesting and I enjoyed the little bit of family drama that we get between the Grants and the Lees. Better yet, the crime is strange enough to be memorable while also being cleverly executed by the killer.
The Sacramento Waxworks
Ben is hired to advise the owner of a waxworks exhibit in Sacramento about correct costuming for his Wild West exhibit but soon discovers the waxworks are reputed to be haunted.
I’m keeping the details light in my description because this one makes for a fun ride and I’d hate to spoil this one. The waxworks angle was clever and I think the criminal’s plot is cunning and satisfying.
The Only Tree in Tasco
Ben hears about a Mexican man who is sentenced to death for having committed murder. The judge however was the victim’s son and the trial was carried out quite hastily. Ben doesn’t believe the verdict but if Pedro wasn’t the murderer, who was?
The last story in this collection makes for a strong conclusion that showcases some of the best things about this character and setting. My only complain is that this particular story could have benefitted from being longer to allow for more detailed characterization but on the whole this is very good.