More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne by Edward D. Hoch

Collection originally published in 2006. It contains stories first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine between 1978 and 1983.
Dr. Sam Hawthorne #2
Preceded by Diagnosis: Impossible
Followed by Nothing is Impossible

Dr. Sam Hawthorne, a New England country doctor in the first half of the twentieth century, was constantly faced by murders in locked rooms, impossible disappearances, and other so-called miracle crimes.

More Things Impossible contains fifteen of Dr. Sam s extraordinary cases solved between 1927 and 1931, including impossible murder in a house that whispers; poisoning by a gargoyle on the courthouse roof; the case of the Devil in the windmill; the houseboat that resembles the Mary Celeste; the affair of the vanishing Gypsies; stabbing in the locked cockpit of a plane in midair; a ghostly pirate in a lighthouse; ad eight other ingenious riddles.

Today’s reviewed was not planned out but rather thrust upon me. You see, the book I was reading is in my locker at work and although we were warned to take everything with us the other day I forgot about it. Unfortunately that means it is currently off limits for at least a couple of weeks and so I had to come up with a new read quickly.

Adding to what is frankly a comedy of errors on my part, I continued my tradition of reading Dr. Sam’s adventures out of order by picking up this second volume. So now I have read volumes two and four for no good reason (I own the others so this is just ineptitude on my part).

For those unfamiliar with Dr. Sam, he is a midwesterner who opens a medical practice in the New England town of Northmont. The stories began in the 1920s and this volume transitions between that decade and the start of the 30s, often incorporating outside events or some of the unique features of the period.

Each case features some sort of element that is supposed to be impossible such as a killing inside a locked room or an invisible murderer. I will say that some of these impossibilities are more satisfying than others and a few feel like not much of an impossibility at all (such as The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat – easily my least favorite of this collection).

Overall I enjoyed this collection, feeling that the quality of the stories was a good match for All But Impossible. A couple of stories have explanations that require the killer to be far happer taking risks than I would expect but the best of the stories are excellent.

My favorite story in the collection was The Problem of the Pilgrim’s Windmill which features two people being burned in fires that take place in the same abandoned spot. Other strong points come in The Problem of the Gypsy Camp and The Problem of the General Store.

The Verdict: Another very solid collection of impossible crime short stories. Some are more ingenious than others but the best are sensational.

For more detailed thoughts on each story check out the notes on the second page of this review below.

Story by Story Notes

The Problem of the Revival Tent

Dr. Sam attends a faith-healing revival meeting at the behest of a friend who is studying American traditions. Afterwards he feels so disgusted with the healer that he goes into the tent to have it out with him, striking him down. Moments after he turns around he hears him cry out and turns back to find he has been stabbed through the chest with a sword and no one in sight.

I really liked the way Hoch describes the revival meeting which is pretty atmospheric, giving a strong sense of place and the experience of taking part in such an event. I also thought that the impossible murder was an interesting scenario and was intrigued to see how it could be resolved.

Unfortunately I didn’t think much of the resolution. The criminal’s plan and decision-making seems needlessly risky and I am not convinced that it could be done in the timeframe given.

The Problem of the Whispering House

A young ghost hunter turns up in town to investigate the old Bryer place, a house that is reputed to whisper and contain a secret room that no one leaves once they have entered.

I liked a lot about the setup to this story with its tale of a haunted house and, in particular, the ghost sighting. The impossible aspects of the story aren’t the sort that the reader can really get ahead of Dr. Sam on solving but I think the explanation for why things happened is pretty good.

The Problem of the Boston Common

Dr Sam heads to Boston to attend a medical convention with his nurse April. When they arrive they hear about an invisible murderer who has killed three people on the Common in the early evening while it is still light. When a fourth body turns up Dr. Sam agrees to help.

As with the previous case I think the reader will be hard-pressed to solve how the killings here were done but there are some other observations that will be within their power. More critically, this story is pretty entertaining and suspenseful, particularly in its last few pages.

I would say that I think Dr. Sam suits a country setting more than an urban one but then I suspect that the character would agree with that too.

The Problem of the General Store

A suffragette is accused of murdering a storekeeper when she is found unconscious in his locked store late at night.

I really enjoyed this story a lot both in terms of its historical elements and the impossibility. The discussion of women’s rights to vote and work and Sam’s hesitancy on the topics give a strong sense of place and time while the Maggie is quite an appealing character in her own right.

In terms of the impossibility, I think that while the solution would be hard to prove, we are certainly given more hints to it than in the previous two stories. It is quite clever mechanically and I felt it tied everything together pretty nicely.

The Problem of the Courthouse Gargoyle

Dr. Sam is on the jury in a murder trial when the judge dies after drinking a glass of poisoned water.

I liked a lot of the buildup to this story. The details of the murder trial are intriguing and the circumstances of the death are certainly strange. I also liked the way Sam gathers everyone to reveal his solution. Really the only issue I have with the story is that the explanation fails to capture the imagination quite like anything that went before it.

The Problem of the Pilgrims Windmill

A new hospital opens in Northmont but during the opening festivities a resident predicts doom will come of the decision to hire a black pediatric doctor. Later that week Dr. Sam learns of a strange incident where a resident was badly burned inside a historic windmill and a short while afterwards a second burning occurs in the same place.

I thought that this story was very clever and fairly clued. The setting and sense of the time in which it is set is, once again, very effective, and the explanation made a lot of sense. This is one of several stories I solved before Dr. Sam and, of those, the one I feel proudest of.

The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat

Dr. Sam is spending the day with a young woman he is courting when he observes her family and neighbors set off on a boat ride across the lake. Soon they notice the boat is drifting and when they investigate they find it empty with no signs of what happened to the party.

Aside from the image of an empty boat drifting across the lake I struggled to get into the crime aspects of this story. Too much of the scenario is left vague to feel it is much of an impossibility and when explained – well, I think it is a pretty silly plan.

The Problem of the Pink Post Office

As Wall Street crashes a banker heads to the post office to send ten thousand dollars in bonds to his broker to cover his losses. A very short while later he returns with more bonds that he wants to add to the same envelope only for the postmaster to find the letter has vanished but no one other than the banker has left the building.

This one was a whole lot of fun from start to finish. My enjoyment was helped by my solving this long before Sam. The concept is simple and clearly laid out and there is even some fun with some false solutions along the way. Not the most complex case in the collection but one of the most entertaining.

The Problem of the Octagon Room

A wedding is set to take place in a historic house’s Octagon Room but when the party tries the doors they find it locked and bolted from the inside as well as the windows latched. When they force the door they find an unknown dead man stabbed in the chest with a knife.

Two in a row! The answer to this one jumped right out at me though it is more complicated than the previous case. Those who have read lots of locked room stories will have an advantage but even if you get the how, the identities of killer and victim may pose a decent challenge.

Hoch also deviates from his usual formula in the framing structure for this story. While I am all for experimentation, this felt pretty pointless – a feeling that only intensifies when you are left to wonder why Dr. Sam would relate the story at all in the circumstances given.

The Problem of the Gypsy Camp

A man staggers into the hospital saying he has been cursed by the leader of the local gypsy encampment to have a bullet in his heart before collapsing. When his chest is opened the doctors find the bullet but no sign of an entry wound. Adding to this, the gypsy camp appears to vanish past a police roadblock.

Two impossibilities here and both are superb. The first – the bullet – is certainly the more dramatic of the two, particularly given the supernatural dressing of the curse. I preferred the second because of the simplicity of its solution. Add them together and you get something pretty special – certainly one of the highlights of this collection.

The Problem of the Bootlegger’s Car

Dr. Sam gets caught up with the mob when he is called to help a gunshot victim. He risks falling foul of them but manages to make a deal where he will go free if he can find a bootlegger’s body and find his murderer.

Another story that makes good use of its historical setting. I thought that the details of the bootlegging trade and some of the tricks involved in it were interesting while the solution to the disappearing mobster was cleverly worked.

The Problem of the Tin Goose

A pilot at a flying circus is found stabbed to death in his locked cockpit moments after a landing.

Once again we have a memorable setting for an impossible crime. The limitations of the physical space and the murder happening during or just after a successful landing seem to rule almost everything out. My problem with this story is that the risks the killer runs are enormous and it is hard to imagine how they avoided immediate detection. Overlook that however and it is a pretty fun read.

The Problem of the Hunting Lodge

Sam takes part in a hunting party organized by the enormously wealthy Ryder Sexton. During the hunt the party find he has been murdered with one of the primitive weapons in his collection but there were only one set of footprints in the snow.

As with the previous story I was most stuck by the risks taken by the murderer. I am not entirely convinced that the trick used could be pulled off as smoothly as it evidently is. The biggest point of interest for me then was the appearance of Dr. Sam’s parents who pay him a visit but I wished we got to know them a little better.

The Problem of the Body in the Haystack

Wary of the presence of a bear in the area, a farmer asks for help keeping watch. Later he is found dead, stabbed with a pitchfork, on the top of a haystack under a heavy tarp he had set up earlier. The stack was in sight of others making it puzzling how the body was placed there.

This is another of the simpler stories in the collection and the trick is pretty familiar even to a more casual reader of impossible crime like myself but it was still entertaining.

The Problem of Santa’s Lighthouse

Sam visits Satan’s Lighthouse, a pirate-themed attraction on the New England coast, which has been given a festive overhaul and renamed by the brother and sister team who run it. When Sam is at the bottom with Lisa her brother topples from the tower and they find he was stabbed, even though Sam saw there was no one else at the attraction.

The final story in the collection has a festive subject but could easily be enjoyed at any time of year. The simplicity of the scenario gives the reader limited options to pick from and I will admit that I was a little concerned by the path the direction seemed to be headed. Thankfully Hoch gives us a much more satisfying conclusion that I think tied things up well.

Second Opinions

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery praised the collection finding it improved a lot on the first volume.

Christian @ Mysteries, Short and Sweet remarks that the quality of the individual stories can vary though most have a point of interest. He also found it a big improvement on the first which, of course, is still ahead for me.

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