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

Book Details

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

The Blurb

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.

The Verdict

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


My Thoughts

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.

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

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Columbo: Ransom for a Dead Man (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast March 1, 1971.

Preceded by Prescription: Murder
Followed by Murder by the Book

Story by Richard Levinson & William Link
Teleplay by Dean Hargrove

This was a pilot episode for the series which began in September 1971.

Key Guest Cast

Lee Grant had only recently began getting film and television work after spending over a decade blacklisted by the industry during the McCarthy period. She won an Emmy for her work on Peyton Place, a prime-time soap opera, in 1966 and a year prior to this Columbo episode had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Landlord.

The Verdict

Kudos to Lee Grant for a very good performance but the flying sequences are long and tedious.


My Thoughts

A lawyer murders her husband and then makes it appear that he has been kidnapped, all with the help of a handy electrical gadget. When the body is found it is assumed that the kidnappers never intended to return him but Columbo pursues a hunch that it was murder rather than kidnap gone wrong…

Okay, so there’s a fair amount to talk about here and unfortunately very little of it is good. To say that Ransom for a Dead Man is a step down from the first movie would be an understatement. Quite a few of its problems stem from the fact that this is a story that has been written with television in mind with a lot of reliance on visuals rather than character conflict and story.

The murder takes place over the opening credits and while this makes for a pretty arresting start to the film I am not fond of the execution. The shooting is shown in an awkward series of jump cuts between stills with a trippy musical score in the background and then there are fades galore with so much lens flaring going on you’d think J. J. Abrams had directed it (the worst of these is when flaring lights are overlaid on the killer’s eyes after she dumps the body into the ocean). It all looks rather cheap and cheesy.

The sequences in which we follow the FBI (and Columbo) as they wait for the kidnappers’ call and respond are quite well done and I did enjoy Lee Grant’s performance as Leslie Williams as she offers to make food for the agents and clearly comes to think that Columbo is a bumbling fool. The trick with the electronic gadget and bag are both quite fun and at this point I was feeling quite engaged. And then she gets in her plane…

This then initiates some long and frankly rather boring sequences in which we watch her and the FBI agents fly their planes around to prepare for the drop. I imagine that the intention was to blow us away with action or possibly build up the tension as we wait to see what Williams has planned and yet these sequences feel static and seem to go on forever. Night filming can sometimes look quite glamorous but the sky is so dark that there is little you can make out (which is kind of the point story-wise but it is tedious to spend so long panning over dark landscapes) and I found myself wishing that we could get a move on with the story.

While I enjoyed Falk and Grant’s interactions prior to the flight, their subsequent interactions felt flat and, once again, surprisingly static. Columbo doesn’t really have to work to find out many of the details – he instantly spots the aforementioned gadget and she even explains exactly how it works to him. The only question is how he will prove it.

Here the film once again presents us with a fluffed ending but whereas I think it could be excused by the situation in Prescription: Murder, it feels like the wrong approach here. For one thing, I am pretty sure that the way Columbo gets to that conclusion would not be admissible in court and for another, Falk isn’t present on screen for most of that sequence so that reveal loses much of its impact.

And that doesn’t even touch on the misogyny in Columbo saying to a junior lawyer at Williams’ firm that he doesn’t know how he could work for a woman. If the character he was talking to was more important to the story I might be able to class that as a piece of manipulation designed but it feels so incidental to the story that I read it as a statement of the character’s own opinions. Eurgh…

As you can probably tell I was pretty unimpressed by this one. Happily it seemed to work for the network executives as the show was picked up and better things would be right around the corner. Join me next weekend to read what I make of Murder by the Book.

I Can See in the Dark by Karin Fossum, translated by James Anderson

Book Details

Originally published in 2010 as Jeg kan se i mørket.
English translation published in 2013.

The Blurb

Riktor doesn’t like the way the policeman storms into his home without even knocking. He doesn’t like the arrogant way he walks around the house, taking note of its contents. The policeman doesn’t bother to explain why he’s there, and Riktor is too afraid to ask. He knows he’s guilty of a terrible crime and he’s sure the policeman has found him out.

But when the policeman finally does confront him, Riktor freezes. The man is arresting him for something totally unexpected. Riktor doesn’t have a clear conscience, but the crime he’s being accused of is one he certainly didn’t commit. Can he clear his name without further incriminating himself?

The Verdict

An uncomfortable read with a striking, if unpleasant, protagonist.


My Thoughts

I Can See in the Dark is not the sort of novel that is full of surprises. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it reflects a certain storytelling approach that suggests the grim inevitability of some outcomes so that when that moment comes it feels utterly appropriate.

The only real questions that the reader will have based on the blurb are who was his victim for the crime he did commit and who is he accused of murdering? Given that it is hard to outline the plot in any detail without spoiling those I will instead focus on describing our protagonist.

The novel is told from the perspective of Riktor, a rather bitter and lonely middle-aged individual who works in a nursing home. He is unmarried and has no children, often lamenting his lack of success at talking with people with repeated statements that he needs to find a wife. He hopes that he might form that sort of a connection with Sister Anna, a rather pious nurse who he suggests is the only person at his work who really cares, but seems unable to really talk with her.

Riktor’s own attitude towards his work is largely negative, finding the patients to be pitiful and repulsive. He finds huge amusement in carrying out little moments of cruelty towards his invalid patients including pinching or taunting them, sometimes switching their medications when he is alone with them in their rooms.

Much of his time away from work centers around a public park where he frequently encounters the same familiar faces. He despises most of them, assuming that they are probably being supported by the state and questioning why his taxes should go towards them and speculating about how pitiful their lives must be.

Riktor does not plan to become a murderer. Instead it happens in a moment of uncontrolled anger. He tries to cover up the crime and is terrified when the police show up to arrest him for murder but the terror turns to bafflement when he learns that the crime he is suspected of is one which he has nothing to do with.

Much of the remainder of the book deals with his preparations for trial. Will Riktor be able to present himself well in court and show that he was not involved? In addition there is the question of who is responsible for that murder if not him.

Let’s start with that last question first because I do not want to oversell that idea too much. There is a mystery here for the reader to consider but it sits largely in the background, more wondered about by Riktor than actually investigated. As such there is not a lot of evidence to go on and while I think there is at least a hint as to the killer’s identity, I don’t think it is particularly satisfying and it would not justify reading the book in itself.

Instead our focus is on exploring the character of Riktor and his reactions to the things he learns and his experiences of being in prison. We see how the environment changes him and how he adapts to it, even seeming to thrive there.

It is this section of the book that is the most intriguing because it is here that the reader will likely come closest to having some understanding of Riktor and the impulses that guide him. This is not because he is misunderstood or a victim himself – he repeatedly tells us that he does not have a tragic backstory that explains his problems – but because we see how much he values even the most superficial of connections.

It must be emphasized though that these moments of empathy are just that – moments. Riktor is a tragic figure but he has made conscious decisions to shift his pain and unhappiness onto others for years, tormenting the most vulnerable in society. This makes it quite unsettling and uncomfortable to spend a little over two hundred pages in his company.

There are several other characters in the novel but as the events are filtered through Riktor’s voice they often feel quite remote and distant. This is understandable given that he struggles to connect with others but it does mean that the reader never really connects with them either.

Ultimately the reader’s enjoyment of this book will largely center on how compelling they find him as a character and how much they can tolerate time spent inside his head. While there are some questions to solve, many of the solutions will be pretty apparent through the structure of the novel and I think readers keen on mystery elements will be disappointed.

Looking at it from the perspective of an inverted crime novel, I think it has some points of interest with regards the development of the character’s internal voice and the length feels appropriate. However, because the crime lacks any kind of planning and the cover-up feels so simple, Riktor isn’t much of a criminal mind. Instead we are simply spending time with a sadist and the result is a book that can make for pretty uncomfortable reading. In spite of those complaints however I found this to be a faster, more interesting and complete read than my previous experience of Fossum – The Murder of Harriet Krohn.

Death of a Tin God by George Bellairs

Book Details

Originally published in 1961.

Inspector Littlejohn #36
Preceded by The Body in the Dumb River
Followed by Death Before Breakfast

The Blurb

The glamour of Hollywood has descended upon the Isle of Man: smiling stars, flashing photographers, adoring fans… But behind this glossy façade, something sinister stirs.

Superintendent Littlejohn thought he was in a for few days’ holiday, but when a charismatic leading man is found dead in his hotel room, Littlejohn is called back to investigate.

Was it suicide, murder, or a tragic accident? Rumours run wild and this star-studded case stretches far beyond the shores of the Isle of Man: from London, to Dublin, all the way to the French Riviera.

The Verdict

Only for Littlejohn completists and even then this is a long way down the list.


My Thoughts

George Bellairs is one of the authors I most frequently read and write about on this blog. I have previously written about twelve of his mysteries which sounds like a lot but given how prolific he was, it only scratches the surface of his output. Given it has been a few months since I last read a Bellairs novel I thought it a good time to add a thirteenth review to that collection…

Death of a Tin God has Superintendent Littlejohn decide to take a short break in the Isle of Man on his way back from a work trip to Ireland. This is fine, we are told, because it isn’t the ‘busy season’ for crime. If that makes you want to go down a rabbit hole of statistical research you are definitely not alone. You might start with this report from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority written in the mid-80s discussing whether crime itself is seasonal or whether reporting statistics are seasonal…

During the flight Littlejohn is sat behind the movie idol Hal Vale who is flying to the Isle of Man to shoot scenes for a new picture. Vale has a reputation for heavy drinking, being mean with his money and is in the process of securing his fourth divorce so he can marry his co-star, the glamorous Monique Dol.

A short while after arriving Littlejohn is summoned to the hotel where Vale is staying. He has been found dead in his bath, electrocuted by an electric razor that fell into the water. It appears a tragic, if careless accident except that he had received a shave only a few minutes before retiring for his bath…

I was feeling quite excited during these early chapters as this struck me as a very promising opening for a story. I always enjoy mysteries where the detective has to show that it was even a murder in the first place and I think that aspect of the plot is done pretty well.

The victim, Vale, is only very loosely drawn and one of the consequences of that is we never get much of a sense of a cast of suspects who may want him dead. Instead of focusing on building that list of credible killers, Littlejohn rushes after one character who has fled the scene and the next few chapters feel more like a gentle travelogue with descriptions of delicious French meals than an outlining of the case and search for clues.

Now I am the first to argue that a mystery need not be structured as a whodunit to be compelling but if that’s the case there needs to be another compelling question to answer. The question of how it was done is pretty clear so the only remaining angle that needs to be addressed is why.

It happens that Bellairs provides a pretty interesting answer to this but he does not provide much in the way of clues to it. At least, not the sort that the reader could use to get ahead of the detective but rather the type you look at to justify the conclusion you end up with.

Nor is it much of a thriller in spite of a rush of action in the last dozen or so pages. The tone is too rambling and there is too little threat of danger prior to that last chapter to feel like you are reading that sort of novel.

My early excitement had been based, in part, on the prospect of some discussion or depiction of working in the film industry in this period. Unfortunately even this feels largely superficial, with it being treated more as a piece of story dressing rather than an intrinsic part of the setting or themes of this novel. Even the idea of the high glamor of Hollywood never really makes it onto the page other than a few mentions of crowds at the airport in the opening chapter.

I think it is clear that I am not recommending this for a reader who is new to Bellairs but what of the more seasoned Littlejohn fans? Is there anything for them here?

Well, if you ignore the lacklustre mystery you can at least look forward to Archdeacon Kinrade, a fixture of the Isle of Man adventures, meeting Dorange of the Sûreté for the first time. It is quite a charming moment, even if it is hard to understand quite why Kinrade is needed to travel to France at all.

Readers who have enjoyed his descriptions of the French countryside and food will likely also appreciate similar passages in this book of which there are plenty.

All that being said, there are plenty of better Littlejohn stories out there to read. I would suggest making this one of the last ones.

Columbo: Prescription Murder (TV)

Given my love of inverted mysteries it was inevitable I would eventually get around to writing about Columbo. It is, after all, easily the most recognized instance of the form and it is my go-to example whenever I am asked to explain what I mean by the term ‘inverted mystery’ or ‘howcatchem’.

For those unfamiliar with the term it refers to a story in which the reader is told the killer’s identity and the questions relate to another aspect of the case such as the motive or identity of the victim. Episodes of Columbo follow that basic format, opening with a short depiction of the murder before switching to homicide detective Columbo’s perspective.

The show provided popular and long-lasting, retaining a strong following to this day. This is my first time watching the series properly (although I am ahead of the episode I am posting about and saw a few isolated episodes for the Star Trek connection as a teen).

Over the next few weekends I plan on writing about the first nine Columbo stories. This will cover the two pilot stories take us to the end of the first season. The next four posts are already written and scheduled so I might even have a good chance of sticking to that schedule!


Episode Details

First broadcast February 20 1968.

Followed by Ransom for a Dead Man.

Written by Richard Levinson and William Link.

Directed by Richard Irving.

Prescription Murder was a television movie based on a hit stage play that was itself based on an earlier television movie (from 1960). It was not intended as a pilot for a series although that would follow several years later.

Key Guest Cast

Gene Barry had become famous through his television work, playing the leads in shows like the western Bat Masterson and the crime drama Burke’s Law. Here he plays the killer, Dr. Fleming.

The Verdict

A pretty gripping piece of television. Columbo is still developing as a character but Falk is absolutely terrific, as is Gene Barry as the killer.


My Thoughts

Dr. Fleming, a psychiatrist married to a rich woman, decides to kill her and stage an alibi with the help of his mistress, an actress who will impersonate her for a short time.

The first twenty five minutes of the episode introduce us to the victim, her killer and his accomplice and follow the action as the plan is conceived and executed. The murder sequence itself is superb and quite unsettling as Dr. Fleming strangles his wife during an embrace, her hand crashing down on the keys of a piano as she falls to the ground.

The sequence also builds tension superbly, giving us lots of moments where the viewer may wonder if the killer has given himself away. It appears however that Dr. Fleming has thought of everything and there are no loose ends at all but Lt. Columbo manages to spot a few loose ends which he doggedly pursues.

Though this pilot was filmed in 1968 it reworks a story that had been a television movie in 1960 and later a stage play. As a result of this long gestation process the story feels really quite polished and tight. This production makes the most of the scale of the production, giving us a lavish penthouse, psychiatrist’s office and the set of a Roman historical movie, but the core of the piece are the confrontations between Gene Barry (as Fleming) and Peter Falk (Columbo), both of whom are superb.

What this story does more than anything is help define Columbo as a man in a brilliant sequence in which Dr. Fleming provides his professional evaluation of him, summing up the character superby. While Columbo is a little more ruffled and seemingly absent-minded in later stories, that statement really gets at the core of who he is and will become in later episodes. Who knows, perhaps Fleming inspires the character to play up those attributes more?

I enjoyed this story a lot, particularly for Barry’s performance as the overly confident killer. If there is a weak point I think it is that the trap aspect of the ending strikes me as a little bit of a lazy way out of having designed an apparently perfect murder but that is hardly unique to this story. I also think you can argue that Columbo does at least work out how the crime was done and assesses where the weakness is in Fleming’s plan so the trap serves to provide evidence for the thing he already is certain of.

One thing is for sure – it is clear from watching this episode that Falk was inspired casting as Columbo. He is always captivating to watch, even when he is not speaking. No wonder the character would return the following year for what would be a pilot for an ongoing television series.

The Earthquake Bird by Susanna Jones

Book Details

Originally published in 2001.

The Blurb

Lucy Fly’s friend is dead, her lover has disappeared, and as far as anyone is concerned, she’s as good as guilty.

Trapped in the interrogation room, Lucy begins to unravel two stories. One, for the police, is a spare outline, offering more questions than answers. The other–the real one, if you believe her–is a gripping dive into an obsessive mind, revealing the checkered past that brought her to Japan, her complicated friendship with Lily, and a tempestuous affair with a missing Japanese photographer named Teiji. As she excavates the dangerous secrets–both past and present–that haunt her waking mind, Lucy relates an unsettling life story that spans bustling Tokyo, the British countryside, and remote Japanese islands, each step taking us closer to the chilling truth about Lily’s death.

The Verdict

The book’s greatest strength is its secretive and enigmatic narrator. The murder plot is interesting but its conclusion is not particularly surprising.


My Thoughts

I had never heard of The Earthquake Bird prior to picking up a copy at the library earlier this week. I clearly didn’t read the blurb in any great depth given I was surprised to realize it was set in Japan! It was very much an impulse decision when I found myself bookless and knowing that I had a potentially long wait ahead of me.

Most of The Earthquake Bird takes place during an extended interrogation in which the novel’s protagonist, British-born Lucy Fly, is being questioned about the brutal murder of her friend Lily.

We quickly learn that Lucy is determined not to be helpful to their investigation. A great example of that is how she chooses not to tell the police that she speaks Japanese fluently when the interrogation begins. Questions are evaded or answered with as little information as possible, making it clear that she is hiding something though we are not directly told what that is. At this point in the novel we have to infer things from hints in throwaway remarks.

There are, it turns out, two mysteries for the reader to uncover. The question of who killed Lily is presented as the most pressing and appears to be the focus of the novel yet I would argue that the questions concerning Lucy’s past and recent actions and the motives that lie behind them are the real heart of the book.

While Lucy dodges the questions in the interrogation we do get to hear the thoughts and memories they provoke. Some of those memories are quite recent and directly relate to her experiences with Lily but others go back much further and it is these that help give her character a clearer definition.

The picture we build of Lucy is a complex and sometimes quite conflicted one. These complexities and contradictions can be seen in each of her relationships in the novel and make her an intriguing and enigmatic protagonist.

I think some of the most interesting aspects and observations about her character relate to her sense of identity and the ways she is defined by others. Lily, a very recent and non-integrated arrival in Japan, continually tries to tie her to Yorkshire and refers to it as Lucy’s home, yet Lucy has long since shed that identity.

I found it easy to understand that and many other parts of her character, making the exploration of her background and personality all the more interesting to me. She struck me as highly credible and when aspects of her past were revealed they built on and explained behaviors we had already witnessed rather than attempting to spring surprises on the reader.

In addition to Lucy there are two other significant characters in the novel – her friend Lily and boyfriend Teiji. While each plays important roles in the story I felt neither character was rendered with quite as much complexity as Lucy. This is appropriate given that our focus should be on Lucy but it does mean that both characters behave largely predictably. That being said, it would be difficult to dig deeper into those characters given the story is being told in Lucy’s voice and she views both fairly superficially.

The novel is at its best when exploring Lucy’s character and facets of Japanese life. Jones does a pretty good job of giving us a sense of life in modern Tokyo, also taking the action outside the city in a couple of memorable sequences. As Lily is a newcomer to the city, Lucy is able to explain some things to her and also to the reader. This also gives us a handy way to read some of her observations and reactions to some parts of Japanese life as an outsider.

While the exploration of Lucy’s character becomes the focus of much of the novel, Jones does have to resolve the murder plotline at the end of the story and provide us with answers. Here I feel the novel’s brevity counts heavily against it as it quickly becomes clear how each element is connected and will be used in the conclusion.

There are no great moments of surprise or shock, nor is there much action. Rather the book is a series of brief glimpses at key moments in Lucy’s life to help us understand her.

Another issue arises from the cast of characters being very small. This means that the reader has very limited options to pick from which makes playing detective with this story a largely unrewarding experience.

Readers should be aware that the clues are psychological so those seeking a more traditional puzzle may prefer to look elsewhere. However, those who enjoy digging into motivation and trying to understand a character’s emotional and general psychological state will likely find this an interesting read.

Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories by Young-Ha Kim, translated by Krys Lee

Book Details

Originally published in 2013 as 살인자의 기억법
English translation first published in 2019

The Blurb

Diary of a Murderer captivates and provokes in equal measure, exploring what it means to be on the edge—between life and death, good and evil. In the titular novella, a former serial killer suffering from memory loss sets his sights on one final target: his daughter’s boyfriend, who he suspects is also a serial killer. In other stories we witness an affair between two childhood friends that questions the limits of loyalty and love; a family’s disintegration after a baby son is kidnapped and recovered years later; and a wild, erotic ride about pursuing creativity at the expense of everything else.

The Verdict

This collection of stories sits on the very edge of the genre as literary fiction but they show the writer’s skills at exploring and evoking feelings.


My Thoughts

Some months ago I wrote a review of Young-Ha Kim’s Your Republic Is Calling You in which I praised the author’s creativity and ability to explore the nuances of human relationships. Those qualities are also present in this more recent collection of four short stories.

Like the novel, these stories touch on genre elements and themes but may be seen first and foremost as character and situation explorations. Each story places the characters into tense and challenging situations involving crime or the threat of violence and shows us how those flawed characters respond.

Young-Ha Kim creates some intriguing and striking situations, particularly in Diary of a Murderer which takes up almost half the page count for the collection. That story explores the idea of a serial killer experiencing Alzheimer’s Disease and how they respond when they fear another killer may be targeting their adopted daughter. It is a really clever story that plays with our perceptions and conveys the protagonist’s feelings of confusion.

The other story that really impressed me was Missing Child. As the title suggests, it centers on the way a child’s abduction affects the parents and the child themselves. I felt the characterizations were excellent and the plot unfolds in thoughtful and unexpected ways.

Those looking primarily for detective stories will probably want to pass over this collection but there are some really interesting ideas here that are worth exploring for those willing to venture outside the genre.

Thoughts on the individual stories follow on the next page.