‘Nothing Is Impossible: Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne,’ by Edward D. Hoch

July 30, 2014

Edward D. Hoch (1930-2008) wrote almost a thousand short stories, virtually all of them cleverly plotted fair-play mysteries. In the introduction to “Nothing Is Impossible,” Janet Hutchings, the editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, points out that EQMM ran a Hoch contribution in every issue for 34 straight years. As Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor advised in their magisterial “Catalogue of Crime,” Hoch stories “should be turned to first in any issue of EQMM,” adding that their ingenious denouements never “hinge on a single trifling detail. The plots are lifelike and reasonably complex and the situations are inventive.” The stories are also perfect light entertainments.

Over the years, Hoch developed several recurring characters, including a spy and code-expert named Rand; the contract thief Nick Velvet, who only accepts assignments to steal oddball items, such as the water from a swimming pool or the contents of an empty room; and, not least, the occult detective Simon Ark, who claims to be a 2,000-year-old Copt. In Hoch’s very first published story, “Village of the Dead” (1955), Ark must figure out why 73 people — every man, woman and child in an isolated small town — flung themselves from a cliff in an apparent mass suicide.

Though Hoch’s fiction occasionally packs an emotional wallop, it mainly comprises neatly intricate puzzles and classic howdunits, especially in the many mysteries faced by a country doctor named Sam Hawthorne. As in “Diagnosis: Impossible” and “More Things Impossible,” this third collection of Hawthorne’s cases, “Nothing is Impossible,” continues to offer baffling murders capped by properly unexpected solutions. A checklist of Sam Hawthorne’s “problems” — all of them initially published between 1974 and 2008 — indicates that there are enough left for at least two more volumes.

The stories themselves are structured like those classic radio dramas during which Dr. Watson would sip Petri wine and relate an adventure of Sherlock Holmes. Hawthorne is now an old man, but the murders he solves take place in New England during the 1920s and 1930s, when he practiced as a young country doctor in a town called Northmont. Here is a typical opening paragraph:

“ ‘This time I promised to tell you about the night Prohibition ended in Northmont,’ old Dr. Sam Hawthorne told his visitor as he poured a generous glass of brandy. ‘Of course, it ended all over the country the same time, but I don’t expect it was quite as dramatic anywhere else as it was in Northmont.’ ”

As in those radio programs, Hawthorne’s reminiscences often conclude with a coda-like “preview” of a future case: “If you come by this way again soon, I’ll tell you what happened when a business tycoon tried to grow tobacco near Northmont and make everyone rich. His dream wasn’t the only thing that went up in smoke. But that’s for next time.”

Today these framing devices can seem a bit cutesy, but they do establish the stories as period pieces. The first one in “Diagnosis: Impossible” takes place in 1922 when Hawthorne is just out of medical school. They then, with just a few exceptions, are recounted in strict chronological order: We follow Dr. Sam as he ages and gradually becomes a pillar of the Northmont community. His closest friends are Sheriff Lens and his nurse assistant April (who eventually leaves his employ to marry). The last story included in this new collection, “The Problem of the Blue Bicycle,” takes place in September 1936.

Given their dates and setting, the Hawthorne mysteries thus offer glimpses of vanished small-town life, of an America that disappeared with World War II. Northmont and its citizens inevitably call to mind Norman Rockwell paintings, Andy Hardy movies and the Yankee equivalent of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead (or, to use a more recent example, the Cabot Cove of “Murder, She Wrote”). In that first Sam Hawthorne story, a horse-drawn sleigh enters a covered bridge and never emerges on the other side. In another, included in “Nothing is Impossible,” Fourth of July firecrackers are used to hide a clever murder. Here, in short, is a lost world of cap guns and roadsters and telephone switchboards; of diners, carnivals and Sunday picnics — but also one of murderous bootleggers and young polio victims needing iron lungs.

Against this homespun backdrop, Hoch stages scores of miraculous-seeming crimes, many of them worthy of the locked-room genre’s Golden Age master, John Dickson Carr.

In one, a trapeze artist disappears before the eyes of scores of spectators. In another, a man is stabbed to death in an isolated cabin surrounded by freshly fallen snow in which there are no footprints. In yet another, the town’s mayor is apparently shot and wounded by a man who had committed suicide the day before. Impossible? Nothing is impossible. Reading Hoch, you need to pay attention to the details, recognize that every element, even the most trivial — especially the most trivial — is there for a reason: You can shake any of his stories and nothing extraneous will fall out.

Of course, Dr. Sam’s “problems” are inherently improbable in one regard: Nobody finds it strange that one small New England town can be home to so many murderers — and such imaginative ones at that. They may talk like country folk and look like ordinary shopkeepers, politicians and widows, yet they act with the cool resolve and cold-blooded heartlessness of professional killers. But perhaps we really shouldn’t be surprised. As Sherlock Holmes once declared, “The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” And regardless of how original the technique and execution of the murder, the motive is nearly always solidly traditional: jealousy, revenge, blackmail, an unhappy marriage, greed.

Initially, Sam Hawthorne himself might seem somewhat flat, a mere thinking machine with an MD and a passion for sporty cars, but over time Hoch deepens and complicates his character. In “The Problem of the Unfinished Painting,” a patient dies while the doctor is out helping Sheriff Lens solve a strangling death in a locked room. Racked with guilt afterward, Hawthorne decides to refocus his energies on medicine and give up assisting the police. We learn that he keeps this promise for over a year, until a prominent town official is poisoned sipping sherry during a party celebrating the end of Prohibition. Before “The Problem of the Sealed Bottle” is over, two more people will die.

Hoch’s prose, I should add, is plain and direct; he keeps his paragraphs short and his pace brisk. Most readers, I think, will enjoy these “problems” as much as old Sam Hawthorne does his brandy. Still, as with spirits, it’s wise not to imbibe to excess; space the stories out. After a hard day at work or a long afternoon playing in the waves at Ocean City, one or two in the evening might be just what the doctor ordered.

Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.

NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE

Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne

By Edward D. Hoch

Crippen & Landru. 236 pp. Paperback, $19

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