NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE: Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne — By Edward D. Hoch — Introduction by Janet Hutchings — Crippen & Landru — 2014 — Collection: 15 stories — Hardcover edition: 237 pages — ISBN: 978-1-936363-03-2
For Edward D. Hoch (1930-2008), mysteries were primarily about plot, with characterization necessarily taking second place. The knottiest kind of mystery plot has always been the “locked room” or “impossible crime” story, which of necessity calls for more than the usual amount of cerebration on the parts of both the writer and the reader, who is expected to participate in the “game” of “howdunnit” set up by the author.
During his career, Hoch outdid even the grand master of the locked room mystery, John Dickson Carr, in the number and variety of his plots, churning out these brainbusters on a production line basis.
Hoch had several series characters threading their way through his nearly one thousand short stories, among them Ben Snow, Simon Ark, Rand, Captain Leopold, Nick Velvet, and Dr. Sam Hawthorne. It was in the stories of that last worthy, a New England general practitioner, according to Janet Hutchings (Hoch’s editor at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, EQMM) in her introduction, that “one finds some of the best Hoch plots, perhaps because he liked to save the most difficult kind of puzzle, that of the locked room, for his country doctor.”
Hutchings contrasts Dr. Sam with one of Agatha Christie’s series characters: “. . . unlike Miss Marple [of St. Mary Mead], Dr. Sam Hawthorne is not primarily an observer of his town [Northmont] — he’s an active participant in all that goes on”:
As a young single doctor, Dr. Sam is involved in all kinds of relationships — personal, professional, and civic — with characters who turn out to be suspects, victims, and witnesses. He has a stake in what happens that goes beyond achieving justice, and his supporting characters become more important, as the series progresses, than they ever could be were his primary role that of observer.
Thus Hoch was able “to create a milieu that readers could look forward to returning to again and again.” His entire series of Dr. Sam stories would begin in 1922 (the Roaring Twenties), pass through the Depression Thirties, and end (due to his death) in 1944 (the War Years), with the ones in this collection covering the period from early 1932 to late 1936.
If you like impossible crime stories that are puzzling without being disappointing in their solutions then Edward D. Hoch’s Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories are a good place to go. Unless you’ve collected just about every issue of EQMM since 1974, however, it’s unlikely you’ll have the complete series, which is why you’d do well to get this book — and the two previous collections issued by Douglas Greene’s fine publishing house, Crippen & Landru (see “Resources” below).
Nothing Is Impossible is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Introduction by Janet Hutchings
(1) “The Problem of the Graveyard Picnic” (1984)
– 1932: Dr. Sam Hawthorne witnesses a tragic incident when a young woman drowns in the rushing waters of a creek, but the more he looks into it the more this “accident” looks like a carefully-planned murder.
(2) “The Problem of the Crying Room” (1984)
– 1932: It’s bizarre enough when a dead man confesses to a murder he had yet to commit, but after an attempt on the mayor’s life exactly according to the deceased’s suicide note, Dr. Sam is forced to conclude that dead men do tell tales.
(3) “The Problem of the Fatal Fireworks” (1985)
– 1932: What do a deadly exploding firecracker and bootleg whisky have in common? As Dr. Sam will discover, everything — and nothing.
(4) “The Problem of the Unfinished Painting” (1986)
– 1932: A woman is strangled in a locked room before she can put the finishing strokes to her still life; in investigating this particular case, Dr. Sam will come to consider seriously moving away from his adopted hometown.
(5) “The Problem of the Sealed Bottle” (1986)
– 1933: For many people, the repeal of Prohibition is a reason to celebrate, but it’s also evidently the cause of two murders — with Dr. Sam marked as the third victim.
(6) “The Problem of the Invisible Acrobat” (1986)
– 1933: There was a time when kids would dream of running away to join the circus. When the Big Top comes to town, someone who has acted out that dream will come to confront Dr. Sam with a sharp blade in a desperate attempt to keep it a secret.
(7) “The Problem of the Curing Barn” (1987)
– 1934: Poison-pen letters are meant to wound, not kill, but when the wife of a farmer becomes the recipient of some malicious missives it’s enough to provoke someone to kill, not wound.
(8) “The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin” (1987)
– 1935: The classic locked-room situation: a murder in an isolated cabin with snow everywhere but no incriminating footprints; nevertheless, Dr. Sam figures it all out even as he must reluctantly bid farewell to a long-time colleague.
(9) “The Problem of the Thunder Room” (1988)
– 1935: Dr. Sam is well-pleased with his new assistant until that fateful day when, according to reliable eyewitnesses, she murders a man who is miles away while, as Dr. Sam is willing to swear, she was in the next room.
(10) “The Problem of the Black Roadster” (1988)
– 1935: Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde might be dead but a gang disturbingly similar to them descends on little Northmont’s bank, killing the manager in the process and then vanishing in their getaway car off the face of the earth: a knotty problem that even Dr. Sam can’t solve without the assistance of an attractive eyewitness to the crime.
(11) “The Problem of the Two Birthmarks” (1989)
– 1935: Could a peculiar mark behind a woman’s ear and an identical one on an inanimate block of wood somehow be related? Dr. Sam will discover the connection, but unfortunately not soon enough to prevent a murder.
(12) “The Problem of the Dying Patient” (1989)
– 1935: It’s a hard thing when a doctor loses a patient, in this case a feeble old woman, but for Dr. Sam it’s worse when everything seems to indicate that he murdered her.
(13) “The Problem of the Protected Farmhouse” (1990)
– 1935: A repulsive hermit known for having Nazi sympathies is found beaten to death in his house — but this is no ordinary domicile: “A locked gate, a seven-foot-high electrified fence, a guard dog, and a house with all its doors and windows locked,” practically forcing Dr. Sam to the obvious conclusion: “It’s impossible.”
(14) “The Problem of the Haunted Tepee” (1990)
– 1935: Ben Snow, now well into his seventies, presents Dr. Sam with a mystery surrounding the deaths of several people, including a baby, inside a Dakota tepee, apparently at the “hands” of malicious spirits; but Sam and his pretty nurse prove that all-too-human ignorance and hatred are really to blame. (NOTE: This is the only story in this collection that is told in the third person.)
(15) “The Problem of the Blue Bicycle” (1991)
– 1936: One of Sam’s neighbors, a teenaged girl, is out bike-riding with her friends when she vanishes just yards away from them; when baying bloodhounds discover a shallow grave, at first everybody thinks the search is over, but what they find in the ground isn’t what anyone, including Dr. Sam, was expecting.
A Dr. Sam Hawthorne Checklist
~ S. T. Karnick’s article (“The Dr. Sam Hawthorne Mysteries”) is HERE.
~ A review of DIAGNOSIS IMPOSSIBLE: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne is HERE.
~ A review of MORE THINGS IMPOSSIBLE: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne is HERE.
~ Links to reviews of other Crippen & Landru collections are HERE and HERE.
~ On the Edward D. Hoch page on Mike Grost’s megasite there’s a section about Dr. Sam HERE.