'Diagnosis Impossible' cover image

The late Edward D. Hoch (1930 – 2008) holds the record for the most published mystery short stories — 900 and counting. What’s even more remarkable is that, even with such a massive output, the quality of his stories remained remarkably high. He obviously loved the puzzle plot, and most of his works adhered to that formula.

More noteworthy still is how readily he could concoct an ‘impossible’ crime (a.k.a. ‘locked room’) mystery. For most crime fiction authors, impossible crime plots are difficult at best, and they tend to avoid them. Hoch, in contrast, could turn them out on a virtual production line basis. Only John Dickson Carr (a.k.a. Carter Dickson) and Hal White have been as consistently successful with the formula.

Two of the three stories mentioned here center on impossible crimes, but even the third one has plenty of mystification for readers who like their mysteries to have … well, mystery.

Crippen & Landru publishers have done all of us detective fiction aficionados a great service by collecting many of Ed Hoch’s mystery short stories for posterity. We urge you to get them now before they go out of print.


“The Problem of the Christmas Steeple.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1977. Reprinted in Diagnosis: Impossible, Crippen & Landru, trade paperback, 1996.

He seemed like a good man who led a simple life and looked for simple solutions — which is why so many people disliked him. New Englanders, contrary to some opinions, are not a simple folk.

Comments: It’s December 1925, and a minister has been murdered in the steeple of his own church, a place from which no one could escape unseen — and the only other person, a gypsy, who was there swears he didn’t do it.

Even Sheriff Lens, not normally quick on the uptake, suspects there’s more to this than first meets the eye: “Some said he was runnin’ a giant con game, while others thought he was more interested in the parish wives. Whatever the truth, his background was mighty shady.”

All of this sets Dr. Sam Hawthorne to wondering: “How could you have a locked room that wasn’t even a room — that was in fact open on all four sides? And how could you have a mystery when the obvious murderer was found right there with the weapon and the body?”

“The Problem of Santa’s Lighthouse.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1983. Reprinted in More Things Impossible, Crippen & Landru, trade paperback, 2006.

“We kept saying there were no suspects, but of course there was always one suspect. Not the least likely person but the most likely one.”

Comments: It’s Christmas 1931, but even a place celebrating peace on earth is not immune from violence. Visiting a lighthouse that has been converted to catch the seasonal trade, Dr. Sam Hawthorne witnesses — or almost witnesses — an impossible crime: “I looked up in time to see a figure falling from the circular walkway at the top of the lighthouse …. Then I saw the handle of the dagger protruding from between his ribs and I knew that help was useless.” But Dr. Sam never sees the perpetrator, even though it should have been possible. How can it be that someone on one end of a building could stab somebody else on the other end without being seen?

To complicate matters further, Sam runs afoul of a murderous gang anxious to protect a secret: “We made it halfway down the stairs before they caught us, and I tripped and stumbled the rest of the way to the ground floor, landing hard on my chest. I looked up and saw one of the men take out a knife ….” If you remember your American history, you could surmise what that secret might be. (Hint: the 18th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.)

“Christmas Is for Cops.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1970. Reprinted in Murder for Christmas, edited by Thomas Godfrey, Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1982.

“Lock all the outside doors, Fletcher,” Leopold barked. “Don’t let anyone leave.”
“Is he dead, Captain?”
“As dead as he’ll ever be. What a mess!”
“You think one of our men did it?”
“Who else?”

Comments: It’s Christmas in Captain Leopold’s precinct, and a convivial party for all the policemen is in the offing.

It’s Leopold’s unhappy duty, however, to deal with one of his own men, a cop on the take. The evidence is incontrovertible, and the Captain is about to turn him over to the DA when the crooked cop begs him for more time. He admits his wrongdoing to Leopold but also claims he has an audio recording that will nail another cop in his unit who is also on the take. Reluctantly, the Captain grants the request.

The next evening, at the Christmas party, the fun is interrupted by the discovery of Leopold’s would-be informant, stabbed to death. The Captain is neck-deep in suspects now — over sixty cops plus their wives.

There’s also that unresolved matter of the recording. Leopold has reason to believe that, if it even exists, it’s either under or hidden somewhere on the big twenty-foot Christmas tree — but a careful search yields nothing.

And then there’s that piece of crime scene evidence that points the finger of guilt at the wife of his trustworthy subordinate, Lieutenant Fletcher.

Captain Leopold must untangle all these contradictions, or this Christmas won’t be merry at all.


Mike Gray

Note: This review first appeared on Steve Lewis’ Mystery*File weblog and is reprinted with permission.