Saturday, September 1, 2012

Prescription: Murder

「さされた男」 (サンドウィッチマン) 

Take a look! Now! 
- But from what I've seen, the knife hasn't reached the organs because of your body fat. 
- Yes, you're lucky to be a fatty. 
"The Stabbed Man" (Sandwichman sketch) 

A doctor solving impossible problems? Surely we're talking about Black Jack?!

No, we're not. We're talking about Sam Hawthorne. But to start off with a small correction: I said earlier that Edward D. Hoch's Ellery Queen pastiche The Circle of Ink was the first Hoch I ever read. Now that I think about it, I had read Hoch's Queen pastiche The Reindeer Clue (in The Tragedy of Errors) before. Which still meant that I only knew Hoch from his Queen pastiches. So I picked up Sam Hawthorne no Jikenbo I ("The Casefiles of Sam Hawthorne I") last weekend to fix that blind spot in my education. This is a Japanese version of Crippen & Landru's Diagnosis Impossible in theory, collecting the first thirteen stories of Hoch's Dr. Sam Hawthorne series, with two important differences. One is that this first volume also contains the short story The Long Way Down as a bonus, which is not part of the series. The second point is that while there are only two collected volumes of the Dr. Sam Hawthorne available in English, the whole series is actually available in the six volumes of Sam Hawthorne no Jikenbo. Which probably means that I am going to read the whole series in Japanese, as it make take quite some time before the rest of the series is collected in English!

Sam Hawthorne is an old family practitioner, who tells the reader about the adventures he had when he was still just a young doctor, starting in 1924 in Northmont, a New England town. You'd think that this would be a quiet little town, but for some reason all of the world's most brilliant criminals seem to have gathered here, if the amount of seemingly impossible crimes is something to go by. Men who disappear from covered bridges, kids disappearing from schools, a murdered man found in a just-sealed time capsule, not the kind of crimes you would expect in Northmont. It is at least as unsafe here as in Cabot Cove. The inhabitants are just lucky that young Sam is quite good at solving the impossible.

The stories are quite short and I don't think I could write about them without giving too much away, so I'll write a bit more generally about them. My favorite stories of the collection are The Problem of the Old Gristmill (documents disappearing from a safe which was being transported on a train), The Problem of the Haunted Bandstand (a man being stabbed to death in the middle of a bandstand, with the murderer disappearing in front of the eyes of the band and the public), The Problem of the Voting Booth (a man being stabbed while inside a voting booth with observers everywhere), and the bonus track The Long Way Down (a man jumping off a building, but not reaching the ground until almost four hours later!). These stories, but the others too, all show what a great imagination Hoch had, presenting the reader with fun and alluring impossible crime situations.

The first word I had in my head after finishing this volume was craftsman. Hoch's output was tremendous and that may be a reason why most stories are constructed very similar. A lot of the impossible crimes center around a person being under constant observation, with a murder/disappearance happening in the only moment the person escapes observation. Even the hinting in most of the stories is very similar, with the stories being easier to solve as you read more of them, as you start to see parallels in the ways Hoch tells his stories and how he plants hints.

But this is not a bad thing. With many writers, this could be a serious flaw, but Hoch was a craftsman. Tremendous effort went into each story in order to give the reader something new every time. The problems might be very similar abstractly speaking, but the situations he came up are sure to pique anyone's imagination and you always feel like you have gained something by reading the stories.

Which is also because Hoch slowly builds up the town of Northmont as he was writing the stories. There is continuity in these stories, with characters from the town reappearing, with events in the past being referenced to, with distinct references to the time and place of the stories (1920s New England), creating a living setting for Hawthorne's adventures. It makes the stories feel much more personal. And on the other hand, it makes things really disturbing, as the ratio of supercriminals in this little town is very alarming.

Anyway, this is a very entertaining collection of impossible crimes and I will definitely pick up the rest of the series!

By the way, there is an audio drama available of The Problem of the Locked Caboose, produced for the EQMM podcast. It's a fun one, so I recommend a listen!

Original title(s): Edward D. Hoch 『サム・ホーソーンの事件簿』I: 'The Problem of the Covered Bridge' 「有蓋橋の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Old Gristmill' 「水車小屋の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Lobster Shack' 「ロブスター小屋の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Haunted Bandstand' 「呪われた野外音楽堂の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Locked Caboose' 「乗務員車の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Little Red Schoolhouse' 「赤い校舎の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Christmas Steeple' 「そびえ立つ尖塔の謎」 / 'The Problem of Cell 16' 「十六号独房の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Country Inn' 「古い田舎宿の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Voting Booth' 「投票ブースの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Country Fair' 「農作物祭りの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Old Oak Tree' 「古い樫の木の謎」 / 'The Long Way Down' 「長い墜落」

1 comment :

  1. Fantastic review with many great elements, starting with an awesome Black Jack shout-out. (Speaking of which, Tezuka's Barbara was recently released in English! :D)

    Don't have much to say about the Hawthorne stories, only that I thank you for motivating me to get Diagnosis: Impossible. These impossible crimes sound right up my alley, and you did a nice job describing what was great about them without spoilers. Your post even has me wanting to read the missing story "The Long Way Down" (a premise that reminds me of Tantei Gakuen Q). At least I found a preview that includes the entire story: Hoch's "The Long Way Down"

    I'm definitely looking forward to meeting Sam Hawthorne.