Saturday, December 7, 2013

Paging the Crime Doctor

Primum non nocere 

Not sure whether I was influenced subliminally or not by the subject of this review, but I have been playing the classic game Theme Hospital lately. Many, many moons I played the game, but never finished it. And now., many years later.. it's still a fun game. I play a lot of games, but I have never really gotten into strategy/management games... except for this game, and Rollercoaster Tycoon. Maybe I should read a detective featuring a rollercoaster...

A year ago, I reviewed Edward D. Hoch's Diagnosis: Impossible, the short story collection featuring Dr. Sam Hawthorne solving the most incredible impossible crimes. Well, to be exact, it was the Japanese version of that collection, which added an extra Hoch story. Also, there have only been two Sam Hawthorne collections published in English (I have been told a third is on its way), but the complete Dr. Sam Hawthorne series has been available in Japanese for years. Which is also sitting here in my bookcase. And so we move on to the third Japanese volume, which has the English subtitle of Diagnosis: Murder 3 - Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne. General practictioner Dr. Sam Hawthorne has been living in the small New England town of Northmont for a long time now, which has proven to be a great home to him, despite a rather big part of the population consisting of mastercriminals who specialize in impossible crimes and a declining population rate because of said crimes (murders). But a town is just a part of a greater country, and thus we see nationwide socio-economical changes like Great Depression and the Prohibition form the background of this set of Dr. Sam's adventures.

This is either a hard to describe short story collection, or a very easy one.. It's basically the same as the first collection. And the second. One might have noted that this review is about the third collection. Where's the review of the second one? Well, I had skipped writing one, because I couldn't think of anything to add to my review of the first collection! I could have reposted that review, just swapping the titles. And to be honest, I could have done the same for this third collection...

Which probably makes it sound like Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne is a boring set of stories, but again, it isn't! It's a very solid collection of wonderfully constructed impossible crimes, each of them a great example of how to write a mystery short story! The way Hoch manages to present a new impossible crime and flesh out the background setting every time perfectly in just that amount of pages per story is amazing! Many writers would commit an impossible crime to have such a talent.

The 'problem' is that Hoch manages to keep a fairly high standard, every time, always.  The first collection is not much different from the second or the third. They're all good, but it would be difficult to describe the differences between the collections, because there are few. Sure, I could do a short summary of every story, but I once again choose not too, because considering the length of the stories and their set-up, it would be very easy to spoil some of them. But they are good. Of course, not every story is as good as another, but the 'lesser' ones are good stuff. In Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, I liked The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin (well, snow + impossible crime = you can guess), The Problem of the Invisible Acrobat (acrobat disappearing during act) and The Problem of Hunting Lodge (murder scene without foot prints), but every story is worth reading.

The fact is though that a lot of the stories are actually very similar. Like a Scooby Doo episode, you can guess the following is present. 1) Sam Hawthorne meets a fellow townsman whom we have never met before, but Sam is acquainted with (in same cases a recurring character). Said character is involved in way or another with whatever the title of the story is. 2) Sam is witness to the impossible crime. He usually just happens to be there (often doing his rounds). There is a moment where all witness lose sight of the subject or object of the crime. 3) The trick behind the impossible crime was done in that split moment nobody could have seen anything, be it a switch, or setting off a mechanism. 4) The story ends, and Sam alludes to his next adventure. Most adventures follow this scheme, making it easy to guess what's going on. If you'd just read the stories seperatedly, this might not seem to obvious, but as every collection has about ten stories you read in one go, yeah, this pattern tends to become obvious.

And now I noticed I already said this in my review of the first collection. Aaah. Like I said, the collections, and thus the reviews, are not very different....

Well, there are some minor changes. The background setting of Northmont keeps developing throughout the stories. Minor storylines like Sam's car and his assistent keep popping up, providing a lively world in which all these crimes happen. And while I said all the stories are very much alike (also in their high standard), there are some little surprises here and there, like stories like fake solutions. Which considering the length of the stories, is actually amazing. To do a great impossible crime story, in a believable setting, and a fake solution, all of that in a limited amount of pages...

This Japanese volume also contains a bonus Hoch story, The Nile Cat. It's a short crime story about figuring out the motive for a crime. Short, but good. Not much to tell about without getting into spoilerific territory.

In short, Diagnosis: Impossible 3 - Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (the English release will probably feature a different title, I guess?) is a great impossible crime short story collection. If you liked previous collections, you're bound to love this one too. If you got bored by the formula though, you won't find anything new here.

Original title(s): Edward D. Hoch 『サム・ホーソーンの事件簿』Ⅲ: 'The Problem of the Hunting Lodge' 「ハンティングロッジの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Body in the Haystack' 「干し草に埋もれた死体の謎」 / 'The Problem of Santa's Lighthouse' 「サンタの灯台の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Graveyard Picnic' 「墓地のピクニックの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Crying Room' 「防音を施した親子室の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Fatal Fireworks'「危険な爆竹の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Unfinished Painting'「描きかけの水彩画の 謎」 / 'The Problem of the Sealed Bottle'「密封された酒びんの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Invisible Acrobat' 「 消えた空中ブランコ乗りの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Curing Barn' 「 真っ暗になった通期熟成所の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Snowbound Cabin' 「雪に閉ざされた山小屋の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Thunder Room' 「窓のない避雷室の謎」 / 'The Nile Cat' 「ナイルの猫」


  1. Thank you for the review. I remember reading a review of the Japanese series of these stories, and there was something amusing about the way the six titles reuse certain words, but I can't recall the specifics.

    I am also a big fan of Hoch's Simon Ark series, but only a few of those stories have been reprinted in book form here in the U.S. Is it true that the Japanese have reprinted the whole set of 61 Ark short stories in books?

    1. The Japanese Hawthorne books have the following English subtitles:
      Diagnosis Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne
      Diagnosis Impossible II: More Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne
      Diagnosis Impossible III: Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne
      Diagnosis Impossible IV: More and More Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne
      Diagnosis Impossible V: Further and Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne
      Diagnosis Impossible VI: The Last Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne

      I'll be sure to continue in the series (as I have them here), but I'll probably only write a review of the last book, unless there's something substantially different in More and More Problems and Further and Further Problems.

      There are three Simon Ark collections available in Japan, but it's not the whole series. If you scroll down the Japanese wikipedia page, you'll see a list of which stories are available (the ones with a Japanese title next to them are those published, naturally):

  2. Thanks for the information. I am glad to know that Sam had more and more and further and further problems. It seems to me that what the Japanese did was to reprint the 3 Ark collections available in English.