Monday, January 12, 2015

Two Collections

Almost simultaneously, I finished two short-story collections, so I'll review them together.

The late Edward D. Hoch (1930-2008) was a master of the short story, having written approximately 950 of them. He created quite a few fictional detectives, like the seemingly immortal Simon Ark and Eastern European Gypsy detective Michael Vlado, but one of his more popular creations was Dr. Sam Hawthorne, an old-school family practice doctor working in small-town New England in the 1920s. The series was published in "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine" starting in 1974 and continued for over a quarter-century. His specialty was the impossible crime, a murder that shouldn't have taken place, but did.

The first story, "The Problem of the Covered Bridge", sets the tone. During a snowy winter, a man is seen driving his horse-drawn wagon toward a covered bridge. When friends go by later, they find the tracks going in...but nothing leaving on the other side, and no sign of man or wagon. Where is he? How was it done? It's a devilishly complex story and Dr. Sam's solution is well-done. Hoch plays fair, and most of the time you get almost all the clues and information you need.

Sadly, the next story is below par. "The Problem of the Old Gristmill" has an author renting an old mill dying mysteriously in a fire, although they soon realize he was dead before the fire started. And someone has stolen his notebooks. Why? It plays fair but still the solution seems to come almost out of nowhere.

The rest, however, are all equally good. Some are locked-room mysteries, with Dr. Sam figuring out how a murder was committed in a locked lobster shack, or a locked caboose, or a church steeple, or a voting booth. One is of a clever escape from a jail cell, with a nod to Jacques Futrelle's famous "Thinking Machine" stories. Or there's a man apparently murdered by a ghost, in full view of the town, or a child that seems to bilocate, or a wild-west burglar in a New England inn, or a corpse turning up in a buried time capsule, or a man seemingly strangled by an oak tree. 

They're all good fun and worth reading. They take place in a time period from 1922 to 1927, and capture the flavor of the times, with references to Prohibition and other aspects of life back then. They're well-researched and have a lot of period flavor. The collection, from Crippen & Landru, is available in paperback.

The lovely folks at Ash-Tree Press have a great series of "Ash-Tree Press Macabre" volumes available as ebooks. Each is a selection of macabre tales, many by noted authors, but the stories themselves will be lesser-known works. Volume One has stories from Patricia Wentworth, W. Somerset Maugham, Arthur Ransome, Ford Madox Ford, E. C. Bentley, Hilaire Belloc, and John Buchan. The stories themselves range from regular Victorian-style ghost tales or haunted-house stories, to more experimental and visionary works. W. J. Makin's "Newsreel" is a good example of the latter, with a man watching a theater newsreel that eventually has dark meanings for his life. 

I have to admit...the stories were decent reads overall, but they didn't stick with me. A lot of them represent experimental or youthful works by authors noted in other genres, or overlooked works by minor authors. You're not going to find a classic weird work by a master of the macabre at the top of their game here! However, it's still worth seeking out for those who want to delve deeply into weird fiction. It's easily available from multiple online sources.

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