In my last post I said I wished there was more talk of the work of classic authors in the field at mystery conventions. One writer who ought to be considered a luminary of the genre, and worthy of such discussion, is Edward D. Hoch. Ed’s talents and overall accomplishments have been talked about on this site before, but in this post I want to focus on one of his series in particular and how I see it as a fan.
Over the seventeen years I worked with Ed at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, I had the pleasure of editing twelve of his long-running series. The nearly 200 stories that emerged from those series during that time comprised less than half of his output for EQMM, where he had a thirty-four-year unbroken streak of publication in every monthly issue of the magazine.
My favorite of all of these excellent series was that starring Dr. Sam Hawthorne. Many fans of this series, which began in 1974, cite its locked-room and impossible-crime puzzles as what chiefly attracts them to the stories. In the Hawthorne tales 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.
As brilliant as the plots of the Hawthorne stories are, however, they are only a part of the magic the series has for me. Ed Hoch had many exceptional talents beyond plotting. One of them was the ability to create a milieu that readers could look forward to returning to again and again. Set in the New England town of Northmont in the 1920s through ’40s, the Hawthorne stories have a certain parallel to the Miss Marple stories and novels of Agatha Christie, whose early cases were set in roughly the same period of time, in the English village of St. Mary Mead. The settings of both series are relatively self-contained; both create ambiances in which the occurrence of crime should be an anomaly; and both include some returning supporting characters. But Northmont has always felt to me a more real and vital place than St. Mary Mead, and I think that may be partly because, unlike Miss Marple, Dr. Sam Hawthorne is not primarily an observer of his town—he’s an active participant in all that goes on.
As a young, single doctor, Dr. Sam is involved in all sorts 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. The supporting characters of Northmont are part of Dr. Sam’s personal story, a story that, spun out over some seventy adventures, provides as compelling a reason to continue reading the stories, for many readers—myself included—as are the astonishingly clever puzzles each story contains.
If you followed the adventures of Dr. Sam in EQMM over the years, or have read any of the collections of the stories by Crippen and Landru Publishers, you’ll know that the good doctor doesn’t remain the same over time. This is one fictional series that progresses in something like real time. Hawthorne moves on, and so do the times. With each case told as a reminiscence, we’re guided by an elderly Dr. Sam through the decades of his youth, with all of the attendant changes to Northmont, the country, and the world. Part of the pleasant expectation with which I used to open the manuscript of a new Hawthorne story was that of seeing how the milieu, and the characters, had changed. And Ed Hoch always delivered. One of the things being his editor for so many years proved to me is that he was a scrupulous researcher. Using primarily his own extensive personal library, he brought to bear the kind of detail that made his settings places I felt I could walk right into. And I can honestly say that I never detected a historical error in any of his stories.
If you haven’t yet made Hawthorne’s acquaintance, I recommend you try one of the collections. There’s a respect in which I envy newcomers to the series: You don’t know yet how Sam’s life turned out. Although his creator died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2008, he had revealed, only a few years earlier, answers to two of the key questions that had kept readers going over the decades: Did Northmont’s most eligible bachelor ever marry? And how old is the retired Dr. Sam who narrates the tales?
I won’t chance spoiling your reading by answering those questions for you. I think the author himself had some reservations about resolving all of that. For although he believed that Nick Velvet—an eccentric and endearing thief who became the subject of a French television series—was his most popular sleuth, he too seems to have believed that Hawthorne was one of his most important creations.
One of the Dr. Sam stories that has stayed in my mind over the years is 2001’s “The Problem of the Yellow Wallpaper.” In it, we see several facets of this fictional character that remind me of qualities his author also had. There’s the clever puzzle solver; that’s a given. But there’s also the compassionate doctor who provides a job for his former nurse, April, when her husband is called up for reserve duty in the Navy just prior to America’s entry into WWII, and who protests the ill treatment of an apparently mentally disturbed patient. In this story, too, we see the author’s knowledge of the literature preceding him; the story involves direct references to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic horror story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” And if that doesn’t demonstrate that knowing something about the history of a form is relevant to writing well—and, as a reader, to understanding what is currently being written—I’m not sure what would.—Janet Hutchings