Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Thief of the Unusual

When I was thirteen, fourteen years old and a faithful reader of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, one thing I knew I could look forward to reading every issue was an Edward D. Hoch short story.  And I do mean every single issue.  Hoch wrote over 900 short stories during his long career, and over half of them appeared in Ellery Queen.  Remarkably, at least one story of his appeared in every issue of the monthly magazine from 1973 until his death, at age 77, in 2008.

Hoch specialized in classic detective stories, and among his fortes was the locked-room mystery.  He worked myriad variations on the impossible crime narrative, many in stories featuring Sam Hawthorne, a New England doctor in the 1920's, 30's, and 40's.  In the short form, Hoch wrote police procedurals, espionage tales, western mysteries, and even suspense stories set during the American Revolutionary War. The character of his I've most read, and have returned to recently when I want some light reading, is Nick Velvet, probably Hoch's most famous and popular invention. He's a professional thief who for a flat fee steals only unusual objects.

In structure, the Velvet stories are inverse mysteries.  Somebody hires Nick to pull off the difficult theft of an item that seems worthless or just plain absurd to steal.  He's been hired to steal such things as a used tea bag and a cobweb.  The question becomes why the person who hired him wants that particular object stolen.  Often Nick functions as both thief and detective because he needs to steal the item and also find out his client's motive for wanting that item.  Needless to say, his clients don't always give him a full picture of their situation when they hire him, and as Hoch himself writes, "...he is often called upon to solve a mystery in order to accomplish his mission or to clear himself."

Right now I'm reading The Thefts of Nick Velvet, which contains thirteen Velvet stories. So far in the tales I've read, Nick has been hired to steal a tiger from a zoo, water from a swimming pool, a toy mouse from a movie set, and an entire baseball team from the United States so that they can be brought to play a game against a dictator's team on a Caribbean island.  Each story is ingenious, tightly written, and fast-paced.  I probably don't have to add that they also contain humor.  It's a pleasure to read such well-crafted, meticulously thought out stories.  As I mentioned, I read Hoch often as a kid, but it's worthwhile to return to him as an adult and a writer. Not only is he entertaining, but there's plenty to learn.  One can never not learn something from a writer this precise, this skillful yet unpretentious.  Glad to be spending time again with such a sharp craftsman.

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