EDWARD D. HOCH – City of Brass (Leisure, paperback original, 1971) and The Judges of Hades (Leisure, paperback original, 1971).

   Edward D. Hoch is certainly the most prolific short-story writer in the mystery business today. He specializes in the challenge-to-the-reader story based on trickery and ingenuity, and he has become the current master of the impossible crime. All this is, of course, well known to anyone who has even glanced at EQMM or AHMM.

   What is less known is how accomplished Hoch was in his very first stories, published in the middle 1950s in such now defunct journals as Famous Detective Stories and Double Action Detective & Mystery. The two paperbacks under review contain a selection of Hoch’s earliest works about his mysterious detective Simon Ark.

   It says much for the young Hoch’s confidence in his ability (or, perhaps, his bravado) that he first tried his hand at creating an occult detective. I have stated my contention elsewhere that the occult detective story is the most difficult sub-genre of mystery fiction. (I believe that only Agatha Christie and Edward Hoch have been successful in combining supernatural powers with fair play detection. Both authors emphasize the mysterious nature of the crimes, but they provide natural and human solutions.)

   Simon Ark claims to have lived 2000 years searching for evil in all its aspects, and the crimes he solves in these two books include devil’s hoof prints, impossible self-conflagrations, and the suicide of an entire town — something that no longer sounds quite so unlikely to us, based on our recent exposure with cult leaders. The Simon Ark tales, like the best of Hoch’s later stories, are not only ingenious; much of their charm lies in Hoch’s knowledge of mysterious, occult, or (at the very least) unusual lore.

   His early stories introduce theories of witchcraft and legends of Satan; his current ones search for mermaids, investigate the Mary Celeste tragedy, and explain in detail even such apparently mundane subjects as dog-racing. It’s this mastery of background which make Hoch’s puzzles more than chess problems.

   Thus these two books, Hoch’s first collections of short stories, are important as well as entertaining volumes. It’s unfortunate that they are difficult to find. Leisure Books merged with Tower shortly after these books appeared, and apparently never had good distribution. Consequently Poisoned Penners should locate The Judges of Hades and City of Brass before dealers discover their scarcity and significance.

– Reprinted from The Poisoned Pen, Volume 4, Number 3 (June 1981).