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Edward D. Hoch was the most prolific of modern writers of mystery short stories, with more than nine hundred stories published by 2004. He almost single-handedly maintained the ”fair play” tradition of the Golden Age of the mystery, between World Wars I and II, in which the clues the main characters use to solve crimes are presented to readers in such a way that they, too, can ”work the case.” His sleuths solve such seemingly impossible crimes as disappearances under unusual circumstances and murders in locked rooms. From May 1973 until his death, Hoch published a story in almost every issue of what is generally considered the leading periodical of this genre, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Of the many books he produced, only five are novels; the rest short-story collections.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Mystery Fan First, Writer Second
Edward Dentinger Hoch was born in Rochester, New York, on February 22, 1930, the son of Earl G. and Alice Dentinger Hoch. His father was vice president of a bank; his mother was a homemaker. After attending Sacred Heart School and Aquinas Institute High School, he went to the University of Rochester, but left after just two years, in 1949. While attending high school and college, he wrote and submitted short stories, though none were accepted for publication. He became interested in detective fiction when he first listened to The Adventures of Ellery Queen on radio in 1939. He also cites Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934), which was reprinted in paperback that year, as a major influence on his life. In 1949 Hoch joined Mystery Writers of America (MWA) as an unpublished, affiliate member. He attended MWA meetings in New York, especially from 1950 to 1952, when he was in the army, serving as a military policeman at Fort Jay, on Governor’s Island. After being discharged, he worked for the publisher Pocket Books in a noneditorial capacity. In late 1953, he returned to Rochester. There, in January 1954, he took a job writing for an advertising agency. Three years later he married Patricia McMahon, with whom he lived in the Charlotte neighborhood of Rochester until his death in 2008.
Hoch wrote stories in his spare time while working in advertising. ”Village of the Dead” was the first of his stories to be accepted for publication, and it appeared in the December 1955 issue of Famous Detective Stories, one of the last of the pulp magazines. In this story, Hoch introduced Simon Ark, an eccentric detective who travels the world seeking to eradicate the devil and other manifestations of evil. Hoch’s stories soon were published widely in the ”pulps” and then the digest-sized magazines that replaced them. Among these long-defunct magazines were Crack Detective and Mystery Stories, Keyhole Detective Stories, Tightrope Detective Magazine, and Two-Fisted Detective Stories.
Beginning early in his career, Hoch often employed pseudonyms—also known as ”pen names”—because he found that editors were reluctant to have more than one story by an author in a single issue of a magazine. In March 1956, using his middle name, he published the first of twenty-three stories he would produce over the next twenty years as ”Stephen Dentinger.” He also published three stories, in 1956-1957, as ”Irwin Booth.”
Later, as ”Pat McMahon” (his wife’s maiden name), he wrote four stories, published 1962-1966.
While Hoch’s pseudonyms were plentiful, Hoch serial characters were even more so. Simon Ark, Ben Snow, Captain Leopold, Nick Velvet, and Dr. Sam Hawthorne are among his most popular, and he used them often. A 1980s series character, Sir Gideon Parrot, was featured in five parodies of ”Golden Age” mysteries. Parrot was based on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (he says he pronounces his name the French way), and the impossible crimes he solves are based on Christie’s cases, which take place at dinner parties or among people stranded on remote islands. In one instance, ”The Flying Fiend” (1982), several people are found with their throats cut on the beach, but the sand leading up to the bodies is unmarked. Yet another short-lived 1980s detective was Libby Knowles, a private detective who works as a bodyguard.
The height of popularity of spy fiction occurred during the mid-1960s, largely because of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series and the best-selling John Le Carre novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). A new character created by Hoch, first appearing in ”The Spy Who Did Nothing” (1965), combined elements of both Le Carre and Fleming. Hoch’s main character has a four-letter name similar to Bond—Rand—and the story titles always begin with the phrase ”The Spy Who However, the series focused less on sensational aspects of espionage—Rand is a cryptologist for Britain’s Department of Concealed Communications—and displayed little of the cynicism and angst typical of Le Carre. Despite this, Rand appears in eighty-two stories.
In May 1965 the first of Hoch’s stories to be adapted for television, ”Winter Run,” appeared on the last broadcast of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour under the title ”Off Season.” Three of Hoch’s stories were televised on McMillan and Wife, a series starring Rock Hudson as Police Commissioner McMillan and Susan Saint James as his wife, Sally. Hoch’s work has also appeared on the television anthology series Night Gallery and Tales of the Unexpected, though he did not work on any of the scripts.
Hoch often contributed to The Mystery Writers’ Annual, published by MWA each year for the Edgar awards banquet. Until his death, he was active in MWA affairs, and regularly traveled from Rochester to New York City for its meetings. From 1982 through 1983 he served as president of MWA, the organization he first joined as a teenager. In 2001, he was awarded the title of Grand Master by the MWA.
Works in Literary Context
Religion is an important part of Hoch’s early work, especially the Simon Ark series. In ”Sword for a Sinner” (1959), which appeared in The Saint Mystery Magazine, Ark implies that he may have been a Coptic priest two thousand years ago: ”In Egypt, long ago, I practiced in the Coptic rite.” Ark speaks of himself as having lived in the first century after Christ and having been ”doomed to walk the earth forever.” In 1964,
Hoch introduced amateur sleuth Father David Noone, a Roman Catholic parish priest at Holy Trinity Church, who shares Hoch’s religious affiliation. The priest-sleuth has appeared in seven stories, but no collection of Noone stories has been published. The Night People and Other Stories (2001) is composed of twenty non-series stories published between 1957 and 1979. ”Ring the Bell Softly” shows Hoch’s interest in religion and evil, already evident in his Simon Ark stories and the anthology of Catholic stories he edited. A mysterious stranger named Chance visits a priest in a valley from which almost everyone else has moved.
The Displaced Western
In the September 1961 issue of The Saint Mystery Magazine, Hoch introduced one of his most popular characters, Ben Snow, in ”The Valley of Arrows.” Most of Snow’s adventures take place during the last two decades of the nineteenth century or the first decade of the twentieth. He is a reluctant gunfighter because there are persistent rumors that he is really the outlaw Billy the Kid, and he is often forced to solve the murders of which he, as a supposed criminal, is suspected. ”The Valley of Arrows” is more Western thriller than detective story, with Snow at a fort that is besieged by Navajo Indians near the Arizona-New Mexico border. Snow’s adventures take him to most of the western states and Canada, but he also pursues killers at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition when President McKinley is assassinated in ”The Man in the Alley” (1962), and in North Carolina during the Wright Brothers’ first flight in ”Brothers on the Beach” (1984). Snow evolves into a detective who can solve seemingly impossible crimes, as in ”The San Agustin Miracle” (2001), in which he solves the murder of someone who vanishes from a hot-air balloon that is being closely watched by a crowd.
Works in Critical Context
Hoch was one of the most recognized and honored of mystery short-story writers partly because of his prodigious output and longevity. In writing of Hoch’s receiving MWA’s Grand Master Award, Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, pointed out:
Ed Hoch could not have maintained his unbroken streak of publication in EQMM, or held his place of esteem with readers and other writers had he failed to provide, with each tale, the brilliant plotting, the sleight of hand, and the full cast of characters that are his trademarks. The almost legendary nature of his achievement derives from the merging of quantity with quality.
”The Oblong Room” ”The Oblong Room” (1967), a Captain Leopold story first published in The Saint Magazine, won the coveted Edgar Award as the best mystery short story of the year. It was later collected in Leopold’s Way (1985). A university student, the only suspect, is found standing over the body of a murder victim, and he has been there for twenty-two hours. Though Leopold appears, this story is more a mystery of abnormal psychology than of physical clues, with the key question being why the killer did not attempt to escape. In selecting it for his anthology of the best stories of 1967, Anthony Boucher praised its ”deceptively simple plot… patient detection, strong creation of mood… and a final breath-taking shock of illumination.” One of Hoch’s most popular stories, it has been reprinted at least thirteen times in various publications.
- Hutchings, Janet. ”Edward D. Hoch: Grand Master.” Edgar Allan Poe Awards: Millennium Edition. New York: MWA, 2001.
- Lachman, Marvin S. ”Edward D. Hoch: A Brief Biography.” Bouchercon .22 Souvenir Program Book. Pasadena, Calif.: Bouchercon .22, n.d.
- -. ”Edward D. Hoch: An Appreciation.” Bouchercon 2001: A Capital Mystery. Washington, D.C.: Bouchercon, 2001.
- –. ”Introduction.” Edward D. Hoch Biography:, 11th ed. Downey, Calif.: Moffatt House, 2001.
- Moffatt, June M. and Francis M. Nevins, Jr. Edward D. Hoch Biography: (1955-2004), 13th ed. Downey, Calif.: Moffatt House, 2004.
- Hare, Mark. ”Hoch Writes a Life of Mystery.” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (March 4, 2001): 1, 8-9.
- Kovaleski, John. ”Shortcut to Murder.” Armchair Detective 23 (Spring 1990): 152-169.
- Lewis, Steve. ”An Interview with Edward Hoch.” Mystery 45 (August 2004): 37-40.
- Skillman, Brad. ”Edward Hoch: Master in His Own Write.” Drood Review 11 (October 1991): 4-5.
- West, J. Alec. ”An Interview with Ed Hoch.” Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine 3 (Spring 1997): 14-16.
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