Edward D. Hoch Short Fiction Analysis - Essay

Edward D. Hoch Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

From the outset, Edward D. Hoch’s writing has followed two tracks, though they frequently merge. In his debut story, he created the first of his more than twenty series detectives, Simon Ark, and provided him with a bizarre, seemingly impossible crime to solve. It is the first of literally hundreds of stories by Hoch in which he shows his endless inventiveness in presenting perplexing problems and their resolutions, without repeating himself. Yet, in the same story, there is a plot that reflects Hoch’s Catholic roots and the influence, which he has acknowledged, of G. K. Chesterton and Graham Greene. As a writer who finds his audience in magazines of mystery fiction, Hoch realizes that his primary “product” is providing escape, through brain-teasing mysteries, and he knows that in mystery short stories, there is insufficient length for deep characterization. One need not read too far between Hoch’s lines, however, to see important issues also being treated.

The Quests of Simon Ark

Simon Ark, the series detective introduced in “Village of the Dead,” owes much to the pulp tradition of the infallible superhero, though he resolves his cases by ratiocination, not physical strength or firepower. He claims to have been a Coptic priest in Egypt, two thousand years earlier, and he presently investigates strange happenings, while he searches for and tries to eradicate evil. Ark is introduced as he arrives in the remote western United States village of Gidaz (a deliberate reversal of Voltaire’s Zadig) after hearing of the mass suicide of the entire population. Seventy-three people leaped to their deaths from a hundred-foot cliff. A strong religious leader, calling himself Axidus, had come to town and had great influence on its inhabitants. He is Ark’s leading suspect, though he denies responsibility for the deaths. The story’s basis is a North African cult, the Circumcellions, part of the Donatist schism from the Catholic Church.

Despite the religious trappings and potential for supernaturalism, Hoch established here his practice of resolving all cases rationally and through evidence that he makes as available to the reader as to his detective. The Ark stories—the early ones, in particular—are enlivened by mystical elements that add the suggestion of the supernatural to their characteristically complex puzzles. Just as Ark himself purports to be immortal, so does he consider the criminals whom he brings to justice avatars or incarnations of the “Ultimate Evil” he seeks. “The Man from Nowhere” is based on the true mystery of Kaspar Hauser, a nineteenth century celebrity whose bizarre murder was never solved. In this story, Ark must discover how a pair of false mystics have staged a stabbing death by an apparently invisible entity, patterned on Hauser’s own death. “Sword for a Sinner” concerns a murder among a radical set of Catholic penitents who endure mock crucifixions as part of their purification ritual. Hoch occasionally adds a believable element of pathos to the stories by way of Ark’s “Watson,” the nameless New York publisher who narrates all the stories and whose fallible character represents the human weakness that gives evil its foothold in the world.

In “The Vicar of Hell,” Ark fights a historical order of Satanists as his sidekick fights to resist temptations of the flesh offered by the cult’s nubile quarry. “The Judges of Hades” involves the murder of the narrator’s father and sister and an inquiry into his family’s background complicated by his estrangement from them.

“I’d Know You Anywhere”

Though best known for series detectives, in his early years Hoch wrote many stories without continuing characters. Some of the best of these deal with good and evil on a global level, using the Cold War as metaphor. “I’d Know You Anywhere” starts during World War II with the first encounter between the protagonist, Contrell, and Willoughby Grove, a soldier with no qualms about killing enemy soldiers after they have surrendered. They meet again in the Korean War, and again Grove has disdain for any rules, preferring to kill the people he calls “gooks.” At a third meeting in Berlin, shortly after the East Germans erected the Wall in 1961, Grove would shoot communist border guards, even if that might start World War III. Finally, the story flashes to the future, 1969, with Grove an army general. To the concern of Contrell, the president of the United States promises free rein to this man who loves to kill.

The Spy and the Thief

Though the titles of Hoch’s spy stories about Jeffrey Rand, head of Britain’s Department of Concealed Communications, are reminiscent of le Carré’s first best-seller, the stories are far different. Though Rand is fully aware that spying is a dirty business, much of the cynicism and angst of le Carré’s characters is missing, replaced by taut action and neat, often ironic, resolutions of cases.

In early stories such as “The Spy Who Came to the End of the Road” and “The Spy Who Came Out of the Night,” Rand is pitted against Russian agents, such as his counterpart in Russian Intelligence, Taz. Though Rand accepts counterintelligence activities, such as reading Russian or Chinese messages and capturing their spies, he is troubled when he must share the responsibility for assassinating enemy agents. He refuses to accept all the conventional wisdom about espionage and believes that there are decent men. He even comes to share a close kinship with Taz, an implicit recognition that even spying can be a profession that goes beyond boundaries and ideologies.

“Sacajawea’s Gold”

Hoch created two amateur detectives whose cases reflect the United States’ past. One of them, Ben Snow, roams the frontier in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and though he seems law-abiding, a legend has grown that he is actually Billy the Kid. Snow is the character through whom Hoch introduces historical events into his stories, and often it is Native Americans and their mistreatment that come under scrutiny. In “Sacajawea’s Gold,” Ben is traveling through Yellowstone Park during the 1890’s, shortly after the battle at Wounded Knee, when he helps Floating Cloud, a lovely Shoshone, by capturing her runaway pinto. She is seeking her missing father and also a leather pouch of gold coins reputedly given to Sacajawea, guide to Lewis and Clark, by the explorers. Ben decides to help her but finds that there is a third aspect to the investigation, the murder of a half-breed. As often happens, his reputation has preceded him, and an army officer, Captain Grant, assumes that Ben is a gunfighter. Ben finds that his interest in Floating Cloud and in solving the mystery causes conflict with her proud brother, Swift Eagle.

Diagnosis: Impossible

Hoch’s tales of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, a small-town New England doctor, are concerned...

(The entire section is 2857 words.)