An Interview with EDWARD HOCH - Conducted by Steve Lewis
This interview took place by email in August, 2004. In making up the set of questions I was about to ask the most prolific writer of mystery short fiction the world has ever known (unless Mr. Hoch corrects me, the count is now close to 900 stories), I read several of his more recent stories, most of them from the previous six months of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. The following list is not in the order in which I read them, but just to be different, alphabetically by the last name(s) of the main character or characters.
Dr. Sam Hawthorne, expert in impossible crimes, 1940s New England
“The Problem of the Candidate’s Cabin” EQMM, July 2004
Juliet Ives & Walt Stanton, Princeton grad students, now engaged
“Courier & Ives” EQMM, November 2002
“Midsummer Night’s Scheme” EQMM, May 2004
Captain (Jules) Leopold, former policeman, now retired
“Leopold in the Vineyard” EQMM, September/October 2004
Father David Noone, inner city priest
“Searching for Sammy Sand” EQMM, August 2004
Jeffrey Rand, cipher and code expert, retired from Britain’s Department of Concealed Communications
“The Face of Ali Baba” EQMM, December 2003
Alexander Swift, often on assignment for President George Washington
“Paul Revere’s Bell” EQMM, March/April 2004
Nick Velvet, thief extraordinaire
“The Theft of the Double Elephant” EQMM, February 2004
Michael Vlado, present-day king of a European Gypsy clan
“A Rope to Hang the World” EQMM, January 2004
Questions (and Answers):
Have I characterized each of these series characters correctly? Am I correct on the number of stories you’ve had published? How long now is the streak of consecutive issues of EQMM that you’ve appeared in?
Yes, I think your characterizations are accurate. The Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories began in 1922 but he’s up to the early 1940s now. At this moment (8/8/04) I’ve had 889 stories published (plus novels, anthologies and articles) and another eight are sold, awaiting publication. I’ve now appeared in every issue of EQMM since May 1973.
What’s interesting to me – well, there are several interesting things that I’d like to ask you about, so let’s start with the first one. I found the widely varying backgrounds in which your stories take place to be fascinating. Let me mention a few, and you can tell me how you did your research for each one. Did you visit any or all of the following?
● “The Face of Ali Baba” takes place largely in New Delhi, with Rand on the trail of a notorious terrorist.
● “A Rope to Hang the World” takes place in Bucharest, and the city is described so well, from the flower stalls in the streets to the art museums, it made me feel as though I were actually there.
● “Midsummer Night’s Scheme” takes place at a alternative culture festival in Nevada, with considerable emphasis on nudity and recreational drug-taking. You can’t tell me that you were there, can you? (Is there really such a festival?)
After nearly 900 stories I find the widely varying backgrounds help keep the stories fresh. I’ve never visited most of the places I write about, but I rely heavily on the Internet and guide books, especially ones with good maps and street photographs. This was especially true of my Bucharest and New Delhi descriptions.
And yes indeed, there is a Burning Man festival, exactly as I’ve described it, held each Labor Day weekend. I saved an article about it from the New York Times back in 2000, and finally found the right characters for the story. I’m surprised no other mystery (to my knowledge) has ever been set there, since there’s lots of information and photos on the Internet.
There also seems to be something unusual, a small newspaper item perhaps, or a specialized field of endeavor, that each story is framed around, such as the following:
● In “Courier & Ives” Stanton & Ives get free airline tickets to London by agreeing to work for Air Couriers International, their only responsibility being to take an item to England as part of their checked luggage. Is this a legit line of work?
I read everything, and here again I came across a New York Times article that young people often traveled overseas free or at greatly reduced rates by acting as couriers for companies that specialize in this line of work. It is legit, though apparently little known.
● In “The Theft of the Double Elephant” the title is misleading, as the “double elephant” refers instead to the size of an Audubon print which is stolen and Nick must recover. Did you do some reading about Audubon to find out about this?
Yes, I was reading the Audubon volume in the Library of America series when I came upon the term “double elephant.” I just had to use it in a story, and Nick Velvet seemed the most likely of my series characters.
● In “Paul Revere’s Bell” we learn that after his famous ride, Paul Revere went into the business of making bells. I don’t remember this from history books, but it must be so, is that correct?
With Alexander Swift's nemesis, Benedict Arnold, gone off to England, I needed other settings for Swift before the two meet again. I thought of Paul Revere, and was myself surprised to learn about his bell-making in later life. It’s all in Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, by Esther Forbes, and I’m sure other Revere biographies cover this period as well.
● In “Leopold in the Vineyard” we get a close-up look into the winemaking industry in upstate New York. This one must have been closest to home for you, am I right?
Yes, the Finger Lakes vineyards of Western New York are close to home for us, and we visit them a few times each year.
Incidentally, Captain Leopold must be one of your favorite characters. How many stories has he appeared in? You haven’t run out of story situations for him to be in,and to continue to demonstrate his sleuthing abilities, have you?
I’ve usually avoided the standard type of police procedural, and hadn’t done too much with Leopold until “The Oblong Room” won me my first Edgar in 1968. After that came a spurt of Leopold activity leading up to his perhaps premature retirement. I’ve written more stories about him than any other character, but they’re winding down now. I considered ending the series entirely with story #100, but “Leopold in the Vineyard” is #105 and he still keeps coming back.
Dr. Sam Hawthorne’s forte is solving locked room mysteries, or impossible crimes, and “The Problem of the Candidate’s Cabin” is a prime example, with a murder committed in a locked cabin containing only the dead man and a chimpanzee in his cage. Nick Velvet’s thefts are usually of a “impossible” variety also. Do you find doing this kind of puzzle story successfully a personal kind of challenge for you?
The locked room and impossible crime stories are always a challenge, especially since I often come up with the problem before I figure out the solution. Still, I know they’re popular with true mystery lovers, and just about all my characters have tackled them at least once. When Fred Dannay (Ellery Queen) bought the first Dr. Sam and requested a series, he specified he wanted them all to be locked room or impossible crime tales, and they still are.
Father Noone is a character that’s new to me. Has he appeared in many of your stories? “Searching for Sammy Sand” takes place in an urban, inner city locale. You seem to mix things up pretty well, from the relative “coziness” of the Hawthorne stories, to the chilling atmosphere of international terrorism and espionage, to the dirtier, more unpleasant aspects of present day America. How do you keep your focus from one story to the next?
Father Noone has appeared in only seven stories since I introduced him in 1964 in The Saint Magazine, but I always keep him around for just the right type of story. I guess I keep my focus from character to character by concentrating fully on one story at a time, though of course I’m often making notes on ideas for future stories.
Here’s one bone I have to pick with you. In “Midsummer Night’s Scheme” the killer, female, avoids being identified by stripping to the waist, putting a mask over her face, and committing the murder topless in front of several witnesses. Can you convince me that no one would recognize her? (I’m not being very serious here.)
I have a photo printed off the internet that shows my killer at the Burning Man festival, topless in a dust storm, wearing dust mask, dark glasses and a head scarf, with a small shoulder bag. All that’s missing is her gun. Since most of the attendees appear to be semi-naked at this affair, it seemed the perfect “disguise” for the killer, especially since she turns out to be someone other than the registered attendees.
Of your many series characters, I can think of one of my favorites, Simon Ark, that wasn’t represented in this group of recent reading. He’s one of your earliest characters. Has he made an appearance recently?
Simon Ark’s most recent appearance was in “Tram to Tomorrow,” an impossible crime story in EQMM, June 2004. You must have missed that issue. The story was inspired by our trip to last year’s Bouchercon in Las Vegas. I try to do at least one Simon Ark story a year, and Otto Penzler has one for an anthology to be published next year. Since the first story I ever published was about Simon Ark, and it appeared in the December 1955 issue of Famous Detective Stories, Janet Hutchings at EQMM wants to mark my 50th anniversary with a new Simon Ark to run in her December 2005 issue.
You’re right. I did miss that issue of EQMM. I’ll remedy that as soon as possible. I’m delighted to know that Mr. Ark is still around. Has any of your characters who has appeared more than once been a private eye? If so, tell me more.
My private eye character Al Darlan has appeared in sixteen stories since 1957. He started life as Al Diamond, but his last name was changed by an editor who feared confusion with Richard Diamond, a popular radio and TV private eye of the 1950s. The series helped win me The Eye, a life achievement award from Private Eye Writers of America, to go along with similar lifetime awards from MWA and Bouchercon. I almost killed off Darlan once in a Manhunt story, but he kept popping up. One story, “The Other Eye,” was runner-up in a short story contest at the 1981 International Crime Writers Congress in Stockholm. Darlan’s only appearance in EQMM was “Saratoga Steal” in the July 2001 issue.
Of the stories that I have just been reading, I think I enjoyed the one with Michael Vlado the most. For a eighteen page story, it seemed to have a number of important elements to it, working on several levels. First, of course, is the murder that has to be solved; secondly, one of the leading characters is a woman working for an organization representing Gypsies around the world, and she is seeking Vlado’s support; and thirdly, Michael’s personal life has a worrisome moment or two as well. Having several plot threads going on at once isn’t unique to this story, of course. Do you do this consciously, or is it second nature to you by now?
I like to have several threads to my stories when space allows it. The Michael Vlado stories perhaps have more than most. He started out as a simple Gypsy farmer but somehow politics took over. I’d named him after King Michael, Romania’s last sovereign, not realizing that Michael was still alive in exile and would attempt a return to power with the collapse of Communism in his country. This became part of the series at one point, along with the sudden upsurge in European persecution of Gypsies.
In my original version of this story, Michael’s personal life has more than a worrisome moment. An EQMM proofreader pointed out that this was out of character for Michael, always a faithful husband, so I toned it down a bit. I was thankful for the suggestion. A few months later my Burning Man story was published without major changes and a reader wrote in to accuse me of being “raunchy.”
Ives and Stanton are perhaps your newest pair of characters – certainly the youngest? When you wrote “Courier & Ives,” based on the airline courier system, which came first, the basis for the story, then the characters who were going to be in it, or did you decide first on the characters and then build the story around them?
The Stanton & Ives series was born out of my need for characters who were younger and more modern than my retired cops and spies. The idea came from the newspaper article mentioned earlier, along with the punning title “Courier & Ives.” I suppose the story was built around the characters. One comment has compared them to Agatha Christie's Tommy & Tuppence, and there is an unconscious similarity. I try to do two EQMM stories a year about them, as I do with Dr. Sam Hawthorne. Most other characters only rate one a year, though a current TV option on my Nick Velvet stories would mean more Velvet’s if a series does materialize.
I recall that such a series has been proposed off and on for several years, and I think we all hope someday it will finally come to fruition. Let’s go into the realm of utmost fantasy now. Would you care to suggest the ideal movie and/or TV actors and actresses that you would like most to play Nick or any other of your series characters?
More than twenty years ago when a Broadway producer held the Nick Velvet option, she suggested Ben Gazzara for the part. It was a good idea at the time, but I wouldn’t want to suggest anyone to play Nick or my other characters now. The television business is such that casting is dependent upon things like the budget and the age bracket at which the show is aimed. If Nick ever makes it on the air I certainly won't mind if he’s young and handsome, even if that’s not how I picture him.
Of the current crop of actors, I confess that I’m not sure who I’d choose to play Nick Velvet. Would you object if I were to ask the M*F readership for suggestions?
No, I have no objection. If they sound pretty good, I’ll even send them on to the producer who has the Nick Velvet option!
You’ve never written many novels. Are you pleased with how the ones you have written came out, or do you consider them interesting failures?
I’ve published five novels in all, counting an Ellery Queen paperback, The Blue Movie Murders. None was really successful, perhaps because I tended to get bored with the books before I’d finished them, anxious to get back to short stories. Certainly there are parts of them that I like, but I don’t regret the fact that they're all currently out of print.
What do you think the appeal of the detective story is? How do you think the readership, and what they expect, has changed over the years?
Certainly the readership of detective stories has changed over the years. The type of fair-play story I write has been replaced, for the most part, by thrillers and an endless chain of police procedurals about serial killers. The readership of magazines like EQMM and AHMM has declined, with few young readers to replace the older ones as they drop off the lists. Surveys show that young people are more attracted to the Internet, video games, television and films than to any sort of reading. Still, the detective story holds an appeal, as does any good story that challenges readers to use their minds while they are being entertained.
I understand that you and your wife are devout Catholics. If this is so, how has your faith influenced your writing?
It would be presumptuous to refer to us as “devout” Catholics, but Patricia and I do attend weekly Mass and I believe my Catholic education is reflected from time to time in my writing. For much of my life my favorite writer has been Graham Greene, who was able to blend suspense, intrigue and religion into some of the most memorable novels of the 20th century.
I don’t suppose you have any plans on retiring from writing. How long does it take you to write a 15 to 20 page story, and what do you do with the rest of your time?
I can write a story in a couple of weeks, but the ten stories I do each year for EQMM are only part of my work. I'm at the computer each day when we’re home, and during the past year or so I’ve published new fiction in AHMM, The Strand Magazine, the British CWA anthology Green for Danger, and the new MWA anthology Show Business Is Murder, as well as providing the stories to accompany seven jigsaw puzzle mysteries.
I contribute an annual Yearbook feature to The World’s Finest Mystery & Crime Stories and an obituary list to the MWA Annual. I’ve written introductions to three recent short story collections and an article for last year’s Bouchercon program. In recent weeks I’ve been interviewed by the Japanese Giallo magazine, where my stories often appear, and now by Mystery*File. I keep busy.
Much continued success to you. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us this way.
PostScript: Thanks also to Jiro Kimura for allowing the use of the Ed Hoch’s photo. Check out his website at http://nsknet.or.jp/~jkimura, aka “The Gumshoe Site.”)
Updates: Since the time of the interview, there have been several other mystery stories that have taken place at the Burning Man festival, at least in part, but until someone shows us evidence to the contrary, Mr. Hoch’s story stands as the first. (One of the novels that you might look out for is Eye of the Burning Man (Five Star, 2005) by Harry Shannon.)
In the letter column for M*F 46, Marv Lachman suggested the late Barry Sullivan as the ideal actor to play Nick Velvet. I countered with my own choice of Timothy Dalton. If you have any other suggestions, send them along. The polls are still open.
YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME. stevelewis62 (at) cox.net
This interview previously appeared in Mystery*File 45, August 2004. Copyright © 2004 by Steve Lewis. All rights reserved to contributors.