Edward Hoch, grand master for the mystery short story

January 2, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

When you talk about the Agatha Christies and the Ross McDonalds of the world — the great mystery and detective fiction writers of the 20th century — you probably don’t think of Edward W. Hoch (pronounced Hoke). That’s too bad because his fiction should be listed among the pantheon of the greats.

The problem with Hoch is that he wrote only two murder mystery novels (and three science fiction novels). The novel wasn’t his medium.

Instead, he was the master — most believe the Grand Master — of the short story. If you are considering volume alone, he certainly was at the head of his class. During his 50-year writing career that spanned the decades of the last half of the 20th century, Hoke produced and published more than 900 short stories of the likes of Famous Detective Stories magazine, the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

They were not just run-of-the-mill noir tales. Hoch developed many main characters that spanned a range of unusual backgrounds, eras, and devices, and he used them again and again. In addition, he was the master of the “locked door mystery,” the situation that seemingly has no solution. Many writers — if they take on that challenge at all — are lucky if they produce one of those in their career. Hoch did it again and again throughout his writing carer. One of his characters, Dr. Sam Hawthrone, a New England doctor, specialized in only the locked room stories.

As his writing and publishing progressed, Hoch’s many leading characters became known for their distinctive characteristics and cases:

Nick Velvet, the thief who stole worthless items for a substantial fee;

Simon Ark, a 2,000-year old Coptic priest;

Captain Leopold, a police detective whose private life developed over the years with the many stories Hoch told about him;

Alexander Swith, an agent for General George Washington;

Ben Snow, an American Old West character who might have been Billy the Kid reincarnated;

Libby Knowles, a former policewoman and professional bodyguard;

Rand, A British spy who bears some resemblance to James Bone;

Father David Noon, a priest-sleuth who has some of the traits of G.K. Chesterson’s Father Brown;

and the list could go on.

Hoch was born in Rochester, New York, in 1930, and there he stayed for most of his life. He grew up loving mysteries and listening to the 60-minute Adventures of Ellery Queen series on CBS Radio. Too young to participate in World War II, Hoch joined the Army in 1950 and was stationed near New York City as a military policeman. That gave him access to the mystery and detective publishing world of New York, and he took full advantage of it. 

When he was discharged in 1952, he went to work at Pocket Books, and two years later, he was back in Rochester with a job as a copywriter for an advertising agency. He had been writing and submitting stories without success during this time, but finally, in 1966, he saw his first story published. It was in Famous Detective Stories magazine, and that was followed by other stories in other magazines.

His first story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine appears in 1962, and six years later he was selling stories so successfully and regularly that he finally quit his advertising job to devote full-time to his vocation. In May 1973 Ellery Queen published one of his stories and then did so in every subsequent issue for the next 34 years.

Why short stories rather than novels?

“I guess ideas just come easily to me,” Hoch once said. “That’s why I’ve always been more attracted to the short story form than the novel. I am more interested in the basic plotting than in the development of various sub-plots. And I think the basic plot, or gimmick-the type of twist you have in detective stories-is the thing that I can do best, which explains why so many of my stories tend to be formal detective stories rather than the  crime-suspense tales that so many writers are switching to today.”

Hoch lived and wrote in Rochester until his death in 2008.

Hoch would spend a great amount of time researching the plots, characters, and settings of his stories. And as you might imagine, many of the 900 stories that he wrote were not high quality ones. Still, Hoch could write quickly and efficiently once he had an idea, and over many years he developed a reputation as the best mystery, detective, and espionage short story writer around.

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