Thursday, May 27, 2010

Casual Shorts 2: Edward D. Hoch, "A Melee of Diamonds" (1972)

  • First published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 1972.
  • Reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Be Read with Caution, ed. Eleanor Sullivan, NY: Random House, 1979; The Best of Mystery, ed. Alfred Hitchcock, NY: Galahad Books, 1976; Leopold's Way: Detective Stories, eds. Francis M. Nevins, jr. & Martin H. Greenberg, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.
  • Rating: 4/10.
  • "A Melee of Diamonds" at the Internet Book List.
(Mostly spoiler-free.)

A man walks by a jewelry store, smashes its glass display case with a cane and rushes off, only to be caught a few feet away by a bystander with a policeman in sight. Despite the fact that $58,000 worth of diamonds are missing from the showcase, the thief is found empty-handed. Captain Leopold is brought in to investigate.

This is the premise to Hoch's sloppily-written mystery short, "A Melee of Diamonds." An incredibly prolific writer, Hoch seems to have tossed off many stories in a single afternoon (one website logs 680 individual works, including those published under different pseudonyms). This one features Captain Leopold, one of Hoch’s many recurring investigators, and though it has an interesting premise and a potentially good resolution, it ended up being fairly predictable. Moreover, the distractions Hoch employs to throw the reader off the scent do not work in the least, as most readers should know that the obvious solution to a mystery is rarely the correct solution. What is truly embarrassing about this story is that it inadvertently portrays Leopold as a less-than-sharp-minded detective. He is quite passive and forgetful, and his overall awkward approach to the case results in portraying him as somewhat of an imbecile.

The opening scenes are set up in an attempt to focus the reader on the Samaritan bystander. Since the most obvious suspect is usually innocent, I found myself quickly considering the other alternatives. The initial thought that passed through my head was: "What happened to the cane?" as the item seems to have all-too conveniently dropped off the page. Oddly the cane is not mentioned during the initial investigation, and it turns out Leopold has completely forgotten about it. Half-way through he remembers the item and blurts out, "Why didn't I think of it before?" I asked the same thing; aren't weapons & tools involved in a crime examined early on and shouldn't professional inspectors be interested in what clues these items can yield?

Leopold is led to solving the case by a woman who walks up to him in the middle of the street, telling him she knows where the diamonds are. Great deduction work, Leopold! Brave Leopold then sets up a little scheme in order to learn the true thief’s identity, a scheme that results in getting a middle-man killed. Despite this unnecessary death, Leopold is pleased at having figured out the identity of the glass-smasher’s accomplice, while I was left to mourn the pointless death of the small-time crook.

1 comment:

Jimmy said...

I read this story in an anthology called "Alfred Hitchcock's Tales To Be Read With Caution." Since the diamonds are not found on the thief, the reader has no choice but to conclude that there has been a switcheroo. Leopold is unable to wrap his head around the idea. It's as if he would rather believe that the diamonds had literally disappeared into thin air. After several pages, it finally dawns on him that there could have been a switcheroo after all. He questions one of the possible accomplices. When that lead turns cold, Leopold apparently reverts to the thin air theory rather than suspect anyone else who could have been the accomplice.

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