Friday, January 18, 2008

The Passing of a Master
Edward D. Hoch, February 22, 1930 - January 17, 2008

It's a rare gift to meet a legend. I had that opportunity when I met Edward Dentinger Hoch. But Ed was much more than a legend. He was a joker, a keen conversationalist, a dear friend, and one of the nicest men I've ever known.

Ed's first published short story, "Village of the Dead," appeared in the December, 1955 issue of Famous Detective Stories. It introduced one of the most unusual fictional detectives in all literature, Simon Ark, a former Coptic priest on a constant mission to correct supernatural evil, and in the process, like the cartoon characters of Scooby-Doo and his friends, discovering a very human face beneath the mask of supernatural. And lest I forget, Simon Ark was over two thousand years old.

For some reason I always thought Ed would live forever, like his creation. And in a sense, he will. During his lifetime, he published five novels, and nearly a thousand short stories. Beginning with the May, 1973 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Ed has had a story in every issue of that magazine up to and including the one that shipped last week.

Ed had a knack for finding uncanny puzzles where the rest of us saw ordinary objects. Wherever Ed went, and whatever he was doing, his mind was hatching the bizarrest of plots. Nothing was impossible for him. He once looked at a covered bridge, and wondered how a carriage could enter it and disappear, never coming out the other end. That idea became one of his most famous stories, "The Problem of the Covered Bridge," featuring Dr. Sam Hawthorne. He created a fictional thief who only stole worthless objects, giving Ed the challenge of figuring out a rational reason why someone would need to steal a playing card, a slipper, an overdue library book, or an old man's comb.

Ed once told me a true story of how a foreign government once hired Ed to consult on a real life impossible crime: cargo was apparently stolen from an airplane's locked cargo hold - while the airplane was in flight! Ed wasn't able to catch the thieves, but the incident was the inspiration for his story "The Liverpool Kiss" featuring master spy Jeffery Rand.

Ed was a legend, but I'll remember him as a friend.

I met Ed and Patricia in 1994 through our mutual friend, Doug Greene. In 1996 the four of us began a tradition of meeting for dinner, usually on the Friday evening during the annual Bouchercon, during which we discussed everything from literature to current movies, politics, and religion. In fact, it was religion that provided a framing in-joke to our friendship. Doug (and Episcopalian) and I (a Jew) were in the lobby of a convention hotel discussing some matter of Church doctrine. Doug suddenly said, "You know, we need a Catholic to solve this." Then he saw Ed and Pat across the lobby and yelled, "Ed, come over here, we need a Catholic!"

Our dinners (and often lunches and breakfasts) were lively and loving. It was during meals that I saw the sweet little boy that was inside this brilliant grandfatherly figure. Ed enjoyed his food simple. A plain steak with french fries would keep him happy. Exotic sauces or funky vegetables were a distraction. And Ed followed every dinner with a glass of milk.

A word has to be said about Pat. I won't pull out any cliches about "behind every great man. . ." even though this might be one time when it's appropriate. Throughout the time I knew them, wherever there was Ed, there was Pat. During the fifty years that they were married, they were away from each other one night! And what's more, Pat always seemed to legitimately fit when she was there. She belonged. Doug Greene and I are both married to wonderful women. But a mystery convention is not their idea of a good time. Pat, on the other hand, attended every event with Ed, knew all the people, and enjoyed herself. It's my hope that Pat will continue to be a part of the mystery community.

Ed touched so many of us. Josh Pachter, Jiro Kimura, June Moffatt, Mary Frisque, Janet Hutchings. These are a few of the people I know primarily through the Hochs, and for whom Ed was an important part of our lives who will be missed. So long, dear friend.