Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Edward D. Hoch: The Impossible Murder, 1976.



Today we present a story with Captain Leopold - which is at a splendid anthology by Bob Adey & Jack Adrian. There are two different editions of this story: the first in EQMM in December 1976, with the title The Impossible Murder; the second appeared elsewhere, with the title Captain Leopold and the Impossible Murder. Finally, it should be noted that this story does not belong to the collection published in 1985, Leopold's Way (with an introduction by Nevins Jr.), which brought together 19 stories of Captain Leopold. 

On his way home, Captain Leopold is warned by his assistant, Lieutenant Fletcher. They in a coplanar of the freeway, they found the body of a strangled man, driving a car which, together with many in an interminable queue , it was part of the end-of-day traffic. The body was found by the driver of the car who followed that, unnerved by the fact that the car in front of him, repeatedly honking, did not move, got out of his car and opened the car door he found the strangled man, with a piece of rope still tight around his neck. It had not been possible to make any accusations against the man, a plumber, because the driver of the car immediately after that of the plumber had confirmed the dynamics of the event, and moreover the man's death was more than half an hour earlier. 

Leopold is faced with another impossible crime, indeed the most impossible of the impossible crimes that have ever happened to him:  a corpse that was driving around alone in a car, unless we consider the other hypothesis, equally bizarre, which is Vincent Conners, a very high-earning stockbroker, wanting to commit suicide for some hidden reason, decided to do it by strangling himself with a rope while he's driving his car in the chaotic end-of-day traffic. Not knowing where to start, Leopold goes to the home of Vincent's wife, Linda Cornell who, despite being overwhelmed by grief, tells him the story of Vincent's family and how Vincent's father, in turn, died in the car. bled to death after a hunting accident. Besides her, and the children, Vincent's closest relatives are his two aunts, Aunt Flag and Aunt Gert, two sprightly old ladies, sisters of the father: Aunt Flag is the younger of the two, and has been assisting Aunt Gert, the older and the only one who had a car at home in the years immediately following the Second World War. From this and his observation of the family property, he understands that Vincent's family of origin, his father and two aunts, was of wealthy extraction. Here he is confirmed the story of the death of Vincent's father, bled to death in the back seat of the car, which the two sisters still keep as an heirloom, in an old single-seater garage near their house. Leopold doesn't know what do  but begins to whip up a certain idea: if someone, on the basis of the ancient crime, for some reason had decided to simulate another death in the car? They decide to investigate the wife and a colleague of the husband, of whom they have caught very confidential attitudes with the woman. They get nowhere: the wife seems irreproachable, and the husband's colleague as well. But still they are kept under control, and a few days later she is caught going out the back to meet someone who is not her husband's colleague but ...

Leopold has understood the dynamics of the murder and how it could have become an impossible crime. But he also has  understood how the murder and not the hunting accident of Vincent's father took place many years earlier. The spring of the reasoning had been given to him by Aunt Flag: at the time of the accident, his brother was with his wife. Based on that, he would be placed in the back seat and died there while his wife drove to save him, and that's the story going; however Leopold does not think that it was, and Aunt Flag says that George was killed by his wife Jane, in order to be free to remarry, as she did later. Questioned by Jane by phone (she has lived in Mexico for many years), Leopold learns that she had not killed him, as Aunt Flag had supposed, because she loved George, on the contrary ... he had died in her arms: so if he was dead in her arms, who drove the car? Leopold will thus find the murderer of a recent crime and will discover the author of a crime sunk in the past. The present crime linked to a crime sunk in the past is not an original idea. A year earlier, Richard Forrest had published a beautiful novel, A Child's Garden of Death, containing another beautiful closed chamber - also a novel included in Lacourbe's List and analyzed by me years ago in an article on my other blog - in which a crime from the past is connected with something happening in the present. It does not seem out of place, therefore, to assume that Hoch had read Forrest's novel and used the basic idea for one of his stories. All the more so since Hoch's tale like Forrest's novel are dominated by a melancholic background note, that of the past crime. In Hoch's short story,  first of all, initially, no one had thought of staging an impossible murder, but only an accident that, as in the past, would have disguised a murder: only that the incident of the past could have easily been mistaken for an accident because in hunting , sometimes there are accidents, while if the corpse was found not perfectly charred, following the premeditated road accident that was intended to be staged, how could the strangulation be explained? So in essence the traffic that is conveyed from the highway onto the coplanar, turns by chance a crime orchestrated not very accurately,   into an impossible crime, after the murderer decides that in a short time he must necessarily face a different scenario . This is a bit like what happens in many other examples of Locked Rooms and Impossible Crimes in which the case, in the form of any accident, modifies the original situation, complicating the scene and at the same time modifying it, so that the accident that was to taking place, no longer happens, and forgetfulness (in this case having neglected to remove the rope from the victim's neck) becomes the presupposition that one thinks of a suicide. Then, once again, in order for a paradoxical situation to be staged that borders on the impossible, more people are needed, who collaborate together, each with their own task, to implement a certain plan: in our case, that someone, killed at least half an hour earlier , can be found driving a car, stuck in end-of-day traffic on a coplanar.

Hoch's plot is absolutely brilliant and explains the whole sequence: in some ways, one could also think of a filiation of Hoch da Carr, the Carr of one of the novels with Bencolin, the celebrated The Lost Gallows, in which a corpse who looks strangled , it seems that he is driving a car (in that case the car is moving, and is not standing still). Here, to explain the dynamics, one person has to do what in Carr's novel the person who killed the one behind the wheel of the car does, and another has to act as a support, driving a second car. I do not say anymore and I leave it to anyone's imagination to be able to identify the killer of the present and that of the past: that of the present is simpler than that of the past, because interest constitutes a simpler motive than one hidden in the heart of those who hate. There is only a reasonable doubt that the shrewd reader who reads this story has: for the assassin's modus operandi to be expressed in his action it would be necessary that the car with the dead proceed only in a rectilinear motion. But we know that when you drive, to get to your destination, it is impossible to drive only by going straight: it will be necessary at a certain moment to turn, unless the destination to be reached is along a single road and you get there by driving only with a single running motion. The same reference to a coplanar of a motorway suggests the journey that took place to get there. If it really was as Hoch imagines, it would take three people and not two to carry out the plan; unless the place where the strangulation occurs is on the same coplanar, but it would be the first time I know of a house that is not on a street but on a coplanar of the highway.

Pietro De Palma