Monday, January 21, 2008

A Master of the Medium

(Editor’s note: Most of us never had a chance to meet Edward D. Hoch, the prolific short-story writer who passed away this week. But Al Navis did. A bookseller for more than a quarter-century, he managed two Bouchercon conventions in Toronto, Canada--one in 1992, the other in 2004. It was thanks to his Bouchercon involvement that Navis encountered, and later befriended, Hoch (shown at right). Following the author’s death, Navis wrote a personalized obituary of Hoch for the Canadian Booksellers Association newsletter, which will be published on Tuesday. In advance, he has given The Rap Sheet a chance to post that same obit. We appreciate his generosity and hope that readers not familiar with Hoch and his work will discover in this piece an author worthy of further, if now posthumous, investigation.)

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I first met Edward D. Hoch (pronounced “hoke”), who passed away on Thursday, January 17 (the day after my 56th birthday, to those of you who forgot), at the age of 77, at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Philadelphia in 1989.

At the time, he was just another name on a long list of “attending authors,” and after a bit of sleuthing, I was able to find a couple (of the five) novels he had written as well as a few of the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) collections of short stories that he had edited. So naturally I brought them along with me to sell, or if I couldn’t sell them, at least I would get them signed.

On the second day of the convention, Ed Hoch and his darling wife, Pat, came though the book dealers’ room and by my tables. I had never met him and indeed had never so much as heard of him, but after about 30 seconds of conversation, it felt as if we had known each other forever.

When he saw that I was from Toronto (he was from Rochester, New York), he immediately began extolling the virtues of my hometown (for those of you outside of Toronto, some people do like us). I instantly liked him as he signed the few copies of his books that I had brought. He was gracious, friendly and above all, classy. Even though I had never met him before, and hadn’t even heard his name before I saw it in the “authors” list of the convention, I felt that I had indeed made a friend.

The following year, Bouchercon was in London, and in 1991 it was in Pasadena, California, followed by the first Bouchercon that I was to host and chair, in Toronto in 1992. Over those years, I came to know Ed and Pat Hoch. After talking with colleagues, it seemed that Ed was the master of the mystery short story and that he’d had a story published in every issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine since 1973! At the time, that was a record of more than 20 years. Well, the string continued until his passing ... an unbelievable 34 years of continuous publication.

Now, some literary types may pooh-pooh the short story, saying that it’s for those who either can’t write a novel or who haven’t enough imagination for one. Well, when Ed was asked, “why the short story?,” he responded:
The ideas came quickly, as they still do, and I enjoyed the exhilaration of finishing a story in a couple of weeks rather than waiting several months before concluding a novel. As many others have observed over the decades, the short story was the first and perhaps most successful medium of the detective story. For Poe and Doyle and Chesterton it was the only medium, even when Doyle tried to stretch out a few of his stories to something approaching novel length.
It takes a special ability to tell a story in 3,000 words, without all the bumph and padding that so many modern novels have today, and Ed Hoch was a master of that medium. I say “master,” because the Mystery Writers of America have a little thing called the Grand Master Award, which is given to an individual who not only has a considerable backlist of work, but whose work has been of a consistently high standard. Hoch won the Grand Master in 2001.

Some of the other past recipients? Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr, Georges Simenon, James M. Cain, and John D. MacDonald. Too long ago for you, I hear you say? OK, then how about Stephen King, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Marcia Muller, Joseph Wambaugh, Robert B. Parker, Mary Higgins Clark, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Dick Francis, and this year’s recipient, Sue Grafton. Is that a bit more current? In between were authors such as Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Tony Hillerman, Phyllis Whitney (who is still alive at the age of 104!), John le Carré, Daphne du Maurier, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler. And I’ve missed tons of others.

The other thing about Ed Hoch was his undying generosity to younger writers. He was always willing to give ideas, read stories, and critique passages, and he had a very close bond with the Crime Writers of Canada (CWC), as he and Pat attended practically every Arthur Ellis Awards Banquet for the past 20 years.

While everybody who knew him had an “Ed Story,” mine is closely tied to the Ellis Awards. For a few years in the 1990s, the executive director of the CWC was a delightful and eccentric librarian, author, and book collector named David Skene-Melvin. It seemed that David and his dear late wife, Ann, were members of the Arts and Letters Club in downtown Toronto. So he was able to get a decent price for the annual banquet and awards presentation.

Well, we’d had the past two years’ dinners in that club’s Great Hall--a medieval room containing huge high-vaulted ceilings with massive exposed wooden beams, and complete with shields bearing the coats of arms of English heraldry--largely without incident. Then came what has come to be known as the “Duck Dinner.” Anyone who attended this will remember it. I was seated across from Ed and Pat Hoch when our entrées were served. I gazed down at a desiccated, dried-out excuse for a duck breast, entirely lacking the necessary meat that duck is famous for. This piece could have been excavated by Howard Carter from the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen. It had indeed been mummified.

As everyone was looking down at this crunchy piece of fowl, I looked over at Ed and said, “This is the first time I’ve ever had a dinner where the entrée was older than the wine.”

He and Pat began laughing, and Ed retorted, “Thereby damning both in but a single sentence.”

That was Ed Hoch. Funny and quick as lightning, but generous to give others a little bit of the spotlight. He was also a “must-have” on panels at mystery conventions, partly because he’d been writing since 1955, but mostly because he was so damn funny!

While most of you have never had any association with Ed Hoch--even now he’s just a name to you--I urge all of you to go to your local newsstand and pick up a copy of the latest Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and read Ed’s story. I guarantee that he’ll surprise and please you.

As for the thousands of people whom Ed has helped, befriended, touched and met, we’re all the lesser now, as we won’t have that smiling, cherubic face to hug anymore.

Farewell, old friend.

READ MORE:Edward D. Hoch, Writer of Over 900 Mystery Stories, Is Dead at 77,” by Margalit Fox (The New York Times).

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