Prolific short-story writer specialized in mysteries

Times Staff Writer

Edward D. Hoch, a prolific short-story writer who was known as a master of the puzzle mystery and for more than three decades was a monthly fixture in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, has died. He was 77.

Hoch, a past president of Mystery Writers of America, died of a heart attack Jan. 17 at his home in Rochester, N.Y., said his wife, Patricia, his only immediate survivor.

After his first story appeared in 1955 -- in Famous Detective Stories -- Hoch went on to write more than 940 published short stories.

He wrote so many that former Mystery Writers of America Executive Vice President Bill Chambers said several years ago that before he met Hoch he used to think "he was a corporation -- a whole bunch of writers working under one name."

"There were some really prolific short-story mystery writers in the '30s, but I think Ed beat them all," said Doug Greene, a mystery scholar and owner of Crippen & Landru Publishers, which has published six of Hoch's short-story collections.

There was no mystery as to how Hoch (the name rhymes with "oak") wrote so much.

"I never have writer's block," he told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 2001, the year Mystery Writers of America named him a Grand Master for his career achievements.

Hoch's first short stories were published near the end of the pulp magazine era, and his work appeared in dozens of them, as well as in digest-sized monthlies such as The Saint Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Hoch first wrote for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1962, and since 1973 he had one of his stories published in every monthly issue.

"In his early writing, he did a bit of science fiction, but mysteries were his thing, really," Patricia Hoch said. He wrote every day, she said, turning out 18 to 20 mystery short stories a year.

"He was working on a story for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine the night before he died," she said.

The magazine, which has four Hoch stories that have yet to be published, plans to include a tribute to its longtime contributor in the June issue.

"As a writer, I think his inventiveness is the most notable quality of his work," said editor Janet Hutchings. "He created some memorable characters, and fans of his write to us all the time."

Over the years, Hoch created more than two dozen series characters.

One of his most popular was Nick Velvet, a crime-solving thief who would be hired to steal objects of seemingly little or no value -- a used tea bag, a ball of twine, a dead houseplant. The character wound up on French television in the 1970s, Hutchings said.

Hoch wrote eight novels, including three science-fiction books featuring a futuristic team of "Computer Cops": "The Transvection Machine," "The Fellowship of the Hand" and "The Frankenstein Factory." He also was ghost writer for a 1972 Ellery Queen mystery, "The Blue Movie Murders."

But Hoch, who won a 1968 Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America for "The Oblong Room," considered short stories to be the most satisfying form of writing.

"Writing a novel has always been, for me, a task to be finished as quickly as possible," he once said. "Writing a short story is a pleasure one can linger over, with delight in the concept and surprise at the finished product."

Greene said Hoch "continued the tradition of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr of challenging the reader to guess who the culprit would turn out to be. He emphasized puzzle, but within that he also emphasized atmosphere. He loved setting his stories in exotic places. And he loved introducing esoteric lore into his stories."

Greene said Hoch's "Simon Ark stories are about someone who may be an Egyptian Coptic priest who claimed to be 2,000 years old, and they're wonderful stories."

And Hoch's popular series character Dr. Sam Hawthorne, he said, "is a country doctor in the 1920s up to the 1940s who always faces what we call an impossible crime: Someone is murdered in a locked room that no one else could have entered, for example."

Greene said Hoch wrote more than 100 impossible crime stories, "every one with different solutions."

"He wrote a story one time about a victim in a revolving door," Greene said. "The guy was walking into the store and he's murdered within the door. I mean, it's completely sealed. No one is there."

Born Feb. 22, 1930, in Rochester, N.Y., Hoch attended the University of Rochester from 1947 to 1949, then went to work as a research assistant at the Rochester Public Library.

After a two-year stateside stint in the Army, he worked for Pocket Books in New York City, and from 1954 to 1968 he was a copy and public relations writer for Hutchins Advertising Co. in Rochester.

Hoch began writing fiction full time in 1968.

"He had a brilliant mind; he loved puzzling things out," Greene said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World