The gypsy sleuth is horse breeder Michael Vlado, who first appeared in 1985 and is still going strong in the pages of EQMM. But this collection of 15 of his 27 adventures to date shows that he’s no threat to such Hoch regulars as professional thief Nick Velvet or 19th-century impossible-crime expert Dr. Sam Hawthorne. Hoch doesn’t know very much about the Romanian Gypsies, and he presents the few facts he does know—their surprisingly rooted social structure, for instance—with monotonously repetitive didacticism. Against a backdrop that manages to be at once exotic, tumultuous, and sparse (the crumbling of the Soviet empire leaves traces on several of the stories, as when Michael is asked by his friend Captain Segar to serve on a delegation to the Communist-deposed King Michael, but to surprisingly little effect), Hoch, as always, plays scrupulously fair. Few of even the most puzzle-hungry readers, however, will notice the minute discrepancies—a wristwatch that switches wrists, a missing pencil, a suspect’s unexplained familiarity with a strange house—that alert Michael to the generally nondescript killers. Three stories rise above the average: “Murder of a Gypsy King,” which clears the way for Michael to be crowned king of his village, is unusually affecting. The search for buried treasure in “The Puzzle Garden” turns on one of Hoch’s most audacious deceptions. And “The Gypsy’s Paw” reworks the classic W.W. Jacobs horror story to produce a genuine shiver.
Even old pro Hoch’s second-rate stories offer a few first-rate moments.