Readers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where Hoch has published every month since 1973, recognize him as the last mystery writer whose appeal is based on sheer ingenuity. Of all Hoch’s long-running series, the most ingenious of all are his stories about Nick Velvet, the thief-for-hire who will steal anything valueless. The mystery of many of the 14 stories (1975–99) collected here begins with their titles: “The Theft of the Four of Spades,” “The Theft of the Bald Man’s Comb,” “The Theft of the Birthday Candles.” For every one of these stories asks not only how Nick will carry out his assignment, but why anyone would want to pay a stiff fee (rising over the years from $20,000 to $30,000) to have him steal a cardboard castle or an overdue library book. And Hoch is astonishingly inventive in varying his offbeat puzzles, emphasizing by turns the mystery behind Sherlock Holmes’s Persian slipper and the changes to be rung on the premise of stealing “nothing at all.” Eight stories featuring rival thief Sandra Paris, the White Queen who promises “impossible things before breakfast,” add two new mysteries—what different roles will Nick and Sandra take in each story, and how will Nick succeed while leaving his frequent adversary’s dignity intact?—that Hoch resolves even more cleverly in “The Theft of the Faded Flag” and “The Theft of Leopold’s Badge.”
Enough prestidigitation to explain why Hoch (800 stories to date and counting) is short fiction’s answer to The Mousetrap.