Thursday, June 27, 2013

Death Goes for a Swim

It was really a most exciting day for Miss Hildegarde Withers, schoolteacher extraordinaire. Taking her class to the New York Aquarium, she first helps to apprehend a pickpocket. Then she discovers that her hatpin has gone missing and a full-scale search is launched. And once the hatpin is found, something else is discovered… a man’s corpse floating in the penguin pool!

This looks like foul play, and unless you can come up with a theory involving homicidal penguins, then the group of human suspects conveniently assembled nearby will have to do. Turns out they were all playing a complicated game of ring-around-the-rosy and it’s difficult to prove just what happened. Luckily for Miss Withers, Inspector Piper is on the case and he allows Miss Withers to make her own most unorthodox investigation.

It happens in Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, and it’s the first Miss Withers novel. So as a first novel, it does plenty of good stuff. It introduces Miss Withers, the series detective, quite nicely. She’s a charming character, but one who also feels very human. She isn’t a stereotypical schoolmarm, and although she’s a spinster she doesn’t worry about finding a man. It’s fascinating to see this trait in a character created in the 1930s. Simply put, Miss Withers is an independent, strong-willed woman and a delight to be around.

Her resurrection into the world of e-print is thanks to the good folks at The Mysterious Press. Back when I first got a Kindle (in late 2011), I admitted that The Mysterious Press was my main reason for purchasing the infernal device.  I wrote: “Even more exciting is seeing Ellery Queen and Christianna Brand getting published online—and they’ve just gotten started. I can’t wait until the business is in full swing. The good times, they’re a-coming.” Well, the good times are here. The Mysterious Press has brought hundreds of worthy titles back to life as e-books, introducing audiences worldwide to first-rate books like Brand’s Death of Jezebel or Queen’s Cat of Many Tails. And now Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers novels can be added to the list.

Palmer is often overlooked by modern mystery critics because (a) he wasn’t a woman and (b) having committed that grave sin, he didn’t have the decency to at least write in the tough, hardboiled vein of Hammett, Chandler & Co. I think it’s a terrible oversight. The Hildegarde Withers books are delightful fun to read, even if the puzzle element can be disappointing at times. The Penguin Pool Murder, for instance, has several ingenious ideas for a detective story but they’re somewhat ruined because they are combined with some really heavy-handed clues. I’d be genuinely surprised to hear that someone was fooled by the puzzle in this book. But this is a flaw that is common with first novels: as the author’s skills improve, he slowly learns how to hide the culprit better and how to misdirect those readers intent on solving the case before all is revealed.

I also like how Palmer tries to take a slightly more realistic approach with this novel. For instance, Inspector Piper, confronted with an unusually bizarre and complex affair, exclaims that “Sherlock Holmes would know all about this case in no time, what with a magnifying glass and his knowledge of the bone structure of Polynesian aborigines. Philo Vance would solve it between puffs of a Regie cigarette, from simple deductions based on the squawks of those penguins we met up with yesterday. But not me. I don’t know any more than you do. Maybe less, only I know how to act wise. I’m just blundering ahead, trying not to miss any of the more apparent lines of approach. Sooner or later the murderer will leave something open, and I’ll stumble in. It works, lady, where the gum-shoes and the shag-tobacco and violin combination don’t.”

And I love the casual way in which an infamous interrogation technique is mentioned in this novel:

“Do you know, I wish we knew of some way to make that dummy speak. I suppose we could try pencil and paper, but it would be pretty hard to give a guy the third degree that way.”

Overall, I really enjoyed The Penguin Pool Murder. It really goes against the stereotypical image of the “Golden Age” which so many people have. Miss Withers is a strong, independent female character and she doesn’t need a man to complete her (although she is a bit of a romantic). Inspector Piper plods along with the dull realities of police procedure because that’s the method that works in the end. And there are plenty of delightful scenes and fascinating ideas for a murder plot to be found in this book. Although it’s got a bit of an obvious conclusion, the journey you take to get there is loads of fun. This book comes highly recommended.


  1. Great review Patrick - I'm a great fan of Palmer and if you get the chance try to track down the movie versions starring the ideally cast Edna May Oliver, they're terrific and really pretty faithful.

  2. Agreed. The movie is worth finding. I'm glad you like this book. Palmer was great friends with Craig Rice, and they "collaborated" on a series of short stories.

  3. You have really got me interested in this book. Thank goodness it's been reprinted by the Mysterious Press. I am also glad that you addressed the author head on. It does seem that too many of the Golden Age authors were women: Agatha Christie, Dorthy L. Sayers (which isn't bad), but the men of the era who didn't write hardboiled mysteries are often forgotten. I'm glad that's finally been addressed, as I was just thinking about this the other day.

  4. I have been meaning to get started on his books for ages, and so I thank you for the reminder.

  5. The Hildegard Withers series is one of the best. Jeffrey Marks is correct that Palmer was a pal of Craig Rice. They collaborated on The Falcon's Brother, a crucial entry in that movie series.

  6. I am currently reading Stuart Palmer's MURDER ON THE BLACKBOARD, the third book in the series. I have in fact also read THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER as well, but that was back in the late 80's and while I cannot recall whodunit I do remember how much I enjoyed Palmer's writing.