Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers novels may not be as well-known as, say, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels, but they are an important part of Golden Age detective fiction and Miss Withers is an enduring character (Palmer wrote about her for over thirty years). So today let’s meet Hildegarde Withers and turn the spotlight on Palmer’s first Hildegarde Withers novel The Penguin Pool Murder.
Miss Withers takes her Grade Three class on a field trip to the New York Aquarium. While they’re there, a pickpocket tries to steal Miss Withers’ handbag. She trips the man up with her umbrella and he is caught by a security guard. The man turns out to be John ‘Chicago Lew’ McGirr, a thief with a history of brushes with the law. Miss Withers’ handbag is recovered but Chicago Lew manages to escape temporarily.
The class is gathering together to leave when two things stop them. First, one of the students notices that Miss Withers’ hatpin is missing. The hatpin has just been recovered at the bottom of a set of stairs when Miss Withers notices that another of her students is not with the group. She finds him staring avidly at the penguins; suddenly, to everyone’s shock, the body of a man slides into the tank. Police Inspector Oscar Piper is called in to investigate. At first, it looks as though the victim was drowned but it’s soon discovered that he was dead before he went into the penguin tank. The murder weapon was Miss Withers’ hat pin.
It turns out that the dead man is stockbroker Gerald Lester and Piper and Miss Withers start looking into Lester’s personal and professional lives to see who might have wanted to kill him. There are several possibilities too. Professionally, the Great Crash of 1929 has wiped out many of Lester’s clients (this novel was published in 1931). More than one of them could have a motive for murder. And then there’s the fact that Lester was an unfaithful husband whose wife Gwen was not exactly above reproach herself. In fact Gwen was at the Aquarium at the time of the murder and so was her lover, attorney Philip Seymour, so either of them could be guilty. But things aren’t that simple. When Chicago Lew escaped after trying to steal Miss Withers’ handbag, he ended up behind the penguin tank where he was eventually caught, and it’s very likely he saw something. He might even be guilty. And then there’s the fact that Lester got a mysterious ‘phone call on the day of his death, telling him that his unfaithful wife and her lover were meeting at the Aquarium; whoever made that call could have lured Lester to the tank to kill him.
Piper continues to work on the case and soon finds that Miss Withers is an observant and very helpful amateur detective although they do butt heads now and then. The evidence mounts up against both Gwen Lester and Philip Seymour. Both are imprisoned and bound over for trial. Chicago Lew has been arrested too for his thievery. Then, Chicago Lew suddenly dies, an apparent suicide. He even leaves behind a note confessing to Lester’s murder. But neither Piper nor Miss Withers is so sure of that. In the end, Piper and Miss Withers find out who the real killer is and what the motive for both murders really was.
This is a Golden Age novel and it bears many of the hallmarks of stories from that era. There’s the ‘impossible – but not really impossible – murder’ theme, the dramatic ‘big reveal’ scene, and some ingenious murder methods. There are also some suitably likely suspects, all of whom are hiding something and any one of whom could have killed Lester.
Being a Golden Age novel though, it also contains some sexist, racial and ethnic references that modern readers will probably find offensive. I have to admit that I had to keep reminding myself that this story is the product of its time in that sense. But as Golden Age fans know, that’s part of the proverbial package when you read a novel written during that era.
The character of Hildegarde Withers is in some ways reflective of the age, but she is hardly a ‘damsel in distress.’ She is independent, observant and highly intelligent. She thinks quickly, too. For instance, at the beginning of the novel it’s her quick reaction that trips up Chicago Lew. Later in the novel, she sends her students out to search for a particular witness, and her plan turns up an important clue. She has a sense of humour too (and so does Palmer). For instance, when she and Piper first meet shortly after Lester’s murder, he asks her several questions, since she’s a witness:
‘Okay, then. Your full name?’
‘Hildegarde Martha Withers.’…
‘At present, answering foolish questions. Young man, I told you I was a teacher.’
And yet, Miss Withers isn’t perfect. She can be acerbic and impatient and she’s not always right. Still, she has compassion in her own way, and she makes solid deductions. It’s easy to be on her side as she finds creative ways to outwit the killer.
Another element that runs through this novel is the look that we get at US stock trading just before and on the days of the Great Crash. As Piper and Miss Withers find out about Lester’s professional life, we can see how that business worked. We can also see how practices such as buying on margin contributed to the devastating losses that occurred when the system broke down.
The novel is set in New York City and Palmer makes that clear throughout:
‘She [Miss Withers] took a downtown Seventh Avenue express, changed to a local at Fourteenth, and got off at Canal. Then she walked leisurely toward the river for two blocks and took her stand on the corner.’
Both the mystery itself and Miss Withers’ personality are good fits for the setting, too.
The Penguin Pool Murder is a solid example of Golden Age storytelling with an appealing protagonist, a solid sense of humour, a distinctive setting and an interesting mystery. The solution to it isn’t obvious, but the careful reader will be able to pick up the clues; Palmer ‘plays fair.’ But what’s your view? Have you read The Penguin Pool Mystery? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 24 June/Tuesday 25 June – Violent Exposure – Katherine Howell
Monday 1 July/Tuesday 2 July – Quite Ugly One Morning – Christopher Brookmyre
Monday 8 July/Tuesday 9 July – Letter From a Dead Man – Dawn Harris