In The Spotlight: Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder

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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.’…
‘Occupation?’
‘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

25 Comments

Filed under Stuart Palmer, The Penguin Pool Murder

25 responses to “In The Spotlight: Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder

  1. Hildegarde sounds wonderful. Many thanks for shining your fabulous spotlight on this one. I hadn’t heard of it before and it sounds like it’ll be an enjoyable and interesting read. (Anything that features penguins has my vote).

    • Mrs. P – Thanks for the kind words. I really hope you do get a chance to try this one. Admittedly some of the language and attitudes need – er – adjustment by today’s standards. But the story’s intriguing, the characters are interesting and the penguins have a role to play in the plot. 🙂

  2. Wonderful synopsis and review, Margot. Hildy is one of my favorite characters (as you know from our other conversations!), and Inspector Piper is also delightful. Palmer always referred to Miss Withers as “that meddlesome old battleaxe,” but there’s a warmth to Hildy – and to Piper – that makes them delightful.

    I think it’s worth quoting a wonderful comment made by Piper in “The Penguin Pool Murder”: ““I’m a detective, not a super-sleuth. 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.””

    I think that really does stress the nature of the investigations shared by Piper and Withers over the years. I must admit I prefer some of the later books, but there’s a lot to like in this one, and I think you summarize it very well!

    • Les – Thanks for the kind words. I’m so glad you thought this spotlight was OK. I know what a big fan of this series you are and your endorsement means a lot. Also thanks for sharing that delightful quote from Piper. It really is an accurate reflection of the way he goes about this case. He’s by no means an idiotic bumbler. In fact he’s pretty shrewd. But he doesn’t have magic either, and that makes him all the more likeable. And I do like the way he and Hildegarde Withers complement each other and play off each other if I can put it that way. It’s an important part of what makes this book work.

  3. This is a great overview of Miss Withers. Makes me want to go right out and read one. At least I have a few in house. I have read several of them years ago, but don’t remember much except that I enjoyed them. Wish I could find the movies on DVD. We watched some of them years ago on TCM.

    • Tracy – Thank you – It’s not that easy to find those films, although they do show them once in a while. I hope that if you get the chance to read the books, you’ll like them. Miss Withers is really a delightful character.

  4. I was aware of these books but have never read any – I think perhaps a series that didn’t really cross the Atlantic? But you’ve done a great job in tempting me. In fact, I just love that name alone enough to try it: ‘The Penguin Pool Murder’ is the best title ever!

  5. Sounds interesting, Margot – and thanks for the warning about attitudes. It’s odd, but things I could read quite happily thirty years ago are now often entirely unreadable to me. I recently read my first, and last, Charlotte Armstrong – The Case of the Weird Sisters – and was left wondering if the level of racism in that one could ever have been acceptable, and also whether it was really worth republishing it for a modern audience. Sexism doesn’t bother me nearly so much – generally speaking, there was always a place in crime for the strong, intelligent woman to balance it out a bit.

    • FictionFan – I know what you mean about the difference in reading tastes. There is of course some excellent classic detective fiction that has those ‘isms’ in it. I can manage those depending on how blatant and frequent the references are. Then there is detective fiction that is so full of objectionable attitudes that I can’t finish reading it. I wonder at those times, just as you do, whether people really did think that way. I know they did, but still… You make an interesting point too about the duality of the female character in crime fiction. At the same time as you find blatant sexism throughout a lot of classic and Golden Age detective fiction, you also do find strong, intelligent and capable female characters too. And they’re not always written by women. I find that an interesting phenomenon.

      • I wonder if it’s because male writers knew real-life women intimately – mother, wives, daughters etc – and perhaps that helped them to see past cultural stereotypes sometimes, whereas their knowledge of people from different races or cultures was more distant, so preconceptions persisted? The strong women quite often tend to be older and single, so perhaps the spinster Aunty who had to make her own way in the world was an influence?

        • FictionFan – You may be onto something. Women have been constituting roughly half the population for a very long time, so it’s quite likely that male authors have been inspired by women in their own lives. On the other hand, people from different ethnic/racial/cultural groups? That might have been a very different story. That really does make sense.

      • It’s worth noting that the first female detectives in novels both appeared in 1864 – Andrew Forrester’s “The Female Detective” and William Stephens Hayward’s “Revelations of a Lady Detective.” Both “Mrs. G.” in the former and Mrs. Paschal in the latter are strong, independent women working in a field which – at the time – was certainly considered “unladylike.” In fact, it wasn’t until 1883 that real-life British police agencies began hiring women, even for such basic work as searching female suspects – nearly 20 years after their fictional debut.

        • Les – That’s an important point. In so many ways crime fiction has been ahead of its time, as you might say. And we can say what we want – and I do – about fictional females of the Golden Age, but as you say, there were plenty of strong, independent female characters even before Christie, Allingham, Tey, Marsh and Palmer were writing.

  6. Margot: Thank you for an interesting post. The books sounds excellent.

    I wonder what the next generation will think about fitting stories to the political correctness of our time. I have found on occasion in real life that the staunchest advocates of PC have an elitism about them that is a form of prejudice they recognize no better than bigots of past eras.

    • Bill – You raise such a very interesting question about political correctness. There is, I think, a very fine line between being respectful of others – all others – and that kind of elitism. It’s one of these discussions/questions too that can very emotionally charaged.

  7. Great choice Margot – always been a fan of the Hildegarde Withers series – it is a shame that we have to make excuses for some aspects of them but it would be worse to ignore them. Thanks.

    • Sergio – Glad you enjoyed the post. And it is a good series I think. I agree with you that there some aspects of those novels that reflect, let’s just say, the attitudes of another era. But the stories themselves are good ‘uns.

  8. It sounds great fun Margot. I’ll look out for it. I like the idea of an ascerbic Miss Marple.

  9. Another excellent post Margot and also the comments are so informative and interesting, so helpful. I don’t know the author you mention initially so I shall be tracking this one down as well adding to the many others on my TBR pile….not enough time I fear.

    • Jane – Thank you – I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. It is a fine read even if one does have to occasionally flinch at some of the references. And I do like the Hildegarde Withers character. I know all too well what you mean about not having enough time to read all one wants…*sigh*

  10. Pingback: The Penguin Pool Murder by Stuart Palmer | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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