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Palmer, Stuart

Page history last edited by Jon 11 years, 6 months ago

Stuart Hunter Palmer

(1905-1968) was an American screenwriter. Born in Wisconsin, Palmer was educated at the Chicago Art Institute and the University of Wisconsin. He held a variety of jobs before 1931, when he wrote The Penguin Pool Murder, which introduced his popular sleuth Hildegarde Withers. She also appeared in many short stories and in a collaboration with Craig Rice, People Versus Withers and Malone (1963) (allegedly written entirely by Palmer to raise funds for the ailing Rice). Despite her angular looks and late middle age, Miss Withers manages to stir sympathy as well as rage in the breast of New York Inspector Oscar Piper. The last Withers book, Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene was written in collaboration with Fletcher Flora.


Palmer served in the Army during WWII as an instructor and liaison officer. His personal trademark was a drawing of a penguin. He also wrote one book under the name Jay Stewart.


See Rue Morgue Press for a detailed biography.


Mike Grost on Stuart Palmer


Stuart Palmer's detective tales usually feature either Hildegarde Withers, a spinster sleuth, or, less frequently, Howie Rook, the least hard boiled of all private eyes. Palmer's tales are generally comic in tone, but he is not a member of the "farce school" of Phoebe Atwood Taylor. Rather Palmer's works adhere to the classical detective paradigms of the intuitionist school, of such writers as Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen. Reading Palmer's best works show why this school is so well loved: watching Hildegarde Withers unravel "The Riddle of the Black Museum" (1946) is just plain fun. There is a detective, a mystery, and an ingenious solution, and one experiences a strong desire to read more stories like this.


Palmer and Anna Katharine Green


Hildegarde Withers is a snoopy middle aged spinster of great respectability and intelligence, who continuously horns in on the cases of Inspector Oscar Piper of the New York police. This is exactly the setup of Anna Katharine's Green's tales of spinster Amelia Butterworth and police detective Ebeneezer Gryce. One wonders if Palmer was directly influenced by Green, or if he was more familiar with such intermediate writers as Mary Roberts Rinehart. Palmer also uses the comic tone so prevalent in the "spinster sleuth" writings of Rinehart and Green. Palmer's work is also especially rich in the detective work one associates with Green. Much of a Palmer novel is taken up by the rich sleuthing of Withers and Piper, where they delve into hidden features of the past, and track down leads galore. This sleuthing is very well done. It recalls the detective work done by another Green influenced writer, Agatha Christie.


Palmer and S. S. Van Dine


The collaboration of an amateur sleuth and the New York Police recalls the work of the Van Dine school of the 1930's as well. There is certainly a relation here: at the very least the familiarity of this setup probably helped Palmer's work gain acceptance among publishers and readers. And the first book in the series, The Penguin Pool Murder (1931), mentions both Sherlock Holmes and Philo Vance as famous fictional sleuths (Chapter 9), although partly to disassociate Palmer's sleuths from what he calls the "super-sleuths" of fiction. This is the only reference I know of to Vance in Palmer's work, but Holmes is a life long enthusiasm, discussed countless times in Palmer's tales. However, Palmer's work seems quite different in tone from Van Dine's and his followers' (Ellery Queen, Anthony Abbot, Rex Stout, C. Daly King, Rufus King). Hildegarde Withers has no upper class connections, being a maiden school teacher of middle class respectability but modest means. And Inspector Piper seems to be of a distinctly working class origin, unlike many leading characters of the 1930's. There is a great deal of emphasis in the books on how he worked his way up from patrolman. There are no fabulously complex plots, à la Queen or Abbot, no nursery rhymes or other formal schemes imposed on the books. If Palmer is quite different from Van Dine's greatest followers, he does show more similarities to Van Dine himself. The storytelling in Palmer's first books has a Van Dine like feel, with different murder suspects weaving in and out of a well paced murder investigation. Palmer sometimes deals in moderately impossible crimes in these books, just like Van Dine. By moderately impossible I mean less overwhelmingly complex than Carr, with much simpler explanations, and also which are often crimes which seem at first glance to be more puzzling, unexplainable, or inexplicable, than totally impossible. Palmer also shares with Van Dine an interest in puzzling or out of the way murder methods, methods which initially baffle the police.


There is a Van Dine-like attempt to depict criminals as Nietzschean geniuses, in such early works as Murder On Wheels (1932). This early book also builds up various New York policemen who work for Piper as continuing characters, in the manner of the Van Dine books, although here again, Palmer adopts a comic attitude to these policemen, something antithetical to Van Dine's approach. Murder On Wheels also looks at an extended family of wealthy New Yorkers, all of whom live together in a old mansion, which recalls such Van Dine books as The Greene Murder Case and The Kidnap Murder Case. There is also a VanDinean tendency towards footnotes in Palmer's early books.


Palmer's works are full of characters in the arts, and in show biz. These are the favorite backgrounds of Van Dine school writers. The dog breeders of "The Riddle of the Blueblood Murders" (1934) also recall Van Dine's The Kennel Murder Case (1933). But in general, Palmer was less interested in hobbyists and collectors than were Van Dine or Ellery Queen. Palmer also rarely includes floor plans of crime scenes, unlike Van Dine.


Palmer's first Withers novel, The Penguin Pool Murder (1931), also seems influenced by Ellery Queen's first book, The Roman Hat Mystery (1929). Inspector Piper is somewhat similar to Inspector Richard Queen. Both novels take place in a crowded public location in New York City (a theater in Queen, the Aquarium in Palmer). And the clues about men's hats in both novels have much in common. There is a similar clue about men's hats in Rufus King's first Lt. Valcour novel, Murder by the Clock (1928 - 1929). There seems to be a mass pile up of similar plot ideas in the early works of these three VanDineans.


There is no evidence that Van Dine ever met any of his literary followers. He was a best selling novelist when they all started out in obscurity, imitating his works. By contrast, many of them seemed to know Palmer. In the 1930's he lived across the street from Anthony Abbot. He was friends with Ellery Queen. And he collaborated on a movie and a book of stories with Craig Rice. One common factor of most of the Van Dine School: the unusual 1930's mystery magazine, The Illustrated Detective Magazine. This magazine emphasized both horror, and impossible crime stories. In its pulp contemporaries, such horror-based impossible crime tales were known as weird menace. This magazine, which later changed its name to Mystery, also was aberrant among pulps in that it published the work of numerous Golden Age authors, including such Van Dine school members as S. S. Van Dine himself, Ellery Queen, Stuart Palmer, Anthony Abbot, C. Daly King, as well as Mignon G. Eberhart, and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Palmer published his first Hildegarde Withers short story in it, "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl" (1933), and 10 others during 1933-1935. It is hard to know whether Mystery was a pulp magazine, or not. It is fully indexed in Cook and Miller's invaluable checklist of the pulp magazines, but other reference works include it among the slicks. Most of Palmer's tales for Mystery have recently appeared in book form as Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles (collected 2002).


Palmer's Themes


Both Murder On Wheels and The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941) show some unusual features in construction. Both books' solutions eventually show that they contain a murder mystery, and another mystery, related to the murder plot, but which involves different characters. This subsidiary mystery is actually far more ingenious, and far more complex, than the actual murder case. The murderer and his machinations are something of a let-down in both tales, in fact, while the subsidiary plot shows good craftsmanship. In both books, the subsidiary mystery has the form of an ingenious conspiracy, an attempt by characters to benefit from a complex scheme by working together. Collaboration is Palmer's key theme, and many of the solutions to his mystery tales focus on one sort of ingenious collaboration or another.


Murder On Wheels also shows a commitment to female equality, with the detective duel between Withers and Piper explicitly symbolizing a debate over the capabilities and equality of women. It is perhaps paradoxical that the male-authored Miss Withers is far more openly feminist than the female-authored Miss Marple. (Similarly, Lawrence Blochman treats female business people with great respect in Recipe For Homicide (1952)). By contrast, the non-Withers female characters in the Palmer books tend to be rather golddigger like, often trying to entrap men into marriage for financial gain. One might also point out that there is a male golddigger in "Tomorrow's Murder" (1940), hoping to marry a rich woman, and the sleazy press agent in The Green Ace(1950) is supported by his rich wife. Hildegarde Withers stands out in complete contrast to these women, as an independent woman who earns her own way, and who relates to men on a position of complete equality.


Palmer is interested in dreams, and altered states of consciousness. This seems like an odd interest in a writer who otherwise is so respectable. "Tomorrow's Murder" and "Green Ice" are especially interesting in this regard. One might also mention Miss Withers' gas attack in The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan. There is also a tendency for Hildegarde Withers to seek a solution to her murder cases in her dreams: she has a spectacular dream sequence in Chapter 10 of The Green Ace. One of the few really good ideas in the otherwise lamentable The Puzzle of the Red Stallion is the old man's dream in Chapter 4, and its subsequent role in the finale of the tale. The dream sequence that opens Before It's Too Late also seems personal for Palmer. The interest in tropical fish in Palmer's tales also seems oddly related to this: people stare into brightly lit fish tanks, and they are into another world, one filled with strange colors and movement. Palmer also shows a persistent interest in jewelry in his tales, with the brightly colored gems also playing a somewhat trance-like role. Many of his story titles includes either color words or precious materials, such as Pearl, Marble, or Amethyst. The planetarium setting of "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" (1935) also takes one into a visionary world of light and movement, as its title suggests. Animals are another persistent Palmer theme; dogs, fish, horses are especially common in his tales. His tale "The Jinx Man" (1952) expresses interest in the then brand new concept of a terrarium. And "The Riddle of the Flea Circus" (1933) extends this interest to the insect kingdom.


In Nipped in the Bud, Palmer has Hildegarde doodle when she is trying to get her subconscious ideas to flow. Palmer was an artist himself, and there are other references to doodling in his books: I think Inspector Piper doodled in Murder On Wheels.


Palmer often reused titles from one work to another, subtly altering them in the process. He wrote two novels, The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1940), followed by Unhappy Hooligan (1956). (Happy Hooligan was a prominent early comic strip.) His story "Green Ice" was followed by the novel The Green Ace. And the chapter in The Penguin Pool Murder called "The Rift in the Lute", was followed many years later by a short story called "Rift in the Loot". Is this last title a quotation from somebody, a famous author or a popular song? This interest in wordplay contrasts with the denunciation of puns in The Penguin Pool Murder, where Miss Withers brands them the lowest form of humor. Palmer loved poetry, starting out as poet himself, and often quoted it in his novels.


The limiting factor in Palmer's fiction is that some of it seems second rate in terms of plotting. This is especially true of his later, post 1947 tales. Some of the novels I have read seem padded, and some short stories dull. While Miss Withers, Inspector Piper and his other characters are always likable, Palmer had a lot of trouble coming up with first rate plots for his tales. Palmer is especially weak on motives; the killer's motive as revealed at the end of the tale, often seems arbitrary and perfunctory. Hopefully, there are some outstanding stories lurking in Palmer's vast output that can be added to my list. Right now, there is nothing like a "canon" of Palmer's works that would help direct readers to his best fiction.


The Novels


Beyond the similarities of The Green Ace and Breakfast at Tiffany's, Palmer's work in general has much that might have appealed to Capote. Miss Withers seems quite similar to the proper, strong willed but eccentric maiden ladies that show up in such Capote tales as "The Grass Harp" and "A Christmas Memory". The surreal, spectacular dream sequences in Palmer's work find an echo in similar dream sequences in Capote. There are certainly important differences in the two writers: Palmer is straight, Northern, and cheerily comic in tone, whereas Capote is gay, Southern and Gothic, but both authors have important similarities, as well. While Capote is usually considered a mainstream author, most of his longer works, Other Voices, Other Rooms, "Breakfast At Tiffany's", In Cold Blood, "Handcarved Coffins", have elements of crime or mystery about them.


One wonders if the young author Paul Orchard in "The Riddle of the Brass Band" (1934) is an autobiographical character. Orchard has published a novel called Ace of Vamps, recalling Palmer's own book, Ace of Jades.


Film Versions


The Penguin Pool Mystery (1931) made a very good mystery movie in 1932, with the talented (and today little known) director George Archainbaud presiding. Edna May Oliver gave a definitive portrait of Hildegarde Withers, so much so that I now sometimes see her (and hear her) in the novels, especially the more acerbic pre-war ones; Miss Withers became gentler in the books after 1945, although just as aggressive as a sleuth, thank heavens. The unusual sets of this movie sometimes contain ceilings; this innovation is often noticed later in Citizen Kane. I also think the last two 1930's Withers film mysteries, both based on short stories, and both featuring Zazu Pitts, are a good deal of fun. Palmer manages to mention both Oliver and Zazu Pitts in his Hollywood novel, The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan. Although Palmer is on record as not liking what the studio did with "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl", filmed as The Plot Thickens (1936), I thought it was an interesting filming that managed to preserve a lot of the story. It was fascinating to finally see on screen an American mystery I had read. We do not honor our mystery writers the way the English do, and virtually the whole corpus of the American mystery is unfilmed.


Palmer wrote screenplays himself during his stint in Hollywood. His script for "Bulldog Drummond's Peril" (1938) does not show many personal qualities, or even much entertainment value. Based on Sapper's The Third Round (1925), it does develop a small puzzle plot, complete with timetables and questions of identity. Palmer does introduce his signature, a penguin, who briefly gets involved in the first murder. The door to door search on foot also is a frequent theme in Palmer's novels. There are also relentless messages about how the police protect the rich no matter what their behavior or crimes. Better is "Arrest Bulldog Drummond" (1939), based on Sapper's The Final Count (1926). Both of these Palmer films were directed by the obscure James Hogan. Sapper's novel reportedly deals with a new poison; Palmer changed it in the film version to a more photogenic death ray. The film has a clever visual idea in that the rays are double, and only have a deadly effect when superimposed; watching the two beams of light attempt to superimpose generates considerable suspense. Somehow this film has a more "Palmer" like feel to it. There is also a scene at an Aquarium, but there are no penguins in it. I also enjoyed the comic scene where the ray attacks a warehouse full of fireworks, with Algie and Tenny inside. These two comic supporting actors are my favorite characters in the series. (One of the best films in the series has no Palmer involvement at all: "Bulldog Drummond in Africa" (1938).)


Much better is "The Falcon's Brother" (1942), the film in which George Sanders as The Falcon passes on the torch as lead in that detective series to Tom Conway; Palmer wrote the script with Craig Rice, no less.


Short Stories


Some of Palmer's short stories, including "Green Ice" (1941), and his first, "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl" (1933), deal with ingenious schemes of jewel robbery. These schemes recall the rogue tradition, although they are worked into full detective stories. They are among Palmer's more satisfying exercises in storytelling. The entertaining "The Blue Fingerprint" (1938) also shares an art world background with "Pearl", as does "The Riddle of the Marble Blade" (1934). As a trained artist, Palmer is knowledgeable about the technical side of painting and sculpture. The characters in these art stories tend to be expert craftspeople, as well as museum and gallery curators. They are more the worker bees of the art world, as opposed to the intelligentsia floating through such British painting mysteries as Allingham's Death of a Ghost (1934).


The early short tales in tend to draw on the technique of the impossible crime. Some, including such gems as "The Riddle of the Brass Band" (1934) and "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" (1935), are out and out impossible crime tales. Others use plot ideas reminiscent of the impossible crime to give an alibi to a single character. These stories are not quite "impossible" - any of the other suspects may easily have committed the murder - but the puzzle plot ideas in them could have been used to make a full fledged impossible crime story. Agatha Christie also frequently used such a story architecture. In such stories, it certainly looks impossible that at least one of the main suspects could have done the murder.


Palmer sometimes made excursions into horror in his fiction, as in "The Riddle of the Blueblood Murders" (1934) and "You Bet Your Life" (1957); these two stories share some common imagery, and seem less successful, in my judgment. The finale of "You Bet Your Life" also draws on imagery from "The Riddle of the Forty Naughty Girls" (1934), which Palmer wrote immediately after "The Riddle of the Blueblood Murders". Gail Cross' striking cover painting on the recent Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles (collected 2002) illustrates a scene from "The Riddle of the Blueblood Murders".


There are signs in "The Riddle of the Forty Naughty Girls" that Palmer has read Helen Reilly's McKee of Centre Street (1933). The policeman in the gangster movie spoof that opens the tale is named McKee, just as in Reilly's book. And there are scenes in the police radio room at their headquarters in Centre Street, echoing in a small way the superb recreation of the radio room in Reilly's novel.


Such Palmer short stories from the mid 1940's as "Snafu Murder" (1945) and "The Riddle of the Tired Bullet" (1948) have a common sociological background, of soldiers returning to New York City, and scams being worked on a largely middle class, even working class, clientele. They evoke an odd, transitional era in American life, and do so with a cynicism and gloom that is in conflict with the official histories of the country that portray the period as one of boundless optimism. The dingy homes and apartments in the tales shows the sheer grunginess in which many ordinary people lived in the cities, and help explain the tremendous motivation to go live in the suburbs that erupted in the post war era. "Snafu" continues Palmer's interest in collaboration in solutions to his puzzle plots. Both stories also continue Palmer's women as golddiggers theme. There is always a certain atmosphere of social realism to Palmer. Even his rich people just have plenty of money: they are not fantasy figures living wild lives of glamorous excess, unlike many escapist tomes, then and now. They are not monsters, but they are generally not too sympathetic, either. Palmer is most definitely not a Marxist: the left wing scriptwriter he delightfully satirizes in Happy Hooligan makes this perfectly clear; it is a type Palmer must have encountered frequently during his long Hollywood career. Yet there is a certain air of sociological realism that clings to Palmer's writing, one that seems somehow typical of the "proletarian" attitudes of the era of fiction from which he emerged, the 1930's. Palmer wants to entertain his readers, and add color to his stories, but he does this not by escaping into fantasy worlds, but by adding the colorful denizens of show business to his tales.


And more...


Some thoughts triggered by recent readings and re-readings of Stuart Palmer. Many of Palmer's best puzzle plot stories show structural features in common. These include the novels Murder On Wheels (1932), The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla (1937) and The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941) and the short stories "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl" (1933), "The Riddle of the Brass Band" (1934), "The Riddle of the Hanging Men" (1934), "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" (1935), and "The Riddle of the Tired Bullet" (1948), all in the collection Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles.


These Palmer works have a central mystery plot, one that usually concentrates on the murder in the story. This mystery will be a "howdunit": it will not be clear physically how the murder was committed, and the detectives and readers have to try to figure out the exact murder method. Sometimes, the crime will seem so mysterious that the work will be an actual "impossible crime": a murder that looks completely impossible to have happened. Other times, the crimes will seem "natural", but still unexplained in method, till all is revealed at story's end.


Surrounding the murder mystery will be subplots. These plots tend to be well-constructed mysteries of their own. Sometimes they relate to the central murder mystery; other times they are red herrings thrown across its path. Neither of these two kinds of subplot is directly a murder mystery.


Palmer is especially fond of two kinds of subplots. One can be dubbed the Strange Person. One of the characters will be highly unusual. This person has many unique characteristics. And they consistently behave in a way throughout the story that is original, and not at all like the average person one might meet in real life. At the end of the tale, Palmer usually has some sort of revelation about the person, that ingeniously explains some of their surface personality and behavior.


The other subplot centers on a character who is Mysteriously Involved with the crime. Often times this person's entry in the tale is itself mysterious: we do not know who they are, or what role they will play through the story. Even more centrally to this kind of subplot, is the character's role throughout the tale. The Mysteriously Involved person keeps getting connected to the crime. Sometimes these connections are suspicious looking, that imply again and again that they might be the guilty party. Other times, they entangle the Mysteriously Involved person in the complex storytelling that surrounds the murder plot. The repeated links are varied, ingenious, and surprising, and involve a wide variety of plot approaches, everything from physical evidence to alibis. They pop up throughout the story, and gradually create a complex series of intricate links. Each link tends to be somewhat separate from the one before it, involving its own ingenious little mystery plot element.


The central howdunit, and the subplots of the Strange Person and the Mysteriously Involved, occur again and again in Palmer works. They form a common architecture for Palmer's tales. All three are deeply plot oriented. They help Palmer construct elaborate, ingenious puzzle plots for his mysteries.


The locales for Palmer's murders are often high, steep, vertical places. These include the site that eventually emerges in Murder On Wheels, the steep museum stairs in "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl", the front of the office skyscraper in "The Riddle of the Brass Band", the side of the ocean liner and its higher and lower decks in The Puzzle of the Silver Persian, the steep stands around the bullfight arena in The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla, standing on the chair in The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan, the high narrow house and embankment in "The Riddle of the Tired Bullet". These are all stories that came out of Palmer's howdunit paradigm. Such vertical locales seem much less common in Palmer works based on other plotting approaches.




"The Riddle of the Black Museum" (1946) and "The Riddle of the Double Negative" (1947) are richly plotted stories that seem to have nothing in common with Palmer's howdunit-Strange Person-Mysteriously Involved architecture. Instead, they build up complex, symmetrical patterns out of alibis and testimony. The symmetric form in these tales is almost mathematical, as the title "The Riddle of the Double Negative" suggests. Palmer's ability to create ever more unfolding flows of complex plot in these works perhaps has a little in common with his Mysteriously Involved patterns, which also involve complex plotting. But the resemblance is not close. There was a bit about alibis in the Mysteriously Involved portions of "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl" (1933), which Palmer built upon for the virtuosic treatment in "The Riddle of the Double Negative".


"Once Upon a Crime" (1950), the first story in The People Versus Withers and Malone, is also built around symmetry. The hiding of the body is symmetrical, and so are the main mysteries about the victim and the killer. The relationship between the entrance of the red-head and Miss Withers into the tale also has some symmetric aspects. And there is a subtle symmetry about the framing of Malone, with this part of the story echoing its earlier cause in reverse. Both this framing, and the main murder plot, are symbolically represented by Hildegarde's dream. The victim and the killer plots echo and greatly amplify the plot twist in The Penguin Pool Murder about men's hats. This early Palmer novel seems to be the seed out of which later exercises in symmetrical patterning grew. A symmetrical pattern about dressing-gowns in "The Riddle of the Double Negative" is also in this tradition, although it shows a further twist.

One can see some echoes in "Once Upon a Crime" of some non-symmetry-oriented Palmer tales, as well. The civic corruption among social leaders stems from "The Riddle of the Tired Bullet", as does the theme of a large amount of cash floating around. The Impossible Disappearance of the money recalls the theft in "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl". Both "the victim and the killer" matched-subplots embody somewhat the Strange Person approach. The train setting recalls Palmer's travel novels, in particular the opening chapters of The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla, which are also train set.



The main puzzle plot, in the opening and finale of The Green Ace (1950), has a little in common with these earlier symmetry short stories, especially "The Riddle of the Double Negative". But it lacks the full symmetrical patterns they build up. The murder in "The Riddle of the Jack of Diamonds" has plot elements that recall The Green Ace, but which are less related to the symmetry short stories. Also, The Green Ace, "The Riddle of the Jack of Diamonds", and "The Riddle of the Double Negative" all take place in a similar milieu, that of chic, pseudo-sophisticated well-to-do New Yorkers. One rich person is often supporting a spouse or lover in these tales, something that also appears in "Once Upon a Crime", and there is a good deal of cheating going on sometimes, as well. Palmer's disapproval of this crowd comes over loud and clear.

Among mystery writers, Allan Vaughan Elston shares Palmer's interest in symmetrical plots. Elston's "Drawing Room B" (1930) is a symmetric story set on a train, like Palmer's "Once Upon a Crime" (1950).


Howdunit-Strange Person-Mysteriously Involved architecture in Palmer novels: Murder On Wheels has some structural features in common with the later The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla. Both stories are "howdunits": the detectives and reader are challenged to figure out exactly how the killings each book take place - as physical acts they are difficult to explain. This brings both tales to the borderline of the impossible crime. The killings are linked with devices used by the rodeo in Murder On Wheels and the bullfight in The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla, making further similarities. The central murder mystery of The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla shows structural similarities with the short tale "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" (1935). Both stabbing murders take place in public, in large crowds of people attending some spectacular show-biz event at a specialized auditorium. Both tales are impossible crimes, and both are "howdunits", in which the mystery is to explain how a seemingly impossible stabbing took place. Both involve their characters in traveling across the country, on mysterious errands. In both, Hildegarde searches someone's room, and pretends to a landlady that she is a suspect's relative. Although the two tales have a common architecture, the details of the crime and mystery are different in both works.


Short Stories: Impossible Crimes and Howdunits


"The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl" (1933) has a structure similar to such Palmer novels as Murder On Wheels, The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla and The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan. Only here it is a theft which is the central plot, rather than a murder as in the novels. The theft is an impossible crime, whose mechanism the detective and reader have to figure out, just like the killings in those novels. And there are two subplots: the Alexius one being a Strange Person, and guard Joel Burton being Mysteriously Involved, and linked to the central crime in no less than three ingenious ways throughout this brief tale. Palmer also includes a murder, but it is more a peripheral element in the story, with the theft being central. The theft here involves a full scale impossible disappearance, a classical type of impossible crime. Palmer throws in two whole solutions for it, a model of ingenuity. So the tale includes an impossible central crime, a murder, and two richly developed different kinds of subplots, all in a few short pages!


The early short tales in tend to draw on the technique of the impossible crime. Some, including such gems as "The Riddle of the Brass Band" (1934) and "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" (1935), are out and out impossible crime tales. Others use plot ideas reminiscent of the impossible crime to give an alibi to a single character. These stories are not quite "impossible" - any of the other suspects may easily have committed the murder - but the puzzle plot ideas in them could have been used to make a full fledged impossible crime story. Agatha Christie also frequently used such a story architecture. In such stories, it certainly looks impossible that at least one of the main suspects could have done the murder.


"The Riddle of the Hanging Men" (1934) is a minor tale that follows some of the traditions of Murder On Wheels. The hangings recall the main crimes in that book; there is a mild howdunit aspect, trying to figure out the mechanism of the hangings; the second attack follows the same structural plan as the final killing in Murder On Wheels. Both the howdunit and the second attack show mild ingenuity, in their explanations at the tale's end. But the story elements around them are so grim that the tale sinks. These story elements echo John Rhode's The Murders in Praed Street (1928). While this tale is a howdunit, it is not really an impossible crime story: the reader might not know at first how the crimes are committed, but they seem not impossible, but simply a bit mysterious. The explanation of the howdunit also has features in common with the solution to the stabbing howdunit in The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla.


There are signs in "The Riddle of the Forty Naughty Girls" (1934) that Palmer has read Helen Reilly's McKee of Centre Street (1933). The policeman in the gangster movie spoof that opens the tale is named McKee, just as in Reilly's book. And there are scenes in the police radio room at their headquarters in Centre Street, echoing in a small way the superb recreation of the radio room in Reilly's novel. An electrician in charge of stage lighting in a show biz setting is a character in both Palmer's tale, and the opening chapter of Reilly.



"The Riddle of the Forty Naughty Girls" is on the edges of Palmer's howdunit-Strange Person-Mysteriously Involved paradigm. The central shooting is treated a little bit as a howdunit, and a little bit as a mystery-traditional alibi-and-ballistics situation. It is quite interesting, but partially inside and partially outside of Palmer's howdunit plotting technique. Electrician Roscoe is definitely one of Palmer's Mysteriously Involved characters, with Palmer finding a series of ingenious ways to link him to the killing. At first glance, nobody in the tale seems like a Palmeresque Strange Person. But while no person in the tale fits this pattern, some inanimate objects serving as clues just might. Both the cigar evidence and the silencer function in Palmer's plot somewhat the way his Strange Person characters often do: their behavior as clues is odd, and not traditional, as Palmer makes clear by comparing the cigar evidence in his tale to that in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and there are surprising ultimate revelations about their hidden significance. Admittedly, this alleged similarity to the Strange Person plot is a stretch. Still, these clues are ideed unusual in their basic structural form.



"The Riddle of the Flea Circus" (1933) does not contain any howdunit, with its central murder just a conventional stabbing. So the tale as a whole is not an impossible crime, and does not fit in with the architecture often employed by Palmer's main puzzle plot tales. But it does center around one of Palmer's specialties, the person who is Mysteriously Involved. The mysterious man in the gray suit, who appears in the tale's first sentence, is a classic Palmer Mystery Man. And he keeps having surprising links to the case throughout the story. These links provide most of the tale's ingenuity.



"Autopsy and Eva" (1954) contains a shooting, and it eventually develops into a sort-of howdunit, with strange revelations in the offing about events leading up to the killing. There are no Strange Person subplots in the tale. Two characters are constantly involved in the puzzle, as in the Mysteriously Involved kind of subplot. But while Palmer traditionally uses a whole series of varied devices to get connect up his Mysteriously Involved characters, he adopts a different tactic here. Instead, the characters get involved again and again because of a single connecting link: Miss Withers' advertisement for the missing luggage, a bit of sleuthing that opens the story. The same device is used to connect the police to the investigation (and Withers and Malone), repeatedly, and with considerable ingenuity on Palmer's part. The constant use of one connection, to open new perspectives and links, is ingenious. It recalls a bit the use of the information about the crook being on the train at the start of "Once Upon a Crime" (1950), which recurs late in the tale in an ingeniously reversed way. Craig Rice's stories also often feature ingenious links between parts of the action, so one does not want to ascribe all of this to Palmer, necessarily.

"Rift in the Loot" (1955) contains the Impossible Disappearance of a valuable object, like "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl" and "Once Upon a Crime". As in these earlier tales, the actual murder in the story is not a howdunit. The story also has a well-constructed Strange Person plot. This plot goes through two levels of revelation, unusual for this Palmer tradition, and a mark here of extra ingenuity.




Ace of Jades (1940)

The Penguin Pool Murder (1932)

Murder on Wheels (1932)

Murder on the Blackboard (1934)

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1934)

The Puzzle of the Silver Persian (1935)

The Puzzle of the Red Stallion (1935) aka The Puzzle of the Briar Pipe (1936)

No Flowers by Request (1937) aka Omit Flowers

The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla (1937)

The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941)

The Riddles of Hildegarde Withers (1947)

Miss Withers Regrets (1948)

Four Lost Ladies (1949)

The Monkey Murder and other Hildegarde Withers Stories

The Green Ace (1950) aka At One Fell Swoop (1951)

Nipped in the Bud (1952) aka Trap for a Redhead

Cold Poison (1954) aka Exit Laughing (1954)

Unhappy Hooligan (1956) aka Death in Grease Paint (1956)

People Versus Withers and Malone (1963) with Craig Rice

Rook Takes Knight (1968)

Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene (1969) with Fletcher Flora

The Adventures of the Marked Man and One Other (1973)

Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles (2002)


As Jay Stewart


Before It's Too Late (1950)


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