Stuart Palmer | Influence from Anna Katherine Green | Influence from S.S. Van Dine | Palmer Mystery Plots | Plot Chart | Symmetry | Palmer's Themes
Novels: The Penguin Pool Murder | Murder on Wheels | Murder on the Blackboard | The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree | The Puzzle of the Silver Persian | The Puzzle of the Red Stallion | The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla | The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan | Miss Withers Regrets | Four Lost Ladies | The Green Ace | Nipped in the Bud | Cold Poison | Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene | Before It's Too Late | Unhappy Hooligan
Short Stories: People Vs. Withers & Malone | Short Stories: Impossible Crimes and Howdunits | Short Stories: Themes
Films: Film Versions | Palmer's Screenplays | Step by Step
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Murder on the Blackboard (1932)
The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla (1937)
The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941)
Miss Withers Regrets (1947)
The Green Ace (1950)
Nipped in the Bud (1951)
Cold Poison (1954) (Chapters 1 - 5, 11, 12)
People Vs. Withers & Malone (with Craig Rice) (1950 - 1963)
Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles (collected 2002)
The Riddles of Hildegarde Withers (collected 1947)
The Monkey Murder and Other Hildegarde Withers Stories (collected 1950)
Other Hildegarde Withers tales
Howie Rook stories
Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles is available from Crippen & Landru, and The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla, Miss Withers Regrets and Nipped in the Bud from Rue Morgue Press. (I am not associated with Crippen & Landru or Rue Morgue Press, and have no financial ties with either publisher whatsoever.) The Riddles of Hildegarde Withers and The Monkey Murder and Other Hildegarde Withers Stories are very rare old paperbacks, long out of print. I have never actually seen copies of these last two books, but have read many, but not all, tales from them, in magazines and anthologies.
The above is not a complete list of Palmer's fiction. It is the stories I enjoyed reading, and personally recommend.
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.
Van Dine knew Anthony Abbot: Abbot's autobiography records their friendship. (Thanks to Bill Vande Water, for pointing this out!) But it is not clear if Van Dine ever met any other 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 Palmer lived across the street from Anthony Abbot. He was friends with Ellery Queen. He worked at the same New York ad agency as Richard Lockridge, although perhaps at different times. An inscribed copy of Murder on the Blackboard, offered for sale in 2006 on the Internet, reveals that Palmer knew Harry Stephen Keeler (T. S. Stribling also knew Keeler). Palmer's inscription reads: "To Harry K - who played mid-wife at its birth chez Brentano, and who didn't care to learn what little girls are made of. With sincere affection tempered with other things. Stuart Palmer, July 1, 1933". And Palmer 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).
Around 1940, Palmer would go on to write Withers short tales for the New York Sunday News. This tabloid newspaper was sold nationally throughout the US, was famed for its comic strips, which it often shared with the Chicago Tribune, and was astonishingly popular, having a circulation in 1946 of over four and a half million, reportedly the largest of any US newspaper of the era. Palmer's short tales would also appear in its sister paper, the Chicago Tribune, such as "Green Ice" (1941). After 1945, Palmer short stories seem to have appeared exclusively in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
The following discussion tries to stick to general architectural features. But it still might contain SPOILERS. One is advised to read all of the above, entertaining Palmer mysteries, before continuing with the rest of this article.
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. This explanation often gives us a new understanding of that person's identity. Often, there is something structurally unusual about the identity.
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.
Palmer also sometimes includes an Impossible Disappearance, usually of an object.
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", the hotel front in "Hildegarde Withers Is Back". These are almost 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 plot chart below summarizes where the above approaches occur, in Palmer works.
|Story||Year||Howdunit||Disappearance||Strange Person||Mysteriously Involved|
|The Penguin Pool Murder||1931||Hanging||hat-band||Mr. Parson||-|
|Murder on Wheels||1932||Hanging||-||Stait Brothers||-|
|The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree||1933||Poisoning||Corpse||Barney Kelsey||-|
|The Puzzle of the Silver Persian||1934||Overboard, Noel||corpse, diary||-||-|
|The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla||1937||Stabbing||-||Julio Mendez||Dulcie Prothero|
|The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan||1941||Broken Neck||-||Buster, Derek Laval||-|
|Before It's Too Late||1950||-||-||Rosina||-|
|Cold Poison||1954||Poisoning||-||Mr. P.R.F.||-|
|Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene||1969||-||-||Bruno Wagner||-|
|The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl||1933||-||Pearl Cup||Alexius||guard Joel Burton|
|The Riddle of the Flea Circus||1933||-||-||-||man in gray suit|
|The Riddle of the Brass Band||1934||Defenestration||-||-||Paul Orchard|
|The Riddle of the Forty Naughty Girls||1934||Shooting||-||cigar, silencer||Electrician Roscoe|
|The Riddle of the Hanging Men||1934||Hanging||-||-||-|
|The Riddle of the Whirling Lights||1935||Stabbing||scissor blade||-||-|
|The Riddle of the Tired Bullet||1948||Shooting||-||-||-|
|Tomorrow's Murder||1940||Poisoning||-||-||Dr. Harris|
|Green Ice||1941||-||thief, jewel||painter||Southern Belle|
|Snafu Murder||1945||-||-||killer, brother-in-law||-|
|The Riddle of the Black Museum||1946||Strangling||-||-||-|
|The Monkey Murder||1947||locked room||-||-||subplot|
|Fingerprints Don't Lie||1947||Fingerprints||-||the victim||-|
|Once Upon a Train||1950||-||money||victim, killer||-|
|Autopsy and Eva||1954||Shooting||-||-||luggage|
|Rift in the Loot||1955||-||Loot||the killer||-|
|You Bet Your Life||1957||Squirt Gun||Wife||disguise?||-|
|Withers and Malone, Brain-Stormers||1959||forgery, killing||gun||-||-|
|Hildegarde Withers Is Back||1968||Defenestration||-||men in the memoir?||-|
|The Stripteaser and the Private Eye||1968||Card game||-||gangster villains||-|
|Murder in Times Square||1943||Snake bite||-||-||-|
"The Riddle of the Black Museum" has small aspects of the howdunit. When the solution is explained, this howdunit aspect of the strangling is brought to the fore. But it was never really part of the mystery puzzle until then.
"Once Upon a Train" (1950), the first story in People Vs. Withers & 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 Train" of some non-symmetry-oriented Palmer tales, as well. The civic corruption among social leaders stems from The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree and "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 Train", 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 Train" (1950).
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 being tied up in The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree, Miss Withers' gas attack in The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan, and the truth serum in Miss Withers Regrets. 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, and a case-related dream in "Once Upon a Train" (1950). 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 narrator compares its production to the making of a movie, an interesting metaphor.
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. The jeweled sculpture of "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl" (1933) is itself in a glass museum case, like an aquarium. 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:
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". "The Rift in the Lute" is a quotation from Tennyson's Idylls of the King (Merlin and Vivien). 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.
Palmer is especially weak on motives; the killer's motive as revealed at the end of the tale, often seems arbitrary and perfunctory.
However, late in the novel, Palmer introduces two subplots that reflect life-long interests of his in puzzle plotting. First there is an Impossible Disappearance of an Object: in this case, a hat-band (Chapter 15, solved Chapter 21). Then there is a second death, which looks impossible. This is a full-fledged Howdunit, challenging the reader to explain the mechanism by which the killing happened (Chapters 16 - 19). Finally, the motive for the main murder is linked to a stockbroker's client called Mr. Parson, who is perhaps a very simple precursor to the more complex and ingenious Strange Persons who run through later Palmer.
I liked Palmer's sketch of the murder scene (Chapter 5). Like the art in his next two novels, it has an interesting schematic quality. Like them, it attributes the artwork to Hildegarde Withers herself. Oddly enough, the movie version of the book mirror reverses the parity of the Aquarium: what goes from left to right in the book's illustration, goes from right to left in the film's sets.
Barry Costello is one of the first of the colorful, raffish lawyer figures in Palmer. Palmer will later write about Craig Rice's lawyer sleuth, John J. Malone. Costello is best characterized in Chapter 14, which visits him at home. We see his reading matter, mainly historical adventure stories. In 1931, it was clear that adult professional men read. This seems like a change from recent years, when so many grown men do not.
The novel is set in late 1929, shortly after the stock market crash; the murder victim was a stockbroker, and both the crash and the workings of the stock market are portrayed in the novel with some sophistication. It is unclear whether the novel was written then, and publication delayed till 1931, or whether Palmer set his book as a "historical novel in the recent past", always a somewhat unusual approach. Palmer sets much of the novel among the world of successful businessmen, perhaps because he is trying to follow the Van Dine tradition; but somehow he feels ill at ease among these characters. Much is made in the book of the fashionable clothes worn by these wealthy men, and the chief clue actually revolves around men's hats. One senses in Palmer an uncomfortable mixture of admiration, envy and distaste for such businessmen. (Decades later, he is still expressing ambiguous attitudes towards businessmen in "The Jinx Man" (1952) and "People Vs. Withers & Malone" (1963).)
In later and better books Palmer will find much more of a niche among showbiz types, whether the rodeo and film buffs (Murder On Wheels), a film director (The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree), publishing ("The Riddle of the Brass Band"), burlesque ("The Riddle of the Forty Naughty Girls"), a bullfight (The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla), Hollywood scriptwriters (The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan), New York theater people ("The Riddle of the Double Negative"), vaudevillians (The Green Ace), early live TV (Nipped in the Bud), an animation factory (Cold Poison), or the circus (Unhappy Hooligan). He describes all of these types very well, and his novels form a sort of unofficial social history of the lower echelons of show business.
However, the Aquarium setting recalls the museums that run through Van Dine and his followers.
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
Also, both books have interesting mystery subplots dealing with the suspects, subplots that add to the complexity of the story. There are two such extra subplots in each book. And each such subplot deals with a different character. In both books, the subplots add to the romantic element that pervades the stories: there is an ongoing boy meets girl romance in both works, and the subplots greatly entangle this. None of the four subplots involves murder. There has sometimes been a wish expressed by mystery writers and fans that authors could write mysteries that did not involve murder. Publishers usually demand a murder mystery as the central element of most books. But writers can and do create mysteries that do not involve murder, or even any crime, as subplots and red herrings in novels. These Palmer books are good examples.
Palmer would return to complex multi-story environments in "The Riddle of the Tired Bullet" (1948). Both take place in buildings three stories high. The fire escape in Murder on the Blackboard and the railway embankment in "The Riddle of the Tired Bullet" are zones that allow people to move between heights.
Miss Withers detects by exploring the belongings of each staff member of the school, going through their desks (Chapters 3, 5). Clues are hidden among this mass of objects, which will be explained by Miss Withers during the book's solution. Palmer will employ this method in later works, too, such as "Fingerprints Don't Lie". Unfortunately, three of the clues found in these early chapters relate not to the actual murder, but to a murder scheme that never actually came to fruition. It is an odd and frustrating subplot approach, that doesn't actually gel. There are plenty of clues to this attempted murder - but very few for the actual killing!
The cache-of-shoes subplot contains one of the few actual clues to the killer's identity in the novel.
Palmer also experiments with some standard mystery plot approaches. Murder on the Blackboard contains one of the least believable Dying Message clues of its era. The message is far-fetched. And Palmer never comes up with a good reason why the victim left such a concealed clue, rather than just telling someone what she knows.
By contrast, the alibi plot works. It allows Palmer to depict an interesting location, the New York Public Library, and its processes with books and patrons.
The ring subplot is also creative. It combines a physical mystery, with clues to a hidden back-story. Both aspects are well-done.
The hatchet subplot is imaginative and inventive as a puzzling situation. However, its eventual explanation is not creative, and it adds little to our overall understanding of the crimes, being logically disconnected from everything else.
The corpse disappears at the start, a common situation in mystery novels. And it evades a search. This more-or-less links this subplot with the Impossible Disappearances that run through Palmer. Palmer's solution of where it turns up is interesting, and succeeds as dramatic storytelling. But the corpse is not in such an out-of-the way place after all. That it wasn't found during the initial search, mainly suggests that the low level police searchers were inept, a point raised loudly by Miss Withers in the novel. So this is not a full-fledged Impossible Crime.
Similarly, the subplot about the janitor's whereabouts than begins in Chapter 5 is fascinating, one of the best puzzles in the book. As inventive story telling it is good. But it depends on ideas that are not considered fair in the world of Impossible Crimes. So it is better to view it as an imaginative-mystery-puzzle-episode-that-is-not-quite-a-traditional-impossible-crime.
The Betty Curran subplot is also well-done. It has a good motive, something Palmer often was weak at. "Snafu Murder" will later have a plot, in which an event that looks one way, will turn out to be something else entirely: one of the main achievements of the Betty Curran plot.
The early Withers novels imitate Van Dine, in containing a police staff for Inspector Piper that serve as continuing characters throughout the books. This approach reaches its climax with Murder on the Blackboard. Here, Piper is laid up throughout the novel, and his police staff moves front and center. Series characters Sgt. Taylor and officer McTeague get prominent roles. A large number of new police characters are also introduced. However, this is the Last Hurrah for these series policemen: later novels will often have Withers on the road, away from New York City. The NYC cops of the early novels largely disappear from the books.
There are unusual intimations of lesbianism, among some of the single female schoolteachers: Miss Mycroft (Chapter 8), Natalie Pearson who is "boyish" (Chapter 3) and wears "mannish clothes" (Chapter 17). These characterizations are brief, and nothing ever much comes of them.
Such characters as the janitor, Janey Davis, A. Robert Stevenson, Natalie Pearson, and storekeeper Tobey across the street keep turning up in the novel. Perhaps they can be considered Mysteriously Involved.
The 1934 film version of Murder on the Blackboard is terrible, one of the dullest in the series, although it is quite faithful to the book.
There is also a subplot about a missing, hidden object (not named here to avoid spoilers). Several Palmer shorts stories have such hidden objects, too. In both this novel and the short tales, the location of the object defies a massive search - and its disappearance is also more-or-less an impossible crime, too. Palmer includes some clues to the location.
Barney Kelsey is a well-done Strange Person.
The above aspects of the novel are all solid puzzles. But other aspects of the story are less well-constructed. The choice of murderer is a surprise. But there are not any real clues to the identity of the killer. It is arbitrary. And the motive is a generic one, which we learn early on, and which could apply to anyone in the tale.
The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree benefits from its Catalina Island setting. Palmer gives a complete travelogue, vividly told.
There are some brief "howdunit" aspects given a solution early on (Chapter 4), which directly echo the killing in Murder on Wheels. They also recall the howdunit in "The Riddle of the Brass Band" (1934). The killing at first has Impossible Crime features, taking place in an area guarded at both ends by witnesses.
Later (Chapter 11), the same Rosemary subplot takes on aspects that bear some resemblance to an Impossible Disappearance. It is not a pure Impossible Disappearance, of the kind found in the rest of Palmer: but it bears a relationship. It does involve a character - or perhaps their corpse - somehow vanishing from a much-searched ocean liner. Later events cause even more complications in this puzzle. The solution is fairly ingenious.
Similarly, the diary pages seem to vanish from that same liner. The solution involves the failure of Scotland Yard to do a really good search, as the book itself points out. This makes it less fair as a puzzle. The solution is not that ingenious.
The subplot about steward Noel is also an interesting howdunit.
The solution of the little subplot about the Honorable Emily and the stewardess (end of Chapter 5), anticipates the Impossible Disappearance solution of "Once Upon a Train" (1950).
Hildegarde Withers does not do much actual detection, normally a Palmer strong point. In fact Hildegarde does not get to display much personality at all throughout the book, and there is little humor.
The novel's best feature is its storytelling. Palmer constantly keeps the pot boiling by adding new twists and events, often fairly interesting. This technique is often used in his short stories, and Persian seems constructed like one of his short stories, only on a very large scale. This abundance of plot helps make the book pleasantly readable. There are many unexpected interactions among the characters; it is as if Palmer is always looking for ways to tie together the two most unlikely characters he could associate.
The novel also shows a good progression, by having its three thirds set on board ship, in London, and finally in Cornwall. Palmer would later set his Sherlock Holmes pastiche in Cornwall. One has a feeling on reading the book, that it is based on an actual trip Palmer made sometime.
Palmer makes a cat be one of his characters; such a technique is common in today's cozies. In later post-1947 works, Miss Withers' dog Talleyrand will have a continuing role.
The Mexican background is vividly realized throughout, with Palmer exploring some new locale in every chapter. Palmer's Mexico is a tourist one, not a deep sociological study of daily life in that country, but it is refreshingly dignified and free from negative stereotypes. The literal colorfulness of the Mexican background, and the many scenes at night lit by candles or flashlights, have some of the hallucinatory qualities that in other Palmer works are provided by jewels or tropical fish tanks. The central section of the book (Chapter 8) takes place at a bullfight. This is the only part of the novel on Palmer's home turf of show-biz, broadly defined. The bullfight echoes the rodeo in Murder on Wheels, and the Mexican locale as a whole returns in Nipped in the Bud.
One wonders if this story influenced later writers. The Lockridges' Voyage into Violence (1956) has a similar travelogue structure. And Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Solid Key (1941) has a subplot that can be read as a creative variant on the Julio Mendez plot in Palmer. Like Palmer, both the Lockridges and Boucher are members of the Van Dine school.
Aside from its howdunit aspects, the solution of the murder in The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla is not ingenious. The choice of the murderer echoes mystery clichés, and is easily suspected. The killer's motive, often a weak point with Palmer, is poorly done. This lack of a creative finale is the book's biggest weakness.
The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla does show ingenuity throughout, however, by constantly bringing its large cast of suspects into an involvement with the plot, and making many of them involved in baffling and mysterious situations. Palmer had a special skill of sheer storytelling, in which he could spin the actions of his characters into a continually unrolling plot. He does a good job of making some characters constantly at the center of suspicious looking mysteries. One can describe Julio Mendez as a Strange Person, and Dulcie Prothero as Mysteriously Involved. In fact, both are classic examples of these kinds of Palmer mystery subplots. As noted earlier, both the basic howdunit of the central murder mystery, and the subplot mysteries involving the personal lives of some of the suspects, recall the overall structure of Murder On Wheels.
The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan shares some features with earlier Palmer novels. The central murder is another of Palmer's howdunits, a bit closer to the one in Murder on Wheels, than the elaborate stabbing in The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla. Here, however, it is hardly an impossible crime, and it has the least elaborate and inventive solution of any of these three books.
The book is notable for not just one, but two Strange Person subplots. The subplot about Buster recalls a bit the tale of Julio Mendez in The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla. Both subplots in turn have a slightly more distant relationship with the brothers in Murder on Wheels. The subplot about Derek Laval in The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan is also related to the brothers in Murder on Wheels. All of these are some of the most important Strange Person subplots in Palmer's novels. All three novels thus show Palmer's construction around a common architectural plan, with a central howdunit murder, supported and flanked by similar Strange Person subplots. All of the details of the murders and subplots are different in each book, however.
The two obnoxious screenwriters who are central characters here recall the writing duo in a Broadway play that is still remembered for its spoof of a Hollywood studio, Samuel and Bella Spewack's Boy Meets Girl (1935). Palmer's novel was probably influenced by this.
Jed Nicolet is one of the dynamic, likable young lawyer characters that run through Palmer. When introduced, a reference is made to his previously encountering Hildegarde Withers in "the bridle-path case" (Chapter 4). At first this sounds like The Puzzle of the Red Stallion: but I cannot find Nicolet anywhere in that novel. We learn that in their first meeting that Nicolet grilled Hildegarde Withers on the witness stand, recalling lawyer Barry Costello grilling Withers in The Penguin Pool Murder (Chapter 20).
Miss Withers Regrets has a post-World War II background, with a returning serviceman, and a critical look at black market food activities during the war. Palmer was interested in such home-front subjects: they also play roles in "Snafu Murder" (1945) and "The Riddle of the Black Museum" (1946).
The oval swimming pool is perhaps another another of Palmer's geometric murder sites.
The main weakness of the murder mystery plot in Miss Withers Regrets is poor motive, once again. There is no good motive for the killings.
Otherwise, the several subplots of Miss Withers Regrets are well done, with lots of pleasant ideas.
The swimsuit recalls the ideas about men's clothes in The Penguin Pool Murder, although this is an unusual variation on them. They differ in being women's clothes, not men's, and also in the construction of the mystery plot ideas. There were also swimsuits in Palmer's film Step by Step (1946), although they were not linked to any mystery puzzle there.
The discussion of the body floating and sinking in the pool, somewhat recalls the floating and sinking of the hat in the aquarium tank in The Penguin Pool Murder.
The subplot about the victim's profession has some relation to the subplot about the postcards in "The Purple Postcards" (1939).
The clever idea about the footprint in the second murder recalls Palmer's ingenuity with fingerprints in "Fingerprints Don't Lie" (1947) of the same year.
Four Lost Ladies is perhaps an attempt by Palmer to de-emphasize mystery plotting, and instead get closer to the novel of suspense. The suspense novels of Cornell Woolrich had made a great impact in the 1940's, and Palmer is perhaps following this trend. Some of the plot aspects here are Woolrichian. The opening scene recreates the overheated emotional life of one of the victims, and tries to generate some suspense, both types of scenes which frequently occur in Woolrich (and which he does much better than Palmer). The first killing takes place from a fall from a hotel, like Woolrich's The Bride Wore Black (1940) and "The Room With Something Wrong" (1938). We have a young girl coming from a small town to New York City, to try to track down the killer, as in Woolrich's Deadline at Dawn (1944). We have women going undercover to try to bait the killer, as in Woolrich's Phantom Lady (1942). Most of this, aside from the opening chapter, is delivered in Palmer's jaunty, more-or-less humorous tone. Palmer would publish a non-series, somewhat Woolrich-like suspense novel the next year, Before It's Too Late (1950), which I liked even less than Four Lost Ladies. Palmer's home turf is the true puzzle plot mystery, to which he brings his strong plotting skills. These books are a detour.
Four Lost Ladies is liveliest in Chapters 4-6, in which Miss Withers and her young bobbysoxer friend Jeeps get involved directly in the mystery. Palmer shows ingenuity with his storytelling, especially Jeeps' on-going attempts to keep involved with the investigation. The plot ingenuity involves Withers' and Jeeps' investigations, not the murder mystery itself - but it is nicely ingenious all the same. This is also the section in which most of the characters are introduced and most richly portrayed. Much of the book's actual substance is in these chapters, which would have made a pleasant novella.
Imagery and plot ideas from Four Lost Ladies recur in the short story "Autopsy and Eva" (1954). In both stories, Withers tries to track down a victim's luggage. This is connected more meaningfully to the plot in "Autopsy and Eva": it actually has something to do with the murder mystery. In both tales, the search for the luggage brings new characters into the story: something also done more elaborately and with richer plotting in "Autopsy and Eva". Both stories take us extensively into Withers' home, both show us charming portraits of her poodle Talleyrand there (who makes his debut in the Withers saga in Four Lost Ladies), and in both Withers takes on as a roommate a beautiful, nice young woman who is sympathetically involved in the mystery plot.
Since the puzzle plot of The Green Ace is disappointing, I should supposedly be giving a thumbs down to the book. Actually, I enjoyed reading it very much. Palmer is a good storyteller, and I enjoyed spending time with Miss Withers and Inspector Piper. There is a background of cheap showbiz in the tale, something Palmer does very well, and I also liked the descriptions of the operations of the New York police. This book is a political landmark in Palmer's fiction as well: in The Green Ace, Palmer pointedly speaks out in favor of racial integration.
The "strangled with a necklace" aspects give the book a bit of a howdunit aspect, although this is a tiny part of the mystery.
The Green Ace (1950) might be an influence on Truman Capote's novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1958). Although the murder victim is never on stage in Palmer's book, she is the much discussed central presence of the novel. The murder victim in The Green Ace is a young show girl, very attractive to a series of men, who has much in common with Capote's Holly Golightly. Both have a similar secret in their past. The Green Ace also contains scenes set at Sing-Sing and Tiffany's, two locales in Capote's novella. (In both works, a woman visits an inmate at the prison. How many works of world literature contain both Sing-Sing and Tiffany's as a location? It must be a vanishingly small number.) There is also a young man from a well to do family, who has to cope with his stuffy family's ideas of marriage in both works (Palmer's is from Philadelphia's Main Line, Capote's is a Brazilian diplomat). A dog is an important character in Palmer, a cat in Capote. Beyond the similarities of the two books, 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 of Palmer's poorest short stories, "The Riddle of the Twelve Amethysts" (1945), also uses a fake story, somewhat similar to the approach in The Green Ace. The early sections set forth an intriguing plot, a mysterious situation that seems difficult to explain - and then we learn at the end of the tale that the situation never really existed - and so has no solution! It seems like a cheat, or at least, a disappointment.
Palmer has introduced a new character here, super defense attorney Sam Bordin. Palmer had already started collaborating with Craig Rice on tales that mix Withers' with Rice's attorney sleuth John J. Malone. Bordin is in many ways similar to Malone. Both have never lost a client, both cut legal corners in their clients' defense, both are flamboyant, both have long suffering secretaries and an eye for high living. It is as if Palmer liked the possibilities opened up by the Withers-Malone pairing, and wanted to have a similar character available in his own novels. Palmer also makes the Withers-Bordin combination more Malone like by having Withers and Bordin be old friends.
The appeal of Nipped in the Bud is also due to its plotting, which is unconventional. The reader is never quite sure exactly what sort of story he or she is reading. Is this a murder mystery; a hunt for a missing witness; a tale of legal shenanigans in preparation for a trial? The story could be any of the above, and it is not clear till the end what the real nature of the story is. Palmer's sustained ambiguity keeps the reader guessing. The story continuously oscillates between these poles, sometimes making it look like one of them, sometimes another. It is a very unusual approach. Palmer moves his characters through a strange labyrinth. While the end of the tale does not show puzzle plot brilliance, it does manage to tie up all the ends of the plot. Palmer is oddly helped in this by the breakdown in Golden Age conventions in the 1950's. In the 1930's, most crime books were formal mystery puzzles. By the 1950's, suspense tales were much more common, and it is perfectly plausible that Nipped in the Bud might be a tale of suspense or legal maneuvering.
The treatment of the characters' motivations is also deliberately mystifying. In many mystery stories, the characters all look slightly suspicious. Anyone of them could be the killer. By contrast, Nipped in the Bud is full of actions that demand explanations in terms of stark innocence or guilt. When a witness disappears, is she doing this out of fear? bribery? Does she have a guilty secret herself? An idealistic motive? Has someone deluded her with false ideas? Palmer constantly makes us wonder. These possible motives each move the interpretation of the story in a definitely different direction. There is something discrete about these alternatives, in the mathematical sense of the word. Unlike the guilt or innocence of a character in a conventional novel, which exists along a continuum in shades of gray, the various possible motives in Nipped in the Bud are all sharply separate from each other, like a choice between black and white.
Between the choices the reader is constantly being asked to make about what kind of novel this is, and the different interpretations that are put on the characters' motivations, Palmer has devised a novel that is frequently branching of into different directions. If one were to construct a diagram of the book, the best approach would be a 3D model using a set of Tinkertoys. Each colored stick would represent a different branch of the book's plot, which forks off in all directions making a three dimensional tree.
Nipped in the Bud contains many references to Sherlock Holmes. Withers employs a young Mexican boy Vito as an assistant; the novel points out that he is in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes' "Baker Street Irregulars". Charles B. Child introduced a similar Iraqi character into his Inspector Chafik stories. There is also the young black kid in William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust (1948). All these young detectives are members of minority races. They are a sign of the early Civil Rights era, and an attempt by their authors to introduce minority sleuths into fiction.
Palmer uses just a few settings for his tale. These include the apartment building where the murder is committed, the TV studio, the main suspect's parents' house; and the hotel where Hildegarde and the young women stay in Tijuana. This allows Palmer to build up the reality of his tale. Most of these spaces seem domestic: they are where people live everyday.
Nipped in the Bud marks the official move of Hildegarde from New York City to Southern California. Part of the book takes place in New York, but most in Tijuana, Mexico, across the border from California. From that point on, most of the Withers short stories and the one completed novel, Cold Poison (1954), have a Southern California setting - although some of the Malone collaborations show Withers visiting the lawyer at his home base of Chicago.
On the plus side, the first five chapters of the novel are well written. They are not going anywhere as a puzzle plot, but they remain an interesting torso. The book is set in an animated cartoon film studio of the era. This is similar to the film studio background Palmer employed for The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941).
Mr. P.R.F. is an example of a Strange Person, perhaps simpler than some of the others in Palmer.
There is a discussion about how the killer might have produced the penguin illustration that accompanies the threatening notes (middle of Chapter 3). This anticipates a bit the methods of forging the check in "Withers and Malone, Brain-Stormers" (1959). Both tales involve tracing; both look at the relationship between fakery and levels of skill: although these concepts are interestingly different in the two tales. Both stories also have a finale in which an expert testifies about such production.
An unusual clue involving knowledge emerges in the middle of the testimony. Palmer had another clue about knowledge, concerning the phone books in "The Riddle of the Tired Bullet". Ellery Queen also liked mystery puzzles centered around knowledge.
The "divorced wife of one character who unexpectedly shows up working as secretary to another, more business-like man" is a character situation that will return in "People Vs. Withers & Malone" (1963). It shows Palmer's technical skill, at getting characters constantly involved in the plot of the story. It is related to his suspects who are Mysteriously Involved, turning up in the mystery plot again and again.
At the end of Cold Poison, there is a poignant moment when the characters speculate, that because of their age, there might not be anymore Withers adventures. In fact, Cold Poison was to be the last Withers novel Palmer completed, even though he lived another fourteen years. It is unclear what caused this. Did Palmer weary of the characters? Did he become to ill too write? Or did market forces make it impossible to publish more Withers books, with editors deciding the series was "old-fashioned"? Withers stories appeared in a steady stream through 1951, then slowed down to a trickle.
Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene gets Miss Withers among the hippies and drop-outs of the Sixties. It is not perhaps a profound portrait, but it is lively and colorful. The first half especially makes entertaining reading, as a time capsule of the era (Chapters 1-9). It is often highly critical of the counter culture, but it is not a caricature.
I like the young man Al Fister, who helps Hildegarde out. This is not the first time Palmer gave Miss Withers a youthful sidekick: the bobby-soxer Jeeps in Four Lost Ladies springs to mind. Al Fister is something of a compromise between or combination of the best of the counter-culture and a traditional hero. He is a college drop-out in search of himself and the meaning of life. He is specifically seen as "pacific", that is, non-violent. Non-violence had political implications in the 1960's, being the basis of the Civil Rights movement, and also affecting attitudes towards the Vietnam War. Al is friendly, helpful, gentle, intelligent, responsible and tries to aid other people. He also rides a motorcycle.
The opening missing person case shows solid sleuthing. It lacks puzzle plot features or twists, but the detective work performed by Miss Withers and Al is solid. This is the part of the book where Al has the biggest role.
Unfortunately, however, whodunit puzzle plot elements in the rest of the novel are skimpy. The main murder is brought home at the end to one of the suspects. But there are hardly any clues indicating that suspect's guilt. And no other ingenious plot ideas about this crime. The killer does have a motive, which is how Miss Withers claims to figure out whodunit. But so do several other of the suspects.
The most ingenious part of the novel is the sub-plot about Bruno Wagner. He eventually approaches being one of Palmer's Strange Persons. (Despite this similarity to Palmer traditions, in fairness one must reiterate that this plot could be the work of Palmer or Flora or both.)
There is little inside information on Washington life, either. Best such scene: the Teletype conference (end of Chapter 9). Today sending "text messages" around the world is routine; in 1950 it was the last word in high tech. The way the messages are displayed on a movie-like screen anticipates the slide show Hildegarde Withers gives in a movie projection room in the finale of Cold Poison (Chapter 11). Both have the hallucinatory or visionary quality one finds in Palmer's descriptions of fish tanks or dreams.
Other Palmer mysteries are full of telegrams: they are a common motif in his plots. Like the Teletype messages in Before It's Too Late, they tend to pass messages between crime investigators in different cities. Palmer had included a nicely detailed police Teletype message in Miss Withers Regrets (end of Chapter 3), which suggests he was familiar with the way such messages are worded.
The Teletype conference recalls high tech communication scenes in the films of Henry Hathaway. Call Northside 777 (1948) depicts the sending of photographs over telephone lines, and Diplomatic Courier (1952) shows a US State Department message room, where Teletype messages to and from Europe to Washington are projected on a screen during their process of being coded, sent, and decoded.
Palmer's depiction of the vaults beneath the Pentagon before and after the Teletype conference (middle of Chapter 9, start of Chapter 10) is brief but interesting. This atmospheric passage recalls the creepy basement in the school building in Murder on the Blackboard. Both the school, and the basement next door, are actually US Government buildings - just like the Pentagon. Both are full of stored old material.
One wonders if the young author Paul Orchard in "The Riddle of the Brass Band" (1934) is also an autobiographical character. Orchard has published a novel called Ace of Vamps, recalling Palmer's own book, Ace of Jades. Palmer himself used the pseudonym Theodore Orchards for a short story "Golden Fleece" (1931).
However, Before It's Too Late does have a full fledged mystery plot, figured out by the narrator-hero at the end. It is far from one of Palmer's best. Rosina is a Palmer Strange Person.
The cigar is another of Palmer's clues involving personal taste. Such Palmer short stories as "Fingerprints Don't Lie", "Snafu Murder" and "Cherchez la Frame" find clues in characters' food and groceries.
The apparently authentic circus background of Unhappy Hooligan seems like an extension of the small time vaudeville of The Green Ace.
Unhappy Hooligan is full of the fashionable Freudianism of the fifties, and contains some nasty Freudian homophobia - something which returns, briefly, in Rook Takes Knight.
Rook's collection of newspaper clippings seems autobiographical: Palmer himself collected clippings on a wide variety of subjects, in hopes of finding story inspiration. Palmer's literary idol Conan Doyle frequently based his Sherlock Holmes stories on news items. Hildegarde Withers also refers to news stories, for example in "The Riddle of the Brass Band" (1934). And suspect Dulcie collects newspaper clippings in The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla.
The imaginary city where Rook lives - closely based on a real one - is funny (Chapter 1). One wonders if Palmer did this for legal reasons.
This mystery is not a howdunit. It is a straightforward shooting, whose only mysterious aspect is that it was somehow committed in a locked room.
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 indeed 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.
"Tomorrow's Murder" (1940) is largely a howdunit. The howdunit is complex and full of clues. There are no impossibilities, and no Strange Persons. Perhaps Dr. Harris could be said to be Mysteriously Involved, although this is a stretch. He does keep getting connected to the story, although not in especially unusual ways. There is a Disappearance (of one of the characters), but it has no impossible aspects. "Tomorrow's Murder" is in Ellery Queen's anthology of sports mysteries, Sporting Blood.
"Green Ice" (1941), a story of theft, involves two borderline-Impossible Disappearances, one of the thief, the other of the title jewel. This delightful story also has plot elements that reflect Strange Person (the painter) and Mysteriously Involved (the Southern Belle) approaches, although they are not 100% pure examples of either. This tale is perhaps most easily found in Ellery Queen's excellent anthology of woman detectives, The Female of the Species.
"Snafu Murder" (1945) has no howdunits or Impossible Disappearances. But it does have a couple of Strange Persons; the soldier brother-in-law, who is always off-stage, and the eventually revealed killer.
"The Monkey Murder" (1947) is not much of a story. It has an locked room situation, but one which is largely explained almost immediately in the story. There is a bit of extra explanation at the end, though, which is the story's best feature. A subplot recycles the Southern Belle and policeman from "Green Ice", but not as well.
"Fingerprints Don't Lie" (1947) contains a central impossibility with its plot about fingerprints: not an impossible crime, in the strict sense, but the ability to commit a crime and leave the wrong prints, as the title suggests. It also has a Strange Person subplot, concerning the victim, one that recalls a bit the Derek Laval subplot in The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan. Both the impossibility and Strange Person contain some original mystery ideas.
"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 Train" (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 Train". As in these earlier tales, the actual murder in the story is not a howdunit. The story also has a well-constructed plot about identity. This plots seems a bit related to Palmer's Strange Person mysteries, although it has differences, too. This plot goes through two levels of revelation, unusual for this Palmer tradition, and a mark here of extra ingenuity.
This story mentions that Withers just finished solving the murder in Cold Poison, so it is a continuation of the Withers series even after all the completed novels about Withers have come to an end. Palmer would indeed keep writing an occasional Withers short story over the next dozen years.
"You Bet Your Life" (1957) seems at first like a thriller, not a puzzle plot mystery. Yet it has elements that recall Palmer plot patterns. The squirt-gun has elements of the howdunit. The killer's wife has disappeared - although she is simply evading all searches, rather than being an Impossible Disappearance. And the killer uses disguise: not quite a Strange Person, but somewhat related perhaps.
The killer's skill at disguise also recalls Eddie the Actor from "Rift in the Loot", a character referred to in "You Bet Your Life", among several previous cases of Miss Withers. "You Bet Your Life" is a Withers solo case, not one of her collaborations with John J. Malone, and it treats her Malone outings as "canonical" and part of the Withers saga.
"Withers and Malone, Brain-Stormers" (1959) contains three mysteries, all more or less howdunits: the forgery, the killing, and an Impossible Disappearance of an object. There are no Strange Person subplots. The story climaxes in Palmer's comic version of a courtroom trial, and is very much his tongue in cheek tribute to Erle Stanley Gardner and his Perry Mason stories. Like those stories, it starts out with legal issues surrounding a crime short of murder (the forgery), gets its heroine up to her neck as chief suspect in a killing, then winds up with the case in court.
"Hildegarde Withers Is Back" (1968) is in Palmer traditions in some ways, and a departure in others. It has a howdunit about a defenestration from a tall New York building, like "The Riddle of the Brass Band". And it deals with writers, also like that tale. It is one of several Palmer works with an inside look at the film industry. Like other late Palmer works about the film industry, it concerns television, like Nipped in the Bud and "You Bet Your Life".
However, the involvement of the kitten in the plot is complex, and seemingly untypical of Palmer. Its Illusion vs. Reality aspects perhaps relate to the real vs. wooden hatchet subplot in Murder on the Blackboard.
Even less typical, is the elaborate subplot about the roots of the motive. The strange Tell All memoir ultimately relates a bit to Palmer's Strange Person motif, although rather distantly. The men in the memoir can be seen as Strange Persons. They recall Rosina in Before It's Too Late. This is all linked to an elaborate account of the writing process used to create the memoir.
"The Stripteaser and the Private Eye" (1968) is mainly a thriller, not a mystery. But it has a few elements that recall Palmer plot gambits. The winning card game leads to questions of how the victor did it - a Howdunit, although not of a violent crime or murder. And the gangster villains have a strange background, that somewhat links them to the Palmer idea of a Strange Person, although they far from a pure example. The heroine even disapperas briefly, although it is not an Impossible Disappearance.
"The Stripteaser and the Private Eye" is one of several Palmer stories, in which uniforms are used for disguise: "Snafu Murder", "Rift in the Loot", "You Bet Your Life".
"Cherchez la Frame" has Malone framed as a serial killer. Murder on the Blackboard also has an innocent man framed as a sex-fiend killer, in a crime that was actually committed for more "rational" motives. Articles of clothing play a role in both framings.
The entertaining "The Blue Fingerprint" (1938) also shares an art world background with "Pearl", as do "The Riddle of the Marble Blade" (1934) and "The Riddle of the Jack of Diamonds". 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 crafts-people, 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).
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".
Palmer's Craig Rice collaborations, such as "Autopsy and Eva" (1954) and "People Vs. Withers & Malone" (1963), paint an explicitly negative portrait of private eyes, as mainly being cheap crooks and blackmailers. This is similar to their negative depiction by George Harmon Coxe, and by Ellery Queen in "The Ides of Michael Magoon" (1947). All of this forms a contrast to the idolization of private detectives by many mystery writers.
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. There are also brief comic encounters with the Communism of the era in "The Riddle of the Marble Blade" (1934) and massive Communist demonstrations in The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla (1937), while a "Red parade" is mentioned as a joke by Piper in Chapter 1 of Murder on Wheels (1932). There is also a more serious treatment of an anarchist in "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl" (1933).
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 gold-diggers 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 far from being a Marxist. 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.
The unusual sets of this movie sometimes contain apparent "ceiling" fixtures, which are sometimes required by the plot of the story. But the sets do not actually seem to contain ceilings. Instead, the "ceiling" fixtures seem to be supported and attached high on the walls. The innovation of actual ceilings is often noticed later in Citizen Kane (1941).
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.
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 a scene at an Aquarium, but there are no penguins in it. I 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.
Palmer wrote the original story for Murder in Times Square (1943). It has some personal trademarks: the murders are howdunits, and the setting is the Broadway theater crowd. This entertaining film still does not quite feel like a Palmer prose story - other hands did the dialogue, for instance.
The other members of the creative team also have personal elements in Step by Step. George Callahan's use of electronic bugs by the spies recalls the even more unusual television jukebox in The Shanghai Cobra, for which he also wrote the story.
Director Phil Rosen was reduced in 1946 to low budget B-movies like Step by Step, but during the silent era he had worked on major films like The Young Rajah (1922).