Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Penguin Pool Murder: Stuart Palmer

Whenever I read a book from a series that I read back in my youth, I hold my breath in anticipation. Will I still like this author's books? I was relieved once I got into this story. All the things I remembered were still there: an enjoyable set of characters and a good story. A bit complex with a lot of red herrings, but still definitely my cup of tea. This book was published in 1931; the action occurs shortly after the stock market crash in 1929 and the murder victim was a stockbroker. Miss Withers is a schoolteacher; she is very sharp and notices details. She helps Inspector Oscar Piper with his investigations.

As William DeAndrea describes it in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa:
... Stuart Palmer took the already time-honored device of the spinster detective, gave her an attitude, filled the books with humor, and with his creation of Miss Hildegarde Withers, entertained several generations of mystery readers.

In this first story in the series, the murder takes place at the New York Aquarium. Miss Withers has taken her third grade class to visit the aquarium and they encounter two crimes on that day; a pickpocket steals a woman's purse and a man's body is found in the penguin tank. Miss Withers and one of her students are the ones who discover the body, thus she is interviewed by Piper. While there, she begins taking notes for the Inspector and their partnership begins.

It seems like a pairing of a middle-aged, unmarried school teacher (decidedly not elegant) and a police detective would require a lot of suspension of disbelief.  The way this story is told it makes sense, and it is entertaining. Miss Withers is very out-spoken and not afraid to share her views. Very soon Piper recognizes the value that Miss Withers can supply, and he actively encourages her participation in the investigation.

At one point, Miss Withers asks what the Inspector has planned:
Piper burst out in hearty laughter. Miss Withers had never seen him laugh before, and it was pleasant. “Good Lord, woman. I'm not on any track. I'm like the man in Leacock's book who jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions. This is a real case, not a puzzle out of a story magazine. I'm a detective, not a super sleuth. Sherlock Holmes would know all about this case in no time, what with a magnifying glass and his knowledge of the bone structure of Polynesian aborigines. Philo Vance would solve it between puffs of a Regie cigarette, from simple deductions based on the squawks of those penguins we met up with yesterday. But not me. I don't know any more than you do. Maybe less, only I know how to act wise. I'm just blundering ahead, trying not to miss any of the more apparent lines of approach.

Some of the Hildegarde Withers books and short stories were made into movies. The Penguin Pool Murder was filmed and released in 1932.  Warner Archives has made the Hildegarde Withers Mystery Collection available on DVD. We had seen several of those adaptations on TCM but it had been years. The movie adaptation of this book was a lot of fun; the story and action in the film is very close to the book. Parts of it were filmed at the aquarium in New York. (See this post at Jeremiah's Vanishing New York.)


The stars of the film are Edna May Oliver as Miss Withers and James Gleason as Inspector Piper. Edna May Oliver continued in her role in the next two films, but was replaced by Helen Broderick in the 4th film, and Zazu Pitts starred in the last two. James Gleason continued his role through all six films.

I loved this book and the movie, but many reviewers agree that some of the later books and movies were much better.

Author Steven Saylor has written a very informative piece about the author, the books in the series, and the movies.

See also:


This post is submitted for Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog

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Publisher:   Bantam Books, 1986 (orig. pub. 1931)
Length:      182 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       A Hildegarde Withers Mystery #1
Setting:      New York City
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.


26 comments:

  1. I was so happy to see that someone is writing about Stuart Palmer! I raced through this series a while ago, and absolutely loved the books.

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    1. I will be reading more of them soon, Nan. I was glad I finally got back to these books.

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  2. Now look what you made me do! I just had to buy the DVD collection. I wish there was an all-old-mystery-movies channel out of the million useless channels we get on cable. Or is there?

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    1. I do hope you enjoy the DVD collection, Joan. We are enjoying the movies, and it is fun to see the older actors. It does not seem that old mystery movies (or old movies of any kind) are as easy to find on TV as they use to be.

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  3. Thanks very much, Tracy, for the kind mention/link. Palmer did a very effective job of pairing a police officer and an amateur sleuth, I think, although you have a good point that you'd think it wouldn't work. And I do like Hildegarde Withers' personality :-) .

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    1. You did a great spotlight on that book, Margot. Hildegarde Withers is a great character.

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  4. Never heard of book, author or movie, but that' who
    I read your blog...to learn smth new.
    Zazu Pitts, haven't that name in a long time. Wasn't she in a 1950's tv show with Ann Southern about a company secretary? Name of show?
    Great review, thx!

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    1. The author is very interesting, Nancy, he was also a screenwriter. I looked up Zazu Pitts, and you are right, she was in a show called Private Secretary with Ann Sothern as a secretary and Zazu played her aunt. I remember a later show that was similar but don't think I ever saw Private Secretary.

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    2. Don't worry, I am sure I am older than you are. We just did not have a television when I was younger.

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  5. A new author and series for me, Tracy, and I like those covers too.

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    1. I am glad you mentioned the covers, Prashant. I have always like the covers for the Bantam paperback reprints, but really had not looked into the illustrator. From what I find, the illustrator is John Jinks, and I will have to find out more about him.

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  6. We watched the Penguin Pool Murder last night. What fun! I think the penguin stole the show, but Miss Withers wasn't bad either.

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    1. I did love the penguins in that movie, Joan. And Miss Withers and Inspector Piper. I have only watched one other movie from the set but will get to more of them soon.

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  7. Great review Tracy - I love these books (Palmer was always great fun) and the initial trio of films are among my favourites, with Edna Mae Oliver just perfectly cast.

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    1. Thanks, Sergio. We are in agreement on these books, the humor wins me over and I don't really care that the mystery plot is not so great (as some reviewers complain). And I liked the aquarium as a setting for this one.

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  8. Entertaining review and perfect excerpt, Tracy. I'd not heard of Stuart Palmer, but next time I visit the Oasis, our local used bookstore, I shall hunt him down!

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    1. That is a good excerpt, isn't it, Mathew. I had plenty to pick from. I hope you find one of Palmer's books -- and that you enjoy it.

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  9. This is a book that I've been meaning to read for years - I love the title so much... One day.

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    1. It is a fun book, Moira, I hope you do get to it someday.

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  10. Hi Tracy -- Great overview (and info for new fans) of the book and the movie. The Hildegarde Withers DVD set was available a couple years ago at a great price, and I bought it sight unseen. Very entertaining older films, and Edna Mae Oliver is a wonderful character actress! (She even pops up in a number of Warner Brothers caricature cartoons from the mid- and late-30s, and I'm guessing her appearances challenge a lot of today's viewers, who can more readily identify celebrities like Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable when they appear in cartoon form.)

    The relationship between tart schoolteacher and irascible, cigar-chewing detective is an enjoyable one, and seems to be quite American in tone to boot. (Nero Wolfe and Detective Cramer come to mind.) I must read more Stuart Palmer -- I stumbled upon a true-crime short story he wrote in his journalism days, about a ship captain who murdered his wife (I believe; it was a while ago), and the arch delivery made it a great read. Best wishes, and thanks -- Jason

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    1. That is an interesting comparison to Nero Wolfe and Cramer, Jason. I love the Nero Wolfe series and their relationship is always entertaining. Interesting about the true crime story by Palmer also. Thanks for all that information.

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  11. Ah! Just what I need. Another mid century detective series to keep me busy. And by a writer who can quote Leacock.

    I wonder why I've never noticed these before. Thanks.

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    1. Susan, I hope you enjoy them. There are more books in this series than I was aware of... there are at least 15. I read some when I was younger but I am sure I did not get to all of them.

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  12. I guess I'll have to bite the bullet and give Palmer a go.

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    1. Palmer's books are definitely worth a try, dfordoom. You may not like them but I would like to hear your opinion, either way.

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