Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree: Stuart Palmer

This book is part of the Hildegarde Withers series of mystery novels. The protagonist is a spinster schoolteacher who often ends up working on cases with Inspector Oscar Piper of the New York Police Department. In this fourth book of fourteen, Hildegarde Withers is enjoying her first vacation in years on the island of Santa Catalina when a Dragonfly Seaplane lands with nine new visitors to the island. One of the passengers on the plane is dead and the local officials want to declare the death as due to natural causes, a heart attack. Hildegarde thinks he was poisoned. She raises a stink but gets no results.

The victim turns out to be Roswell T. Forrest, who has a $15,000 price on his head to prevent him from testifying before the Brandstatter Committee investigation back in New York. Hildegarde promptly telegraphs to Inspector Piper in New York. He sends a telegram in return telling the police chief to hold off on doing anything with the body until he arrives.

Because the death occurred on the airplane, the circle of suspects is limited to the pilots or the other passengers on the flight. In this story Hildegarde gets to do most of the detecting herself. Inspector Piper is delayed and does not show up until close to the end. Hildegarde is fearless in detecting and strikes off hiking across the island in search of evidence, fortunately not alone but with a friend from the hotel, a passenger who had come in on the seaplane.


This was a fascinating read. The picture of Avalon and Santa Catalina island in the early 1930’s is just wonderful. There is a diagram of the old seaplane and where people sat. I could just imagine what such a flight would be like. Hildegarde Withers is always entertaining. She doesn’t put up with anything and always speaks her mind.

It was good to see Hildegarde getting her own investigation, mostly, but the friendship and respect that she and Oscar Piper have for each other is always a part of these books that I enjoy, so I was glad when he showed up.

And the plot is very good. There were a lot of characters, and I only had a slight hint of who the culprit might be. These stories are humorous, but they are not written exclusively for laughs. There is a serious story and Hildegarde Withers is serious about her investigation.

I was surprised at a young woman wearing trousers on an airplane trip...
With the decisiveness of an old campaigner, the man in brown chose the third seat from the front on the right, placing himself thus directly in front of the girl with the red curls. The usual pair of dark sun glasses obscured her eyes, but her mouth was pleasantly tinted in an orange that matched her hair and contrasted well with the blue of her corduroy trousers
There is a lovely description of the masses of people on the streets of Avalon, and I was surprised to read about the scanty attire of the young ladies in 1933.
Brown-faced gentlemen moved shoreward, bearing the heavy rods and tackle that spell menace to swordfish and leaping tuna. Red-faced gentlemen bore large and shiny golf bags. Little boys swung bright tin pails. Old ladies beamed from wheelchairs—and young ladies beamed from everywhere.  
There were girls, girls—thousands of girls. Girls in furs and girls in cotton pajamas. Girls in riding habits, girls in Paris models, girls in homemade frocks—but mostly girls in very little of anything. Young, tanned bodies in the briefest of shorts, with a wisp of silk haphazardly bound across their breasts ... the essence of Catalina.

The film adaptation: Murder on a Honeymoon

We also watched the film adaptation of this book starring Edna May Oliver and James Gleason as Hildegarde Withers and Oscar Piper. Although the story in the film is close enough to the plot of the book, Piper does show up earlier and play a larger role. Some of the passengers on the seaplane are eliminated from this version and Hildegarde comes over on the plane with the other passengers. The footage of the flight and Santa Catalina Island was wonderful. As usual, I prefer the book, but the movie is a lot of fun too.

There were six films based on this series of novels, and Edna May Oliver starred in the first three. Later she was replaced by Helen Broderick and Zazu Pitts.

See Also...



The Rue Morgue Press edition of this book is still available online, and the book is also available as an e-book from Mysterious Press.


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Publisher:   Rue Morgue Press, 2008 (orig. pub. 1933)
Length:      191 pages
Format:      Trace Paperback
Series:       A Hildegarde Withers Mystery #4
Setting:      Santa Catalina Island, California
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      From my TBR piles; purchased in 2017.

19 comments:

  1. This one sounds lovely, Tracy. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I've never heard of this series before now. - Keishon

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    1. This is a series and an author that did seem to fall from favor after his death, Keishon. He was also a screenwriter in Hollywood for a few years.

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  2. I like the relationship between Hildegarde Withers and Oscar Piper, too. It's done very well, and with nuance, and that's not easy. And Palmer wrote some solid plots too. Glad you enjoyed this one, Tracy.

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    1. The setting was an added bonus, as I noted, Margot. So far I have liked all of the books in the series that I have read.

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  3. I have never read a Hildegarde Withers mystery, but I've just added Stuart Palmer to my 'buy ANYTHING' list for used book stores perusing. Thanks for the recommendation. :-)

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    1. I hope you find some of Palmer's books at the book stores, Debbie. And that you like them when you read them.

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  4. Aren't you just SO nice to link to my post! I went back and read it, and thought oh, yes, before grandchildren! I love Stuart Palmer's work so much. This was a wonderful write-up. I expect California, and maybe Florida, had more 'scantily clad' women in those days, and trouser-wearing women.

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    1. You are probably right about the dress, Nan, and the people were heading to a vacation area. I did not doubt Stuart Palmer, because he was writing about his own time, but it still surprised me. I looked it up, and I found photos of women dressing that way in informal situations at that time.

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  5. I will definitely be reading this one, Tracy. Love that cover art too. I just watched (a couple of days ago) THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER on youtube after searching for ages. You just never know when things are going to show up there and just as quickly disappear. I hope I will find the movie version of this book at some point. I love Edna Mae Oliver AND James Gleason.

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    1. That is a nice cover for this book, Yvette. The skeleton on the pepper tree is nicely done, not that it happens that way in the story. Yes, Oliver and Gleason are both good. I was looking up Gleason and saw that he had written screenplays also. Very interesting.

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  6. Ah, the "essence of Catalina!" Now it seems I must scrap my Machu Picchu plans and start brushing up on Catalina. Thanks, Tracy, I am feeling verklempt. (I'd not known of Stuart Palmer or the Withers/Piper duo, and am wondering, as I am with the Galloway/Nelson thing, if they ever...oh, wait...1933? Probly not.

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    1. You almost lost me with the Galloway/Nelson reference, Matthew, then I realized that you have just reviewed THE CROSSING PLACES. I will be over to visit that review right now. I had to look up "verklempt" also, although I had heard the word before. Now maybe I will remember it.

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    2. "Verklempt" is a word I learned watching Mike Myers's Coffee Talk routine on Saturday Night Live. Here's a sketch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiJkANps0Qw

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    3. Well, you would tend to remember the word after watching that, Mathew.

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  7. This sounds great - love the cover, and the idea of the settings, and the clothes are obviously splendid. I keep saying it's time for me to read one of this series...

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    1. So many series out there, hard to read all of them, Moira. I was surprised at the descriptions of clothes in this one, although I am sure the earlier ones I read also had some.

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  8. I've only read one of the Hildegarde Withers mysteries so far. It was OK, although it didn't grab me quite as much as I'd hoped it would.

    But this one has 1930s aviation stuff! And a seaplane! And diagrams! That makes it just about a must-read for me.

    I haven't seen any of the movies. I keep getting tempted by the DVD set but I always seem to find something else that I absolutely have to buy instead. But eventually I will weaken and buy the DVDs.

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    1. I had planned to read this Hildegarde Withers book mainly because I wanted to watch the film too, dfordoom, but it was a big plus that it was set on Santa Catalina island and had an airplane. I think you would like the movies, but the set is sort of expensive, so I understand the dilemma.

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