Stuart Palmer’s second mystery, The Penguin Pool Murder, was an immediate success. In it he introduced the character who was to become one of the most popular amateur sleuths in American fiction. He also established in that book the qualities that were to become his hallmark as a writer: strong characterization of major characters, humor, convincing settings, clever plotting, and a rapid-fire style that captured mood and setting.
Hildegarde Withers is Palmer’s greatest creation, and her first appearance indicated her personality, for she appeared not as a person but as an anonymous force. A fleeing purse snatcher is sent sprawling by an umbrella thrust between his legs from a crowd. The umbrella belongs to Miss Withers, and its use suggests, before the reader sees or meets her, the presence of someone who takes action when others are too surprised or confused to act. Her desire for action pushes her into the center of events, because not content with giving the police an account of finding a body in the penguin pool at the New York City aquarium, she proceeds to take shorthand notes of the other witnesses’ statements, as well as of Inspector Piper’s musings and orders to his officers. She makes herself so useful that he allows her to accompany him.
Murder on the Blackboard
This determination not to be left out but to act recurs in each book. When, in Murder on the Blackboard (1932), Inspector Piper is seriously injured by a murderer, Miss Withers announces to his second in command that she will be Piper’s understudy and assist in the investigation, and the reader knows that she will do so despite the sergeant’s hesitancy. Left alone while the police are excitedly examining an apparent grave, Miss Withers remains behind, seizing the opportunity to do some uninterrupted sleuthing. She goes through the desks of several of her fellow teachers and discovers clues that later help her solve the mystery, clues that the police misinterpret. Later her investigative determination leads to decidedly unladylike action for a middle-aged woman: “With much grunting and bustling, together with a certain amount of damage to the lady’s serge skirt, Miss Withers clambered to the board and from that eminence managed to squirm through the hole in the ceiling.”
Palmer complements his character’s determination with keen powers of observation. Withers, like her contemporary never-married sleuth, Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple, notices details. She notices a sliver of light where there should be none in The Penguin Pool Murder; she is aware of the sound of a fellow teacher’s footsteps as she goes down the hall and, more important, registers a difference in sound when she returns. Her powers are honed by close contact over the years with third-grade students; just as Miss Marple believes that observing behavior in a small town allows her to understand human behavior on a wider scale, Miss Withers believes that observation of the behavior of small boys gives her an understanding of adult duplicity.
The Puzzle of the Red Stallion
Her observation and determination are not, however, infallible. In The Puzzle of the Red Stallion (1936), Miss Withers finds at the scene of a murder a briar pipe that the police have overlooked. Convinced that it is a clue, she deduces from this single object that the owner is middle-aged, has traveled in Europe widely, is well-to-do, has excellent taste, works with chemicals, is sometimes careless, and wears dentures. Palmer’s humor comes into play when Miss Withers discovers that the pipe belongs to the medical examiner, who dropped it while examining the body. These occasional slips and Miss Withers’s reactions to them add greatly to the reader’s delight in the character and to the appeal of the books.
Much of the series’ popularity stems from such humor, which also springs from Hildegarde’s acerbic wit. Never one to suffer fools gladly, when an unimaginative police sergeant decides the murderer must be someone familiar with the school in Murder on the Blackboard, Miss Withers says, “Simple, isn’t it? . . . You’ve narrowed the suspects down to thirty or forty thousand.” Again, in The Puzzle of the Red Stallion, while walking her dog, Miss Withers is stopped by a pair of particularly doltish police...
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