The Penguin Pool Murder by Stuart Palmer

The Penguin Pool Murder1931, and Miss Hildegarde Withers is taking her troupe of school-children on a trip to the New York Aquarium. Not a completely uneventful trip, however, as first Miss Withers apprehends a pickpocket and then, as her charges search for her missing hatpin, a body is found floating in the penguin pool. And it’s no accident.

Enter Inspector Piper – and this begins the first case in Hildegarde Withers career as an amateur sleuth, spanning nearly twenty books and nearly forty years. But it’s a career that I’d only vaguely heard of, and thanks to MysteriousPress.com and Open Road Media, most of it is now readily available. But are you going to want to invest in it?

Hildegarde Withers had quite a career. Apart from the books, there was seven films over the years plus, apparently, a sit-com pilot! But I’ll admit, until I saw a review a year or so ago, I’d never heard of her. So what do we have here?

Character, first of all. Hildegarde herself is rather charming. I was surprised that she was less of a stereotype teacher than I expected, showing her human side at times and investigating primarily out of curiosity, but also a sense of finding the truth. Piper is also realer than one might expect, in particular not assuming the obvious solution when there is evidence that points in a different direction – a rarity in crime fiction. In a lot of ways, Hildegarde and Piper are a pair of investigators, rather than him being her support.

The mystery is reasonable to good. There are some very interesting ideas going on which appear mostly in the second half of the book – so do keep reading. The second murder, in particular, is the cleverest part of the plot – although it does appear quite late in the narrative. What the book does suffer from is a distinct lack of suspects. I’m pretty sure most readers will spot the villain – who slips up with what is possibly the oldest trick in the book – but there are some good attempts at misdirection.

So, overall a good debut, and I’m informed that this is one of Hildegarde’s weaker outings, so I’ll be back for more at some point.

For a more detailed review, which admittedly gives away more of the plot than I would, do check out this post from Margot Kinberg.

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11 comments

  1. Thanks very much for the mention. I appreciate it. I think you’re quite right that it is a solid debut and I do like the way Miss Withers’ character grows over time. Glad you thought this was a decent start to the series.

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  2. I’ve never heard of this series or the the author, but I’m definitely going to give it a try. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  3. I’ve been a fan of these for ages – glad to see that there are others out there. The movies are great fun too by the way, especially the first three featuring Edna May Oliver as Hildy.

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  4. The appeal for the most part is in Withers and Piper — their banter, their sort of Beatrice/Benedick relationship and their smart detective skills. For me some of Palmer’s plot gimmicks are transparent (MURDER ON WHEELS especially) but no one can claim he is a boring writer. The books are lively, witty and always entertaining. He elevated comic crime from the screwball antics and farcical situations in Atwood Taylor’s books while skilfully avoiding the trap of creating cute or darling characters.

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  5. I am eager to try these books again, after reading a few of them long ago. I agree with Sergio, the movies are fun and I wish I could see them again. I have only seen the ones with Edna May Oliver.

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