Murder On The Blackboard by Stuart Palmer

Murder On The BlackboardMiss Hildegarde Withers has investigated a couple of murders so far – she first appeared in The Penguin Pool Murder – but didn’t expect to find a corpse in her own school. But after school one evening, as she is holding detention, she realises that the young teacher Alice Halloran is still on the premises. Looking around, she finds her with a nasty head wound in the cloakroom.

Off she rushes to find her friend Inspector Piper, but when they return, the body has vanished. Worse, as he heads to the basement, Piper is knocked out and sent to the hospital. With the rest of the police force seemingly having one brain cell between them, it’s up to Miss Withers to find the truth – is it the janitor, as the police seem to think, or is the truth just a little more complicated?

No idea why I picked this one out of limbo from the “things that I got cheap” folder in my Kindle. I read the first book in the series, The Penguin Pool Murder, a couple of years ago, and bought a couple more while they were cheap. This is the third Miss Withers book (although possibly the second as there’s a preview for what Wikipedia thinks is Book Two at the back of it).

It’s a rather fun read for the most part. Miss Withers has a very nice line in wit, and the tone is darkly funny in places. But the humour was a bit of a problem for me, though, as there are plot developments, most notably with the psychologist Professor Pfaffle, that border on slapstick, which seemed to me to jar with the tone of the rest. When the majority of the events are treated seriously – and the discovery of the body is pretty gruesome for the time – Pfaffle seemed to be in the wrong book, and doesn’t achieve much other than padding the page count out a bit.

As for the mystery, it’s no classic. Miss Withers does explain her deductions, but it’s notably that she spots the killer well before she works out what the motive was. Palmer doesn’t exactly fill the book with viable suspects – I think you could make a case for there only being three characters developed enough to be the murderer if you’re going to be satisfied that the solution doesn’t come out of nowhere. And in such a short list, you’re going to need to do something very clever to be satisfied with that. Right, I think that’s vague enough to say that I wasn’t satisfied. But I won’t say which one is the reason.

Maybe I’m being harsh here – I was very tired when I read this – because there’s a lot to like. Miss Withers’ dialogue is genuinely entertaining and Palmer does some great work early on as she creeps around the empty school – empty apart from possibly a murderer. And the solution is clued fairly and can be deduced by the careful reader.

But the dying message is rubbish. Just saying.

Anyway, there’s an ebook version so you can decide for yourself. It’s cautiously recommended by me, but Sergio at Tipping My Fedora was more positive when he took a look at it (and the film version) here.

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6 comments

  1. I enjoy the Palmer books – this does seem to be the third one, by the way, with “Murder on Wheels” as the second book according to the GAD Wiki. I enjoyed “Blackboard” as well, though I can see where readers might find the humor a bit grating; I’ve never been fond of characters in mysteries who seem brought in just to keep the slapstick going. I hope you’ll try other Withers books.

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      • It’s been a while since I read one, but I seem to recall enjoying “The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan,” which takes both Miss Withers and Inspector Piper to Hollywood. It includes a wonderful scene at a Hollywood party where “Miss Withers had the surprising experience of being mistaken for Edna May Oliver and asked for an autograph.” As you know, Oliver played Hildy in some of the movies made from Palmer’s books – in fact, she was his inspiration for the character.

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  2. If you want recommendations, look no further than the Nipped in the Bud, which is (IMHO) one of the best Miss Withers novels I have read to date. The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree is just as good and was one of those rare, hard-to-get titles until the Rue Morgue Press brought it back in print.

    Finally, there’s a wonderful collection of short stories, entitled The People vs. Withers and Malone, in which Palmer’s Miss Wither’s and Craig Rice’s John J. Malone work together on a number of cases. It’s one of those rare crossovers.

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