Perhaps it's because Hildegarde Withers is a New York City schoolteacher that she insists on getting involved in the kind of crime puzzles that require a lively curiosity and an active intelligence to solve them. The heroine of Stuart Palmer's first-rate mysteries is certainly meddlesome - but it's usually a good thing for the innocent and a problem for the guilty when she does get involved.
Take The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan, written during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in 1941, in which Miss Withers goes to Hollywood and - somewhat to her surprise - finds herself hired at a major studio to work as a technical adviser on a movie about Lizzie Borden, the New England girl who, according to the popular rhyme, gave her mother forty whacks and her father forty-one with a small hatchet. It isn't long before Hildy is deeply involved in a much more immediate mystery - the death of one of the movie's writers. The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
Miss Withers has barely begun work when one of the script writers is found dead in his office just down the hall from her, apparently having broken his neck in a fall. Just an unfortunate accident? Miss Withers isn’t convinced. If the writer had crashed to the floor after falling off a chair – the police theory – he would have made more than enough noise in falling to have been heard all along the corridor where Miss Withers worked – and she and the other people nearby heard nothing.
All of this is happening in Hollywood, so Miss Withers puts in a transcontinental call to her old friend, Inspector Piper of the New York City police department: can the inspector think of any peculiar cases where someone died of a broken neck in a suspicious accident? As it happens, Piper can. And he and Miss Withers quickly find an apparent connection to someone in Hollywood - someone who seems to be very hard to find. But as Inspector Piper starts working on the case…well, let’s just say something very bad happens in Hollywood, something bad enough to force Piper to jump on a plane – remember, this was 1941, and plane travel was a lot less common than it is today – and fly to Hollywood looking for a killer.
And that's all I really want to say about the plot, which is pleasantly complex and - very often - outrageously funny. As a screenwriter himself, Stuart Palmer had a wickedly perceptive eye for Hollywood foibles. Hildy keeps running up against the producer and others working on the movie who want to turn Lizzie Borden's story into a super-sized epic; at one point, the producer gets the idea of having Lizzie commit the murders with an ancient pole-ax rather than a little hatchet, which he dismisses as not being big enough for his movie. And when Miss Withers manages to persuade the villain to confess...well, wait until you find out how she does it.
Stuart Palmer's books remain wonderfully readable, in no small part because they are quite genuinely funny, and Hildegarde Withers and Inspector Piper make a first-rate odd couple of detectives. I do recommend The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan as one of Palmer's best. It has been out of print for a while, but The Mysterious Press and Open Road Integrated Media have joined forces to bring it back as an e-book, and they provided a copy to me for this review.
Once again, I am submitting The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan to the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog - this one, taking place in Hollywood, will fit nicely into the category called "Yankee Doodle Dandy," a mystery set in the United States.