"Oscar, this isn't funny. I tell you, somewhere behind the disappearance of these women there's an evil intelligence at work, a human spider who preys on a certain type of lonely, susceptible woman with a little money. Not content with the cash, he takes their lives, too."
Miss Hildegarde Withers, retired schoolteacher, has been doing some investigating on her own, much to the annoyance of her old friend, New York City police detective Oscar Piper. She is concerned over what appears to be the disappearance of at least four women. Those four ladies were not particularly well-to-do. In fact, in social terms, they really were quite insignificant. When they vanished, nobody went looking for them; the police weren't even aware that anything was wrong. All of the women had recently come into modest amounts of money – perhaps a few thousand dollars here and there, usually through winning some small contest – maybe the jackpot in a radio program’s giveaway, maybe a successful bet at the racetrack. And they each decided to celebrate and spend part of their small winnings by staying at one particular hotel in midtown New York City.
And they all disappeared – without a trace.
Hildegarde Withers became concerned when an acquaintance who always sent her a Christmas card suddenly stopped sending cards one year. So Miss Withers went looking for her. What she found - or what she didn't find - is explained in Four Lost Ladies, by Stuart Palmer, first published in 1949. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the full review by clicking here.
As regular readers of Palmer's series know, Miss Withers has a habit – a regrettable one, as far as Inspector Piper is concerned – of tripping over dead bodies or otherwise becoming engaged in murder cases which really ought to be none of her business. Hildy’s investigation of the disappearance of her acquaintance – the woman who suddenly stopped sending Christmas cards – turned up the names of three other women who had also disappeared. All of them had stayed recently at the prestigious (and expensive) Hotel Grandee – a hotel which had also had another unfortunate incident in recent months involving a woman who apparently committed suicide there.
The more Miss Withers investigates, the less she likes what she finds. Assisted by a young relative of her missing friend, and a few other people along the way, she launches her own investigation of those disappearances – quite against the wishes, of course, of either Inspector Piper or the hotel’s security chief. And she will use herself as bait to trap what she believes must be a multiple murderer – and to figure out how the women could have vanished without their bodies ever being found.
It sounds like a fairly grim scenario – and it is – but Stuart Palmer, as always, writes with wit and humor that helps to relieve the grimness. The banter between Miss Withers and Inspector Piper also helps. And a very large poodle named Talleyrand eases the tension and also proves quite helpful to Hildy’s investigation. Four Lost Ladies is an excellent way to meet Hildy Withers. It’s available now in e-book formats for the Kindle and other devices, or your mystery bookseller may be able to find an older hard copy for you. It’s worth the effort.
NOTE - Publishing this a bit early this week, as most of my Monday will be devoted to returning home from Left Coast Crime. Back on the regular Monday schedule next week.