As I look back on my school days - and that was a LONG LONG LONG time ago! - I can recall few of my own schoolteachers who might have been able to compete with Miss Hildegarde Withers. My teachers were pretty good, often with good senses of humor, an occasionally sharpened tongue, and clever and lasting insight into both subject matter and students. But they certainly couldn't compete with Hildy when it came to being an amateur detective, with a knack for getting involved in, and then solving, difficult murder cases. Hildy Withers was the creation of Stuart Palmer and the star of a good many books and short stories - and, to be sure, movies as well. One of my early podcast reviews in my pre-blog days was of Nipped in the Bud. Here, slightly edited as usual, is what I had to say:
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It was an open and shut murder case. The killer was heard fighting with the victim. He was seen leaving the victim’s apartment just before the body was discovered. He flunked a lie detector test. As I said, an open and shut case. And then along came retired schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers…and suddenly the case was open again…and a well-planned crime was Nipped in the Bud.
Stuart Palmer’s best known detective character has been called the American Miss Marple – referring to Agatha Christie’s popular spinster detective. But Hildegarde Withers has a decidedly different character. We’re told that Palmer used to refer to his character as “that meddlesome old battleaxe,” and, certainly, her friend and frequent adversary from the New York City homicide squad, Oscar Piper, could tell you about Hildy’s battleaxe characteristics.
Palmer’s first book about Hildegarde Withers, the Penguin Pool Murder, was made into a movie in 1932, starring Edna May Oliver as Miss Withers. It was a hit, and Palmer turned out a number of additional novels featuring Withers and Piper, when he wasn’t busy writing “B” mystery screenplays in such popular movie series as The Falcon and Bulldog Drummond.
Nipped in the Bud dates from 1951, and it’s a fairly typical entry in the series. I outlined a little of the plot above: a TV star is found dead in his apartment. On the air earlier, he had made some pretty strong comments about the man who was his chief sponsor, and the target of those comments was later heard fighting with the victim. In fact, he was seen leaving the victim’s apartment just before the body was found. To Inspector Piper, it’s an open and shut case. But then his key witness disappears, the prosecutor is in a near panic, and a lot of unanswered questions about the murder start turning up. Hildegarde Withers, who has been just as convinced of the primary suspect’s guilt, begins to get suspicious – and she’s off on the trail of the missing witness.
The story shifts from Manhattan to Tijuana, as Hildy pursues her quarry, accompanied by her large apricot poodle named Talleyrand. The plot, as they say, thickens rapidly, and the crowd of suspects in the case begin turning up, one by one, in Tijuana. So does Inspector Piper, torn between fury at Hildy for gumming up the works and a genuine concern about her safety…and, of course, still searching for that missing witness.
I hadn’t been very familiar with Hildegarde Withers until I read this book, and I think I’m going to have to try to dig up some of the other novels about her exploits. Despite the murders, the story remains fairly good-humored and light-hearted, for the most part, though the stereotypical Mexican characters can be more than a little wearing to our 21st-century sensibilities.
As for Hildy, she’s a fascinating character, described when we first meet her, as a weather-beaten spinster armed with a black umbrella, who had the general appearance of having dressed hastily in an upper berth. Her dog, Talleyrand, is fairly rambunctious and quite independent-minded; there is an interesting and quite important incident involving Talleyrand’s intrusion into the midst of a dog race in Tijuana. And on that occasion, he is watched by the horrified Hildy, and the author observes, she was speechless for perhaps the first time in her life, having momentarily forgotten how to pray and never having learned how to swear.
I think “Nipped in the Bud” is a lot of fun to read, and it’s a good example of a type of American mystery which lent itself readily to the movies, back when black and white “B” movies were a staple of the entertainment world. If you’re in the mood for a light, funny mystery, with a distinctive and unusual character as detective, give Stuart Palmer’s Nipped in the Bud a try.
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Nipped in the Bud was republished a decade ago by the now sadly departed Rue Morgue Press. But MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Media has stepped in and republished many of the Withers novels as e-books; there do also seem to be a fair number of reprints around. It ought to be findable, and it's quite highly recommended.
To listen to the original podcast review, click here.
Coming next week: The Red House Mystery, by A. A. Milne