Sometimes a seemingly ordinary event shapes a person’s life, even though it might take years before its significance is recognized. Such an event overtook 12-year-old Stuart Palmer as he was working his way through the pine bookcase in the attic of his family’s summer place in rural Wisconsin when he came across a small yellow volume with an intriguing sketch on the cover. It was The Houseboat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs, a 1896 collection of humorous sketches featuring the “shades” or ghosts of famous literary characters. Among the literary personages making an appearance was Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first private consulting detective. Even in that diluted form the character made a lasting impression on Palmer, who wrote years later that “a new comet swam into my ken.”
When the Palmer family returned to their winter home in Baraboo, Wisconsin, Stuart rushed to the local library where “the acidulous spinster librarian” handed him, “with a disapproving sniff,” Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, the second of the four full-length Sherlock Holmes novels. He quickly worked his way through the canon, practically memorizing passages from The Adventures and The Memoirs, failing only to find a copy of His Last Bow. It turns out that the library’s copy had been checked out to the town’s only ex-convict, who skipped town the next day with his girlfriend. The ex-con was Jack Boyle, whose lone book, Boston Blackie, would be filmed many times and many years later. Call it irony or call it coincidence, but the screenwriter for one of those films was Stuart Palmer.
Boyle left behind him numerous unpaid bills and even more empty whiskey bottles, prompting the parents of Baraboo to hold him up to their offspring as an example of the evils of drink and the futility of making a living as a writer. “It was then,” Palmer said, “that I definitely chose what was to be my life’s work.”
But it was Holmes, not Boston Blackie, who inspired Palmer as a writer of detective stories, although his first book, Ace of Jades, was a gangster novel more reminiscent of Boston Blackie than of “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Published in 1931, the book is a notorious rarity in book-collecting circles, a fact for which its author was eternally grateful, since he considered it a terrible book and was known to deny even close friends permission to read his copy.
Fortunately, he published a second book as well in 1931. The Penguin Pool Murder introduced the world to Miss Hildegarde Withers, a spinster schoolteacher from Dubuque who taught at Jefferson School in Manhattan. While escorting a class field trip to the aquarium, she spots a body in the penguin tank and meets for the first time Inspector Oscar Piper, to whom she will be both a great friend as well as a thorn in his side for the next thirty-odd years. Set in the autumn of 1929 in the aftermath of the stock market crash, the book was an immediate hit and was quickly sold to the movies, where it became one of the RKO studio’s biggest hits of 1932.
Palmer based Miss Withers on several people from his past, including that disapproving librarian from Baraboo as well as a “horse-faced English teacher in the local high school.” She got her Yankee sense of humor from Palmer’s own father, but the final piece of inspiration came from seeing actress Edna May Oliver on stage during the first run of Jerome Kern’s Showboat.
Oliver, of course, was picked to play Miss Withers in the first three of six movies that were made based on Palmer’s books. Illness was given as the reason Oliver was replaced in the role by first Helen Broderick, then Zasu Pitts, but Palmer obviously thought that wasn’t the case at all and never forgave the “great brains of Hollywood” who “in their infinite wisdom” made the decision to replace Oliver. James Gleason, on the other hand, wonderfully portrayed Inspector Piper in all six films. In the final scene of that first movie, Piper and Withers are seen rushing off to city hall to get married. But when audiences—and readers—clamored for more of Miss Withers, it was obvious to one and all the necessity of having these two remain just good friends. If you remember that, however, it makes the last line of the present volume all the more poignant.
The Withers/Piper alliance represents one of the earliest examples in mystery fiction of the amateur female sleuth using her “connections” with a male police officer to butt into murder cases. That formula was to be imitated time and time again. Spinster sleuth Jane Amanda Edwards, the creation of Charlotte Murray Russell beginning in 1935, was a contemporary literary rival of Miss Withers. Jane found her homicide captain, George Hammond, late in life as well, and although he made regular visits to the Edwards dining table, a full-scale romance never developed. Modern readers might be a bit amused to learn that this particular “elderly” spinster was in her mid-forties. Miss Withers appears to be slightly older but acts much older, as many real women of that era did. Inspector Piper, resigned to being jilted, opted to continue their friendship, although there’s little doubt that he would have jumped at marriage had a second opportunity ever arisen. If Palmer eschewed romance, it was probably solely for reasons of plot, since he showed every sign himself of being a hopeless romantic at any age, having married five times, the last time only two years before his death at the age of 62 in 1968.
The remarkable success of the first Miss Withers book may partly explain Palmer’s lifelong affection for penguins. He adopted them as his personal trademark and often decorated his letters with portraits of the sad-eyed, earthbound birds, perhaps peering under the rim of a deerstalker through a magnifying glass or pinned to the earth by an arrow. Palmer, born in 1905, was a gifted cartoonist, having attended the Chicago Art Institute in the early 1920s before going on to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Palmer’s collection of penguin art went far beyond his own efforts, however. His house was filled with penguins fashioned out of glass, tin, wood, and even soap, picked up in his travels or given to him by friends and fans.
Honors and tributes also filled Palmer’s house. The Penguin Pool Murder was accorded a place of honor on the shelf of the Haycraft-Queen Definitive Library of Detective-Crime-Mystery Fiction, while two his short story collections, The Riddles of Hildegarde Withers (1947) and The People Vs. Withers and Malone (1963), written in collaboration with Craig Rice (though how much Rice contributed to the effort is subject to question), were given cornerstone recognition by Ellery Queen in his annotated history of the detective story, Queen’s Quorum.
Palmer was just as successful writing what he called “B movie melodramas” as he was writing detective stories. When Hollywood bought the Miss Withers books, Stuart Palmer accompanied her to the West Coast, eventually writing screenplays for 37 movies, including several in the Falcon and Bulldog Drummond series.
World War II interrupted Palmer’s career as a mystery writer but not as a screenwriter. Nearly forty when he enlisted in 1944, he was sent to an army base in Oklahoma where he wrote training films for the field artillery. He didn’t entirely give up mystery writing. Part of him went back to that 12-year-old boy in Baraboo when he sent off the only fan letter he would ever write in his life, to Arthur Conan Doyle at 221B Baker Street, London, England. He was always grateful that some kindly English postmaster didn’t stamp it “Nonexistent address. Return to Sender.” During this period in “the wilds of Oklahoma,” he wrote two Sherlock Holmes pastiches, one of which was included in Ellery Queen’s The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, a book that was suppressed (after five printings) by the Doyle estate. As a result, Palmer gave up plans to write more pastiches. It’s unfortunate, because both were fine stories, especially “The Adventure of the Marked Man,” which many critics, ourselves included, consider, along with Vincent Starrett’s “The Adventure of the Unique Hamlet,” to be the best of all the attempts to write the Sixty-First Adventure. In 1973, we (as The Aspen Press) bundled it and Palmer’s story from The Misadventures, “The Adventure of the Remarkable Worm,” along with “The I.O.U of Hildegarde Withers,” in a slim chapbook entitled The Adventure of the Marked Man and One Other. The 500-copy edition sold out in a matter of days.
Palmer spent the rest of his time in the service in Washington, D.C., where he acted as liaison between army intelligence and the studios. During this period, he continued to write screenplays, but Miss Withers was shelved for the duration. After Palmer did what was to be his second to last screenplay in 1946, he resurrected Miss Withers in 1947, first in a short story collection, The Riddles of Hildegarde Withers, then in the novel, Miss Withers Regrets. Over the next twenty years, Hildy would appear in four more novels, with the last, Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene, finished by Fletcher Flora and published in 1969, one year after his death. During this period, he published the final two Withers short story collections, a stand-alone crime novel written under the pseudonym Jay Stewart, and two books featuring Howie Rook, an amply proportioned ex-newspaperman. Palmer put his youthful experience as a clown with the Ringling Brother’s Circus to good use in the first of these books.
Many of Palmer’s Miss Withers books have been reprinted in recent years, by either International Polygonics or Bantam, but most are once again out of print. The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla hasn’t been reprinted in at least 50 years, and possibly longer, but it displays all the charm that made Miss Withers Anthony Boucher’s (the namesake of Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention) favorite female sleuth.
And when you come to the chapter in which Miss Withers duplicates a stunt from a Sherlock Holmes story, thereby earning the respect as well as the aid of a tough Mexican cop, think back to that 12-year-old boy in that musty Wisconsin attic and be grateful for his inspiration. But while Doyle grew tired of Holmes, even killing him off at one point, Palmer never tired of finding new puzzles for the female sleuth he fondly called that “meddlesome old battleaxe” to unravel. And true puzzles they were, in spite of their good humor, filled with clues carefully and subtly inserted, making it possible for the truly observant reader to try and beat Miss Withers to the murderer. Yet Palmer developed his complicated plots in what were actually, for the time, fairly short (60,000- word) books. His years as a screenwriter served him well in honing his skills at setting a scene, and if, in the early days, he loved the exclamation point too much for his own good, it’s a small idiosyncracy on the part of one of the most gifted and entertaining mystery writers of his day.
Tom & Enid Schantz