Forgotten Book: The Penguin Pool Murder by Stuart Palmer (1931)

The dialogue in Stuart Palmer's The Penguin Pool Murder is a major selling point.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 187th in my series of Forgotten Books.

I love a good mystery. A locked room mystery is even better. And a good noir story with blazing guns and snappy dialogue is my forte. I’m not much on amateur detectives or cozy mysteries. So, why was I reading a Golden Age mystery with a spinster school teacher working with the New York homicide Inspector?

There were several things leading up to it. I had recently found a nice trade paperback of this novel. It is the first in the Hildegard Withers series. I have seen the filmed version with Edna May Oliver and James Gleason a couple of times, as well as Oliver’s other two appearances in the role and at least one time with Zasu Pitts filling the role. I would love to see the made-for-TV movie from 1972 with Eve Arden in the role.

Miss Withers is taking her third grade class on a trip to the New York Aquarium where she trips up a pickpocket. While arguing occurs among the guards, the pickpocket escapes. When a dead man falls into the temporary penguin pool, she is the first to notice the body and has the guards call for the police. The police include Inspector Oscar Piper, her main foil throughout the tale.

The dead man is Gerald “Jerry” Lester, a local trader with a seat on the Stock Exchange. His wife Gwen is at the aquarium with an old friend/flame Phillip Seymour, a local attorney. Piper, of course, suspects the wife and boyfriend, particularly once the boyfriend admits to knocking Lester out and hiding him away. Other potential suspects include the aquarium director, Bertrand Hemingway, another attorney Barry Costello and pickpocket Chicago Lew McGirr. It seems a fairly open-and-shut case, especially when Seymour confesses to killing Lester. Unfortunately, his confession contains factual errors not supported by the coroner’s report.

Miss Withers, being industrious, inserts herself into the case, taking notes as all the suspects are questioned and noticing things the police do not. She is the first to discredit Seymour’s confession.

The events in the story take place almost immediately after the Great Crash of 1929 and several of the players here were clients of Lester. They lost big time in the margin call. And then there’s Lester’s secretary who may have had an interest in more than dictation. Gwen does not love Lester and wants to spend his money, but he took a big hit and is trying to cut back expenses.

The novel is fairly straightforward, with Palmer playing fair with the reader. The clues are there and an observant reader can figure out who the killer is. I suspected I knew about 2/3 of the way through — and my reasoning was correct.

What makes this novel special is the dialogue, particularly that between Miss Withers and Inspector Piper. They have a great relationship in the book and in the films. Palmer was a former newsman and he knew his characters well.

Now with this being a novel of the early 1930s, there are some social issues that might offend modern readers. There is social racism, nothing overt, but typical of the time. The police, except Piper, are close to buffoons and do not mind some breaking and entry or obtaining evidence in ways that would get your case laughed out of court nowadays. But I could live with that.

I enjoyed the book. It is not very long: fewer than 200 trade paperback sized pages. The plotting was good. In fact, Palmer ended up moving to Hollywood to work in the film industry. He worked briefly with one of my favorites, Craig Rice, and eventually they collaborated on some John J. Malone and Hildegard Withers stories. Those also are worth reading. He also worked on the Falcon, Lone Wolf and Bulldog Drummond movie series.

Check it out.

Series organizer Patti Abbott usually hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.