This being my first Hildegarde Withers book I’m a little vague on the backstory of the two main characters but clearly middle-aged spinster schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers is in the habit of helping out hardbitten New York cop Inspector Oscar Piper on some of his more challenging murder cases.
The Inspector has scored himself what promises to be a pleasant little junket down Mexico way. The reason he scored the junket sheds some interesting light on the way things were done back in the 30s. Piper seems to be a perfectly honest cop but he’s been happy to go along with the rather shady shenanigans of New York’s political bosses and now he’s getting his reward. It’s taken for granted that all branches of government are basically corrupt and if you want to have a career you don’t make waves. This is an intriguing bit of what would normally be considered to be hardboiled content in what is otherwise a very light-hearted tale.
The train trip to Mexico City is not overly comfortable but it’s fairly uneventful, apart from the occasional murder. This is a slightly odd murder. Why would anyone want to murder a Mexican customs officer, and why murder him in such a manner? Poison in a perfume bottle is a strange way to bump off a customs official. And what connection could there be between such a murder and the youngish wife of a New York alderman? Yet the connection is undeniable. Oscar Piper is well acquainted with the alderman in question, a notoriously corrupt city official.
Oscar is puzzled and there follows a frantic exchange of telegrams between the Inspector and Miss Hildegarde Withers, an exchange that becomes more urgent as Miss Withers quickly becomes convinced that Oscar is on the wrong track entirely. The good Inspector’s approach to crime-solving seems to be to pick the most obvious suspect and then have them arrested, the matter of finding any actual evidence being apparently of little importance. It’s just as well that Miss Withers hops aboard the first plane to Mexico City, just in time to bail Inspector Oscar Piper out of gaol.
The murder will later strike again, in equally puzzling circumstances.
Palmer’s still is breezy and energetic. Oscar Piper is an engaging and amusing character even if he appears to have certain worrying deficiencies as a detective. Miss Withers is your classic middle-aged spinster genius amateur detective, a type of which I’m not overly fond. There’s plenty of humour but it doesn’t overwhelm the story which never threatens to descend into silliness or contrived whimsy. The humour flows naturally from the characters and the situations. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny but it is gently amusing.
The plot has a few clever touches and there’s an abundance of red herrings but the central mystery is not overly brilliant. Some of the important plot elements are all too obvious. Palmer makes up for this to some extent by keeping the action moving along at a fairly frenetic pace. Palmer had already started writing screenplays by this point and to my mind the novel is rather cinematic (and I mean that as a compliment). The complex set-piece involving the bullfight is adroitly executed and would have been the ideal centre-piece for a film adaptation.
This is perhaps not quite an impossible crime story but one of the murders is certainly superficially difficult to explain. Solving the mystery of how it was committed is a key plot point but unfortunately the explanation is quite straightforward - it certainly lacks the dazzling ingenuity that a John Dickson Carr would have put into such a puzzle.
Oscar Piper is a remarkably clueless policeman. The Mexican police are considerably more intelligent and more professional although of course even they cannot solve the mystery with Hildegarde Withers. Miss Withers herself is not as irritating as I’d expected her to be. She’s eccentric but Palmer wisely doesn’t push her eccentricities too far.
So did I enjoy this novel? Yes, it’s a good-humoured and well-told tale even if the mystery is a little on the weak side. Would I read any more Hildegarde Withers mysteries? To be honest, probably not. Would I recommend it? Probably, to those who like middle-aged spinster genius amateur detectives and lightweight comic-tinged detective stories.