STUART PALMER. The Penguin Pool Murder (1931).

29 Jul

PenguinPool.jpgThe murder cited in the title occurs next to a huge display tank, quite a distance from the pool where penguins waddle forth at the New York Aquarium. But no matter. “Penguin Pool” has a jaunty sound to it, and panache counts for more than precision in this late Jazz Age tale. With the blunt, staccato clatter of an old newsreel, Palmer’s début mystery conjures up a very specific place at a very specific time: We’re in Manhattan, an island of the mind that extends from a posh suite on Central Park West to the dank downtown holding pen known as the Tombs, and it’s November of 1929, one month after the Great Crash on Wall Street. The crash looms as a vivid backdrop to the events that unfold here, and also as a possible source of homicidal motive; the primary victim, stockbroker Gerald Lester, had played several of his clients for suckers at margin-call time. Around those circumstances, and around a hat and a hat-pin and a hatful of other clues, Palmer fashions a plot that’s old-fashioned in its complexity and yet fresh in its pure ingenuity. He fumbles the exposition of his finale, thereby depriving his best tricks of the dramatic impact that they deserve. But a nice moment comes when amateur sleuth Hildegarde Withers—a spinster schoolteacher, tart of tongue and sharp of eye—has an epiphany while testifying in court and announces the culprit’s name from the witness stand.


Posted by on July 29, 2011 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


4 responses to “STUART PALMER. The Penguin Pool Murder (1931).

  1. TomCat

    July 30, 2011 at 3:19 PM

    I devoured this book a few years ago, and the one thing I loved as much as the story itself was the brilliant cover illustration by Rob Pudim for the Rue Morgue Press reprint edition. It depicts Withers and Pipers standing amidst a crowd of penguins and it’s almost as superb as the skeleton covers he did for their reprint series of Kelley Roos. He really has a knack for drawing exuberant skeletons! :)

  2. Patrick

    August 7, 2011 at 8:56 AM

    I have yet to read this one, but I enjoyed my first acquaintance with Stuart Palmer.

  3. Skywatcher

    September 12, 2011 at 10:39 AM

    I’ve read quite a few Palmers now, and enjoyed every one. Have you seen the movie version? Edna May Oliver is Hildegarde. She is absolutely perfect in the role, which is not surprising as Palmer based his sleuth at least partly on her.

  4. Mike

    September 12, 2011 at 1:20 PM

    I haven’t seen the Edna May Oliver movie version of “Penguin Pool.” In my experience, at least, it’s not an easy movie to view. It’s not available on Netflix, for instance, and if it ever shows up on Turner Classic Movies, I’ve yet to catch it. But I love films from that era, and I know that Palmer wrote in a movie-friendly style (and that he later worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood), so I’ll continue to look out for it. I didn’t know about his having based the Withers character on Oliver, though–so thanks, Skywatcher, for sharing that information.


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