The 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.
STUART PALMER. The Penguin Pool Murder (1931).