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STUART PALMER. The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941).

By the time he penned this entry in the Hildegarde Withers saga, Palmer had spend a decent amount of time in the luxuriously appointed coal mines where screenwriters swung their picks during the heyday of the Hollywood studio system. And here, repeatedly, he makes sport of the antic plot contrivances that Tinseltow producers would foist upon the raw material that they had plundered either from life or from literature. As the book opens, Mammoth Studios is developing a motion picture that promises to retell the Lizzie Borden story. HappyHooligan.jpg Step by step, the producer Thorwald L. Nincom pushes his writing team to remold the ax-wielding spinster from Fall River, Massachusetts, into a proper celluloid heroine: Let’s portray her as innocent! (A preponderance of evidence, as well as the nursery rhyme that made her famous, suggests that she was guilty of killing her father and stepmother.) Let’s pair her with a handsome suitor! (She had no known love interest, handsome or otherwise.)

Despite that breezy approach to the historical record, Nincom cares about getting the details right. Which is why the studio ends up hiring Miss Withers to serve as a technical advisor on the film. (She happened to be in Los Angeles on an extended vacation.) After all, she’s a teacher, and she’s from back east, and she knows a little something about murder. The studio gives her an office in the warren of rooms occupied by Nincom’s writers, and before she can settle into it, one of her officemates becomes a fresh homicide victim. Who would want to kill a journeyman scribbler like Saul Stafford? The answer is to be found amid a bewildering swirl of circumstances—including signs that point to an unsolved New York City murder case, which gives Miss Withers an excuse to call in her old friend, Inspector Piper of the NYPD. She tumbles to the right solution on her own, but only after surviving attempts to kidnap her and to kill her, among other high-jinks.

Even as Palmer mocks Hollywood tropes, he partakes of those tropes with professional aplomb, and the novel reads to some extent like the treatment for a mystery feature that he hoped a real-life mogul would order into production. Happy Hooligan was never adapted for the silver screen, alas, but Palmer’s novel survives as a well-turned entertainment from the Silver Age of both classic moviemaking and classic detection. It’s a fun romp that, in keeping with the title, gives readers plenty to puzzle over.

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2018 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

STUART PALMER. The Penguin Pool Murder (1931).

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.

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