Schoolteacher Miss Hildegarde Withers and Grade Number Three of the Jefferson School are on a class outing to the New York City Aquarium. But looking at the fish is nothing compared to the excitement Miss Withers causes. Not only did she catch a pickpocket with her umbrella, she lost her garnet hatpin, which the children then have to find for her. And then there’s that dead stockbrocker in the penguin tank that she discovers.
Not wanting to miss a chance at an adventure, Miss Withers quickly makes herself useful to Inspector Oscar Piper. Her observations and deductions lead him to let her tag along on his investigation. And when suspicion falls on the dead man’s wife and her former boyfriend, Piper thinks he has an open and shut case. But Miss Withers isn’t so convinced.
So a couple of months ago I was bemoaning the fact that I had yet to find an American GAD writer that I enjoyed, other than John Dickson Carr. Fellow blogger JJ from The Invisible Event popped up with a “Maybe Stuart Palmer?” suggestion, and I’ve been on the lookout for a Hildegarde Withers ever since. Luckily there was one amongst the Rue Morgue Press books I recently found.
And Miss Withers is off and running. The story is not exactly fast-paced, and actually lags a little in the middle, then picks up quite briskly with a second murder that is extremely clever. There is also some very good dialogue, very witty and sharp.
I’m a school teacher, and I might have done wonders with you if I’d caught you early enough!”
The mystery that Palmer has created is rather lightweight, and even with some fairly well placed red herrings, the culprit is fairly easy to spot. But even with it’s faults, this is still a book that is worth reading. Why? Because the journey to the end was just so entertaining.
But what makes this such a great read is the characters. Hildegarde Withers is not what I was expecting. Yes, she is a no-nonsense spinster schoolteacher. She is not frosty, or uptight, nor is she cozy, sweet, or zany. She is intelligent, warm, funny, and charming. And the pairing of Miss Withers and Piper is also not what you may expect. The cigar-chewing Inspector Oscar Piper, appreciates her help, in a rather sardonic way at the beginning, but that soon turns to respect. Rather than badgering by Withers and disgruntlement from Piper, you get a real partnership. And before too long, Piper appreciates Miss Withers on an altogether different level, making for a very unexpected ending.
Stuart Palmer and Hildegarde Withers are worth reading more of, and I’ll definitely be on the hunt for more. And then maybe I’ll be able to solve the biggest mystery of all. Boston or Dubuque…just where was Miss Withers born?
My Judgment –4/5
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