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FFB: The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla

At one time, Stuart Palmer (1905-1968) was considered one of the best authors in the mystery genre, writing dozens of stories, books and screenplays. No less than John Dickson Carr, Anthony Boucher and Fred Dannay (one-half of the writing duo Ellery Queen), rated Palmer right up there with the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner and Georges Simenon.  

The heart of Palmer's success revolved around his most popular creation, the spinster schoolteacher and amateur sleuth Miss Hildegarde Withers, said to be an American version of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, if Miss Marple were more comedic and caustic. She was aided and abetted by Inspector Oscar Piper, a gruff police detective in Manhattan, during the early years of the Great Depression. The first book featuring Withers was 1931's The Penguin Pool Murder, and of her genesis, the author once said:

The origins of Miss Withers are nebulous. When I started Penguin Pool Murder, I worked without an outline, and without much plan. But I decided to ring in a spinster schoolma’am as a minor character, for comedy relief. Believe it or not, I found her taking over. She had more meat on her bones than the cardboard characters who were supposed to carry the story...She was based to some extent on Fern Hackett, an English teacher in Baraboo High School who made my life miserable for two years...Fern was a horse-faced old girl, preposterously old-fashioned, fine old New England family run to seed, hipped on Thoreau and Emerson."

The Penguin Pool Murder was made into a film in 1932 starring Edna May Oliver as Hildegarde and James Gleason as Oscar. The movie was successful enough to spawn six more (only three with Oliver). Palmer moved to Hollywood and collaborated on scripts for movie sleuths like Bulldog Drummond, the Falcon, and the Lone Wolf, and during World War Two he served as a liaison chief for official U.S. Army film production.

The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla is one of Palmer's rarer non-NYC settings, as Inspector Oscar Piper sets off on a junket to Mexico City on a train, where a customs inspector sniffs a bottle of cheap perfume and promptly drops dead. When Oscar telegraphs Hildegarde in Manhattan about the mystery, she packs her bags and heads south of the border. Everyone assumes the real intended victim is a self-made rich American woman whose husband was spotted giving cash to a pretty young redhead.

Other suspects include two Americans who figured to get rich buying all the gasoline-powered generators in Mexico on the eve of a strike by utility workers—especially after one of their shady associates becomes the second victim when a blue banderilla (used to slow bulls down during bullfights) is driven through his back. The main mystery in Blue Banderilla is more of a "howdunit," as Withers and Piper have to try to figure out the exact murder method, with Miss Withers re-creating a stunt from a Sherlock Holmes story and earning the respect and help of a tough Mexican cop.

Anthony Boucher called Miss Hildegarde Withers "one of the first and still one of the best spinster sleuths." Mike Grost at GA Detction noted that the collaboration of an amateur sleuth and the New York Police recalls the work of the Van Dine school of the 1930's and that "Palmer had a special skill of sheer storytelling, in which he could spin the actions of his characters into a continually unrolling plot. He does a good job of making some characters constantly at the center of suspicious looking mysteries."

Palmer also wrote a few detective novels featuring ex-newspaperman Howie Rook and collaborated on stories and novels with the also equally-famous-at-the-time author Ms. Craig Rice, whose sleuth was the hard-living, hard-drinking John J. Malone. Palmer served for a year as President of the Mystery Writers of America, during 1954-55.


This post first appeared on In Reference To Murder, please read the originial post: here

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FFB: The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla


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