The Puzzle of the Silver Persian (1934) by Stuart Palmer

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Book

It has been a long time since I have read one of Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers stories, having read The Penguin Pool Murders (1931) a few years ago.

The Puzzle of the Silver Persian

The book commences with a passenger freighter called the American Diplomat and a Persian cat named Tobermory, who is less than pleased about taking such a trip with his owner the Honourable Emily Pendavid. Pendavid’s cat dips in and out of the narrative, ultimately playing quite a role in the killer being caught, though some readers may find it rather a leap in imagination. But I am getting ahead of myself, as before you can catch a killer there has to be a crime. Palmer works up to this showing us the dynamics of the guests who all sit on one table for dinner. On this table is the ships’ doctor, Doctor Waite, our very own Hildegarde Withers, Tom and Loulu Hammonds, Rosemary Fraser and her friend Candida Noring, Pendavid and her nephew, Leslie Reverson and Andy Todd. As you might expect in a detective novel there is tension among the group, mostly centred on or concerning the young and beautiful Rosemary. Rumour has it that she is having romantic liaisons with someone on the ship, much to Todd’s chagrin having been thoroughly snubbed by her and Loulu is also far from pleased as there is evidence to suggest that her husband might be the man in question. The scandal comes more into the open due to a scheme devised by Todd, despite it backfiring, as he goes onto create a further unpleasant joke referring to the incident. Rosemary seems to have taken the joke well, until events later that night, the night Rosemary disappears…

Her disappearance seems impossible in some ways. She is seen by Hildegarde Withers standing by the rails and in the next moment she is not there. Her friend coming from the other direction has not seen her. A later search of the boat does not find her. The first assumption is that she has committed suicide, by jumping overboard, afraid that her behaviour on the boat might get back to her parents. Yet Withers is sure there was no splash and nor is there a suicide note. Events take an even stranger turn when due to Candida’s testimony the bar steward, Peter Noel, is charged with the murder of Rosemary, by Scotland Yard representatives, and in the process of arresting him he dies of cyanide poisoning, assumed a suicide. Although the police feel fairly sure the case is all but wrapped up, Withers and the readers feel that not everything adds up. Many of the characters already mentioned move onto the same hotel, waiting for the inquest before going on their way. Yet further drama is to ensue, beginning with a series of anonymous threats in Rosemary’s handwriting and then subsequent deaths, leading Withers to wonder whether all of the guests on Rosemary’s table are being bumped off one by one…

Overall Thoughts

All in all I would say this was a good read and when I look back at it, the central puzzle and the surrounding mystification is far more complex than I first realised, with Palmer using certain expectations as rather successful red herrings. Characterisation took on an especially crucial role in this book for me. Firstly this is a book where character reactions are important and if read correctly can dispel some of the mystery. Characterisation is also fundamental in this book as the disappearance of Rosemary has quite an effect on the remaining guests and has the ability to transform them. Finally characterisation was something I noticed a lot in this book because of Hildegarde Withers. I remember quite liking her in The Penguin Pool Murder, yet this book has shown me a number of different aspects to her character, which ultimately made me like her less, though this didn’t have a detrimental effect on my reading experience. For example, Withers seemed to have a good rapport with children in The Penguin Pool Murder and I thought although she was firm, she was also kind. Yet in this book, which reveals something of its’ times, Withers has a much more aggressive approach to discipline, severely caning a boy firstly to get information out him and then some more for good measure! Talk about the third degree! Withers’ recourse to violence to get her information, undermined her detecting abilities in my opinion. Granted the child is an unpleasant one, but I don’t think her response is that condonable and at the end of the book she urges the parents of the child to leave him at a strict boarding school, saying that as parents they have done enough damage through farming him out to relatives. She then advocates they have another child and hope things turn out better with that one! The reasoning behind her advice fairly boggles the mind and more than once in this book I have felt that Christie’s Miss Marple is a far wiser person with more perspicacious advice. Equally her ideas on smoothing marital strife aren’t always that brilliant, though quite amusing to the reader. Rather than deal with the underlying issue or have an honest heart to heart about the problem, the husband in the marriage just needs to buy the woman an expensive gift, job done. Finally although legal justice gets to prevail, Withers does admit that she was planning on taking a more unorthodox approach, a position which she never really justifies and I guess having mentally placed her in the Miss Marple camp based on The Penguin Pool Murder, this behaviour rather surprised me.

I think my only niggle with this book in terms of its’ construction and mystery, is that I would have liked the final solution to have been backed up more by physical evidence rather than relying on a very well thought out theory which does fit the facts but does need bolstering by the culprit’s confession.

Final thought: The hotel Withers stays at in London, a fairly well to do one as well, doesn’t give their guests keys to their rooms, thereby meaning they can’t lock their doors. Why you ask? Apparently having to unlock and lock each room to clean it is too inconveniencing for the maids! Perhaps not the most realistic aspect of the book…

Rating: 4.25/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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4 Responses to The Puzzle of the Silver Persian (1934) by Stuart Palmer

  1. JJ says:

    I’ve only read the one Palmer to date, Murder on Wheels, and it was…fine. I shall return to him at some point, though not necesarily with great urgency, and this sounds intriguing enough to make it my most likely next attempt — thanks for giving me somewhere to start!

    Like you, I didn’t think I got a particularly good send of Withers as either a character or a sleuth — I also want to place her in a kind of Marple mould, but it almost seend in MoW that Palmer was deliebrately trying to circumvent the Spinster Detective tropes…though he wasn’t entirely sure how to do it (making her fairly young seems to have been the limit of this achievement here as far as I can tell).

    Maybe she takes on more well-defined and clearer motivations as things progress, eh?

    Liked by 1 person

    • JJ says:

      Also, how bad is that Crime Club cover? Sheesh, someone was in a rush the day that needed finishing…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah when I was reading this I thought that the mystery set might interest you, though I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the solution. The crime club is a little garish with the lime green, but I think originally it might have had a black background instead.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt 2016: Wrap Up Post | crossexaminingcrime

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