This is the 3rd Hildegarde Withers mystery and weirdly also my third read by Palmer. Palmer is said to have referred to his creation as a ‘meddlesome old battle axe,’ but I think she is the kind of old battle axe you quickly grow to love rather than find annoying. Withers was based on a number of people; an actress named Edna May Oliver, (who went on to play this character when the first book in the series was adapted for film), a librarian from Palmer’s home town, a ‘horse faced English teacher’ from his high school and his father, (for the sense of humour).
This mystery sees the school Withers teaches at turn into a crime scene, as the music teacher, Anise Halloran, is murdered one afternoon after school. Yet things are far from simple. Halloran’s body is moved by the time Inspector Oscar Piper (Withers’ Homicide Squad friend) arrives and upon investigating the cellar, for the killer is still at large in the school, Piper is badly injured with a blow to the head. With him out of action it is up to his subordinates to figure out what has happened. However, Withers has a pretty low estimation of them, especially when they arrest the drunk janitor, (who appears from the cellar, having somehow been missed during two police searches of the area) and they plan to use the third degree to a get a confession. There are a lot of interesting strands to this investigation: an Irish sweepstake ticket, illicit alcohol dealing, another missing teacher and even scandalous rumours of a school staff romance. Of course everyone on the staff invariably makes themselves look suspicious, especially the Principal. Whilst Withers is far from perfect, she is a darn sight smarter than the police, as she finally brings the case to a dramatic close.
I am glad I read this book as my last Palmer novel wasn’t as good as I was hoping it was going to be. So it was good to return to a stronger earlier read in the series. The story has a wonderful opening, full of mock pathos over a ‘solitary prisoner,’ who we eventually realise is not a hardened criminal but a 9 year old being kept after class. Withers is equally a wonderful character and I love how her approach to getting good behaviour out of children amusingly extends to other people such as members of the police force and hospital call operators, who are certainly not going to be allowed to fob her off. She also has an acidic wit at times, with her faith in the police being fairly low, such as when she says: ‘They couldn’t find anything unless it had a thirty foot neon sign over it.’ At another point she says to a policeman, ‘besides, you don’t think that Anise Halloran was killed with poison, do you?’ To which he replies, ‘I’m not thinking, yet.’ Withers follows this up with the barbed comment: ‘let me know when you start […] Anytime you’re ready, this case could use it.’ Ouch! The other characters are also well made and the Viennese Psychoanalyst provides an entertaining interlude. The writing style is engrossing and I didn’t find any pacing issues this time, making this a quick read. I suppose what I had to dock marks for was the solution. It is a great solution in itself but it isn’t one you are ever likely to figure out entirely. After all one element in particular has to be given wholemeal to the reader as they are not going to have that sort of information at their fingertips. I think what needed to happen was better cluing earlier on so the reader could see how Withers arrived at the solution. For me this felt a little lacking. Nevertheless despite this flaw I found this an entertaining read and I think readers will have a lot of fun with it.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Any Piece of Furniture