The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941) by Stuart Palmer

Today’s read is possibly my favourite Hildegarde Withers mystery to date. It all begins with screen writer Wilfred Josef being the victim of a very unpleasant party prank, involving a small fire and his facial hair. The story then switches over to Hildegarde, who is having her 6 month sabbatical in Hollywood, what with WW2 scuppering her original European destination. It is not long before she is offered a job as a technical advisor for a film studio, with her reputation as an amateur sleuth being presumed to be ideal background experience for advising on a film adaptation of the Lizzie Borden case. Of course within a matter of hours of accepting the position and visiting her new office, murder rears its ugly head, as the screen writer in the office next door to hers is found dead with a broken neck. However, on site police are convinced it is no more than an accident. After all no noise was heard, no indications of a fight or drugs in his system, not even any bruises around his neck. So was it just coincidence that he confided in Hildegarde hours before his death that he was in fear of his life?

I don’t wish to reveal any more of the plot but suffice to say further violence and intrigue follow…

Overall Thoughts

I have to admit initially I wasn’t all that convinced by the direction Hildegarde sets off in with this case. Maybe it seemed a little too hasty, but it wasn’t long before I got really engrossed in this action packed mystery, with the middle of the book presenting quite a dramatic high point. As the synopsis hints at, this story definitely seems to have a greater sense of danger and violence, which equally shone a new light on Hildegarde’s character. She certainly seems more ruthless/unethical at the end of the tale, though in fairness she is not the only fictional sleuth to undergo a character change when going to Hollywood.

The puzzle aspect of this book is well achieved, with plenty of information for the readers to grapple with and the dead ends Hildegarde and Inspector Piper go down add to the intricacy of the plot. Having said that I did have my eyes on the killer fairly early, though this was more of an inexplicable hunch than based on extensive proof.

The comedy in this tale is not overdone, but the moments it is present are executed well, such as the times Holmes’ trick of deducing information about people based on objects is beautifully upended and the interactions Hildegarde has with a messenger boy are also quite hilarious at times. The messenger boy has the tendency to respond with pseudo quotes from Confucius, such as, ‘Girl who always buys own lunch wind up old maid, so Confucius says’ and ‘Confucius says, Better to wake up being slapped than sleep forever under tombstone.’ Hildegarde’s responses are also hugely enjoyable, as to the former she chips in the comment that, ‘there is something in what he said, all the same […] about buying your own lunch. I know’ and to the second example, having been the recipient of the slap she replies, ‘sometimes I think Confucius say too much.’

It’s not a perfect novel, but it really seemed to fit the reading mood I was in, finding its’ action packed nature entertaining and intriguing, mixing comedy and poignancy well. The Hollywood studio milieu was amusingly recreated, with the way jobs and ideas chop and change so fast that not even a poor performing penguin can be guaranteed a job. So if you do happen to come across this book I would definitely recommend giving it a try.

Rating: 4.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): During a trip/vacation/cruise


  1. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I think I have one or two Palmer novels awaiting to be read on my Kindle. But I get the impression he’s a better story-teller than he is a puzzle-maker. I suppose he’s in the same comic-mystery school as Kelley Roos, Craig Rice and Alice Tilton?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well this one is quite puzzley I would say actually and equally I don’t think Palmer’s stories tally as closely to Tilton, Rice and Roos as you would think. Out of the three he is perhaps closest to the Roos.


  2. This was reprinted by Penzler in 2018 …
    It’s been in Kindle for a while. The price of various Palmers keeps fluctuating; I have picked up a couple at two bucks each.
    The only one I have read so far is Pepper Tree. It’s a clear example of what JFW said, better as a story than a puzzle, since the solution is a bit arbitrary. But I did buy more!

    Liked by 1 person

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