Exit Laughing (1954) by Stuart Palmer – Or How Not To Introduce a Reprint

Given Palmer’s work in the film industry it is not surprising that some of his novels would have a film studio milieu. I read one of these titles a while back; The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941), which I really enjoyed, with its darker notes. Today’s read comes with a similar setting, though this time Miracle-Paradox film studios is concerned with producing cartoons.

However, before we get into the story I have a grievance to air. My copy of this book comes from the Collins’ Disappearing Detective Series, which was edited/curated by H. R. F. Keating. Each title in this series comes with an introduction written by Keating. An introduction to a reprint should, in my opinion, aim to inform, entertain and give the reader a flavour and feel for the book they’re about to read and for the author who has written it. Yet I don’t feel Keating went for that approach this time around…

It is rather telling when Keating acknowledges in the introduction that he has been ‘disparaging’ the author. Keating’s opening salvo begins by explaining that Hildegarde Withers is one of the least deserving characters to be included in the series. He goes on to write that: ‘Hildegarde Withers is, frankly, no more than a cartoon figure[,…] equipped with a rag-bag clutch of possibly useful characteristics,’ though his subsequent examples are completely unrelated to human characteristics. We then get the line that the sleuth is ‘never allowed more depth than a penny piece,’ before being informed that she is based on two people in Palmer’s real life. Next we have the line that a schoolteacher is a suitable vocation for an amateur sleuth, before being told such a profession ‘strain[s] credibility,’ as does her ‘abortive affair with her sparring-partner/colleague, Inspector Oscar Piper.’ ‘Her cartoon image equally spoils her as any sort of great detective’ and she is ‘reduced to solving her cases by mere observation.’

Now I don’t know about you, but if I was ever asked to write an introduction for a reprint, I wouldn’t inappropriately oversell the book, but I would try to make it sound appealing. As I read Keating’s list of indictments against Palmer and his creation, I wondered who would want to read this book if they were a reader new to this author. Why would you? Every positive immediately has the legs knocked out from under it with a later comment and whilst some of his criticisms are not without basis, they’re not exclusive and I am baffled as to why Keating felt the need to single out Palmer and poor Withers. I’m also a bit confused as to why solving cases through observation is such a bad thing. Surely it is better than the legion of detectives who pluck their answers from thin air? No book is perfect and I am sure no modern writer of reprint introductions would try to convince you otherwise, but at the end of the day an introduction should be whetting your appetite, not making you want to put the book back on the shelf, or worse in the bin.

Now to be fair to Keating he does try to add some positives. After all he writes that Palmer, ‘in his day […] had a considerable reputation.’ Some praise! Keating goes on to list Palmer’s various career achievements, before concluding on this note: ‘And, besides all this, he had, one after another, no fewer than five wives as well as maintaining a large collection of model penguins…’ What a way to end an introduction! Nearly as bad as some of Haycraft’s more personal comments on writers.

Anyways now I have got that off my chest, let’s look at today’s story.

So we have a Los Angeles film studio, home of the Peter Penguin cartoons. Four of its workers have received a poison pen letter, written as a deadly valentine and signed with the name Lucy. Hildegarde Withers is in the area, taking things easy due to her asthma. Inspector Piper recommended her to the studio’s boss, who he meets in New York. She poses as a dog handler for her poodle Tallyrand, who is to be the model for a new cartoon project. Yet her first day at the studio barely gets off the starting blocks when one of the artists is found dead in his home. He has died due to a severe allergic reaction to poison ivy. Local police assume it to be an accident, but Withers believes that to be stuff and nonsense. As does Piper, who flies in from New York, as they have an unsolved murder with the same unusual MO. Yet it seems our killer is not finished, but what is their end game?

Overall Thoughts

The story opens in a strong manner. The setting is well-realised, and the reader is plunged into a pool of engaging studio suspects and potential victims. The social/romantic angles are also covered well, but not overdone. I particularly enjoyed Withers’ initial interview with the studio executive who offers her the sleuthing job, as Palmer’s comedy skills come to the fore and the discovery of the first body achieves impact.

Murderer clichés develop into an interesting theme in this story, with Withers wondering how accurate they really are. The initial mystery posed also offers the reader some questions to be working with, such as why the valentines are signed with the name Lucy and why those four employees were singled out. The idea that it is revenge for a past death begins to emerge, but is it the correct one?

Piper and Withers spar well with one another, even though this is their 14th mystery together. Each still tries to out do the other, though Withers is a little bit of a hen pecker. I feel like her didactic nature is probably one of the key reasons her romance with Piper never fully comes off.

Where the wheels come off in this story, is the ending. The reader will probably have a hunch which leads them to the right suspect, gained from certain narrative tropes and arcs which lend themselves to particular surmises. But other than that, there is nothing to lead you in terms of actual clues to the killer. So as the second showdown, (the first being a complete no show and a wash out), begins to unfurl you wonder how Withers is going to prove who did it. And to be honest I don’t think she really succeeds. Her ‘throw a monkey-wrench into it’ approach builds up a very fragile theory, which is somehow allowed to hold water and her knowledge of certain pieces of information come out of nowhere. As with my last read, the solution looked at in isolation is a good one, but when you try to match it with the rest of the text it becomes evident that much more textual scaffolding was needed in the previous narrative to support it.

Palmer is an entertaining writer, but I don’t feel this is his best mystery.

Rating: 4/5

13 comments

  1. Ah well dunno about whetting appetites but you sharpened your dagger re Harry Keating One should nt speak too much ill of the dear departed dead R D

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  2. I have read only one Palmer book, The Puzzle of the Silver Persian, and enjoyed it enormously. Sure Palmer was not overly interested in three-dimensional characterization (he was hardly the only one at the time) but he was a lively writer and Hildegarde Withers I think is a great character. It is a pity that Keating is no longer around as maybe he would have stumbled upon your post and then elaborate on his criticism and explain why he chose for reprint a book by a writer he so obviously despised. Barzun loathed Palmer too by the way, castigating him for what he saw as excessive focus on the puzzle.

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    • Yes I think I enjoyed the Persian cat one too. I was baffled why Keating chose this particular title to reprint when Palmer’s earlier work is much stronger. Interesting to hear Palmer was pulled up for being too puzzle focused, as I would say this book is less likely to draw that criticism. I certainly don’t think we ever enter the dry puzzle focus land of Croft or Queen in Palmer’s work.

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  3. Hmm, it seems this book exists with two titles. I’ve read all the Hildegarde Withers series, but ‘Exit Laughing’ was not in my lists, but the summary sounded familiar.

    Based on the info at Goodreads and Amazon, it appears to be currently available as an e-book called ‘Cold Poison’. Although neither of those sites reference an alternate title.

    Maybe different titles depending on the country of publication…?

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    • Yes I didn’t realise about the other title until someone told me on facebook. I think Cold Poison might be the American title as whilst I found no blog reviews of it under the name of Exit Laughing, I have found much more comment on, under the CP name.

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    • Yes, you are correct. The books Cold Poison (in USA) and Exit Laughing (in UK) are the same. A shorter version of the novel appeared in American Magazine (February 1954) under the title A Valentine For The Victim.

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  4. Thanks for the review, Kate, which reminded me I’ve been wanting to try a novel by Palmer – but haven’t really got round to it. Managing life around the chaos of today’s COVID stricken world means that I’ve dropped from 2 mystery novels a week to barely completing 1 in 2 weeks! I had already changed my mind once or twice as to what novel to read next.

    I suspect my delay in picking up something by Palmer pertains to the fact that he seems to be in the same camp as the Littles, Rice, Taylor, etc. That is, more comic than puzzle. So we’ll see!

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    • I suspect my delay in picking up something by Palmer pertains to the fact that he seems to be in the same camp as the Littles, Rice, Taylor, etc. That is, more comic than puzzle. So we’ll see!

      As I said above, Barzun – of all people – criticized Palmer for being all about the puzzle, so I think you have nothing to fear there. Hildegarde is obviously meant to be a comic character, but she also is a good detective.

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    • It probably depends on which Palmer title you try. I imagine the earlier titles are best for a puzzle focus. I don’t think the Palmer books have the same zany antics which you find in the works of the Littles, Rice or Tilton.

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