It seems like I have not read a novel by Palmer for ages, but it has only been 5 months. Today’s title is not a commonly reviewed one from what I can see. Going into this read, not having read the blurb, I wondered if the book would run along similar lines to Ellery Queen’s The American Gun Mystery (1933) or Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Fan Dancer’s Horse (1947) and having a murder in front of an audience involving a horse. That fact it did not, was not a deficit and Palmer’s handling of the equine element is interestingly different.
‘The evening’s party is over, and modelling sensation Violet Feverel wants to get in a quick horse ride before the dawn breaks. She saddles up Siwash the stallion, and gallops onto the Central Park bridle path, eager to begin what will be the last ride of her life.
On the other side of the park, Miss Hildegarde Withers — schoolmarm and expert sleuth — breaks into a grin when she hears a patrolman’s radio mention a ‘Code 44.’ As she knows all too well, ‘Code 44’ means a dead body — and ‘dead bodies’ mean adventure. Miss Withers follows the cop to the crime scene, where they find Violet Feverel lying dead, having apparently fallen from her horse. But if she died when she hit the ground, then why is Siwash marked with a spot of blood? For Miss Withers, answering this question will prove more exciting than an afternoon at the races — and much more risky.’
I wonder whether Stuart Palmer’s film writing experience influenced the opening of this story, as it begins in the early hours of the morning with a taxi driver asleep at his wheel. Suddenly he is roughly awoken and instructed to ‘follow that cab’. I enjoyed this opening as it invites a lot of questions. Why is someone tailing Violet to the riding school? Why does Violet want to go riding at such a ridiculously early time? In the midst of all this we also see Violet’s younger stepsister, who is fed up with Violet interfering in her social life. Interestingly at this stage in the book, whilst the other characters see her as an ‘iceberg,’ I don’t know the reader is all that ready to view Violet in completely negative terms. That of course does change as we get to know her more.
The narrative then switches to the series amateur sleuth, Hildegarde Withers, who is being pulled along by a wire-haired terrier named Dempsey. Dempsey seems to be the dog she has before her more well-known canine, Tallyrand, an apricot poodle. She acquired Dempsey in an earlier book The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933) when she ended up with a litter of puppies on her hands. She sold the others, excepting him. We are told that:
‘Miss Wither was convinced that she preferred cats to dogs, just as she preferred a quiet scholastic life to the exciting adventures in applied criminology into which fate – and a longstanding friendship with an inspector at Centre Street – had drawn her so often.’
Of course, we do not believe this and it is only moments later when she is being fined for not muzzling her dog, that she overhears on the police radio the code for a body and she immediately races off to Central Park.
It is good job that Hildegarde does go to the crime scene as it is only because of her that the idea of an accidental death is ruled out. Nevertheless, identifying how Violet was killed is something of a mystery for quite a while in the book. She picks up on a number of clues, not all of which she shares with Inspector Piper. However, some of these are red herrings and Palmer makes a playful nod to some of Sherlock Holmes’ quirks. Hildegarde is not self-deprecating in the way Miss Marple is and has a sizeable regard for her own sleuthing skills. Palmer has fun with this and she does face some embarrassing moments, such as when she makes a show of Dempsey locating something in the nearby pool, claiming it could be the murder weapon. Naturally, it turns out to be something quite different. I think it is rather telling when Inspector Piper tells Hildegarde how others perceive her:
‘Always stirring up something […] Dr Bloom was describing you the other night – said you were what doctors call a catalytic agent, stuff that you put in with harmless ingredients to make them explode…’
One of the strengths of this story is that the writer expands the case so it encompasses more than the death of Violet, although there are plenty of suspects for that crime. The investigation has many avenues to explore and incorporates a horse racing milieu, with events leading up to an important race at Beulah Park. Consequently, I think there is a lot for the reader to puzzle over. Another nice touch is that in certain scenes we get the horse’s impressions of what is going on. In more dramatic riding scenes the reader is able to see danger coming when the horse becomes confused when an expected signal from his rider does not occur.
I think my main criticism is that the murder method/scheme is perhaps too elaborate and has fairly long odds for working. Nevertheless, one of the upsides to these excesses is that it allows Palmer to present the reader with an unusual motive and I liked how it connected and tied into multiple people/situations.
In keeping with some of the other titles in the series, the ending to this one is an interesting mixture of darkness and comedy with an entertaining scene including Siwash, being followed by Hildegarde and Inspector Piper discussing their invitations to the guilty party’s execution. The restrained distaste in this scene contrasts sharply with the ending of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon (1937).
See also: Mystery*File has also reviewed this title here.