A little charm goes a long way – ask any bank teller or helpline operative, or indeed any fan of Golden Age crime fiction. Because, while a lot of absolutely wonderful books came out of this genre at that time, the fact is that a lot of what was published then and is popular now adhered to a particular school of writing and runs on very familiar rails. But the key thing is that so much of it is charming without having to innovate, and once you jettison any notions about every single book from the Golden Age being a complete game-changer you find a lot of joy there. Which astonishingly back-handed praise brings us to my first (but the chronological second) Hildegard Withers mystery by Stuart Palmer, possibly the first book I’ve really enjoyed for a long time in 2016 even though it does very little new or surprising.
A car crashes on a busy New York street, but the driver is not in evidence by the time the nearest policeman reaches it. Far from having fled the scene, a witness tells him, the driver actually jumped from his car long before the crash. And sure enough, a body is found back in the direction of the car’s origin…though with a noose around its neck and clearly dead from hanging. This setup, I have to say, is very arresting, but also probably the last point that the book displays any genuine originality. The dead man is part of a wealthy family, there’s a fiancée and a cousin and an elderly matriarch, and yes you pretty much know what you’re gonna get.
Part of the trepidation I feel when reading new authors comes from seeing the ideas they bring to their setups, and I had high hopes that Palmer was giving us an obvious possibility for the murder method as a blind for something far cleverer. Now I’m not saying that’s not the case, but it’s a motif that is repeated regularly throughout: you’re all like “Aaah, I see what he wants me to assume…” and you wait for him to unveil that obvious solution on the way to the clever thing you missed completely, and, well, it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the thing you think is the thing he reveals as the answer. And by “sometimes” I mean, well, “a discouragingly large amount of the time”.
But it is very charming. Thirty-something schoolteacher Hildegard Withers (I had, prior to reading this, expected her to be a Spinster Detective for some reason…possibly it’s just an old-sounding name) and Inspector Oscar Piper swap acerbic observations that lack the fizz of Kelley Roos’ Jeff and Haila Troy (but then most characters lack that!) but feel more like actual people saying them as a result. There’s a distinct focus on the doing rather than the setting, so you’re not getting a sense of New York at all, but this keeps events ticking along briskly and drops in quiet asides about the stock market that belies the setting contemporary to its writing precisely because it’s not over-wrung.
Overall, Palmer reminds me of his Rue Morgue stablemates the Little Sisters with his lightness of touch and babel of characters doing things that indirectly influence the outcomes of various strands. If he doesn’t quite have their menace or good clew-ing, well, this is early days for him and I can believe he will improve from here. The answer comes from a moment of intuitive inspiration, and even collectively the clues such as they are could furnish an alternative explanation, but we’re not expecting a game-changer, remember. There’s a huge central aspect of this that I’m deliberately not touching, and I’d advise you read as little as possible before picking it up. Treat it as fun and fun you shall have.