Summoned by a distant relative to a secluded family pile, a young(ish) man finds himself isolated with a fixed cast of closely-related characters as money-hungry relatives, murder, and all other sorts of puzzle plotting chicanery inveigle themself onto the scene. Yes, in many ways No Flowers By Request takes the exact same ingredients as The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head — vast swathes of it will appear ominously familiar — and plays perfectly in the 1937 tradition that Rich has got us investigating this month for Crimes of the Century. But does the rest of the book hold up past these fundamentals? And is it any good, after the failure of Jonanthan Latimer’s stirring of these same ingredients?
Well, thankfully, yes; if a touch laborious at times — brought about, I’d wager, from the overriding tone being on the sombre side of zany (or perhaps the zany side of sombre…?) — this is a far finer use of the Country House Mystery and all its tropes. And, in fact, it makes an interesting companion piece to that Latimer title from last week because it’s virtually the exact same setup but done well, and with a narrative maintained across a similar length that has a clear and defined aim, a very good use of atmosphere, and a far lighter touch with its misdirection, clewing, construction, and the numerous characters we meet.
There is nothing in Latimer’s book even half so well observed as the following, for instance, between the elderly Aunt Evelyn and the Mexican manservant Oviedo:
“Well, my man,” she greeted him, “I’m not going to like calling you Oviedo. Haven’t you got an easier name?”
“Sure,” he said easily.
“And what is it?” Aunt Evelyn insisted.
“Jesus,” replied the Mexican calmly.
Aunt Evelyn, who takes everything in her stride, choked faintly and then smiled. “Lead the way, Oviedo.”
Palmer’s investigation is much more in the background than was Latimer’s, with his narrator Alan Cameron and his autonomous collective of three ‘cousins’ going about the investigation into the fire that killed their elderly uncle in a very organic manner. The sheer horror of living in a confined space with a possible murderer is readily apparent throughout, but Palmer’s use of levity prevents everything getting too bogged down — the seventeen year-old Eustace dreaming of having a powerful car “ever since I was a kid”, Sheriff Bale’s reason for being certain that a murder has been committed (the body was destroyed in the fire), the early snipe about someone “fainting with joy” — that balances out the sub-Gothic tones of someone…
…perched high on the bench of the great organ, idly pounding out some popular tune or other. But somehow, everything she played, even the lightest of jazz, seemed to come out the “Dead March” from Saul.
Equally, there is an infectious enthusiasm in the moment the coroner details the forensic tests he has undertaken in trying to establish certain facts about the crime, the kind of thing usually taken as known these days and so easily swept aside being brought out fully to bask in two whole paragraphs of its own, complete with excitable character asides. Palmer is enjoying himself with these little touchstones, and even if one character is arguably justified in complaining at a late stage that “murders are supposed to have clues…tangible things that you can wonder about” — this is not the detective novel in full effulgence — there are enough little incidents throughout to keep you guessing and wondering.
It does lose a bit of pace towards the end, perhaps more respectful to proper procedure than it needs to be, and a couple of later chapters dealing with wills and inquests could be condensed and combined to improve the experience, but then the second- and third-string stories being played out against the murder are actually quite beautifully handled and lovely to watch. I mean, they won’t surprise a fair proportion of you, but it’s refreshing to see someone treat a nominally predictable couple of threads in a manner that isn’t quite as laconic as it could be, paying mere lip service, and instead investing it with a full background of emotion and a real undertone of loss.
So the flaws herein are not so miniscule as to dismiss without consideration, but equally not the giant rack of ribs that over-balances the car in the opening credits of The Flintstones. All told, this is a deliberate and careful piece of late Golden Age plotting, and finds a fair amount of life among the death and bequests that normally give these events shape. And if anyone else wants to read this and The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head for a back-to-back compairson…well, read this one first!
16 thoughts on “#219: No Flowers By Request, a.k.a. Omit Flowers (1937) by Stuart Palmer”
Sounds like a great book, and that quote you pulled out had me laughing out loud. Did Palmer write many detective novels?
Oh, yes; there are at least 18 Hildegard Withers books, plus a few non-series, and a short story collection or two. There’s quite a lot of information available here, at the GADetection wiki if you’re curious…
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks, looks like he had some impossible stuff up his sleeve too. (Sounds different to what I meant).
I believe he might, but I couldn’t quote you titles…
LikeLiked by 1 person
The zany side of sombre! For that alone I feel like I need to track this one down just so I can see what that is like. I wasn’t aware of this title by Palmer, as not read any of his non-series stuff and when I first saw the title I thought you were going to be looking at the detection club book with the same title. But your review certainly reminds us all of the important point that it is what you do with mystery fiction tropes and not necessarily which ones you use.
Palmer ha a better handle on what he’s doing than Latimer did, that’s for sure. There are a few instance where they take exactly the same thing and go in complete opposite directions with it; aaaah, to be able to pick their brains about that!
I’ve been re-reading Palmer lately because I treated myself to a set of Hildegarde Withers e-books. It may surprise some of your readers to note that he has 33 writing credits for films in IMDB, and the large percentage of them mysteries of some sort … I think he worked more in films than print, after he got started.
LikeLiked by 3 people
He paints a wonderful/terrible picture of Hollywood in Happy Hooligan. I laughed throughout! Clearly, he was at home there!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Never mind my readers, it surprises me! I’m suprised, given how many books some of these people put out in a few short years and how much radio work some of them did, that more GAD authors weren’t involved in script-writing. Or, hey, maybe they were and only a handful ever got produced, like with Jim Thompson.
Never read any Palmer – not the easiest books to come across, I guess – but this sounds fairly good.
It is very good, but I can believe he wrote better; it might be worth seeking a second opinion from someone like Noah who’s read a few more as to what would be an advisable place to dive in if it’s going to take a fair amount of effort to find it. Like, if you happen upon this, grand; but don’t spend asge and/or oddles of cash trying to hunt it down…
Sound advice, not that I have oodles of cash to hunt stuff like this, or any kind actually, even if I wanted to. 🙂
I think some of the Miss Withers books are more accessible, but that may be mere wishful thinking.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Glad this one went down better – I have always enjoyed his stuff, though so often it will depend on what the boiling point is your sense of humour.
‘Boiling point’ is about right — this is kept at a steady simmer, with occasional divergence into Gothic melodrama. Actual laugh-out-loud moments there are few; maybe two? Two or three. Certainly no more than five.
The Hildy books usually make me chuckle …
I’ve only read Murder on Wheels, but enjoyed it. Shall get to Palmer more over the years, even if he hasn’t quite established himself as a must-read for me yet. Watch this space…