With “Europe [having] exploded”, crime-solving New York schoolteacher Hildegard Withers is holidaying in Los Angeles and, by dint of being recognised from a photo in the paper, is hired by a film studio as a consultant on a new film about Lizzie Borden. When, on her first day, the man in the office next to hers dies from a broken neck, Miss Withers becomes — for reasons that completed eluded this reader — convinced that he was murdered and sets about trying to find his killer. Thankfully, plenty of suspicious types present themselves for consideration, as the prospect of blackmail, secrets, and a general dissatisfaction with the victim’s comportment all float to the surface.
I’ve said before that my reading of American crime fiction from the Golden Age has left me with the impression that the US take on detection is less about meaningful clues and plot progression than it is about Events and Things Happening, and Palmer is the latest author to conform to that expectation. Hell, he’s even wise within his own narrative to the possibility that our prank-playing victim’s paranoia could just be the setup for another gag he never got to see through, but Miss Withers proceeds with the insistence of murder anyway, seizing on one name that has no provable link to anything that’s happened and making that person the prime suspect because….well, because murder plots need suspects. This lack of reason is fine if you just want colourful scenes to pass before your eyes with no particular purpose — insert your own “Well, this is set in a Hollywood studio” gag here — but I like the reasoning in my books to have some, er, reason behind it.
Since the plot still hadn’t really gotten going by the halfway stage, I was left to ponder the purpose of the book I was reading. It contains the occasional line that might raise a smirk, like…
[T]he dance floor at Shapiro’s is always so crowded that all dancing is cheek to cheek. Almost any cheek.
“[W]e’re selling entertainment, not waving flags. Leave that to Warner Brothers; they discovered patriotism.”
…but none of it struck me as especially funny in the way that would qualify this as a comedic mystery. Some humorous character beats — like the sheriff “unbutton[ing] the top button of his trousers” in a moment of confoundment, or studio boss Thorwold L. Nincom “work[ing] on the oyster plan — irritate enough and you may get a pearl” — make some minor characters more interesting, but I couldn’t tell you anything about the eight (or maybe six) screenwriters who might be under suspicion if you put a gun to my head. And the endless meetings about trying to hash out the script for this film, taking up swathes of this 185 page book, do nothing to either contribute to the plot or to compel the characters you’re presumably supposed to find your surprise villain among. Maybe they’re funny, but if so it eluded me.
Also, yes, there’s a character called Nincom so that someone can make a “poop” joke — twice, in fact, since Palmer obviously likes it so much, though we are at least saved any…effluvia.
It’s not all bad — well, none of it’s bad, in fairness, just plain. A couple of instances of the movie business argot tossed around so casually are amusing to catch (how many Golden Age novels can throw in a legitimate Fritz Lang reference, eh?), and a little crossover is achieved with a mention of scenarios written for “Mr. Moto and Bulldog Drummond” — plus, there’s an almost John Dickson Carr-ian conceit concerning fingerprints that would be diverting were anything done with it. I especially enjoyed the way that each chapter heading is an epigraph from which the chapter title is taken (though the one at the start of chapter IV misquotes A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603) by Thomas Heywood, by dint of an unfortunate typo), but in saying that I really do feel like I’m stretching for the positives in an otherwise dull experience.
Even the core murder conceit — how a man can have his neck broken without a mark being left upon him — isn’t especially interesting because there’s a perfectly valid answer (he fell and broke his neck accidentally) which we’re never given a reason to dismiss (and don’t get me started on the sort-of answer the book half-provides). What few clues there are — a cigar stub, an apple core — are boiled off pretty quickly, and when your killer is unmasked there’s an air of “Oh, well, I guess this explains it” rather than anything approaching the coverage of conviction we saw in, say, Death at Swaythling Court (1926) by J.J. Connington. And, good heavens, Miss Withers’ assertion that fingerprints can be forged “as somebody or other proved last year” completely ignores the fact that R. Austin Freeman demonstrated this in The Red Thumb Mark (1907) some thirty-three years previously (the book is set in 1940). This is all too light, too inconsequential, too vapid, to really add up to anything.
Palmer is easy to read, although his shifts in perspective are more headache-inducing than Christianna Brand at her worst, and I enjoyed my only other experience of this series, Murder on Wheels (1932), so I’m left to ponder if this is as good as he gets or if further exploration might uncover a gem or two in his oeuvre. To that end, I throw myself on the mercy of you, the reader…having not fully gotten on board with this, should I jump ship now, or have I simply encountered his They Came to Baghdad (1951) and should definitely try something more fitting of the man’s talents?
Oh, and what does the title mean? Anyone?
Kate @ Cross-Examining Crime: 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.