"To Hollywood, city of screwballs! Drink 'er down."- Ellery Queen (Ellery Queen's The Four of Hearts, 1938)
My previous blog-post was a review of John Russell Fearn's Death in Silhouette (1950), which was the last entry in his series about Miss Maria Black, who I compared to Stuart Palmer's Miss Hildegarde Withers and thought reviewing a title from the Withers series would be a nice follow-up. So I airlifted The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941) from the desolate, snow-capped peaks of Mt. To-be-Read.
Palmer was a Hollywood screenwriter and one of my favorite American mystery writers from the genre's Golden Age. A first-rate writer whose bibliography consists of fourteen Miss Withers novels, a handful of short story collections and non-series mysteries as well as numerous credits as a screenwriter – penning scripts for such famous B-movies series Bulldog Drummond and The Falcon. However, the books about his beloved series-character, Miss Withers, usually are top-drawer stuff and counts such classics as The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1934) and Nipped in the Bud (1952).
The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan is not one of Palmer's masterpieces, but it's a pleasant, mildly humorous detective story with a plot and setting that draws on his background as a Hollywood screenwriter.
Miss Hildegarde Withers is on a six-month sabbatical from her job as a third-grade teacher at Jefferson School and she was looking forward to a Mediterranean cruise, but then Hitler started blitzkrieging across the European continent – which required rescheduling her vacation and she ended up exploring the West Coast of the United States. She's in Hollywood to be precise and an unusual meeting at a restaurant landed her consulting gig.
A talent agent, by the name of Harry Wagman, recognized the schoolteacher from her picture in the newspaper and asked her, accusingly, whether she was "the Murder Lady." He also asked if she was interested in a well-paid job as a technical adviser on a movie about the infamous Lizzie Borden case. One of the big Hollywood producers, Thorwald L. Nincom, plans to make a film epic in technicolor based on the case and Wagman wants to sell her expertise in criminology to the producer, which would net her three-hundred dollars a week. Wagman only wants "a measly ten per cent."
Usually, Miss Withers' presence, as an amateur criminologist, was neither requested or wanted. It always was "in spite of hell and high water" that her "insatiable curiosity had managed to get her into a case," which made her go along with her new agent and meet the famous producer. Even though this was far from a proper murder case. However, she soon finds herself in her familiar role of an unwanted snoop when an inexplicable death occurs on the premises of Mammoth Studio.
Saul Stafford and Virgil Dobie are "one of the highest-paid writing teams in the business," who also garnered a well-earned reputation as the biggest pranksters in Hollywood, but, when Miss Withers meets Stafford, the self-styled comedian suffers from "a mild case of paranoia" - plagued by strange accidents and funny-tasting drinks. Two hours later, she found him sprawled on the floor of his office with a broken neck, next to an overturned chair, with a giant poster on the ceiling hanging from a single thumbtack. It has all the hallmarks of a freak accident, but Miss Withers is convinced she has stumbled across, what she called, an "impossible murder."
Sadly, this is not an impossible crime story and the way in which Palmer handled this angle of the plot is, somewhat, incomprehensible.
There are several broken necks throughout the story and a big deal is made about the apparent impossibility of these deaths. A police-surgeon even mentions he doesn't believe "it physically possible for any person to break another's neck," because "the neck muscles are too strong." So, since there were no signs of a struggle or any noise was heard coming from the office, I began to suspect the victims died by the hangman's drop and the poster on the ceiling and the location of the offices gave me that idea – because, I suppose, offices on a studio plot aren't as solid constructed as a brownstone building.
I figured that, perhaps, panels or parts of the ceiling could be removed and create an improvised trapdoor to drop someone through with a (padded) rope around his neck. This would explain why nobody heard a thing, because the victim was dropped into his office from the floor above and reeled back in, to cut the rope, and then dropped back again in his office – which would also explain the New York victim who was found beneath a window in a soft flower bed. The hangman's drop seemed to be the obvious explanation, but, when the method was revealed, I was baffled that Palmer made such a big deal about the cause of death. Even trying to make it seem like an impossible crime.
It's akin to writing a story in which someone is found murdered inside a locked room and the key to the door was found in the victim's pocket, which is made a focal point of the plot, but then explain it away that the murderer used a spare key. Why bother dressing up the crime as a seemingly impossible murder if that's the angle you're taking? Simply baffling!
On top of that, the murderer was fairly obvious. So this could have easily translated into a rare disappointment in the series, but the book still had some solid, well-done plot-threads and moments. First of all, there's the plot-thread about a mysterious individual, known as Derek or Dick Laval, who appears to have been neck-deep in the New York murder, which was skillfully tied to the overall plot and was a high-note of the book – showing that Palmer could do better than the business about the broken necks. I also loved the touching and sad scenes that placed Miss Withers in genuine danger and had her friend, Inspector Oscar Piper, rushing down from New York to help. I think fans of these two characters will particular appreciate this portion of the story.
Befitting a movie-themed mystery novel, the plot has several fun Easter eggs, nods and winks. At one point in the book, Inspector Piper describes Miss Withers suitcase to a cabdriver and mentions it has labels from London and Mexico City on it, which are subtle references to The Puzzle of the Silver Persian (1935) and The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla (1937). Miss Withers is also mistaken for Edna May Oliver who played her character in the movies based on the earlier books in the series (e.g. The Penguin Pool Murder, 1932).
So, all in all, the overall plot was not one of Palmer's strongest, but the writing and characters were up to his usual standards and made for a fun, fast-paced read. However, I would recommend new readers to start somewhere else and save this one for later, because I think fans of the series will be able to appreciate it more than new readers.