"I would rather have a flock of penguins around the place any day than a raven perched on the bust of Pallas above my chamber door."- Stuart Palmer
Stuart Palmer's Cold Poison (1954), alternatively known as Exit Laughing, is the penultimate title in the Miss Hildegarde Withers series and the last one to appear in print during his lifetime, which was followed fifteen years later with the posthumous publication of Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene (1969) – completed by Fletcher Flora. So you can read this next-to-last novel as the official ending of the series with the posthumous title serving as a curtain call.
In Cold Poison, Miss Withers has retired from her teaching position at Manhattan's Jefferson School and retreated to "the bland, monotonous climate of Southern California" in order to alleviate her asthma. Gratefully, she still has a passion for sticking her nose into other people's business and has a friend back home who recommended her services, as a private snoop, to the big boss of a movie studio.
Ralph Cushak is the studio manager of Miracle-Paradox Studios and his problem concerns the animation department, tucked away in a back corner of the lot known as Cartoon Alley, where several poetic poison-pen letters were delivered to his employees – all were adorned with an illustration of a dead Peter Penguin with "a strangling noose about his throat."
A gross violation of "the unwritten laws of cartoondom" that strictly forbids depictions of snakes, cows with udders, blood and death. So the drawings are a very serious infraction of cartoon etiquette. Oh, and the death threats were not exactly appreciated, either.
On the recommendation of Inspector Oscar Piper of New York City, the studio attracted Miss Hildegarde Withers to discreetly poke around Cartoon Alley.
Formally, the studio hired Miss Withers' poodle, Talleyrand, who acts as a live model for the animators working on a feature-length cartoon, entitled The Circus Poodle, which gives her an excuse to wander around the place as the dog's chaperon – asking all kinds of impertinent questions. Palmer used this angle of the story to provide some padding by giving a detailed, and slightly unnecessary, rundown of the story behind The Circus Poodle, but it helped giving you the idea that Miss Withers was actually at an animation studio. A background practically unique in the genre. Anyway, it doesn't take very long for Miss Withers to stumble upon a body.
The practical joker of the animation studio, Larry Reed, had called in sick around the time the threatening poems were passed around. So Miss Withers decided to pay him a personal visit, but she had to break into his pink-coral, cliffside home with the assistance of a bent hairpin and what she found was the bloated, twisted body of the animator. Something had made him swell up like "a poisoned pup" and the autopsy revealed this something was the garden-variety poison-ivy!
A very unusual kind of poison in murder cases and Miss Withers reaches out to Inspector Piper with the question whether he has ever heard of "a murder being committed with poison-ivy," which he affirmed and the example he knows of currently resided on the pile of New York's unsolved murder cases. So this begs the question whether there's a connection between both poisoning cases and the homicide detective takes the next plane to California.
On a side note, a similar connection between two unusual murder cases brought Piper to Hollywood in The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941).
So they begin to dig around together, just like the good old days, but this is the point where the primary weakness of the book begins to manifest itself. Cold Poison has a plot that's on the slender side and buried beneath a barrel full of red herrings, which did no favors to the fair play element of the story. Miss Withers and Piper are constantly kept busy with sorting out all of the false leads, but this sumptuous buffet of red herrings only prevented the reader from having an honest shot at beating the detectives to the solution – as nearly all of the clues turn out to be nothing more than distractions. And this makes it slightly frustrating that the book did not contain illustrations of the visual clues used to identity the poisoner.
At the end of the story, Miss Withers asks all of the suspects to make sketches of the murdered character of Peter Penguin and compares them to original drawings from the poison-pen letters. The thing that betrays the murderer in these drawings is something a regular reader, who's not familiar with the animation business, could still have picked upon. Yes, it would have been a slender clue, but a clue nonetheless and should have been included in the story.
So, you probably assume Cold Poison was an enormous letdown, but not as much as you might think.
Sure, as a detective story, the plot completely underperformed, but, as a fan of the series, it was still an enjoyable read. Granted, the book could have been really great had the clueing been up to scratch, but long-time readers of Palmer will be still able to appreciate this penultimate entry in the Miss Withers series. One that ends on a note suggesting that the series really had come to a close. So the story, in spite of its short comings, is of genuine interest to fans of Palmer, Withers and Piper.
Well, thus ends this poor excuse of a review and wish my brief break from the locked room sub-genre had been on a more positive note, but, hopefully, the next break will turns up a non-impossible classic.
In the meantime, there are several locked room reviews in the pipeline. I have yet another review of a Kindaichi episode lined up and should return to Case Closed one of these days, which has an impossible crime story involving a certain gentleman thief. I'm also eagerly awaiting the arrival of a short story collection and placed a handful of locked room novels at the top of my TBR-pile, of which two will be re-reads. So you all have some more miracle crimes to look forward to!