Playing the Fool

"We have found that squirting water into a real clown's mouth until he drowns is more fun, and of benefit to society, but that's another story."
- Todd Robbins (The Modern Con Man: How to Get Something for Nothing, 2008) 
Stuart Palmer was a Golden Age luminary and arguably one of the brightest adherents of the American wing of the Intuitionist School, which included such mystery writers as S.S. van Dine, Ellery Queen, Kelley Roos and Rex Stout.

The Penguin Pool Murder (1931) introduced a beloved character among connoisseurs of murder, Miss Hildegarde Withers, who's a schoolteacher-turned-detective and assisted the police in piecing together The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1934) and The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla (1937) – among other noteworthy endeavors in crime-detection by "that meddlesome old battleaxe." However, for this review, I will be looking at the first book from a short-lived series Palmer wrote in the 1950-and 60s.

Howie Rook is Palmer's second-string character and headlined only two novels, published more than a decade apart, of which Unhappy Hooligan (1956) was the first. The story opens when a large tomcat, named Satanas, enters the apartment of John MacFarley through the only open window, which is left slightly ajar and accessible by a narrow ledge only a cat or human fly can tip-toe on. MacFarley is curiously dressed in black-tie and dinner jacket, in combination with a face full of clown paint and a bullet hole in the chest.

"Locked room mysteries are usually for fiction and the pen of John Dickson Carr," Rook observes, but he could show Police Chief Parkman clippings from his news papers of genuine examples of impossible crimes escaping from the printed pages. Unfortunately, the reference to the "Pincus affair in New York City's Bronx," in which an inoffensive tailor "had died in a locked and bolted room from having a handkerchief jammed down his throat," appears to be fictional. Last year, I posted several, real-life examples of actual locked room mysteries: Part I, II, III, IV and V. Anyway, back to the review.

MacFarley was a circus enthusiast who had spend the last days of his life as an honorary clown, traveling around with the Big Top, but didn't make many friends among the regular performers when he began to fool around in earnest - which may have made him an enemy that left traces of elephant dung and sawdust in the apartment. Rook has to go undercover at the circus as a retired business man and don the grease paint as he pokes around the motley crew of performers. Palmer really did an excellent job at drawing an array of unusual, but real enough, characters from the cast of vaudeville personalities and depicting their life as traveling artists.

This shoves the locked room aspect of the story more to the background, but the circus material is really the best part of the book. It was very reminiscent of Case with Four Clown (1939) by Leo Bruce, in which Sgt. Beef has practically joined the circus. Rook takes his role as a professional rather than a dilettante, but it's quite enjoyable to have your detective lumbering around as a mute clown, having a close shave with a throwing-knife and duty-bound to distract the audience after a thrilling moment in the big top of the tent – while figuring out a way a murderer could've entered the locked and bolted apartment. The job is made all the more difficult when the widow and daughter keep throwing suspicion on each other.

Unhappy Hooligan is a lively written, reasonably plotted mystery novel, enhanced by a well-drawn circus background and characters, but the overall plot did not measure up to the best from the Miss Withers series (e.g. Nipped in the Bud, 1951). The explanation for the locked room was carnie, but to be expected, and I was glad to see that Poe's "monkey wrench" was used as an obvious red herring. I really should just stop whining about these disappointing locked room mysteries and just write one myself... you know... one of these days...

So, all in all, not the best of mystery novels, but also far from the worst. I've just read better detective stories by Palmer. If you're not familiar with his work yet, I can highly recommend People vs. Withers and Malone (1963; co-authored with Craig Rice) and Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles (2002). If you like short detective stories, you'll love these!


  1. I'm a sicker for circus settings so I'm certainly interested in this one.

    1. You won't be disappointed about the circus material in this book, especially if you like them in a mystery setting.