Window of Opportunity: "The Riddle of the Brass Band" (1934) by Stuart Palmer

Back in November, I reread Stuart Palmer's "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" (1935), collected in Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles (2002), which is part of the early period of his short stories that "tend to draw on the technique of the impossible crime" – some being out and out impossible crime and locked room stories. "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" is a shining example of Palmer's earlier, plot-oriented short stories with an impossible stabbing at the Chicago Planetarium.

Strangely enough, these earlier short stories are not listed in either Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) or Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). I even shamefully forgot all about them when cobbling together "The Updated List of My Favorite Tales of Locked Room Murders & Impossible Crimes." So, prompted by a recent reviews, I decided to take another look at one of these overlooked short stories that I remember liking the first time around.

Palmer's "The Riddle of the Brass Band," originally published in the March, 1934, issue of Mystery, which has a great double premise. Before the story's opens, Inspector Oscar Piper attended a Gridiron Club dinner and had listened to a talk from some amateur criminologist, Leverer, who asserted "that the perfect crime is a murder wherein the murderer is never suspected" and "where the police never bother to investigate" – as "the whole thing passes off as an accident." Leverer went on to state that, if he wanted to kill anybody, "he'd wait until he was alone with them, call their attention to something in the street below, and then up with their ankles." Inspector Piper went home that night "boiling in sulphurous silence." Miss Hildegarde Withers promises to help Piper show him up by investigating the next so-called accident of the kind that comes across his desk.

Well, the story opened on St. Patrick's Day with the police parade passing Thirty-first Street, on Fifth Avenue, the figure of a man came "hurtling down out of the sky" and struck the sidewalk. The victim turns out to be the founder of a new, struggling publishing house, Thomas E. Wright, who had apparently gone to the window of his top floor office to listen to the band, got dizzy and fell out. Wright was alone in the office with the door locked on the inside and his secretary with several disgruntled authors waiting outside in the reception room.

Miss Hildegarde Withers is the first to worm her way to the top floor office of The Lehigh Press before the news reaches them that Wright has plunged to his death. She poses as Wright's aunt from Boston and continues the act to poke around for clues and motives, which she uncovers in spades when attending a literary tea to introduce the Lehigh Press authors to the critics and the press. Miss Withers suggests to the various persons who were present at the office if they want to contribute to a memorial edition of Wright's poetry. She quickly learns Wright was not exactly an honest publisher ("...after he got the money he went ahead and ordered them bound in cheap linoleum"), boss ("...borrowed my salary checks back from me as soon as I got them...") and friend ("...smacked a judgment against my bank account"). So more than enough motives to go around, but the key here is method and opportunity.

The method is, of course, the locked room-trick. A nicely-done and clever variation on the defenestration from a sealed room or inaccessible and watched high spot like a rooftop or balcony. Yes, my recent rereading of Baynard Kendrick's The Whistling Hangman (1937) is what prompted this second read of Palmer's "The Riddle of the Brass Band" as both appeared to have been intrigued by the possibilities this particular impossible crime technique has to offer (see ROT13 comments on my review of "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights"). Palmer returned to that well more than once and, as a result, you can link most of his impossible crime fiction together with all the variations on this method and there certainly is a resemblance to the tricks employed in other stories – which is where opportunity comes into play. Palmer created a neat little situation maddening enough "to make anyone kill." And that situation happened to present one of the characters with an opportunity to pull off the perfect murder. Not an unconvincing window of opportunity either. Only smudge on this otherwise excellent detective story is the perfunctory clueing.

Palmer played the game fair enough as he casually dropped three, hard to miss, clues with the first two clearly identifying the murderer and the third spelling out how it was done. So you can work out what happened to arrive at exactly the same conclusion as Miss Withers, but it feels too easy and somewhat carelessly done. Striking a false-note with the story's fresh premise, a well executed impossible crime idea and Miss Withers being a credit to her fellow amateur sleuths. "The Riddle of the Brass Band" had the potential to be another overlooked gem from Palmer's catalog of short stories, but, in the end, it did not entirely measure up to Palmer's best short stories like "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights." Hardly damaging enough to ruin the whole story. "The Riddle of the Brass Band" is still mostly a very well written, plotted and entertaining Golden Age detective story that might possibly have been even better had some of the story's creativity been redirected towards the clueing. So don't skip it on account of my nitpicking at small details like a petulant fanboy.

Yes, don't worry, there's a two or three non-impossible crime posts coming down the pipeline.


  1. Thank you - this sounds fun. I have Hildegarde Withers Uncollected Riddles so will push it toward the top of the TBR pile. When you recommend a book or short story, I tend to enjoy it.

    1. I can practically guarantee you'll like Uncollected Riddles. It remains to this day one of the best short story collections Crippen & Landru has published.