All Things Mysterious Volume One Hundred Fourteen
The twin prototypes--well, not literally twins, I mean two of a kind--for the archetype of the little old lady sleuthing and solving crimes are probably Christie’s Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher of ‘Murder She Wrote’ fame. But wait, there’s more!
Stuart Palmer and Hildegarde Withers
Hildegarde is a snoopy old biddy, constantly horning in on the work of Oscar Piper of the NYPD. It could be that Palmer had read an Anna Katherine Green novel or two, for this is the same setup the latter used in the Butterworth/Gryce series, just as the amateur sleuth/NYPD combination was in the Philo Vance stories by S.S. Van Dyne. There’s more than a little Marple in there too!
With a female protagonist, Palmer took the opportunity in Murder On Wheels to feature an ahead-of-its-time dialogue between Withers and Piper regarding the role of women in society. Happily there is a tongue in cheek type of humor, where, for example, the first Hildegarde Withers tale, The Penguin Pool, mentions Holmes and Vance as famous fictional sleuths.
Dame Edna May Oliver memorably portrayed Hildegarde in the flickers; that’s the film role she’s best known for and how most folks visualize the tart-tongued amateur sleuth, even though she only made three pictures as the character. According to her biography, Edna May left school at the age of fourteen in 1897 to pursue a career on the stage and had her first hit in 1917--a twenty year apprenticeship! What do you bet some theater critic called her an ‘overnight success?’
While the Withers adventures are generally comic in tone, they are not farcical in any way, indeed, they pretty well follow the conventions of novelistic detection as far as gathering clues and arriving at the ingenious solution to the puzzle. Palmer wrote thirteen Withers novels, two collections of short stories, and one unfinished novel which was completed after Palmer’s passing. There’s also a collaboration with Craig Rice called The People Versus Withers and Malone in which Withers and Rice’s lawyer John J. Malone match wits. Another posthumous collection of short pieces called Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles, was published in 2002. To be sure, some of Palmer's postwar output may be considered uneven. But the Hildegarde tales are plain ol’ fun with some world class detection for good measure.
Join us over the next couple of weeks as we take a look at a few other crimefighting seniors! (Strangely, they are almost all women.)
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