Omit Flowers (Stuart Palmer)

By Stuart Palmer

First published: US, Doubleday, 1937.  UK, Collins, 1937, as No Flowers by Request.


3 stars

Palmer - Omit Flowers.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Kudos to Palmer for trying something new, even if it doesn’t quite work.

No Hildegarde Withers here;  it’s one of those atmospheric jobs seen from the suspects’ perspective.

Grasping relatives descend on elderly eccentric Uncle Joel; he (apparently?) goes up in flames.

As in all cases of fire: 1) is he really dead?; 2) if not, where is he?; and 3) is it murder?

The book doesn’t engage until halfway through, and many of the suspects remain sketchy.  Try telling Ely Waldron and Alger Ely apart, or Evelyn, Mabel, and Fay.  A detective story doesn’t have to be psychologically penetrating, but the characters should be vivid.


US blurb

The Christmas gathering of the clan Cameron was a weird event.  They came from all directions, spurred on by a telegram addressed from Potter’s Field, and sent in the name of a man six months dead.  They arrived at Prospice, the grotesque house of their patriarch, located in the midst of a ghost city, and were met by the eccentric Joel Martin Cameron in a cavernous drawing room, beside a dust-covered and cobweb-festooned Christmas tree which still bore the tawdry decorations that had hung from its branches when the family had last foregathered fifteen years earlier.

This, then, was the setting of the strange fire that consumed the remains of Uncle Joel.  Was it murder or was it suicide?  Whichever it was, how could the remains be officially identified as the body of Uncle Joel?  This was the question which most occupied the minds of the heirs clamouring for their share of Joel’s estate.

Todd Cameron, the family black-sheep, took it upon himself to answer these two questions.  And his startling investigations led in the end to the baring of a unique crime, which crime in itself was the motivation of an even more amazing murder.

The odd part of it was that if Todd had really interpreted the significance of the empty sardine can floating on a muddy stream, or if Alan Cameron had thought to pull up his socks before venturing into the long unused billiard room the whole course of the case would quite certainly have been altered.

Stuart Palmer has in this book written his most original and exciting story; a story marked by intelligent action, splendid characterization and dry humour.

 

1937 Collins, as NO FLOWERS BY REQUEST

Palmer - Omit Flowers UK.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

The telegram, “SUGGEST WE ALL ACCEPT UNCLE JOEL’S XMAS INVITATION THIS YEAR STOP EXCELLENT CHANCE TO DECIDE ABOUT HIS SANITY,” brought the Cameron heirs rushing to eccentric Uncle Joel’s dilapidated home.  Like vultures, the Camerons descended, waiting to pounce on the money that would be theirs if Uncle Joel could be proved crazy.  Openly they discussed ways and means of legally disposing of Uncle Joel, and if Uncle Joel heard them discussing him he never said anything, but continued his wanderings around the eery house, chuckling evilly.  The Camerons get a run for their money – and so does the reader.


Contemporary reviews

Sat R of Lit (2nd January 1937, 40w)

Books (Will Cuppy, 3rd January 1937, 280w):

Palmer fans will have to get along without Miss Hildegarde Withers for the nonce, for Mr. Palmer is trying out something entirely different this time, and an expert bit of thimble-rigging it is.  Instead of a lovable spinster and a reasonable plot, you get a group of fairly wild personae, a completely unrestrained bunch of incidents, and a generous number of lightsome touches in the mist of the agony, all in a mood that we can’t quite put our finger on—the movie mood, perhaps.

 

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 3rd January 1937, 270w):

The book is strongly recommended to those who like a story with surprises all through it and an extra big one at the end.

 

Boston Transcript (16th January 1937, 350w)

Spectator (E.B.C. Jones, 26th February 1937, 100w)

Times Literary Supplement (Caldwell Harpur, 6th March 1937):

Spiteful, half-crazy old Uncle Joel lived nearly alone in a big house on the coast of South California.  This is a land of mist and drizzle at the end of December, at which season Uncle Joel invited all his eight kin.  They were also his heirs under a trust deed, and he knew they all wished he would die or go quite mad.  When the garage was burned and two teeth of Uncle Joel were found in the ashes two questions arose: first, had some impatient heir or heiress murdered Uncle Joel; second, was Uncle Joel hiding somewhere and gloating over the disappointment he would inflict by reappearing?  A reviewer must leave the author to answer, especially as the author has been quite successful in making most of the eight heirs individually interesting.

 

Observer (Torquemada, 7th March 1937):

A shade the best of three American detective stories which I have just read is No Flowers by Request.  In it Stuart Palmer has done quite a daring thing.  Having safely established Hildegarde Withers in our hearts and intellects, he has dropped her from his team for this match, and yet succeeds in winning.  With a bitter geniality and unfailing zest he keeps the group of Camerons—all save the tragic and delightful Mildred—vividly living after they have descended upon Uncle Joel in California to see if they can carve up that unpleasant old man’s estate.  It looks at one time as if the combustible power of petrol had left nothing to carve; but the major surprise will not, I think, be the big surprise to the average reader; it is the minor ones which will keep him going to a hard finish.

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (Stuart Palmer)

Palmer Pepper Tree.jpgFirst published: Doubleday, USA, 1933

4 stars.png

A passenger dies on a short hop flight to Santa Catalina, a resort island off the Californian coast.

Schoolteacher sleuth Hildegarde Withers suspects foul play.  Her suspicions are confirmed when the body goes missing before an autopsy can be conducted.  Not before the dead man is identified as a star witness with a $15,000 bounty on his head…

Like many of the early Stuart Palmers, this feels like the basis for a film script – and, unsurprisingly, was filmed with Edna May Oliver as Miss Withers two years later.

The novel is entertaining, moves briskly, isn’t too complex, and has plenty of incident.

Miss Withers robs the US mail; burgles suspects’ rooms; is threatened with guns, and tied up in cupboards; gets caught in storms and earthquakes; makes pals with a hard-boiled Hollywood gal; and acquires a terrier.  (There are worse things to have!)

The mystery, though, is on the light side.  Miss Withers detects, but there isn’t much to detect.

I reached the dénouement suspecting everybody and nobody.  Palmer doesn’t really give us much chance to suspect the suspects.  Christie and Carr would have planted false clues leading us to suspect at least two innocent people, and subtle clues pointing away from the murderer.

Mike Grost complains that the killer’s identity is arbitrary, without any real clues, and the motive is generic.

I see where he’s coming from.  The culprit took me by surprise, as it did Mike, as did a big twist a chapter before – but Palmer’s clueing is scanty.

A sentence in the first chapter is fair, and could give the game away to an astute reader.  Another later on (a footprint) is also a pointer.  It’s a long way, though, from the clever clueing and counter-clueing of Carr, let alone Queen’s exhausting logical deductive chains.

Ideal, though, for Hollywood.