First published: US, Doubleday, 1951; UK, Collins, 1952; also published as Trap for a Redhead
Hildegarde Withers, the retired schoolmistress who because of her meddlesome ways had long been a thorn in the flesh of Inspector Oscar Piper of the New York homicide squad, returned from a visit in California to attend a murder trial. Winston H. Gault, Junior, of Gault Foods, had got tired of being guyed on his own programme by Tony Fagan, the radio and television comedian, and apparently did something about it with a blunt instrument. At first Hildegarde’s main interest in the affair was that the defence lawyer was an old pupil of hers. But when the trial was postponed because of the disappearance of the prosecution’s chief witness, a pretty red-head named Ina Kell, Hildegarde responded to the call like an exiled Scot to the sound of the pipes! With her poodle Talleyrand she pursued the wandering red-head to Mexico, and found plenty of trouble south of the border before the chase ended in unexpected and dramatic fashion.
One of the trickiest of all Palmer’s books. I’ve complained in the past that he writes, constructs and clues very well, but doesn’t conceal the murderer. Here, it’s the opposite.
Palmer adopts an unusual approach—an apparently open-and-shut case (main suspect arrested and awaiting trial), and Miss Withers going to Mexico to hunt for the missing witness. Not the usual “problem in deduction”.
This means it’s disappointing as a detective story—not enough spread of suspicion or plot complexity; it’s more like Quentin’s Puzzle for Puppets.
However, considered as misdirection, it’s excellent. Palmer uses a double bluff: a wrong solution (similar idea to The Green Ace), followed by a right one that had me completely fooled. The ending is rather Raymond Chandleresque.
Also excellent is the way in which everything turns out to be the opposite of what the reader assumed (whole story is a double plot).
Would make a good film—were US stories influenced by Hollywood? Palmer, of course, was a script-writer.
- Poetical chapter headings—more arty?
- Everyone thinks Ina Kell should be spanked
Kirkus (1st September 1951, 70w)
Springfield Republican (R.F.H., 18th November 1951, 70w):
A little more cluttered than the usual Stuart Palmer mystery, but good stuff just the same.
NY Herald Tribune Bk R (James Sandoe, 25th November 1951, 180w):
The bud is, in fact, pretty well blown before it is nipped, but that’s all to the good for this is the most satisfying tale about Miss Hildegarde Withers in a number of years… Stuart Palmer obviously had a good deal of fun in writing it and the fun is infectious so that it’s probably churlish, if relevant, to add that he has invented one solution beyond the elasticity of my credibility and then put a revolver in its hand to lend it substance.
NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 25th November 1951, 190w):
No one knows better than Palmer how to produce an absurd and entertaining farce-comedy which is still a shrewdly plotted detective puzzle.
Sat R of Lit (Sergeant Cuff, 22nd December 1951, 30w):
Trans-border mise-en-scène engagingly handled, dénouement a mite tricky.
San Francisco Chronicle (L.G. Offord, 23rd December 1951, 80w):
The mix-up in Tijuana shouldn’t have happened to Talley, but Miss Withers could take it and emerge from some riotous situations with a surprising solution. She’s never done better, bless her.
Bookmark (January 1932)