First published: US, Doubleday, 1950; UK, Collins, 1950, as At One Fell Swoop
It was sheer chance that two speed cops should have been coming out of a roadside café as the car passed, driving at a pace that was strictly beyond the law. Speeding is a more or less minor offence, but the law is inclined to take a more serious view if your passenger is a blonde, beautiful but dead. It looked like an open-and-shut case against the driver, and Oscar Piper of New York Homicide was quite content. But Hildegarde Withers, that exasperatingly nosy retired schoolmistress, does not agree, and against Inspector Piper’s express orders sets out alone to find the killer.
A genuine discovery (and probably the first since – er – Reginald Hill in 2001). Miss Withers, the spinster detective, is much more active than Miss Marple or Miss Silver, and, with her gusto hands-on approach to detection and habit of calling everyone ‘child’, is a bit like Mrs Croc. She’s a lot of fun: she impersonates a condemned man’s wife when she visits a prison and nearly gets arrested; visits a night club and startles everyone by her inaccurate grasp of ‘modern’ slang; is put in an asylum when she tries to take control of a siege; and is arrested for stealing from a department store. But she isn’t a figure of fun – she’s intelligent and morally upright, and, however much she may irritate Inspector Piper, both he and the reader respect her. No mean feat to create a detective who is both comic AND serious.
The detective plot is excellent. It reminded me of the glory days of Carr, Queen and Van Dine (in the US) – not as elaborate or hyper-ingenious, but with the same maddening ‘Whodunnit?’ pull. I suspected the right murderer at the start – only for Miss Withers to consider and reject my carefully nursed theory halfway through, so of course I rejected it, too! I then worked out an elaborate false theory (with several holes in it) – only for Miss Withers to show that I’d been right at the start. Excellent.
Kirkus (15th August 1950, 70w)
New Yorker (28th October 1950, 120w):
Miss Withers is an engaging sleuth, but the odds are against her in this far-fetched story.
Sat R of Lit (28th October 1950, 40w)
NY Herald Tribune Bk R (19th November 1950, 180w):
The characters are standard in a yarn competently told.
NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 19th November 1950, 100w):
Stuart Palmer is as adept at the bones of plot construction as at the flesh of humour and character.
Chicago Sunday Tribune (Drexel Drake, 3rd December 1950, 70w)
San Francisco Chronicle (L.G. Offord, 3rd December 1950, 70w)