The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (Stuart Palmer)

By Stuart Palmer

First published: US, Doubleday, 1933


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Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

This is the new detective novel by the author of THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER

About the corpse in the plane en route to Catalina Island, Miss Hildegarde Withers, who speaks precise English, knew more about criminology than the police, and had a disposition as ruthless as a bulldog’s, and grizzled old Inspector Piper, who had seen many crimes, but never one quite like the death of the mysterious man who hadn’t wanted to take the plane, who hadn’t wanted to die – and who did both.  For murder breeds murder, and in the golden California sunlight a grim riddle began to unfold, its key in the sinister puzzle of the pepper tree.

Stuart Palmer’s mysteries, urbane, humorous, thrilling to the last page, have included THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER, MURDER ON WHEELS, and MURDER ON THE BLACKBOARD.  “His mysteries,” say the critics, “are as different from the ordinary murder story as was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES or Poe’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE.”  This brilliant and thoroughly entertaining story will show you why.

My review

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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.

Contemporary reviews

Sat R of Lit (23rd September 1933, 40w):

Sunny atmosphere, action not too absorbing.  Miss Withers’s humour, knowledge of criminology, and N.E. zeal prove most entertaining.


Books (Will Cuppy, 24th September 1933, 300w):

You’d be plumb silly not to read all about it.


NY Evening Post (Norman Klein, 30th September 1933, 100w)

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 1st October 1933, 260w):

Miss Withers [the school-teacher sleuth] improves upon closer acquaintance, both as a detective and as a human being.


Times Literary Supplement (24th May 1934):

This detective story has two advantages over the majority of those appearing day by day: it deals with a crime whose motive, method and discovery all have roots in common experience, and its investigator is a character of pleasing originality—although, indeed, this is by no means her first appearance.  Miss Withers, the school teacher, was enjoying a holiday on Catalina Island when a passenger aeroplane from Los Angeles arrived with a dead man in the cabin.  After glancing at the deceased the local doctor was fully prepared to certify that death was due to natural causes, but Miss Withers, blundering into the affair entirely by chance, immediately scented foul play and made such a fuss that the police reluctantly agreed to investigate.  Of course, she was entirely right, and even the doctor ceased to scoff when the corpse was stolen before he could perform an autopsy.  Having rounded up and detained all the dead man’s fellow-passengers the police set about searching the island for the missing body, and would doubtless have continued searching indefinitely, without the slightest prospect of success, if Miss Withers had not noticed something odd about the pepper tree outside her bedroom window.  But there was still a long trail to follow from the pepper tree to the murderer, and it will be an uncommonly astute reader who anticipates the little school teacher in her dramatic moment of identification.


Philadelphia Public Ledger:

Another success for Stuart Palmer.


Donald Gordon, famed literary tipster:

First Rate.


Cleveland Plain Dealer:

A really original detective story.  This one belongs to class A.


The New Yorker:

A lot of amusement.


New York Sun:

The curtain comes down on an excellent show.


Columbus Journal Despatch:

What happened to Miss Withers while she was pursuing her investigation was enough excitement for a lifetime.


Margery Allingham:

I have been a fan of Miss Hildegarde Withers and delightful Inspector Oscar Piper ever since The Penguin Pool Murder.


Fred A. Lane, California broadcaster:

It will thrill and chill you, it will make you laugh and, finally, it will really baffle you.