“Young man, I have had the good or bad fortune to have been in contact with several notorious and unsavory cases of homicide during the past two years. Perhaps the poor fellow over there looks like just another case of heart failure to you, but I’m getting so I can detect the very smell of murder.”
A lean forefinger wagged in O’Rourke’s face, and Miss Withers pronounced solemnly, “I can smell murder now!”
The man in brown never intended to take the seaplane to Catalina, but after missing the steamer, he has no choice. Anyway, the flight is only twenty minutes. Even a nervous flyer can handle that.
Suddenly, turbulence throws the man into a panic. “I’m dying,” he cries. “I don’t want to die!” Everyone thinks it’s a case of nerves, but by the time the Dragonfly lands, it carries eight living passengers and one corpse. The man in brown “hadn’t wanted to die, but he was dead.”
Funny and fast-paced, The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree is the best entry I have read so far in Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers series. An unmarried schoolteacher of “indeterminate” age, Miss Withers may seem like the typical cozy heroine, but she’s a very shrewd operator. It’s fitting not only that this book was filmed, as it contains a number of vivid setpieces, but that it was filmed by Warner Brothers in particular, a studio that was well-known in the 1930s for tough, wisecracking pictures that didn’t shy away from the realities of life. They may be on vacation, but all the characters display a certain ruthless, Depression-era pragmatism. Even our heroine Miss Withers objects to being kicked off the airport bus so the “sick” man can be transported—after all, she paid her fifty-cent fare. Why should a sick man gets special treatment over paying customers?
When she discovers that the man is not only sick, but dead, she still insists on riding along, but for a different reason. Local authorities find the idea of a murder in Catalina ludicrous. No one’s died there in years—the doctor doesn’t even remember where the death certificates are kept. With several cases already under her belt, however, Miss Withers knows the score. She’s proven right when the dead man is identified as Roswell Forrest, the star witness in a corruption trial that could turn New York City’s government upside down. She becomes convinced that Forrest was poisoned, and that only someone else on that airplane could have done it.
For a while, the emphasis is on sorting out the various characters, as Miss Withers contrives to keep an eye on all the passengers. This isn’t difficult in a small town with only one hotel; she soon finds that it’s harder not to run into a suspect at an awkward moment. They represent an array of character types, but no one is exactly as they seem. Forrest’s bodyguard Barney Kelsey wasn’t on the plane at all, but why would a bodyguard leave his client unprotected—and who’s paying his salary, anyway? Businessman Tompkins exudes “an aura of Rotary good-fellowship and cheap gin.” Honeymooners Kay and “Marvy” seem devoted to each other, but they’re easily upset by news of the murder investigation. Captain Narveson is annoyed at being unable to leave port and rejoin his whaling ship. Hollywood producer Ralph O. Tate and his two assistants are filming a “super-epic” on Catalina. (Miss Withers learns the difference between a regular film and an epic: “An epic is a picture where the hero and heroine die about the third reel and then their grandchildren fall in love.”)
The most prominent of the suspects is Phyllis LaFond, a blonde on the make. She’s come to Catalina with her little dog Mister Jones, hoping to snag a role, either in Tate’s film or in his bed. Miss Withers winds up sleuthing with Phyllis while waiting for her usual partner, Inspector Oscar Piper, to make his way west from New York. She likes the frank young woman, but she’s met some very likable killers before.
The friendship with Phyllis, who sees no future except as a “chiseler” and a “tramp” after being sexually abused as a teenager, shows Miss Withers at her best.
“I’m in this racket, but I don’t like it, even if I belong in it. You know what I mean. Chiseling around, playing men for coffee-and-cake money—I’m just a bum, and I’ll keep on going down till I land in a Mexican hook-joint or jump off the Arroyo Seco bridge. I say I don’t care, I tell myself this is the deal I got and I might as well play it out. But once in a while I get this way—and it seems as if I just can’t go on.”
Miss Withers did not rise. “You listen to me, young woman.” Phyllis sat down again. “This isn’t 1900. I’m old-fashioned enough about some things, but I can see pretty clearly all the same. And remember, nobody has to be anything he—or she—doesn’t want to be […] Somebody—I think it was Henry James—once said that no one ever was a slave but thinking made him so. It isn’t what one does, it’s what he thinks. And you, if you really wanted to, could drop your past, whatever it is, like a hot cake.”
One of the book’s most appealing qualities is its portrayal of 1930s Catalina, a setting I haven’t come across before. It cannot be said that Miss Withers takes full advantage of all the island has to offer, but that’s probably just as well, given the liberal dress code.
Everywhere, on that bright August morning, a strange and varied assortment of humanity was enjoying itself after its own preferences. Brown-faced gentlemen moved shoreward, bearing the heavy rods and tackle that spell menace to swordfish and leaping tuna. Red-faced gentlemen bore large and shiny golf bags. Little boys swung bright tin pails. Old ladies beamed from wheelchairs—and young ladies beamed from everywhere.
There were girls, girls—thousands of girls. Girls in furs and girls in cotton pajamas. Girls in riding habits, girls in Paris models, girls in homemade frocks—but mostly girls in very little of anything. Young, tanned bodies in the briefest of shorts, with a wisp of silk haphazardly bound across their breasts…the essence of Catalina.
The small town of Avalon is so idyllic that the police station is a single room in the back of Chief Britt’s souvenir shop. Whenever there’s a development in the case, Miss Withers must force her way through a horde of trinket buyers, and the chief’s wife is none too happy that she has to man the cash register while he investigates the murder.
Miss Withers has no time for sightseeing. She is busy detecting up a storm, all over the island, and will stop at nothing to gather evidence. Inspector Piper is half impressed, half horrified by her lack of scruples: “You’ve committed everything but arson this trip.” Everyone looks a little suspicious all the time, but a constant haze of guilt hovers over the whole group, unwilling to settle on any specific person. The identity of the killer feels slightly random as a result. While the reader can easily look back and understand how Miss Withers spots the guilty party, it wouldn’t be surprising if any of them turned out to be the killer.
Like many of its characters, The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree hides a heart of gold beneath its brassy exterior. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with Hildegarde Withers and Oscar Piper, and the book’s charming and unusual setting only adds to that.
This was a fascinating read. The picture of Avalon and Santa Catalina island in the early 1930’s is just wonderful. There is a diagram of the old seaplane and where people sat. I could just imagine what such a flight would be like. Hildegarde Withers is always entertaining. She doesn’t put up with anything and always speaks her mind.
The novel is entertaining, moves briskly, isn’t too complex, and has plenty of incident.
The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree is one of the better entries in the humorous Hildegarde Withers series. While her usual sidekick, New York City police detective Oscar Piper, is absent for much of the book, Hildegarde teams up Phyllis La Fond, the ambitious blonde, and they make an amusing detective pair. Hildegarde is aided by one wildly propitious clue and the death of the passenger is revealed to rely on a dexterousness which seems improbable, but on the whole, if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll enjoy this one too.
The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press and paperback copies from Rue Morgue are still out there.