Expectations for women in the 1930s and early 1940s were to marry and raise a family. To be relegated to spinsterhood was to be pitied and sometimes scorned. With the arrival of WWII, there was a gradual acceptance of women holding a career, albeit a “proper” career such as teaching, nursing, and secretarial.
In literature, a few authors at the time pushed the envelope by creating female sleuths. Nancy Drew and Miss Marple being two of the most famous. Let me introduce you to one of the less well-known created by Stuart Palmer, reporter turned novelist turned screenwriter.
As with most amateur sleuths, school teacher Hildegarde Withers was thrust into the role when she stumbled on a body floating in the penguin tank at the New York Aquarium where she had taken her class.
In Palmer’s first book to feature Miss Withers, The Penguin Pool Murder, she is described as one “whom the census enumerator had recently listed as spinster, born Boston, age thirty-nine, occupation school-teacher.” Elsewhere the novel states “she collects tropical fish, abhors alcohol and tobacco, and appears to have an irritable disposition. However, she is a romantic at heart and will extend herself to help young lovers.” (note the reference to her spinsterhood!)
When asked how he created Miss Withers, Palmer gave the following response:
The origins of Miss Withers are nebulous. When I started Penguin Pool Murder (to be laid in the New York Aquarium as suggested by Powell Brentano then head of Brentano’s Publishers) I worked without an outline, and without much plan. But I decided to ring in a spinster schoolma’am as a minor character, for comedy relief. Believe it or not, I found her taking over. She had more meat on her bones than the cardboard characters who were supposed to carry the story. Finally almost in spite of myself and certainly in spite of Mr. Brentano, I threw the story into her lap. She was based to some extent on Fern Hackett, an English teacher in Baraboo High School who made my life miserable for two years. Once I came to get her permission to transfer to another class and she said okay, only she’d be lonesome and board without our arguments; that I was the only student in the class whom she thought enough of to bother with. I think she started me as a writer. Fern was a horse-faced old girl, preposterously old-fashioned, fine old New England family run to seed, hipped on Thoreau and Emerson.”
In addition to appearing in fourteen full length novels, Miss Withers shows up in countless short stories published in “Mystery” magazine, a periodical sold exclusively at Woolworths stores. In addition, Palmer successfully partners with author Craig Rice to pair Miss Withers with Rice’s character John J. Malone. There were several screen adaptations to the books with actress Edna May Oliver being the definitive Miss Withers.
Consider reading about Miss Withers’ adventures:
- The Penguin Pool Murder (1931)
- Murder on Wheels (1932)
- Murder on the Blackboard (1932)
- The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933)
- The Puzzle of the Silver Persian (1934)
- The Puzzle of the Red Stallion (1935) [also known as "The Puzzle of the Briar Pipe"]
- The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla (1937)
- The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941)
- The Riddles of Hildegarde Withers (1947), an anthology of short stories
- Miss Withers Regrets (1947)
- Four Lost Ladies (1949)
- The Green Ace (1950) [also known as "At One Fell Swoop"]
- The Monkey Murder and other Tales (1950), and anthology of short stories
- Nipped in the Bud (1951) [also known as "Trap for a Redhead"]
- Cold Poison (1954) [also known as "Exit Laughing"]
- The People Vs. Withers and Malone (1963), written with Craig Rice