Book Review: The Penguin Pool Murder by Stuart Palmer

In Hildegarde Withers first case, she teams up with Detective Oscar Piper to find who killed stockbroker, Gerald Lester, and dumped his body in the New York City Aquarium’s penguin tank, in Stuart Palmer’s 1931 novel, The Penguin Pool Murder. Audiences loved it so much that in 1932 it was turned into a blockbuster feature film with the same title by RKO Studios.

The Players

  • Miss Hildegarde Withers: 3rd-grade school teacher who takes her class to the New York City Aquarium on a field trip.
  • Bertrand B. Hemingway: The New York City Aquarium Director.
  • Gerald Lester: Found dead in the Penguin tank at the New York City Aquarium.
  • Gwen Lester: Wife of the deceased and his suspected killer.
  • Philip Seymour: Gwen Lester’s ex-lover. He is an attorney Gwen Lester hired to help her divorce her jealous husband, Gerald Lester. He meets Gwen Lester at the aquarium and gets into a violent altercation with Gerald Lester. He’s suspected of killing Gerald Lester with Gwen Lester.
  • Barry Costello: Gwen Lester’s defense attorney. He decided to represent her after seeing her faint at the aquarium and deciding that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
  • Chicago Lew: A pickpocket who steals a purse from an aquarium patron on the day of Miss Withers’s field trip. Miss Withers apprehends him by tripping him with her umbrella. He’s knocked unconscious and might be a deaf mute. He might have seen who killed Gerald Lester but refuses to say anything.
  • Oscar Piper: New York City Homicide Detective tasked with investigating the death of Gerald Lester.

The Mystery

When Miss Hildegarde Withers takes her third-grade class to the New York City Aquarium for a field trip, she’s embroiled in trouble. As she guides her pupils through the exhibits, there is a sudden commotion as pick-pocket attempts to make off with another patron’s purse. Quick thinking Miss Withers trips the thief with her umbrella. When the museum guards come to apprehend the pickpocket- they realize that he’s a well-known mafioso and there is a large reward for his arrest. As the two guards argue over who gets to bring Chicago Lew in and therefore is entitled to the reward- Chicago Lew escapes unnoticed and hides behind some fish tanks. 

Miss Withers quashes the quarreling policeman with a scathing rebuke and tries to wrangle her over-excited charges. As she prepares to take them back to school, she realizes her garnet hatpin, a gift from her deceased mother is missing. Miss Withers and her students spend the next twenty minutes retracing their way through the aquarium until the precious hatpin is found by her pupil, Abraham, next to the Penguin pool. As Miss Withers refastens her hatpin, she notices that Abraham is transfixed by the penguins, who are agitated and squawking loudly; as they watch the distressed birds, there’s a thudding splash, and the body of a man floats before their eyes.

Horrified, Miss Withers tries to shield Abraham from the sight of the dead man, but the loud shrieking of the penguins has attracted a large crowd of fellow patrons. As the body floats up to the glass partition, a woman, Gwen Lester, shouts, “Oh no, what have we done, Philip?” over the crowd’s noise before fainting.

When Gwen Lester is roused, she is helped to her feet by the handsome Irish lawyer, Barry Costello. Barry Costello, lovestruck, loudly proclaims that he is a lawyer and will defend Gwen Lester from accusations that she killed her husband. 

Since her rendezvous with Philip Seymour had been a secret, she assumes Gerald had followed her to the aquarium in a jealous rage, but she maintains that she has no idea how he died. 

When Detective Piper questions her companion, Philip Seymour, he corroborates Gwen Lester’s account. Still, he adds that he and the deceased had a violent altercation where he socked Gerald Lester in the jaw so hard that he was unconscious. When Philip Seymour and Gwen Lester attempted to escape the aquarium,, they were accosted by Bertrand Hemingway, a friend of Gerald Lester’s and persuaded to come into his office so he could show them some specimens. Suspicious of their story, Detective Piper lets them leave, but warns them not  to leave town. During the interviews with suspects, Miss Withers in writing a complete account and makes observations to various clues he has missed, after the interviews Miss Withers offers to type everything for Detective Piper, which he accepts. Thusly, Miss Withers is embedded in the police investigation as Detective Piper’s personal stenographer.

However, when the Miss Withers hatpin is discovered to be the murder weapon, Piper questions her motivations and past history with the deceased. Finding no real points of connection besides the hatpit he reveals to her that her hatpin was driven through the right ear into the brain which no one but the doctor doing the autopsy, Detective Piper, Miss Withers, and the murderer now know.

When Detective Piper questions Seymour more fully, he confesses to the murder, but has no idea which ear the hatpin pierced- giving Miss Withers the idea to plant that the left ear was pierced in the paper.

Miss Withers in convinced that the murderer switched Derby hats with the deceased because his fell into the penguin tank and he needed a hat to blend into the crowd (in 1920’s America it would be unusual for a man not to wearing a hat in public), but when the hat in the penguin tank is recovered with out any identifying markings it becomes another dead end. While looking for clues around the penguin tank, Miss Withers and Barry Costello hear strange noises coming from the directors office, Bertrand Hemingway, they burst in on him to find him preforming surgery on a penguin!

After reassuring them that he’s trying to save the penguin’s life, he takes a long coiled mass out of the penguin’s gullet-it’s the hat band from the killer’s hat. When Miss Withers tries to call Detective Piper to come to the aquarium to retrieve the hat band so they can know how large the killers head is- someone in the room trips the light, steals the band, and hides it away. Detective Piper concerned for Miss Withers safety after her call is cut short rushes to the aquarium where he bodily searches everyone in the room- Barry Costello, Miss Withers, Bertrand Hemingway, and the guard Fink. When everyone turns out to be clean, Detective Piper and his fellow officers search the office inch by inch, but the hatband has disappeared.

The next day, Barry Costello visits Chicago Lew in jail because he says he wishes to confess to murdering Gerald Lester. With a written confession in hand from Chicago Lew for the murder of Gerald Lester, Barry Costello marches into Detective Piper’s office and demands he free his client Gwen Lester. Even with the written confession, Detective Piper is sceptical, but agrees to go to the jail and get a statement as they leave to see Chicago Lew they get a message from the jail–Chicago Lew is dead by apparent suicide. Unsure of whether Chicago Lew was murdered because he knew who the real killer was because he he was hiding in the aquarium or whether he killed himself so he wouldn’t get the electric chair- Miss Withers and Detective Piper must find the killer before Gwen Lester and Philip Seymour go to trial for their lives. 

The Motives

The mosy obvious motive for Gerald Lester’s murder is that Gwen Lester and Philip Seymour want to pick up their romantic relationship where they left it before Gwen Lester married, however, it is quickly shown that Gwen Lester’s affections do not lie with Philip Seymour, and are tepidly transferred to Barry Costello. It is unclear to me whether, Gwen liked Barry Costello enough to marry him as he wished, or was just using him, since he was a lawyer who wanted to free her from jail. Given how callously she threw Philip Seymour over once she was released from jail, and previously, when she married Gerald Lester for his money, despite being in a romantic relationship with Philip Lester with plans to be married, it’s obvious Gwen Lester uses men for her own gain. So the question becomes- did she use Pholip Seymour and his unrequited love for her to kill Gerald Lester?

Philip Seymour enamored by Gwen Lester’s plea for help meets her in the aquarium and even punches Gerald Lester in the face, but does he love Gwen Lester enough to kill her husband with hatpin through the ear? As Philip Seymour sits in jail, whatever love he felt for Gwen Lester quickly rots into hate. When asked whether he thinks Gwen Lester could have murdered her husband and set him up as a patsy, he admits that sounds exactly like something she would do. When Philip Seymour is cleared of suspicion of murdering Gerald Lester he’s finally cured of his love for Gwen Lester.

However, what if the murder wasn’t committed for love, but for someother reason? The niggling point against the love triangle angle is that Gwen Lester wasn’t followed to the aquarium as she assumed, but he was telephoned, and told that his wife might be meeting her affair partner at the aquarium. This person would have to know the Lesters by sight and know Gerald Lester’s work phone number. Gerald Lester works as financial advisor and the story takes places mere months after the famous financial crash in 1929. Gerald Lester has several clients that have lost great sums of money and some believe he is exaggerating losses so he can skim a little off the top. As the number of murders climb Detective Piper and Miss Withers must untangle whether the motive is for love, revenge or a mixture of the two.

The Verdict

This is a fun, fast read that sort of tricks the reader into having so much of a good time that they forget a man was brutally murdered with a hatpin and another man is strangled in his cell. Stuart Palmer is very good at making sure the reader has a pretty shrewd idea of who the murderer is- and after the scene where the ribbon from the hat goes missing, it narrows the suspect list considerably. Palmer also has Hildegarde Withers and Detective Piper uncover, the over the top methods of murder, and discuss how impluasible the ways these two marders were committed- but that’s sort of the point. Palmer’s work is much more interested in having the reader puzzle out the motive. Like most good motives it’s something suggested several times in the background of conversations and in fact is pervasive in the overall setting of the novel, but is never really at the forefront of the story. When the motive is ultimately revealed, it also reveals the lengths the villain has gone to meticulously get his revenge. It’s diabolical, brainy and, honestly unnerving. It was a satisfying conclusion and cemented the villian as mad as there methods.

There’s a zany and heightened quality to Stuart Palmer’s writing that is very appealing, which is a credit to his successful career as a television and movie script writer. His characters, full of vigor and vim sweep the reader away in a world filled with well-known archetypes, the weasly criminal, the jilted lover, the damsel in distress, the wrathful husband, a prim school marm. It’s very easy to see how this story became a successful movie in 1932 The Penguin Pool Murder, it was practically designed to be filmed. Stuart Palmer, admitted as much, and continued to tweak his characters in successive novels to more closely resemble their on-screen counterparts in age and temperament.

The Penguin Pool Murder (1932) starring Edna May Oliver and James Gleason

The Penguin Pool Murder is a pre- Hayes Code mystery film starrung Edna May Oliver as the titular Miss Withers and James Gleason as the hard-edged, Detective Oscar Piper and is the first in a trilogy of movies starring the pair. This lively romp keeps the high-flying feeling of a good romp, but does an even worse job of concealing the murderer from the reader- which bolsters the idea that the whole thing really isn’t about the mystery at all, it’s just a madcap caper where a mystery occurs. It loses the more menacing edge of the villainous actions, in favor of a swift removal of the criminal and a pat exchange between Miss Withers and James Gleason. The movie cuts the romantic ending Stuart Palmer penned in the book between Miss Withers and Detective Piper, a change which Palmer like and adopted in his next book. Palmer also changed Miss Withers angular and youthful aspects to make her more elderly and horse-faced, like Edna May Oliver.

The story itself is rendered mostly untouched and is filmed inside the Battery Park Aquarium which is a real treat since it’s the oldest continuously operating aquarium in the United States. There are trained penguins in the movie which add to the fun and reinforce how absurd the entire setting is for a murder

Despite the aforementioned physical changes, the soul of the characters is the same -Miss Withers acerbic wit, Detective Piper’s incredulous nature, and the wimpy gangster, Chicago Lew- which is a credit to screenwriter Willis Goldbleck. The movie was so successful that it launched a six film franchise for RKO Studios, the first three movies were helmed by Oliver and Gleason until, Oliver left RKO for a contract with MGM. You can watch The Penguin Pool Murder for free on youtube or buy the whole six movie collection here.

Pick up a copy of The Penguin Pool Murder, newly republished by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious press- out now!
Have you read The Penguin Pool Murder or seen the movie? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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