THE PUZZLE OF THE HAPPY HOOLIGAN
By Stuart Palmer
What do Lizzie Borden, Hildegarde Withers, and Saul Stafford have in common? They all get the Hollywood axe in Stuart Palmer’s comedy confection, “The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan” (1941). Throw in a white apple core, a lateral loop fingerprint, a curious folding bed, and Palmer has all the makings of a solid satire on the persnickety movie-making scene.
Palmer’s screenwriting pedigree comes with a successful run of over thirty seven feature films. One, the adaptation of The Penguin Pool Murders (1931) introduces his unmarried, thirty-nine-year-old NYC schoolteacher/amateur detective Withers.
Here, Withers is hired as a technical advisor on another version of the notorious Fall River case of parricide. In L.A., on a sabbatical, dining at the famous Brown Derby, an ambulance chasing agent, Harry Wagman, discovers Withers and signs her as the consultant on a “big picture” for producer Thorwald L. Nincom at Mammoth Studios.
She is only one of more than ten orbiting minions in Nincom’s writing room, which also includes the prankster duo, Saul Stafford and Virgil Dobie. (Their hi-jinks include setting a fellow writer aflame in a lounge chair.) Withers becomes entrenched in her L.A. mystery after she’s given an office next to Stafford’s. Before she has a chance to set fingers to typewriter, however, she discovers her colleague “sprawled akimbo” on a carpet; his neck broken.
Despite her homicide “hobby,” Withers is stymied by the method of murder. She calls in her stalwart companion in crime, NYPD Inspector Oscar Piper. As a supporting character in the Withers’s canon, their relationship is close enough that when it seems she’s a victim in an accident, he flies to California to find her. Before Withers and Piper sort out the wicked from the dead…many heads will roll.
Palmer emits the regional flavor of historic Hollywood by name-dropping celebrities of the era (Loy, Garson, Cooper) spotted at local hot spots on the Sunset Strip in this audacious, rollicking entry in Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics series, which is reissuing the best of the crime novels from the Golden Age of detection.