“But I’m not a detective. I was mixed up in one murder case because I happened to be at the Aquarium when a dead body appeared in the penguin tank upside down, and in another because I was having tea with the Inspector when he heard the alarm…”
So says Miss Hildegarde Withers when asked by her school’s principal, Waldo Emerson Macfarland, to investigate the murder of Anise Halloran, the school’s music teacher, a task which she’s already undertaken.
Any fan of spinster or grande dame sleuths, like Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Mrs. Pollifax or Miss Silver, would enjoy the adventures of Miss Withers. She is a take-charge, no-nosense sleuth, given to sotto voce pronoucements, and she relies on her hunches, though in this story she feels her hunches are failing her. “In every case there’s an essential clue, pointing straight to the murderer. But if there’s one here, it’s like the purloined letter in Poe’s story—too obvious to be seen,” says Hildegarde.
The interesting thing about this mystery is that it virtually tells you who the killer is early on. It’s not directly stated, but Miss Withers doggedly seems to pursue one particular suspect. Not that there’s many suspects to be had. Sure there’s a school full of teachers, but readers are really only presented with four likely suspects. The how and why become far more intriguing and compelling reasons to read than the who. Although two clues did not seem to be as tidily wrapped up as they could have been, and the clue on the blackboard—the too obvious clue—seemed obtuse and a tad implausible.
With her usual sidekick laid up in the hospital—Inspector Piper is coshed early in the story while investigating the school’s basement—Hildegarde teams up with Georgie Swarthout, “the sole remainder of a squad of ‘college cops’.” “This boyish, ruddy-faced youth was intensely loyal to the Inspector, and that under his flippant exterior he had a good working knowledge of half a hundred trades and tricks.”
Georgie takes a liking to suspect Janey Davis, the roommate of Anise, and he ably assists Hildegarde in discovering an important clue in the basement moments after the killer tries to off Miss Withers. Of Hildegarde, he says, “Schoolteachers rush in where detectives fear to tread…” A little hatchet wasn’t going to deter Miss Withers from nabbing the killer!
Murder on the Blackboard does show its age. Particularly, the police interrogation of the janitor will strike today’s readers as archaic and cringeworthy. But the novel is an excellent window of life during what was then contemporary Prohibition. The idea of married women being considered unsuitable for teaching is galling, but the low opinion of psychoanalysts of the times provides much humor.
Perhaps the most laugh out loud moment is when Hildegarde outwits a visiting Viennese quack..er, psychoanalyst and criminology expert. Professor Pfaffle gathers all the suspects at the school and instructs them to repeat their movements on the day of the murder exactly. Then he’s dumbfounded when, after coercing Miss Withers to show him the basement, all the suspects have left the school! Says Miss Withers, “Your own instructions, if you remember, Professor… Teachers go home at three-thirty…”
Murder on the Blackboard, the third book in the series, was first published in 1932. Two years later, it was filmed by RKO. For more details, see this previous post. Stuart Palmer (1905 – 1968) wrote 12 novels featuring Hildegarde Withers, and served as President of the Mystery Writers of America, 1954-55. He collaborated with another mystery author, Craig Rice, on the short story collection, People vs. Withers and Malone, in 1963, which featured Rice’s lawyer detective J. J. Malone along with Miss Withers.
The edition I read (pictured above) is a 1988 Bantam paperback. Though many classic mysteries can be difficult to obtain, this one and many other Miss Withers books are still available through Rue Morgue Press. Give it a try! Ask at your local library, bookstore, or search on Amazon.