Stuart Palmer’s Hildergarde Withers is an unusual, ill-remembered figure in the realm of literary detectives. If she’d be a hard-to-publish anomaly if written today, it’s not entirely clear that she was in step with the times back in the pre- and post-WW2 years when her adventures saw light of day. Classic detectives like Nero Wolfe and Philo Vance are exotic, a little aristocratic. At the very least, the detective is expected to have a kind of Sherlockian intellectual egotism. Withers is on a different wavelength. And certainly she has little in common with the hard-boiled dicks whose more suburban and affluent descendants dominate the field now. The closest analogue might be Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple, but that’s not particularly close.
The character of Hildegarde Withers was introduced in the 1931 novel The Penguin Pool Murder. She’s a veteran schoolteacher, semi-retired. In Palmer’s series of novels and short stories, she teams with Inspector Oscar Piper, the head of New York’s Homicide Bureau and a living Irish copper archetype. (Look at old pictures of Al Smith, and imagine him grumpier and with a badge.) The character had her own movie series in the 1930s, played first by Edna May Oliver, followed by Helen Broderick and ZaSu Pitts. In 1972 a TV movie was broadcast—A Very Missing Person—with Eve Arden as Hildegarde and James Gregory as Oscar. Notably Arden would later be a guest-star on the Jim Hutton-starring Ellery Queen series, which for a year functioned as the kind of retro-classic detective series that producers no doubt had hoped the Withers show would be.
Arden was in her sixties when she was in the part. This fed off and probably nourished the impression that the character was meant to be a senior citizen. In terms of the character in the books, that’s wrong. In the course of the series, she aged from her mid thirties to her late forties. But it’s an understandable misimpression. Not only was forty older back in those days than it is now, but she’s a schoolteacher. In the twenties and beyond, women who went into education were expected to live a sexless, prematurely elderly life even if they weren’t nuns. Depending on the district, you could be fired for having a gentleman guest in your home, for going to a bar, or hell, lingering too long at the ice cream parlor. She’s a good girl, she’s internalized all the rules, so she has a permanent air of the prim and dusty maiden aunt.
And yet, and yet. In Four Lost Ladies, the book I just read this week, a Bluebeard serial killer is preying on women “of a certain age” who have recently come into money. Except that in most of these cases, the victims haven’t been found. What the police are faced with—or not—is one apparent suicide and an unrelated quartet of missing persons. Oscar assumes that they got bored with their lives and moved to parts unknown. Hildegarde puts herself in harm’s way to find their killer, but also to prove that these are giants and not windmills. Beyond that, she likes harm’s way. Her gender and her profession have kept her in an orderly, law-abiding life. But beneath the surface she gets involved in murder investigations because it allows her to come in contact with mayhem, with the side of life she’s not even supposed to know about. Near the start of Steven Moffat’s contemporary Doyle adaptation Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes tells Afghani veteran John Watson, “You’re not traumatized by the war. You miss it. Welcome back.” In these terms, Hildegarde is a civilian who’ll take any opportunity to charge onto the battlefield.
Reading Four Lost Ladies was fun and somewhat educational about its time. Yes, social mores were different. (The book came out in the late 1940s.) On the other hand, when two hotel guests are eliminated as suspects because they “room together and design textiles” the implication is exactly what you think it is.
Will Hildegarde Withers appear on the big screen again? Not likely. But if she does I can see the Coen brothers casting Kristen Wiig.