Stuart Palmer is best remembered today as the creator of Hildegarde Withers, the aging schoolteacher and amateur sleuth -- best portrayed by Edna May Oliver -- in a handful of successful and fondly remembered RKO films of the 1930s. In addition to being a very prolific mystery author, he was also a very busy screenwriter in Hollywood during the 1930s and '40s, specializing in detective stories and thrillers.
Charles Stuart Hunter Palmer was born in Baraboo, WI, in 1905. He studied at the Chicago Art Institute and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At the end of the 1920s, he wrote his first novel, The Penguin Pool Mystery, which was published in 1931 and was a well-received by critics and readers. Set in New York City during the fall of 1929, amid the stock market crash and its aftermath, the book had an immediacy and topicality that was bracing in its time; it also introduced the character of Hildegarde Withers, a matronly spinster schoolteacher who deals with most of the world (especially any men younger than she is) as though they are unruly students. The following year, RKO brought Hildegarde Withers to the screen in the person of Edna May Oliver in The Penguin Pool Murder; as directed by George Archainbaud, this was one of the biggest hits that RKO had that year, delighting critics and audiences. The movie also established one of the early sound era's more delightful and fondly remembered "double acts," teaming Oliver's Miss Withers with James Gleason as Inspector Oscar Piper, the amateur sleuth's one steady contact (and often a skeptical one) on the New York Police Department.
Stuart Palmer was back with Murder on the Blackboard (filmed in 1934) and Murder on Wheels in 1932, and The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree in 1934 (filmed as Murder on a Honeymoon in 1935). He also provided the original story for the breezy, comedic thriller One Frightened Night (1935), shot at Mascot and one of the best movies ever to come out of that Poverty Row outfit, a brilliant parody of the "Old Dark House" mysteries epitomized by The Cat and the Canary. For RKO, he provided the original story for The Nitwits (1935), which is generally considered the best of the movies made by the comic team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. His 1934 Hildegarde Withers novel, The Puzzle of the Silver Persian, was overlooked by RKO, but 1935's The Puzzle of the Red Stallion was filmed as Murder on a Bridle Path (1936). That movie, directed by Edward Killy and William Hamilton (a sign of a troubled production right there, in a 65-minute movie), featured Helen Broderick in the role of the spinster sleuth, in a very unsatisfying performance.
Meanwhile, Palmer wrote his first screenplay, for the 1936 feature Yellowstone -- that same year, RKO put ZaSu Pitts into the role of Hildegarde Withers for The Plot Thickens, based on the Palmer story The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl (1933). This was followed up a year later with a far less successful sequel, Forty Naughty Girls (1937), from the 1934 Palmer story The Riddle of the Forty Naughty Girls, which ended RKO's interest in the character. By that time, Stuart Palmer was being fully employed by Hollywood, authoring the scripts to three of the Paramount-distributed Bulldog Drummond movies, principally starring John Howard, as well as a handful of additional B-movie titles, including Hollywood Stadium Mystery (1938) and Death of a Champion (1939). More B-titles followed, including Emergency Squad and Seventeen (both 1940), and The Smiling Ghost (1941), which he adapted from his own short story.
Palmer spent a big part of World War II in Washington, D.C., serving as a liaison between the United States Army intelligence and the Hollywood studios, and found time to contribute scripts to such beloved B-mystery series as the Falcon, including the darkest of the series' entries, The Falcon's Brother (1942), and the Lone Wolf (Secrets of the Lone Wolf, 1941). His stories were later the sources for The Falcon Strikes Back and Murder in Times Square (both 1943), but by 1946, Palmer was gone from Hollywood as an active screenwriter.
He suspended the writing of the Hildegarde Withers novels in 1941, with Miss Withers Regrets, but continued to write further short story adventures of the dowager detective, as well as one Sherlock Holmes pastiche (The Adventure of the Marked Man), that ran in various magazines and newspapers. He only reactivated the Withers books with The Riddles of Hildegarde Withers (1947), a collection of short stories written in the intervening years. Two years later came Four Lost Ladies and a year after that The Green Ace, which was joined in the same year by the compilation The Monkey Murder, and Other Hildegarde Withers Stories. In the 1950s he kept the character going with Nipped in the Bud (aka Trap for a Redhead, 1951) and Cold Poison (1954), and in the 1960s with People Vs. Withers and Malone (1963; a short-story collection co-authored in collaboration with Craig Rice) and Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene (1969; published posthumously, co-authored with Fletcher Flora).
In addition to Miss Withers and Inspector Piper, Palmer also created one other memorable literary character, private detective Howie Rook, who was the hero of Unhappy Hooligan (1956) and Rook Takes Knight (1968), the latter published in the year of the author's death. Palmer also wrote one suspense novel, Before It's Too Late (1950), under the pseudonym Jay Stewart, apparently in an attempt to break out of the detective fiction mold for which he was known. At his best, which he often was, Palmer was beloved of readers for his vividly drawn, realistic characters and intricate plotting, coupled with realistic settings and backgrounds. The 1930s Hildegarde Withers stories not only capture the Depression-era ambience of their setting very well, but give a good picture of the way that the New York City Police Department operated in those years; one that, if not as sharply drawn as, say, Ed McBain's work of the late '50s, then unusually clear for their time. Palmer's work also offered a sense of humor and various literary attributes which follow on into some of his screenplays as well. He served as president of the Mystery Writers of America in 1954-1955, and remained active and published regularly right up until his death at age 62. There was a fresh adaptation of his work in the form of the TV movie A Very Missing Person (based on Hildegarde Withers Makes The Scene) in 1972, and in 2002, a new literary collection, Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles, was published. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi