Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree by Stuart Palmer

44. The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree - book 4 in the Hildegarde Withers series
by Stuart Palmer
mystery, 1933

Kindle book
finished 8/4/13

Until I read this book, the following song was my only knowledge of Santa Catalina Island, California - 26 Miles (Santa Catalina) by The Four Preps, a song that came out when I was ten years old. It played in my head the whole time I was reading the book.

In the decade before The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree was published, the island was developed as a tourist resort by William Wrigley, Jr. of chewing gum fame. Gum was an important clue in the book.

And the poison in the book, aconitine comes from this little beauty, monkshood. Another name for it is 'the queen of poisons.'

From the Santa Catalina webpage:

Santa Catalina Island has served as the location for the filming of over 500 motion pictures, documentaries, television programs and commercials over the past 90 years.  Of those 500, approximately 300 were motion picture productions.  Beginning as early as 1911 and continuing with great momentum through the Silent Film era and the introduction of sound to motion pictures, the Island served as location for more than 225 films.
A character in The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree, Ralph O. Tate is a Hollywood director who is shooting a movie on Catalina, and Phyllis La Fond is
A vivacious blonde who's down on her luck and admits she'd do almost anything to make it in the movies.
Including murder???

A tourist possibility today:
For 2012 we are proud to introduce a number of new expeditions and thrills for your Island vacation, including: Night Zipping, Rock Climbing Tower, Ocean Expeditions and extreme excursions into Catalina Island’s interior in our new eco-friendly, biofuel burning H1 Hummers.
Miss Hildegarde Withers along with another character made her own adventure, thank you very much. They climbed miles of barely accessible rocky land in the rain. They could have easily never been found. A Hummer would have been most welcome that day. She wasn't looking for a thrill, she was trying to solve a murder!

The title comes from
A smooth-limbed, virginal young pepper tree dominated the view from Miss Withers' window at the hotel. … The vacationing schoolma'am had come to take a special interest in this little pepper tree. 
 A California pepper tree

This fourth book in the series finds our heroine solving a case without her friend Inspector Oscar Piper. When she finds out the murder has Manhattan/New Jersey connections, she gets in touch and he takes a train to come out. It is so refreshing, in the 1930s and even now, to see a man and woman on such equal footing. They are friends who share a mutual respect and trust for one another. Neither of them is involved with anyone romantically, so all their energies go into their friendship and their jobs. Neither one is a super-hero. They are regular people doing their best without needing the limelight. The article I linked to in the July Reading post was written in 1996, and lamented how unknown the much acclaimed Stuart Palmer was then. I'm hoping that with these new Kindle editions more and more people will read his fine work. These are mysteries of the highest quality.


  1. I honeymooned on Santa Catalina in 1981. I've been two other times since then. The second time, I was almost 5 months pregnant and wound up with a terrible stomach flu while we there. Awful. Rod and I went sometime in the late 80s. Fun little island! :)

    Love your new header!

  2. And, yes, I'm familiar with that song!


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