STUART PALMER “The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl.” Novelette. Hildegarde Withers. First published in Mystery, November 1933. Collected in Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles (Crippen & Landru, 2002). Reprinted in The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories that Inspired Great Crime Films, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime, softcover, forthcoming November 2019). Film: The Plot Thickens, RKO, 1936, with Zasu Pitts as Miss Withers and James Gleason as Oscar Piper.

   Things were different back in 1933. When Inspector Oscar Piper of the NYPD gets a call from an associate curator at the Cosmopolitan Museum of Art asking for police assistance, he being shorthanded at the moment, sends schoolteacher Miss Hildegarde Withers to act in his stead.

   It’s a good thing she’s on hand, though, for as soon as she arrives she sees the man she is to meet falling down a long flight of stairs and landing on the floor below, quite dead. This is only the prelude to several other extraordinary things happening at the museum that day, including the disappearance of a extremely valuable Cellini cup, ordinarily kept under close guard at all times.

   While I was reading this early Miss Withers tale, I was somewhat annoyed by the clutter of characters, much more than usual, I thought, not to mention the flurry of activity surrounding them, almost non-stop. Once finished, though, and looking back, it’s easy to see how well the story was constructed, brick by brick, and everything in its place, precisely when needed.

   While there’s no depth to either the characters or the story, it is a lot of fun to read.

   I’ve not seen the movie based on this story in a long time, but I have to agree with Otto Penzler’s assessment in his introduction to the story that Zasu Pitts was the wrong person chosen to replace Edna May Oliver in the leading role. He adds that “The screenplay provides a different motive for the murder, different suspects, and a different murderer.” He does go on to say that the movie retains the same comic tone as the story, however.