The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933) by Stuart Palmer


My local library has a very large collection of mystery ebooks. Every book published by Mysterious Press and Poisoned Pen Press are available on demand and so I have access to a large variety of novels that I likely would not be able to read if the situation was reversed. Upon making this discovery, one of the first books I noticed was this one. It has gained accolades left and right, and I’ve even seen it make several best impossible crime/plain old mystery novel lists. Nick’s recent review over at his blog finally tipped me over the edge as I was looking for a light and breezy read after some heavy reads and his description of the book as almost movie like in execution really appealed to me.

A man wearing a brown suit barely misses a boat ride to Catalina Island and so is forced to take a small ( and very rickety) plane there instead. The flight is jam packed with a large selection of potential murderer’s and murder victims, ranging from a honeymooning couple, a struggling and brash actress, a movie producer, and a bodyguard. Soon after takeoff, the man in the brown suit begins to have a fit, which many attribute to air sickness or fear and he eventually cries out “I don’t want to die!”. After the flight is over, the man is dead and though the death could easily be classified as a accident and forgotten, a retired schoolteacher by the name of Hildegarde Withers see’s the corpse and promptly cries murder, leading to her previous detective experience being utilized once more.

This was a very light and breezy read. The writing was smooth and very readable with the plot moving at a very brisk and enjoyable pace. The book did have various parts that felt like they were straight out of a movie, but they actually fit the overall contents perfectly without creating unrealistic and uninteresting sections. The puzzle wasn’t too complex, the culprits did feel like they picked randomly out of a hat and their motive is very unimaginative and feels tacked on. The murder in the airplane had an air of the impossible around it and though the solution wasn’t exactly a stunner, the effort was appreciated.

The way the pepper tree figures into the story is also very clever, with the key element it provides to the story being ingenious. There is another death with an air of the impossible to it as well, but it isn’t really developed and the explanation is very scientific and hard to figure out. The whole of the puzzle isn’t really fairly clued with the only ones being scattered throughout the book scantily. The best moment in the book was probably the very good reversal presented right before the resolution, something that completely flipped most of the book around and created a much appreciated shock.

The characters here are fine, with Hildegarde being the best of the lot. Most of the passengers on the plane aren’t very fleshed out, though one or two really shine as the book progresses. I enjoyed the interplay that Hildegarde constantly caused between herself and the “official” detectives with her delivering some delicious one liners. The setting is gorgeous, with it being used to create entrancing and exciting moments of suspense and ratiocination. The ending is very heartwarming, with the last line bring a huge smile to my face and a rush of joy to my heart.

This book is almost like Tour de Force mixed with Evil Under the Sun. It has the witty writing style and some of the plot components of Brand mixed in with the reversals and character sketches of Christie. It isn’t completely a mixture of the two books, with it being able to stand on it’s own and even preceding both works, but it doesn’t reach the same level as them either. It’s a very good quick read to enjoy after a slog or while on the beach, and I can see why it’s so acclaimed. A 4/5 for this one.

Other Opinions:

The Grandest Game in the World

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