THE (ALMOST) TRUE STORY OF JACK BOYLE, STUART PALMER AND SHERLOCK HOLMES

December 6, 2015 at 11:14 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Jack Boyle’s one enduring character is Boston Blackie.  Though he did craft tales with other protagonists (Huk Kant and Pep Kirby, among the more memorable), none of these have captured the imaginations of readers, movie-goers and television viewers like Blackie.  Still, it should be noted that Boyle had an indirect hand in the birth of another popular mystery character of the 1930s and ‘40s – Stuart Palmer’s sleuthing school teacher Miss Hildegarde Withers.  Tom and Enid Schantz, founders of The Rue Morgue Press, tell the story this way:

Sometimes a seemingly ordinary event shapes a person’s life, even though it might take years before its significance is recognized. Such an event overtook 12-year-old Stuart Palmer as he was working his way through the pine bookcase in the attic of his family’s summer place in rural Wisconsin when he came across a small yellow volume with an intriguing sketch on the cover. It was The Houseboat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs, an 1896 collection of humorous sketches featuring the “shades” or ghosts Stuart Palmerof famous literary characters. Among the literary personages making an appearance was Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first private consulting detective … When the Palmer family returned to their winter home in Baraboo, Wisconsin, Stuart rushed to the local library where “the acidulous spinster librarian” handed him, “with a disapproving sniff,” Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, the second of the four full-length Sherlock Holmes novels. He quickly worked his way through the canon, practically memorizing passages from The Adventures and The Memoirs, failing only to find a copy of His Last Bow. It turns out that the library’s copy had been checked out to the town’s only ex-convict, who skipped town the next day with his girlfriend. The ex-con was Jack Boyle, whose lone book, Boston Blackie, would be filmed many times and many years later. Call it irony or call it coincidence, but the screenwriter for one of those films was Stuart Palmer. Boyle left behind him numerous unpaid bills and even more empty whiskey bottles, prompting the parents of Baraboo to hold him up to their offspring as an example of the evils of drink and the futility of making a living as a writer. “It was then,” Palmer said, “that I definitely chose what was to be my life’s work.”

So Jack Boyle’s example (dubious though it may have been) inspired Stuart Palmer to become a professional writer, which in turn led to the creation of the quintessential school teacher turned sleuth, Hildegarde Withers.  The anecdote of Palmer and the Baraboo library’s missing volume of Sherlock Holmes is delightful, and the picture it paints of Boyle as a bit of a scoundrel has the ring of truth.  Tom and Enid Schantz initially related this incident on their Rue Morgue Press website in July 2004, and later incorporated it into their excellent essay “The Many Puzzles of Stuart Palmer” (published in the 2013 Mysterious Press reprint of Palmer’s The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla).  The story offers a rare treat – a small glimpse into Jack Boyle’s life in Baraboo.  However, despite the vignette’s air of authenticity, there are a few problems with its details.

The first is an issue of timing.  Palmer was born in 1905, which dates the events of this anecdote around 1917 (if he was, indeed, twelve when he began devouring the Sherlock Holmes canon).  But Boyle didn’t move away from Baraboo until around May 1920 (relocating to a ranch he purchased in Colorado), so the story must have taken place a few years later than Palmer’s recollection.  Also, the woman who accompanied Boyle upon his departure was not a girlfriend, but his wife Violet.

Another inconsistency in this narrative arises from the statement that Stuart Palmer was the screenwriter of one of the Boston Blackie movies.  While he did author a number of screenplays in the 1930s and ‘40s (including several for such b-movie mystery series as Bulldog Drummond and The Falcon), Palmer’s name does not appear in connection with any of the Blackie films.  It is possible that his work was uncredited, or perhaps that he contributed the teleplay for an as yet undocumented installment of the Boston Blackie television series.  However, it seems more likely that a mistake is at play here.  Palmer was responsible for the story to the 1935 feature film One Frightened Night.  This film bears no relation to Boston Blackie, but in 1944 Columbia Pictures released an entry in their Blackie series titled One Mysterious Night.  Could the attribution of a Blackie screenplay to Palmer arise from a simple confusion of two similar titles?

Though a minor point, one further discrepancy in this anecdote bears mentioning.  Sherlock Holmes does not appear in John Kendrick Bangs’ 1896 collection A Houseboat on the Styx.  But he is a major character in its 1897 sequel, The Pursuit of the Houseboat.  Small variations from fact such as this, and the question of the year in which Boyle made off with the Baraboo Library’s copy of His Last Bow, suggest this anecdote sprang from a later reminiscence from Stuart Palmer.  The passage of years often robs a recollection of accurate detail, but not of the significance of its story.  Late in the second decade of the 20th century, Baraboo, Wisconsin played home to two generations of influential crime writers – one established, and the other in the infancy of his career.  Without even actually meeting, Jack Boyle nudged Stuart Palmer onto the path of writing.  So without knowing it, the creator of Boston Blackie was an element in the genesis of Miss Hildegarde Withers and dozens of popular mysteries for decades to come.

JBF 12/6/15

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