When schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers, a “spinster” of 39, takes her third-grade class to the New York Aquarium, she expects nothing more than an educational outing for her students. But first she thwarts a pickpocket by tripping him with her umbrella, and then she discovers a dead body in the penguin tank. Not the sort of person to miss a chance to investigate, Miss Withers quickly befriends Inspector Oscar Piper, the policeman in charge of the murder case. Through a combination of usefulness (she takes shorthand notes of the initial witness statements) and sheer stubbornness, she is allowed to accompany Piper throughout the investigation. Suspicion immediately falls on the dead man’s wife and her former lover, who were both at the aquarium on the fateful day; but Miss Withers isn’t convinced, and her intelligence and determination eventually enable her to solve the case.
I enjoyed this mystery, although it’s a fairly typical example of the Golden Age detective novel. There are a few creative touches — such as one of the penguins swallowing a key piece of evidence — and I enjoyed the repartee between Miss Withers and Inspector Piper, although I wish their relationship had been a bit more fleshed out. In fact, I wanted more character development all around, but that does tend to be a weakness of mysteries from this era, and I wouldn’t quibble so much if the plot had been more inventive. But instead everything unfolds pretty much as expected, from spurious confessions to various motive-related revelations to a second death. I also guessed the murderer’s identity fairly early on. The final chapter, in which the solution is explained, does contain one delightful surprise, which I won’t spoil. But all in all, this book isn’t particularly special — which doesn’t mean it’s not a good read! It just doesn’t deviate much from the traditional formula, so if you’re looking for something with a lot of surprises, this may not be the book for you.