Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mystery of the 13th Floor (1919) - Lee Thayer

Thayer's first book published in 1919 introduces her detective Peter Clancy at the ripe young age of 15. Here he acts as boy sleuth with the help of a sassy Irish secretary named Maybelle Riley, but his role is only incidental. He appears briefly at the start and then again at the end of the tale, though he is instrumental in clearing the name of a wronged man.

James Randolph Stone, a curmudgeon of a lawyer, is stabbed in an apparent impossible crime only seconds after a will was witnessed by two office associates who left his office and closed the door. No one is seen leaving the office.  Seems the criminal must've entered from the outside of the building, but the office is on the 13th floor and the fire escape was on the other side of the very long office. There could've been no time to enter, stab the lawyer, and leave in the short amount of time that passed when he was left alone and the time he cried out.

Though the book begins in the mode of a detective story it quickly transforms itself into a crime thriller. At the center of this involved story is the will which disappears from the office shortly after the body is discovered. Everyone wants the document and is willing to do anything to retrieve it. Nearly everyone in the story ends up committing a crime of some sort as they all try to gain possession of the missing will. Vandalism, blackmail, extortion, burglary – you name it, someone will do it. Additionally, many of the characters decide to withhold information or lie in order to protect the person they suspect of committing the crime. This happens no less than three times. Eventually we have several scenes where the good guys end up delivering Sunday School sermons on forgiveness and honor to one another when they all learn that they have misperceived each other. There is much hand shaking, embracing and calling each other "white."

It's all very old fashioned. I was most reminded of Carolyn Wells' early books. The writing has a tendency to drift off into sentimental reveries that are attempts to flesh out characters but only serve to interrupt the flow of action. In this book Thayer has a tendency to overload the book with incident, even though many of the action scenes are well handled. Her weakness is an indulgence in melodramatic scenes that alternate with sentimental passages. The good characters are virtuous and self-righteous. The villains are conniving, self-interested and despicable. Few characters are painted in shades of gray (or any other color) - it's mostly black and white with Thayer.

At last the lock gave way. - from Chapter 16. Gregory Commits a Crime
My favorite character is Philip Gregory the only fully realized character who escapes the stereotyping and comic phonetic dialects that Thayer inflicts on many of her characters. Gregory is the senior lawyer in Stone's firm and he happens to overhear a bit of crucial information uttered by two villainous conspirators. Because this information - the actual location of the stolen will - can clear the name of Jimmie Stone (the nephew accused of the murder confined to jail for most of the book) Gregory decides to become a vandal and burglar in order to obtain the will and free the prisoner. His plan backfires, but the reader can't help but root for this older gentlemen who up to that point in his life was never anything but a proper gentleman.

Interestingly, there is a character who can be none other than the author herself in fictional form.  Phyllis Calvert, Jimmie's love interest, is an independent young woman who makes her living as a freelance magazine artist and bookplate designer.  For many years, Thayer devoted her life to commercial art and made quite a name for herself as a book jacket illustrator.  Nearly all of her mystery novels feature her art work on either the cover (as above) or as the DJ illustration.  Should you have one of her books look for her distinctive LT she signed on all her work somewhere in the lower portion of the drawing on the DJ.

The solution comes as a deus ex machina and was a bit of a letdown.  A confession is discovered in the hands of the guilty party who has committed suicide. The confession, a lengthy floridly written document, is read out in the courtroom at the eleventh hour -- literally an instant before the jury delivers its verdict. We learn of the motive, and the method and the secret of how the crime was committed as well as a very detailed backstory on the murderer who we knew nothing about anyway. ("What?" I hear you say. "How unfair.") The murderer turns out to have been an extremely minor character introduced in a single paragraph who uttered exactly five sentences at the start of the book and was never heard from again until the penultimate chapter.

I'd say that this book would be interesting only to Clancy fans who are curious of his origin in a series that lasted well into the late 1960s. I'm guessing that Clancy actually aged chronologically -- something that seems rare in series detectives from this period. But it's only a guess since I have never read any of Thayer's other books. In order to find out if I am indeed correct I would have to read six more novels before I got to Alias Dr. Ely (1927) in which Peter impersonates a physician, and therefore must be a young man in his 20s. After finishing this one and then having read Mike Nevins' less than laudatory entry for Thayer's books in 1001 Midnights, I really have no desire to venture further into her work.


  1. I've only read later books and they were decent mysteries. Nothing to get wildly excited about, but okay. This is the first one I've known about that had illustrations.

  2. Like you, I've read only one Lee Thayer novel, and that was enough for me. It wasn't really bad, and I have totally forgotten the title, but there was nothing there to urge me on for more.

    For those who'd like to read that review of Thayer that Mike Nevins did for 1001 MIDNIGHTS, I've just posted it on my blog:


  3. Thanks, Steve! I like this partnership.

    I joined in on the heated discussion, as always, back at your place.

    Why can't they duke it out over here for a change?

  4. One of the virtues of younger Golden Age writers like Agatha Christie, John Rhode, J. J. Connington, for example, was that they didn't overload us with that egregious sentiment of the Anna Katharine Green school, which extended down to Thayer and Wells (at least in their earlier books).

    Though there is one horrible early John Rhode novel, The Alarm, that's written in that style. It's the sort of book where characters don't speak, they orate. It made me wonder whether he had been reading The Leavenworth Case.