Universities were the perfect microcosm for the detective novel. A closed community of suspects in which passionate love affairs, envy among academics play a crucial part in the story. Petty jealousies played out in the dormitory hallways as well as the the lecture halls can often lead to violent and murderous reactions. The May Day Mystery (1929) is a prime example of the blending of the collegiate novel and the detective novel that was just catching on in the United States. It's also the first novel length adventure in crime solving for one of the more unusual detectives in the genre - bank insurance investigator Jim Hanvey.
That's not all Thayer has done. He's seduced several women and promised marriage to at least one naive freshman woman. Yes, that makes him a potential bigamist. He's angered that young woman's current boyfriend and caught the ire of her brother, a teaching assistant in a graduate program who is secretly in love with Thayer's pseudo-wife Antoinette "Tony" Peyton. It's a mess of hormones gone haywire and hearts in torment -- exactly the kind of thing that still goes on in colleges these days. Thayer has it coming to him, don't you think? And someone gives it to him but good. One night he's found dead from a stab wound in his jugular but the weapon has gone missing.
Jim Hanvey enters the picture when he's called on to investigate a bank robbery in Marland. A masked burglar robbed the bank of a $100,000 payroll and escaped after being shot by one of the bank employees. Hanvey is employed by the Banker's Protective Associaton, a financial insurer and it's his job to track down the missing money and turn in the culprit to the police. The primary suspect is Max Vernon whose car happened to be the getaway vehicle.
Vernon is a well known college kid in Marland and also the wealthiest. He opened a very rich bank account when he started school two years ago and due to his frequent visits has become familiar to the bank staff. He is also the boyfriend of Ivy Welch, the girl Thayer seduced into a marriage proposal and was the last person to see Thayer alive. He's not only the prime suspect for the bank robbery but for Thayer's murder. Hanvey is asked to clear Vernon's name of the murder and prove he is the thief. The banker has a soft spot for Vernon and would rather see him on trial for theft rather than murder. In fact, he's well loved by all the students and faculty. He's the rich boy with the heart of gold. Not so much a smart rich boy though, as he's been going through his money like mad. Why? Because he's also something of a gambling addict. Guess who he owed loads of dough after a series of two handed poker games? That's right -- Paterson Thayer. "What a skunk!" as one of the characters says of Thayer.
|Jim Hanvey (right) as drawn by George Brehm
"The Frame-Up" (The American, June 1928)
He's also got a real heart and is one of the more affable of the humanistic fictional detectives. When the harsh and narrow-minded John Reagan belittles Ivy Welch for falling in love with Thayer he calls it "kid stuff". Hanvey counters this prejudicial remark: "Only remember this, John -- when a girl of seventeen falls in love, it ain't kid stuff to her, no matter what it seems like to other folks. I think maybe everybody would have done better to realize that Ivy Welch was a woman grown."
|Moody portrait of Octavus Roy Cohen (circa 1930s)
Prior to this novel length case Hanvey appeared in a series of short stories originally published in the "slicks", magazines like The American, Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post. Most of those stories were about his financial investigations and his clever trickery in revealing the crooked ways of the crooks he set out to capture. The May Day Mystery is his first attempt at solving a murder and he makes a neat job of it even to the finale with a traditional lecture in the roomful of suspects. The clues are for the most part right there for the reader to discover when Hanvey finds them and the unmasking of the villain turned out to be quite a surprise.
It's remarkable to me how college really hasn't changed in over 80 years. Students of the 1920s seemed to be more interested in sex and drinking, frat life and parties than their studies just as today. Their underhanded methods in obtaining alcohol during Prohibition actually seem more wily than the ways modern underage students go about getting booze with fake IDs and other methods. Because the novel was written in 1929 I expected a subplot involving hooch and bootleg alcohol. It shows up late in the story and is introduced almost matter-of-factly for something so illegal. Yet it turns out to be fairly important in the solution of the crime.
Towards the end of the book Cohen writes of the effects of crime of the student body. It's the one real eye-opening paragraph that delivers a blow with subtle impact, one that resonates with the kind of random, mad violence that shows up on our college campuses today:
The tragedy had cast a pall over the campus; yet it had brought a new and strange excitement. Even Commencement, which at this season of the year usually loomed up as being all-important seemed a matter of little moment. Examinations held terrors for very few students. It was as though they had been confronted by some of the starkness of life a month ahead of time. Human life, human love... examinations and Bachelor's degrees seemed of small moment by comparison.Jim Hanvey Series
Jim Hanvey, Detective (1923) - collection of six novellas
The May Day Mystery (1929)
The Backstage Mystery (1930)
Star of Earth (1932)
There are a few other Jim Hanvey stories found in two other Octavus Roy Cohen collections. Detours (1927) and Scrambled Yeggs (1934) each contain one story with the bank investigator.