Tuesday, June 7, 2016

TUESDAY NIGHT BLOGGERS: The May Day Mystery - Octavus Roy Cohen

Throughout the 1920s there was a subgenre of popular fiction that I've never bothered reading. It also made its way into films and radio. I'm talking about collegiate fiction -- stories of wealthy frat boys with slang filled vocabulary only their peers would understand, flapper coeds with bobbed hair and scandalously short skirts, and stodgy "ivy-covered professors in ivy covered halls" as Tom Lehrer once put it. The students fell madly in love, went to parties where they got drunk on bootleg whiskey and maybe did a little cocaine or smoked marijuana. There were pranks and scandals, lots of bed hopping, and sometimes a murder or two.

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.

Set in Alabama on the campus of a college not far from Birmingham The May Day Mystery starts off with an involved tale of a campus hotbed of unhealthy love affairs among a group of college friends and the cad named Paterson Thayer at the center of all the jealous rivalry. The first third of the book details a series of intersecting relationships, some of them very sexual, that have made Thayer the scorn of both men and women on the campus of Marland University. We learn that one woman was duped into marrying Thayer while at a football game in one of those silly bets that crazy, drunken college kids are known to indulge in. If the one team that appears to be losing wins, she must marry him. She foolishly agrees thanks to the giddiness of the day and the alcohol-befogged mind.  Now she's under his power for he has turned the marriage into a tool of extortion.  And because reputation is everything in novels of this type she also agrees to pay him hush money to spare herself further humiliation.

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)
What makes Hanvey unique in early American detectives is that's he's far from sophisticated. Described as a overweight giant with an ugly countenance but a friendly manner Jim Hanvey prides himself in his country bumpkin ways. He's fond of saying "Durned if I know" when asked of his opinion of his own perspicacious findings. He relies on common sense and honesty, and like Columbo is apt to lead the suspects into thinking he's addle brained. Despite his self-effacing remarks about his lack of intelligence Hanvey is anything but stupid.

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.

The particular college crime story is more concerned with student life than the lives of the teaching staff, though Hanvey does interview a few of the professors. Cohen was for a brief time on the English faculty of an Alabama university before he hit it big in radio and movie script writing. The student scenes, though they tend to be heavy on the melodrama, do ring very true. Their speech is youthful and bitingly funny. Very different from the older adults in the book. I liked the 1920s slang that the students threw around with ease. Some of it I'd never encountered before.

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.
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This post serves a dual purpose for two blog memes: The Tuesday Night Bloggers who, during the month of June, are exploring the academic mystery and crime novels with an educational bent as well as "The Crime of The Century" challenge at Past Offenses where we are reading books published in 1929.


  1. Love this in-depth look at (another) academic mystery I've never hear of (she says as she rushes to add it to the list to be found). So glad you've joined us this week, John. I've added you to the link-up over at my place.

    1. Rarely do I find academics mysteries that are more about the students than the faculty. Murder Among Friends and Juliet Dies Twice are two exceptions. I liked this one a lot mostly because of the way Jim Hanvey interacts with all the suspects. I hope to find the other Hanvey books. I had the short story collection (Jim Hanvey, Detective) and read only three of them before I sold the book. Mostly stories about thieves and con artists, no murders that I found. If I'm wrong, I'm sure someone who knows the book will correct me.

  2. "One night he's found dead from a stab wound in his jugular"
    The killer was obviously an expert anatomist, then!

    1. A lucky stab maybe? Throat cutting, stabs to the neck, and severed jugulars occur in the last three books I read. Utterly bizarre coincidence. It's very possible in my hasty composition I mixed up this one with one of the others. I'll check when I get home tonight and quote the passage about the doctor's examination of Thayer's body.

  3. Sounds very interesting to someone (like me) who grew up in Birmingham and went to the U. of Alabama.

  4. Sounds really worthwhile - never heard of the author (I am so glad to get my ignorance gaps filled were at PSB), though your description did remind me, a bit at least, of a Timothy Fuller book, REUNION WITH MURDER but which is from 1941 but relates to an earlier time.

    1. I have all those Jupiter Jones books by Fuller, but haven't read any of them. I'm going to try to get to at least one of them this year, if not this month.

  5. Probably won't ever get to the books, realistically, but loving the illos...