“Any way you look at it, murder is out!”
I’ve been keeping an eye out for Bart House mysteries ever since reading The Devil Drives. These vintage war time novels are fine quality physical specimen, as good as the best from Avon, Pocket Books, and Dell. Of course, a nice cover and quality paper doesn’t make a good story. My last Bart House gamble was the unredeemable John Smith Hears Death Walking, but I haven’t given up the optimism that I’ll stumble upon an unknown gem. It’s this hope that led me to Murder is Out by Lee Thayer.
I’ve never noticed the name Lee Thayer kicking around the GAD community, and that seems a bit strange given that the author was responsible for five dozen mysteries. Thayer was a graphic artist who took to writing in 1919 and carried through until 1966 – an impressive run that calls to mind the likes of Christie, Queen, and Carr, although “forgotten” authors such as Christopher Bush and Brian Flynn had equally vast catalogues.
Thayer’s library appears to be completely out of print; in fact, Murder is Out is the only paperback edition of any of her books that I could find. Although not widely published in the mass market paperback category, Thayer seems to have had enough of an audience to keep churning out stories into her 90s. This was enough to bubble Murder is Out to the top of my pile.
Nearly all of Thayer’s novels star private detective Peter Clancy and his faithful butler Wiggar. It’s not quite a Sherlock/Watson relationship – Wiggar is too well mannered to step out of place and actually, you know, offer an opinion – but more of a detective with doting sidekick thing.
“He has the devil’s own luck and what he claims as intelligence is nothing but betting and guessing, playing hunches, intimidating witnesses, and all sorts of tricks like that. But we let him play around because he’s the kind that can mix in on equal terms with club men and society dames, thanks to Wiggar mostly.”
Murder is Out opens with Peter Clancy receiving a cryptic phone call summoning him to the Marston residence. Arriving, Clancy immediately stumbles upon the body of Everett Marston. Marston’s been shot in the back in his library, and Peter doesn’t appear to be the first to have happened upon the crime. Dr Henry Treadwell has beaten him to the punch, claiming to have been called to the house by a similarly mysterious phone call.
Despite being discovered at the scene of the crime, Dr Treadwell is never for a minute considered to be a suspect, and perhaps that best summarizes this book. If you’re looking for the type of clever detective fiction most commonly associated with GAD, you’ll find none of it here. Rather, this is what I would stereotype a 80 year old mystery as being before I actually had experience with the best of the genre.
Peter Clancy – you never really learn anything about him other than he has red hair – saunters from suspect to suspect, interviewing them while always maintaining his impeccable social graces. The suspects are the usual lot: bright eyed young things, rich old widows, and even a blackmailing butler. There’s no hook of any sort that makes the murder stand out; just a man shot in the library with a cast of suspects who all had opportunity. Nor does the story ever take a twist that will raise your pulse above 40. I’d call it cozy, but there’s nothing particularly cozy about any of it.
Mmm, let’s see – I suppose a killer gets identified at some point, but there’s no revelation to it. Thayer could have pinned the crime on any character with the same result, and the fact that the case comes down to a Murder She Wrote “only the killer would have known” trap tells you all you need to know.
Skimming around the net, I found that I’m not alone in my tepid response to Thayer. MysteryFile has a few overviews of her library, and the comment section provides some classic quotes that sums it up well.
“One of the great unsellable authors”
“I have to agree that ‘Thayer’s best’ is damning with faint praise.”
“A greater collection of cliches, stereotypes, and mundane events than a Thayer novel would be hard to imagine.”
“I’d compare them to unleavened bread, but unleavened bread can at least satisfy your hunger.”
“Peter Clancy may hold a record though, because out of 59 books I’m pretty sure the only characteristic anyone could claim for him is that he has red hair and a butler.”
“Her books always felt to me as if they had all the substance of cotton candy without the flavor or the pretty colors. They weren’t bad enough to be fun and they weren’t good enough to consistently reward the effort.”
“On the rare occasion she comes up with a good idea or a decent scene it is surrounded by and enveloped by a weight of cotton wool and down comforters that smother it.”
Thayer supposedly wrote five impossible crimes, although Francis Nevins has mercifully provided an article that exposes enough of the plots to reveal that they’re not worth reading. Thanks for that.
Well, that’s probably it for me and Thayer. Her books are hard enough to get hold of that I can’t imagine it’s worth your while to track them down or pay the asking price. I will say that they have nice dust jackets though. Thayer supposedly did her own art, and that appears to have been her true skill.
The great Bart House journey doesn’t end here though. I still have the rivetingly titled “Murder Secretary” by William Beyer on my shelf. Anyone read it?