Wednesday, February 13, 2019

* A 1919 crime trio: Lee Thayer, Bernard Capes, and Isabel Ostrander

The Mystery of the Thirteenth Floor, by Lee Thayer
The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, by Bernard Capes
Ashes to Ashes, by Isabel Ostrander

I am a very patient reader, but I must say that more than once while reading this crime/mystery trio of novels I felt like my tolerance was being tested.  Posted in order of annoyance (most to least), the main culprit here was Lee Thayer, whose book The Mystery of the Thirteenth Floor was actually a bit of a trial to get through.  

Forgotten Books, 2012
393 pp

My version is from Forgotten Books, one of my go-to place for reprints, but this book was originally published by The Century Company in New York.  In case anyone decides they're brave enough to read this novel, there are also e-versions available at  

original Century edition, 1919, image from AbeBooks
I picked up this book because of my interest in more obscure women mystery writers of yesteryear.  Lee Thayer, full name Emma Redington Lee Thayer (1874-1973)  isn't exactly a household word in the genre, although she wrote some sixty books between 1919 and 1966.    The Thirteenth Floor is the first in her series featuring Detective Peter Clancy, who in this novel is but a mere teen,  but who will go on to solve several mysteries over the long span of his career.  Francis M. Nevins,  in Pronzini and Muller's  1001 Midnights: The Aficionado's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction  places him in fifty-nine out of Thayer's sixty books (780).   

The story focuses on the death of an attorney by the name of James Randolph Stone, whose death by stabbing occurs immediately after he has two of his employees witness the signing of his will.  The timing of the death and the fact that nobody could possibly have gotten into Stone's Manhattan office and fled (or hid him or herself)  in the scant amount of time before the discovery of his body lands this story in the impossible-crime zone.  When the will turns up missing, it seems that there are several people who are interested in retrieving it, and will (quite literally) stop at nothing to get it.  There is a police detective, and he latches onto the wrong person,  but detection isn't the actual focus here, as Thayer examines motives, character, and the past among her people as she takes us through the story to get to the answer of who killed Stone.  Now, that sounds pretty cut and dried, in typical whodunit fashion, but as it turns out, Thayer decided to take the longest way possible to get to that point, and in the meantime interjects romance, much melodrama, self-sacrificing (aka lying to protect someone else),  and memory musing to the tune of several pages that could have completely been left out or at least edited down to a few sentences to convey her point.  As far as the core mystery of this novel is concerned it was pretty good, and I really did want to know who killed old James Randolph Stone, but just as we're heading to the finish line, the author does something undeniably unforgivable in the form of what I'm sure was meant to be a last-minute showstopper.  Gah! I won't give it away but seriously -- this was beyond frustrating after putting up with all that came before. 

One more thing,  and that's  Nevins' warning in 1001 Midnights that 
"Thayer's novels move the speed of an arthritic snail trying to cross a piece of flypaper."
I couldn't have said it better.

 I'm happy to have read it, and to have discovered yet another more obscure woman author,  but unless I am running short on books someday, I'm not too sure I will be picking up another book by this author in the future.   Reader beware. Even my saintlike reading patience was not enough here.


Collins Crime Club/Harper Collins, 2015
204 pp

Moving on to book two, which was much less frustrating and had a crazy twist that I didn't see coming, is The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, by Bernard Capes.  I know Capes as a writer of horror/pulpy-ish fiction but not as an author of mystery/crime fiction. Not only was this Capes' first mystery novel, but it was also the first in Collins' Detective Club series, many of which have been reprinted along with their great covers

A country house in Hampshire is the scene for this story, although it actually begins in France, where two of the main characters, Vivian Bickerdike and the Baron LeSage, meet for the first time at a sidewalk cafe in the Place du Palais Royal.  Although the Baron is helpful,  Bickerdike isn't quite sure about him, noticing that the Baron
"could not, or would not, answer a direct question directly; he seemed to love secrecy and evasion for the own sake, and for the opportunity they gave him for springing some valueless surprises on the unsuspecting."
Their paths will cross again as they find themselves on the same train heading for the same destination, Wildshott, the Hampshire country home of Sir Calvin Kennett, who lives there with his son Hugo (a friend of Bickerdike) and his daughter Audrey.  Hugo (also called Hugh) is in a strange state of mind -- Bickerdike senses there's something not quite right with his friend, and Hugo promises to tell all after the upcoming shooting party.  But there are more important things that will take precedence first, since during the shooting the young maid Annie Evans is shot, and it turns out not to have been an accident but rather a solid case of murder.    The police are called and a certain  Sergeant Ridgway ("a clever dog!") makes his way to the scene, where he immediately latches on to the men in the house as possible suspects. While Ridgway investigates, Bickerdike does some clandestine sleuthing, looking both at the case and at the Baron, whom he does not particularly trust and certainly dislikes.   After the coroner's inquest, a suspect is arrested, imprisoned and sent to trial, which should have been the end of things, but the Baron, it seems, has been doing some investigating of his own.

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key is definitely best read by people who are true-blue fans of British murder mysteries, especially those set in an English country home.  Frankly, it's a bit of a rough go at times,   because it has a tendency to be a slow-moving, overly-written and wordy story.  It has its moments, especially during the trial, but for the most part it can be a bit of a slog, if you're not used to this sort of thing. The ending, however, was a complete surprise that I never saw coming (and most ingenious, I must say); on the other hand there is absolutely no clue leading up to what is coming down the pike since the Baron is a detective figure who holds his cards quite close to his chest --  we really don't know until the very end exactly how  he put two and two together to actually solve the case. It's sort of unfair, really, and when Julian Symons in his Bloody Murder said of this book that Capes "infringed" on the rules governing detective stories, I can see why.  All in all it was the ending that made it an okay read for me.


Forgotten Books, 2017
333 pp
Last, but not least (and among the three the one I enjoyed the most) is Isabel Ostrander's (1883-1924)  Ashes to Ashes.  This may sound weird, but I first heard of Isabel Ostrander a few years back while reading a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.  There's a scene where Lord Peter is looking over some bookshelves in a murder suspect's studio, and after discovering R.Austin Freeman among the lot also finds
"Through the Wall -- that's a good 'tec story, Charles -- all about the third degree -- Isabel Ostrander --..." (Harper Paperbacks, 1995, 196)
I have this habit of writing down book titles and authors found in books for later perusal, and the rest is history.  Anyway, Ashes to Ashes is neither your average crime story of the time nor  a whodunit.  We already know who the killer is, an egotistical, "impulsive" and not-so-clever man of the country club set by the name of Norman Storm. 

The impetuous Storm has squandered away the better part of almost four hundred grand over the last decade in bad investments and speculation, and now his New York City attorney has just informed him he's "reached the bottom of the basket."   As the fuming Norman is leaving his lawyer's office, he sees his wife Leila coming out of a downtown office building.  Later, at home he asks her about it, and she denies having been there, claiming instead to have gone to lunch with a friend.   As little things begin to build up (an overheard telephone call, an envelope with the name of the building where he'd seen her in the city), he comes to believe that Leila has been unfaithful, and during a confrontation, picks up a golf club and beats her to death. An ungrieving Norman knows that if caught he'll face the death penalty, but he's more worried about the publicity and disgrace.  After ensuring that Leila's death will be ruled accidental (you can actually see the gears grinding in this man's head as he sets up his elaborate plan), he congratulates himself on winning a "supreme battle of wits, his against the rest," including his friends, who, not aware of what he's done and to Norman's dismay, will continue to stand by him.   After Norman Storm learns the truth about his wife's supposed infidelity, he finds that he has "descended to the nethermost depths," but trust me, he hasn't even started his descent as events will ultimately prove.

Smug, superior, rash -- these are just three milder words that describe Norman.  He believes himself to be
 "immune, invincible! He could "commit any crime on the calendar and get away with it! There wasn't a living soul clever enough to hunt him down! He was the greatest murderer of the age, the cleverest man in the world!"
but in reality he is weighed down by the "invisible, intangible" bonds from which he struggles to free himself;  he's also a "prisoner in these chains of his own forging."  Normally I can squeeze out some sympathy for someone like Norman, but not in this case.   There is no room for it here, and I don't know about anyone else who's read this novel, but based on his personality alone (never mind his horrific deeds), I couldn't wait for him to get cut down to size.

 Ashes to Ashes worked well for me, not just because it was the least annoying of a read among these three books, but because it was so different. In this book the action is focused on the machinations of one man's mind, rather than the investigation of a crime or the quest for a solution, making it much more personally  appealing.  The writing isn't as dense as was the case with the other two, making it much more reader friendly,  although I will say she must have had a thing about exclamation points because they're everywhere.  This one I can easily recommend for readers like myself who are more into character than plot.

I think I need a modern crime read now just to clear my head.