LEE THAYER – The Scrimshaw Millions. Sears & Co., hardcover, 1932. Hardcover reprint: The Macaulay Company, no date.

   There are five killings in the tale, yet The Scrimshaw Millions is not remotely exciting. What should have been a gripping family extermination murder story on the order of S. S. Van Dine’s grandly baroque The Greene Murder Case (1928), instead is a snoozer the reader has to drive himself to finish.

LEE THAYER The Scrimshaw Millions

   But finish it I did, dear readers! It takes a lot to stop this fellah from plowing through to the end of a Golden Age whodunit, even a fourth- or fifth-tier one. Heck, I’ve read a dozen mysteries by Carolyn Wells!

   In The Scrimshaw Millions someone is fatally poisoning the members of the Scrimshaw family one by one. A fortune is at stake — who will survive to inherit? And how long will it take for you to cease caring one iota?

   To be fair, The Scrimshaw Millions struck me as superior to the books described earlier on this blog by Francis M. Nevins. The prose is serviceable, lacking those purple passages quoted by Nevins (at least until the cosmic retribution denouement Nevins has noted as a common feature of her books).

   The characters, while sticks, are not irritating (except when meant to be — though perhaps we could have done without the Italian houseservant/blackmailer, regrettably named Guido). Generally speaking, you can believe this tale is taking place in the 1930s rather than a half-century earlier, unlike Carolyn Wells’ mysteries from the same decade.

   Moreover, the clueing is respectable. And the murder means used in the five killings is…. Well, while it’s not original to Thayer (and John Rhode used it in a detective novel three years later, though only for a murder attempt late in the book), it’s kind of cute, in Golden Age Baroque fashion.

   However, fatal weaknesses in The Scrimshaw Millions are its slack narrative, its sometimes careless writing and its lack of credible police procedure and scientific detail.

   I have read the claim that the hugely prolific thriller writer Edgar Wallace, who boasted of being able to compose novels over weekends, in the course of one tale managed to change the name of his heroine (i.e., she starts off as Janet, say, and becomes Betty). Yet I had never come across such a phenomenon myself in an Edgar Wallace shocker, or, indeed, in a mystery tale by any other author — until I read Lee Thayer.

   In The Scrimshaw Millions the secretary of that late, unlamented miser, Simon Scrimshaw, is introduced on page 51 as “Evangeline Osgood.” Yet five pages later her surname has changed to “Ogden.”

   And there’s more! Although we are told for most of the tale that Simon’s two spinster sisters — thought at first to have died from heart failure–were both poisoned by “aconite” (I think “aconotine” was meant), late in the book the poison abruptly becomes arsenic.

   All in all, I think it’s fair to say Lee Thayer was playing fast and loose with poisons, as well as with police procedure, in The Scrimshaw Millions. For no credible reason whatsover, three different poisons are used to slay in the tale, all by the same individual murderer: the alchemical aconite/aconotine/arsenic concoction, nicotine and cyanide (the last is later called hydrocyanic acid).

   One might have thought this might have made the police suspicious of the character we are told works in a chemical factory, but, nope! It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone even to cock an eyebrow.

LEE THAYER The Scrimshaw Millions

   You might also think the murderer would have had to have been mad to adopt such an approach to attaining an inheritance. Well, hold on to your hats, it looks like he was:

    “It’s too late now!” The exultant light of madness [shone in his eyes]. [p. 299]

   Nearly forty years ago, Julian Symons labeled certain formerly quite popular and highly regarded detective novelists like John Rhode (a peudonym of Cecil John Charles Street) as “humdrums.” Other, more recent, mystery genre survey authors like P.D. James have followed suit, adopting Symons’ disparaging tone toward these writers.

   Yet, compared to Lee Thayer, I say please, Lord, give me more “humdrums” like John Rhode. The use Rhode makes of science in his tales often is quite fascinating, ingenious, adroit and credible. In The Scrimshaw Millions none of those adjectives can be applied to Thayer’s (mis)use of science.

   Traditionalist American mystery writers of the Golden Age of detection like Lee Thayer and Carolyn Wells often aped, as much they could, the form and milieu of detective novels of superior British counterparts.

   Thayer, for example, clearly seems to have deliberately copied Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter/Bunter master-servant relationship with her own series detective, red-haired Peter Clancy, and his impeccable English manservant, Wiggar (the latter character was introduced by Thayer in 1929, ten years after she had debuted Clancy and six years after Sayers gave the world Lord Peter and Bunter). But Thayer and Wells are but pale shadows of far more substantial authors (and to be sure, there were many first-rate American traditionalists as well).

   Still, the patented Lee Thayer cosmic retribution denouement so aptly described by Mike Nevins is impressive in its own loopy way. In The Scrimshaw Millions the entire house of the murdered miser falls in on the investigators and suspects just after the killer, pressed by the intrepid detective Peter Clancy, makes his mad confession:

    The terrible cry of repudiation rang out in the desolate house, and as if the awful horror in it had terrible power there came a strange, wild shudder, a trembling through all the ancient walls, a hideous splitting crash, and the ceiling above their heads sagged downward, ripped across, and fell. [pp. 299-300]

   Top that if you can, Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot! Don’t tell me you’ve never wanted the roof to collapse on one of those drawing room lectures David Suchet gives in every darn one of his TV productions.

   Providentially, one might say, only the mad murderer is killed when the house collapses in The Scrimshaw Millions. The nice boy lives to marry the nice girl, the policemen survive to continue getting murder cases all wrong, and Wiggar escapes the wreckage to continue happily serving his mildly concussed master Peter Clancy in many another perhaps-something-less-than-entirely-enthralling Lee Thayer mystery.