A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Francis M. Nevins

LEE THAYER – Out, Brief Candle! Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1948. No paperback edition.

   The life of Emma Redington Lee Thayer is more fascinating than any of her novels. Born in 1874, she quickly established herself as a painter of murals on the walls of private homes, and some of her work in this field was displayed in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair. Later she specialized in doing the designs for stamped bookbindings, and countless early-twentieth-century titles were made visually more appealing thanks to her skill.

LEE THAYER Out Brief Candle

   It was only after World War I that she started writing books herself, turning out a total of sixty mystery novels, for all but the last three of which she also designed the dust jackets. Apparently she holds the record for both professional and personal longevity in the mystery field, for her last book, Dusty Death (1966), came out when she was ninety-two, and she lived to be ninety-nine.

   She seems to have been a nice, refined, well-to-do old lady. Unfortunately she wrote her novels for an audience she thought of as exactly like herself, with no attempt to widen her appeal.

   Fifty-nine of Thayer’s sixty books deal with redheaded gentleman detective Peter Clancy, a dinosaur among sleuths if ever there was one. Imagine a stick figure from Edwardian times adrift in the decades of depression, war, angst, and civil rights, and trying desperately to pretend that nothing has happened, and you have something of the flavor of a Peter Clancy exploit.

   Thayer’s novels move with the speed of an arthritic snail trying to cross a piece of flypaper. Her plotting is abysmal, her style unbearable, her characters impossible. In most of his adventures, Clancy is attended by an ever-deferential valet named Wiggar, a Jeeves clone without a drop of humor, who is constantly getting off bons mots like “Oh, Mr. Peter, sir!”

   Her favorite device for bringing a book to climax was to have God Almighty himself strike down the killer from on high, while Mother Nature whipped up a furious storm and the rhetoric swirled and squalled. Those who might think this description is exaggerated are referred to Accessory after the Fact (1943) and Still No Answer (1958), as well as to our main entry.

   Out, Brief Candle! takes its title from Macbeth and its kickoff situation from Agatha Christie: Like Poirot in Death in the Air (1935), Clancy investigates a murder aboard an airliner on which he was a passenger.

   Like all Thayer novels, this one is twice as long as necessary; but a slightly ingenious solution, combined with a truly grisly encounter between a little girl and a body in a coffin, lifts it to the ranks of Thayer’s best, whatever that means.

   Lee Thayer is a highly specialized taste, but if for no other reasons than her industry and longevity, she deserves better than to be totally forgotten.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

Editorial Comment:   Complementing this review, or to be more precise, the impetus for my posting it here, is one covering Lee Thayer’s first book, The Mystery of the 13th Floor (1919), by J. F. Norris on his blog. You should go read it.