Friday, June 8, 2012

Death in Dallas: The Thirteenth Floor (1931), by J. F. W. Hannay

Dallas Cotton Exchange
built 1926, imploded 1994
The book under review in today's piece is a hard-hitting 1931 crime novel with a jaundiced depiction of a trial that is set in the American South.  William Faulkner's Sanctuary, you might think (at least if you haven't read the title to this piece)? But no: It's J. F. W. Hannay's The Thirteenth Floor (there also are--at first blush only--some odd reminders of the John F. Kennedy assassination, in that that later event occurred in Dallas and involved the sixth floor of a building).

James Frederick Wynne Hannay (1906-c. 1985) is, I think it can be fairly said, almost entirely forgotten today as a crime and mystery genre writer--most unjustly so in my view.  He was one of four children of the Reverend James Owen Hannay (1875-1950), a Anglican minister and popular novelist and playwright (his own fictional work, written under the pseudonym George A. Birmingham, included at least two detective novels and several thrillers).  Both James Owen Hannay's two daughters wrote as well.  One, Theodosia Frances Wynne (Hannay) Hickey, in particular became a successful children's writer and also published a mystery for adult readers (look to future posts on James Owen Hannay and Theodosia).

James Owen Hannay (1875-1950), noted Anglo-Irish author
 and father of James Frances Wynne Hannay (1906-c.1985)
With this very British background, how did James Frederick Wynne Hannay come to write a 1931 mystery novel set in Dallas, Texas?  Hannay's elder brother, Robert, had migrated not long after World War One to Dallas, Texas, where he became a prominent cotton broker.  By 1925, he had started his own brokerage firm, Hannay Brothers, with James, who had followed his brother to Texas.  The firm prospered and both men remained in Dallas for the rest of their lives. Many of their descendants still live in the city today.

Though cotton may have been his business, ink--a hereditary stain--was in the blood of James Frederick Wynne Hannay, and in the 1930s he published seven (now hard to find) novels, five of which fall within the confines of the mystery genre.

These latter books are, besides The Thirteenth Floor: Gin and Ginger (1931), a detective story set on a transatlantic ocean liner; When the Wicked Man...(1934), an inverted crime novel; Murder of Me (1937); and Three Alibis (1938).  Why Hannay apparently stopped writing fiction in 1938 at the young age of 32 I do not know, but I think it is to be regretted.  I have read his first three mystery novels and they are uniformly excellent.  None of them were published in the United States, not even his Dallas-set novel (more on this below), which helps explain their rarity and obscurity today.  Whatever the reasons, however, the novels are deserving of at least a modest modern revival.

sinister staircase
Hannay's debut novel, The Thirteenth Floor, takes full advantage of the author's work background as a cotton broker.  The title refers to the thirteenth floor of the Dallas Cotton Exchange building, a sixteen-story structure erected the year after Hannay Brothers was formed (it is pictured above).  The novel's two murders take place in the Exchange, the victims being pushed into the well of the interior staircase on the thirteenth floor of the building and falling horrifically to their deaths.  This image of this sinister staircase, which Hannay vividly describes as a kind of death-trap, lingers in the mind after one has finished the novel.

Hannay is decidedly blunt about both his workplace and his city (though he cloaks Dallas under the name Ensign).  

"The Cotton Exchange Building at the city of Ensign, Texas, viewed from the north, must be one of the ugliest buildings in the world," he pronounces, through his narrator John McCallum.  "....It is a sky-scraper construction reduced to its simplest terms.  In its austere blankness it resembles a gigantic sheet of postage stamps, a post office clerk's nightmare."

As for Dallas, Hannay does not hold back in portraying an unattractive racism found in quarters of the city (and, indeed, Texas).  Perhaps it was this bluntness that led to the book never being published in Hannay's adopted country (the country's loss!).

view of Dallas from the Cotton Exchange Building
The local atmosphere is a great part of the novel's appeal.  One really gets a feel for Dallas at the onset and immediate aftermath of the Great Stock Market Crash, the time in which the novel is set.  Both the Dallas cotton brokerage business and the social life of the city's business elite--its golfing outings and its bootleg liquor drenched parties--are convincingly portrayed by the author.

The first murder victim is John McCallum's uncle, the wealthy, self-made cotton broker George Earle. Besides John McCallum himself, obvious suspects in the eyes of the world include Earle's wife, Maud--who by her own admission married him for his money--and his dissolute son, Alvin, who wants to run off with a winsome waitress, much to his father's displeasure.

Fortunately for the bereaved (?) family, George Earle's death is ruled an accident, but then another person plummets to his death down the well of the staircase from the thirteenth floor, under circumstances that admit of no other explanation but murder.

An arrest and a trial follow, and here we find Hannay at his most strikingly astringent.  Both the prosecuting and defense teams engage in atrocious demagoguery in attempts to get the respective verdicts desired (I won't say the truth, because it is clear neither side is interested in the truth).  In particular, the defense attorney's closing argument is a tour de force of scathingly satirical writing, as the shameless lawyer puts the murder victim, a Jew, on trial, to a large extent for the "crime" of being Jewish (earlier one of the prosecuting attorneys had tried to touch the jury's hearts by pointing out that the murder victim left a wife and children, to which the narrator--disgusted by the demagogic turn the trial has taken--devastatingly comments: "The fact that Jews have wives and families the jury probably regarded merely as regrettable").

One is reminded at times of the infamous and appalling Leo Frank case in Atlanta, which took place less than twenty years previous to Hannay's writing The Thirteenth Floor.  I suspect this similarity was deliberately devised by the author.

Caprock Escarpment

This is a very good genre novel, quite unusual for its time, indeed rather ahead of its time (I should also mention the interesting section describing the pursuit of a witness/possible suspect to Lubbock Texas, across the Caprock Escarpment in an old car under pouring rain).  But how is it as a detective novel?  Well, to be sure it's not the most complex and convoluted Golden Age mystery ever devised, but there is scope for deduction on the part of the reader and the narrative is suspenseful and well-paced (though the ending perhaps is a bit abrupt).  All in all, I would say that The Thirteenth Floor is one of the most interesting and entertaining Golden Age mysteries that I have been privileged to read.


  1. OK, I hereby relinquish the throne. I feel usurped in a way as the *former* maven of the obscure detective novel. :^( This review undoubtedly proves you to be the true maven.

    For me, it's hard to see those passages about Jews to be satiric. But then they are sort of taken out of context. I would have to read the entire book I'm sure to get the sense you have of this writer's views.

    You mentioned in the GAD forum P.R. email that this writer is the son of mystery writer "George Birmingham" (which I now learn is a pseudonym, but not mentioned above). The only one I've read is THE HYMN TUNE MYSTERY which has a very original code of sorts involving music on a pipe organ. It's one of Barzun's favorites, too, so I'm sure you've read it.

  2. John,

    Hey, just call me Mr. Obscurity!

    On the anti-Semitism question, I was hoping I made it sufficiently clear from the above paragraph that the narrator was disgusted with the tactics of the trial. Of course like you say, everything is taken out of context. But the narrator is commenting on the bigotry of the jury, not attempting to make a purportedly funny joke. I found it all really rather remarkable. And the narrator is no "bleeding heart liberal" either. I was fascinated by the trial scenes.

    You were right, even though I mentioned George A. Birmingham on the links I didn't mention in the piece! I will rectify. Yes, I like Hymn Tune Mystery a lot. And unlike J.F.A. Hannay's books currently, it's not so rare.

    1. The Olympus is waiting for you. Where did you go to find these unknown authors? You will speak also of Henry Holt? Your blog is one the most interesting blog in the web.

    2. Pietro,

      I am waiting for Olympus, have them ring me, please, I've heard it's a a nice place. I am glad you find this blog of interest, I try my best! What Henry Holt did you have in mind?