Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The Body on the Floor by Nancy Barr Mavity (1929)



About the author: Nancy Barr Mavity (1890 - 1959) is the author of a series of mystery novels about crime reporter James Aloysius "Peter" PiperNancy Barr Mavity taught philosophy at Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut. She was a newspaper woman. She was a feature writer of the Oakland Tribune. In this capacity, she was the first woman to spend a night in Folsom State Prison, where she had gone to cover the pardon hearing of Warren K Billings. She lectured extensively and contributed to magazines. (from a Wikipedia article).

This is Peter Piper #2 (of 6). The full series is:

Major characters:
  • Natalie Cole, a.k.a (incorrectly) Mrs. Asbury - the body on the floor
  • Clarkson L. Cole, her estranged husband, the "Tire king of Detroit"
  • --- Asbury, her estranged lover, a forest ranger, then a trucker and bootlegger
  • Allison Cole, her daughter
  • Elsie Cole Lawrence, her other daughter
  • John Lawrence, Elsie's husband
  • Edythe Grainge, telephone operator
  • Edward Comstock, elderly legatee
  • Winifred Newell, Asbury's secretary and lover
  • Peter Piper, reporter for The Herald
  • Barbara Piper, his wife
  • Emil Kurtner, expert witness #1
  • Chester Mason, expert witness #2
  • Jerry Dean, cub correspondent for The Herald
  • Sheriff F. M. Rondel

Locale: not stated


Following an item submitted by cub correspondent Jerry Dean; Peter Piper, ace reporter for The Herald, is assigned to cover a woman's death under mysterious circumstances, having been killed with a shotgun - but was it murder or suicide? The woman, known locally as Mrs. Asbury, was actually Natalie Cole - estranged from her husband Clarkson L. Cole. She had been living with young, attractive --- Asbury as husband and wife, although not married. Recently they, too, became estranged when he took up with his secretary, Winifred Newell. She wanted him back, but he was more attracted to a string of young ladies more his age.

Her daughter, Allison Cole, had found the body and was in the process of falling apart. Jerry Dean takes her under his wing until Peter's wife, Barbara Piper, arrives to comfort her.

As Piper and sheriff F. M. Rondel try to determine if it is murder, it is found that she had made a will the day before, leaving her rance to elderly indigent neighbor Edward Comstock. The situation escalates at the inquest, when two expert witnesses, Emil Kurtner and Chester Mason, offer two totally contradictory versions of events.


This fast-paced story is set in the frenzy of a 1920's newspaper office, complete with chaotic press rooms, shouting editors, race-against-time telephoned reports, and star reporters taking notes on folded pieces of newsprint. The author knows her subject, being a newspaper reporter herself; and brings the excitement of reporting to the reader.

Oh, her use of words! Listen to this gloomy passage as the townspeople arrive at the inquest! What a scene:

The crowd had poured slowly, steadily into the dark interior of the undertaking parlors in a viscous, flowing mass. The porch still overflowed with those who had found no room inside, coagulating at the windows and doors, clotted on the steps.

There are two outstanding characters:
  • Edythe Grainge, the wallflower telephone operator who sees her role as an inquest witness as her big break, and 

  • Edward Comstock, with his philosophies about life, death, and morals. He reminds me oex-preacher Jim Casy (as played by John Carradine) in The Grapes of Wrath.  

The middle portion of the book drags a bit with various theories being hashed out, but that is common to most mysteries. A crime scene map is provided (p. 33). This book is the second about Peter Piper, the first being The Tule Marsh Murder.

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