Murder at the New York World’s Fair, as by “Freeman Dana” (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1938)
“Freeman Dana” is a one-time-only pseudonym of Phoebe Atwood Taylor, who is much better known for her series about “Codfish Sherlock” Asey Mayo, and her eight comedy mysteries about Leonidas Witherall as “Alice Tilton”. Wikipedia has little to say about her personally, and it seems as though not much is known, but it seems to be agreed that her family lost its money in the Depression and PAT (as she called herself) started writing for money.
Publication Data: Published, under the personal supervision of Bennett Cerf, by Random House in 1938. The edition I read for the purposes of this post is NOT the first edition shown above; I read the 1987 Foul Play Press trade paper edition with a brief foreword by Dilys Winn and an extensive afterword by Ellen Nehr, who contributed a wealth of knowledge that I’ve raided for this discussion. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, the entire internet was unable to offer a reproduction of its boring cover; I can testify that it is accented in the same blue and orange that mark the first edition, which I gather were the colours of the fair itself. Frankly, you should be glad you can’t see it; it is mostly grey on grey, and a representation of a train’s window with a three-quarters-pulled shade upon which is written the title of the book. The art consists entirely of textures (it’s dark beyond the window, it seems), the typography is indifferent, and the small representation of the fair’s logo accurately displays the perisphere (the round thing), misrepresents the shape of the trylon (the obelisk-like object) and seems to omit the helicline entirely (a kind of ramp). It’s like something went wrong with their cover art and they had to put together a cover in a morning.
To the best of my knowledge, there are only the two editions of this book. The first edition was published in an edition of 900 books and that was pretty much it until 1987, whereupon this book appears to have sunk from sight again.
Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read might discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery and will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.
Mrs. Daisy Tower is, pardon me for saying so, a tower of rectitude; she’s the 67-year-old widow of a former state governor and the protagonist of this novel. As we begin, she’s at the end of a nine-month stint recuperating from a broken hip and a bout of pneumonia as a house guest of her solicitously attentive nephew and niece, Egleston and Elfrida, and has reached the limits of her patience with frequent doses of beef tea, good advice, and their slatternly housemaid Fannie. Upon a rebellious whim, she borrows some money and clothes from the cook and escapes by hiding in a laundry truck, making her way to Boston and thence to visit the World’s Fair in New York. And thus begins a novel that is part murder mystery, part screwball comedy, and quite a bit of World’s Fair guidebook.
Mrs. Tower’s act of rebellion soon develops ramifications; she learns that Eggy and Elfrida have been managing her money and property to their own benefit and are so horrified at her disappearance that they’re having the local ponds dragged. Daisy soon accumulates a small cadre of people around her, all of whom wangle an invitation to travel to New York in the private train of millionaire art collector Conrad Cassell. It’s not only Daisy who has reason to stay out of sight; one of her new associates recently had a run-in with Cassell and has been followed ever since. Luckily he is not aboard the train, but the mysterious shadow soon ends up dead in the train car.
Everyone arrives at the World’s Fair and most of the rest of the book is spent with this small group running around trying to solve multiple segments of the mystery while staying out of the hands of the police. They disguise themselves as official tour guides (which coincidentally enables PAT to display having done a great deal of research about the buildings and layout of the Fair) and race around at breakneck speed, forming theories, testing them and discarding them — and in the meantime having run-ins with international dignitaries, Cassell and his staff, and everyone else who comes into their orbit. The first victim is identified, surprisingly, as Egleston Tower, and his demise is soon followed by that of Elfrida; Eggy needed money badly and the group must learn why both he and Elfrida were trying so hard to contact Cassell in person.
In the finale, the motley group of crime-solvers learns that there’s a plot to set off a large quantity of explosives in a Fair building during a ceremony; they defuse the explosives and the situation, bring the crime home to its perpetrator, and live happily ever after.
Dilys Winn, in the foreword, was graceless and uncomplimentary — honestly, it’s a wonder that any of the trade edition sold, since most people would put it back on the bookstore shelf immediately upon reading her comments. She says that she’s a PAT enthusiast and compares the experience of reading this book with finding that there’s a Rex Stout title she hasn’t read — only to find out that it’s a Tecumseh Fox story, to her dismay. In other words, Ms. Winn thinks this is the worst book by a good author, a sentiment which is echoed by Ellen Nehr in the afterword. We learn that Westinghouse intended to bury a time capsule in the courtyard of its pavilion at the Fair and Bennett Cerf, the publisher of Random House, decided that a novel specially written for this momentous event would be part of the time capsule. He selected PAT, who seemingly needed the $250 advance. She submitted a first draft and, as Nehr remarks:
“Mr. Cerf and a number of Random House staff members (one of whom had read and admired all the Asey Mayo novels) were unanimous in pointing to the manuscript’s essential weakness. In a letter, the publisher baldly states that the novel was singularly marked by an apparent lack of interest on the part of the author.”
Nehr also quotes from the actual note that accompanied the submission of the first draft, and I found it fascinating to learn about PAT’s creative process. I thought it was worth a large-sized quote which was of great interest to me:
“If you are wedded to the Little-did-we-guess-two-weeks-from-Candlemas-we-would-be-corpses School, you will loathe this. It isn’t an orthodox mystery; it couldn’t be. But it has corpses, a detective, suspects and an occasional clew. I don’t feel that I can accent too strongly two important points. The worst problem I faced was that of keeping the murder at the Fair. The minute the police arrived, there would be no Fair colour, because everyone would be whipped away. for that reason, the characters had to be manipulated into positions where they couldn’t go to the police, or be caught. That way, everyone stayed at the Fair, roamed at will and at random. The other problem was how to make people, who are wanted for and involved in a murder, actually go to a fair. There was one solution, and I hope you don’t think the chases are overworked. So, before you and your readers uncork the vitriol bottle, I hope you’ll bear these mechanical problems in mind. … And if you say the helicline with it (Trylon, perisphere, helicline, remember?) I said it first back in chapter three.”
Insightful indeed. I now have considerably more sympathy with ghost writers who are required to write around a character, situation, or … something or other … created by external forces that cannot be ignored when creating a tie-in novel. The deformations that had to go on in this book to keep its action at the Fair are substantial and strain the reader’s disbelief to the utmost.
Nevertheless, I think you will be surprised at just how readable this novel is. You will have already gathered that it’s not a great mystery, but it’s not an atrocious one either. In fact if you are a fan of PAT’s work as “Alice Tilton”, the eight novels which chronicle the high-speed and highly nonsensical activities of Leonidas Witherall, “The man who looked like Shakespeare”, you will find this novel at the very least worth a few hours of your time and you will occasionally chuckle aloud; I certainly did. For the PAT fan like Dilys Winn and myself there are occasional aha! moments where you recognize a character or phrase that recurs later in PAT’s oeuvre in a different context; for instance, the off-hand reference to Tootsy-Wheetsy breakfast cereal which recurs in a short story found in Three Plots for Asey Mayo (see my review here). Similarly, there are a few characters here whom the PAT aficionado will recognize, although not by name; the helpful young newspaperman, the officious clubwoman who cannot be deterred, the pompous member of multiple fraternal organizations, the grande dame soprano who actually has the common touch, etc. If you’ve read all of PAT’s novels, you’ve met most of these people before, and you’ve seen them collected into a group and moving at breakneck speed through a comedy mystery. In this novel, though, the highly competent housewife takes centre stage, and displays great insight into how people think without worrying too much about clues and evidence. “Isn’t it amazing! I thought that to solve a murder, you had to have material clues. Things like shreds of Harris tweed, and scraps of paper, and hairpins of a peculiar color and size. But think what we’ve pieced out, just from odds and ends!”
So it’s unlikely that you will be surprised by the ending, and it’s exceptionally unlikely that you’ll find it believable. As Bennett Cerf noted, it didn’t seem as though her heart was in this novel. But as to why it’s worth your time — it’s the most rare and hard-to-find novel of what I will call a first-rate second-rate mystery writer. PAT was no Agatha Christie, but she has earned her place in American mystery literature and a certain amount of honour for her skills and talents, and if you want to truly understand her, you have to read all of her work. If you approach it with an open mind and not allow yourself to be put off by Dilys Winn pre-judging the novel for you, you will find much to enjoy. And the occasional guffaw, like when I found out what was in the soprano’s suitcase.
There is one further piece of information provided by Ellen Nehr which will not likely be a surprise to PAT’s fans; PAT wrote fast. For instance, she began Banbury Bog on May 20, 1938 and finished it some twenty days later. From a letter from January 1938:
“I know there’s nothing now but for me to get down to the business of writing; only it seems — well there’s no point in disillusioning you, but my scripts usually reach people on time, via air express. They’ve never been known to reach anyone ahead of time, ever. It’s all on acc’t of my habit of not beginning a script until two weeks before it is due. Then the suspense, you see, is genuine. Taylor books have Pace. Eight years of fresh killed fiction has convinced me (have convinced, maybe) that you can’t murder slowly. But of course, as Norton always says, “I think beforehand, and That Is Something.” And I truly think I’ve got some things brewing for you.”
So it seems likely that, based on the correspondence and documents unearthed by Ellen Nehr, PAT was given a year to research this novel and wrote it in the final two weeks before the deadline. I don’t know if there are other authors who are so procrastinative, but it gives me hope for my own extremely poor writing habits to someday pay off. I work the same way — I think and think and think, and construct the document in my head, and then sit down and pound it out in an extremely short time moments before it’s due. I’ll never be the writer that PAT was, but at least we have one thing in common, and I feel good about that.
Notes for the Collector:
The first edition (Random House, 1938) is apparently the only hardcover edition; it was published in a single edition of 900 books. The New Jersey antiquarian bookseller who wants $1,200 for his VG copy in VG jacket calls it “an uncommon and desirable title” and I must agree. A few other copies I note are selling for between $180 and $550 and this to me seems to be a more reasonable range.
The only other edition of which I am aware is the trade paper edition I used to review this book, from Foul Play Press (Countryman Press) in 1987, which contains a brief foreword by Dilys Winn and an exhaustively knowledgeable 9-page afterword by that excellent reviewer Ellen Nehr, stuffed with interesting research and quotations from letters. In the introductory material, buried in copyright dates and ISBNs, is a note: “The publisher would like to thank Ellen Nehr for the energy and enthusiasm she has brought to this project.” I do too; it was great to have a copy of this to read. I remember buying this book as a gift for my sister when it came out, and paying what was then the rather large sum of CDN$12.95 (the price sticker still adheres to the back cover; the US price was $8.95). You can source a couple of copies on the Internet for between $7 and $15 more than 25 years later, which indicates that the book has held its value — I consider the two copies priced at $85, from different booksellers, to be an aberration.
It’s odd to think that PAT’s most valuable book is possibly her most poorly-written one, but that’s the way of book collecting. Crappy books don’t sell well and are not reprinted, and not picked up by paperback publishers, making them scarce and desirable. Compare the $1,200 copy to, say, the best available copy of this writer’s first novel, a VG copy in G jacket for $750 (and it’s a Haycraft/Queen cornerstone). Of course having a beautiful copy of the first edition would be lovely, and anyone reading this would be very welcome to send me one. ;-) But honestly, if you want to read this novel and appreciate it, the trade paper edition with the material by Ellen Nehr would be the best; if you can afford it, buy both and read the trade edition. It seems like any copy of this hard-to-get book will hold its value.
2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:
This 1938 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; second under “N”, “Read one book with a place in the title,” which in this instance is of course the New York World’s Fair. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.