The Deadly Sunshade, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1940)

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Popular Library #126

The Deadly Sunshade, Popular Library #126

The Deadly Sunshade (1940) is the sixteenth in a series of mystery novels about Asey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock” of Massachusetts, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (PAT). It has PAT’s characteristic breakneck bumper-cars plot structure — Asey begins by being surprised by a murder and everyone races around at top speed in all directions until he solves the case. But, since it’s 1940, there are interesting undercurrents of espionage and wartime hardships and social disruption.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others (specifically, N or M? by Agatha Christie). I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this novel about?

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, a Norton reprintAsey begins at home, dealing with his cousin Jennie Mayo and the wonderful Mrs. Pussy Belcher, known to everyone as Picklepuss because she runs Aunt Pussy’s Perfect Pickles. Picklepuss and Jennie have been inflamed by a radio personality (one Rounceval Jones) with a talk show and have joined the Woman’s League to Defend America at all Costs with Action; they are collecting guns and are urging women to become well-armed against the apparently imminent point when Cape Cod will be invaded from Europe.

Asey is against the idea of arming the women because the accident rate will outweigh the benefits. Well, okay, also because he’s sexist, but I think the events of the book justify it; immediately after he insists that the women obtain licenses for the guns and be far more careful with them, a bullet whizzes past his ear, fired from nearby sand dunes. (Later the local doctor reports his wife has also accidentally fired at him.) Then he gets a phone message from an epicentre of local issues, Mrs. Newell, who asks him to meet her at the Yacht Club because it’s a matter of life and death. Apparently it was — by the time he arrives, she’s lying dead on the beach under a bright umbrella, poisoned with atropine.

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Deadly Sunshade, Foul Play Press edition from the 1980s

As I noted, this starts everyone in the book running around in all directions at top speed. Asey forms a little group of apparently like-minded people around him, all who have an interest and most a motive, and he caroms around among them like a pinball. The reasoning behind all this activity is usually reasonable … okay, sometimes reasonable and sometimes just silly. But it keeps your mind occupied with diverting sub-plots like why is someone burying Mrs. Newell’s knitting bag in a sand dune, and is it true that the Commodore of the Yacht Club is raising money for the club under false pretences, and why did his son misdiagnose Mrs. Newell’s atropine poisoning as sunstroke. And of course, many of her ex-suitors and occasional providers of expensive jewelry are nearby at the Yacht Club.

Meanwhile Picklepuss and many other housewives are running around with guns ostensibly patrolling the beaches against the prospect of enemy submarines. After a number of chases and bizarre complications, Asey is taken hostage by a well-armed woman sharpshooter (who has been brought in to teach the women to shoot). In the process of lying on the floor under armed guard, staring at some quilt patterns, Asey has the crucial realization about Mrs. Newell’s knitted mittens pattern and realizes whodunit and why, just in time to forestall some terrible developments.

Why is this novel worth your time?

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Deadly Sunshade, 1st US edition (Norton, 1940). Note the sticker.

Phoebe Atwood Taylor is like well-aged single-malt Scotch. If you have a taste for her work, you make sure to put yourself in the way of as much of it as possible; if the taste makes you shudder, you should certainly find something else to read. PAT’s novels always take place at high speed and minimal coherence, and there is quite a bit of the narrative that is intended to make you chuckle. These are the screwball comedies of mystery. If you’re a devotee of, say, the dry-as-dust timetable mysteries of Freeman Wills Crofts, you may well be repelled by PAT’s entire oeuvre (especially by her eight books as by Alice Tilton, which are even more breakneck and hilarious).

But if you are amused by such things, as I am in the case of PAT, you will read all her books and notice a few things that seem to recur. The plot structures are all very similar, as previously noted. Asey forms a little group of people around him who aid him with solving the mystery or keeping its insane side-effects under control. I’ve noticed, though, that there are a few types that seem to recur in that little cadre.

Phoebe Atwood Taylor, The Deadly SunshadePrincipal among them is a “competent housewife”. There’s a sensible woman who is in the middle of a group of people who are not very sensible, and she’s attempting to maintain order and keep the house running in the midst of chaos. Then there’s usually some single-minded people who are trying to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. There’s a plucky young woman who has faced adversity and is unjustly suspected of murder; she usually helps Asey out first-hand, and/or a handsome young man who is in trouble but you know he has a good heart.

Also frequently, there is a nasty bitch who delights in stealing other women’s husbands and whatever money isn’t nailed down; her male equivalent is a cranky middle-aged man who controls other people’s money and is unjustly denying it to them, or making it impossible for them to get it. Another repeating type is a family of people who are somehow off-kilter … a middle-aged couple who are eccentric and have eccentric children.

And nearly always, the local colour characters. There’s a network of people in Quanomet and Skaket who don’t interact with “people from away” but have all been intermarrying for hundreds of years, and they are all somehow related. So Jennie Mayo can always tap into a community resource and locate someone’s quaint relative who can come up with just the right element to resolve a plot twist.

I’m not saying all these stock characters are in each and every book (and certainly not in this particular volume); some, like PAT’s “world-weary soprano” character (yes, really) appear only a few times, but enough that you recognize them as repeating from other stories, with different names. But one reason to read your way through all 24 volumes of Asey Mayo stories (and the eight Alice Tilton books about Leonidas Witherall, “the man who looked like Shakespeare”) is for the pleasure of recognizing these recurring characters and seeing just how PAT has turned them into new faces for this new story. It’s kind of like commedia dell’arte. There are even repetitive elements of the plot that are in the nature of lazzi; someone always drives too fast on the back roads of Quanomet without lights, Asey always chases the murderer on foot and trips, and someone attempts to dispose of an incriminating or inconvenient object by burying it in a sand dune or throwing it in a pond, under the hidden scrutiny of a puzzled Asey.

So if you read the whole 32 volumes, you’ll understand what I mean. No single volume is absolutely representative but, taken together, they all form a picture of PAT’s stable of stock characters — and her obvious pleasure in writing about them.

I think this volume is also worth your time because it’s one of a few stories where a mystery writer takes an essentially light-hearted series character and involves them directly with World War 2.  I did say that I was going to give away a little bit about Agatha Christie’s N or M? and that’s about all I’ll say; Tommy and Tuppence interact with an espionage-based plot that involves Fifth Columnists and spies. It’s the same here, Asey Meets The Fifth Column, although you could be excused for overlooking it; honestly, the spy subplot doesn’t become apparent or functional until the final pages of the denouement because PAT has concealed it so well. There’s a function to some of the war-news radio broadcasts that may escape the unwary reader.

md22521949944But if you read only the wartime PAT efforts, as I have done recently, another pattern starts to emerge. It seems as though PAT saw herself as a kind of unofficial propagandist on behalf of the war effort. In this volume, from 1940, it’s only about the possibilities of espionage and a possible enemy naval presence off the seacoast. Yes, she uses it as a plot element to poke a little fun at listeners who got inflamed by a radio talk show to form the Woman’s League to Defend America at all Costs with Action. But there’s something underneath the fun-poking that seems a little more serious. Two old duffers in the Yacht Club are a background ostinato of “Sea power! No, air power!” Everyone listens to the war news on the radio. By the time PAT reaches 1942 and The Six Iron Spiders, as I talked about the other day, one character is informing Asey sanctimoniously that rubber is a sacred trust for the nation and it’s everyone’s duty not to waste it by racing around at high speed. First aid classes and spotter duty are irksome and chafing, but everyone is always ready to pitch in and do them. And Jennie Mayo becomes a human dynamo who apparently means to single-handedly win the war.

This book contains a glancing reference in its initial pages that could stand for a lot of offhand phrases and brief observations in this and other books.  It’s just thrown away, but it’s meant to be telling — the speaker is not pleased with Asey and he’s in the room.

“‘The Yacht Club?’ Mrs. Belcher sniffed as she sat down in the rocker. ‘I should think that Asey might find more to do for his country these days than wear white flannels and go to Yacht Clubs!'”

PAT never forgets that the country is at war and neither do her characters.

One thing that I found particularly interesting was the way in which the narrative acknowledges the influence of radio commentators like Rounceval Jones. Jones’s voice is not heard directly in the book, so this is a very minor point, but it did make me chuckle to think that people like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones had WW2 counterparts, agitating for not only the right to bear arms but the duty to do so.

To sum up — there’s the usual PAT high-speed mystery plot and her standard cast of characters, a great deal of good humour, and overtop it all is a medium-heavy dose of We Must Win The War. If this is the delightful taste of single-malt Scotch to you as it is to me, settle into a large armchair to find out what the hell it is about that knitting pattern that gets Asey to the solution.

A note on editions

The Deadly Sunshade, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Deadly Sunshade, First UK edition, Collins Crime Club

Phoebe Atwood Taylor was not well served for many years by the paperback market. There was a single uniform edition by the great people at Foul Play Press in the 1980s where they did her entire oeuvre, in a simple and distinct artistic style; this is the edition you’ll have seen everywhere. Countryman Press did most of them about a decade ago but I’m unable to find evidence that this specific title was among their reprints. But before the 1980s you were pretty much restricted to ugly inexpensive hardcover reprints from Norton and Triangle.

This title, though, was one of a few of PAT’s that received the full “Good Girl Art” treatment as part of the early Popular Library line; #126, from 1947, has the corpse in a two-piece swimsuit as the principal design element. A crisp copy of this will hold its value and might set you back US$20.

The first edition has an interesting sticker on it that pinpoints its publication date as December 1940, and that it is BRAND NEW and Not previously published anywhere. But I think the first UK, from Collins Crime Club, puts a delightful British take on the cover art; I’d be looking for this very pretty book in jacket if I didn’t already have a full set of reading copies.

 

 

Murder at the New York World’s Fair, as by “Freeman Dana” (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1938)

Murder at the New York World’s Fair, as by “Freeman Dana” (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1938)

freemanAuthor:

“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.

1939fairheliclineAbout this book:

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.

389px-US_853Why is this book worth your time?

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!”

1000x1000So 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.

vintage-golden-card-001

What is a cozy mystery?

Keep-Calm-and-Read-a-Cozy-MysteryRecently I had the pleasure of reading an entry in a great blog by Curtis Evans, an excellent writer who is also, like me, interested in the general area of the Golden Age Mystery. I strongly recommend his books to your attention; I’ve learned a lot from Mr. Evans and he always makes me think!

His recent post was on the topic of the “cozy mystery”, and contained an interesting video clip featuring Jim Parsons and Craig Ferguson talking about what, to them, constitutes a cozy. Curtis’s post and its attendant comments section have piqued my interest enough to provide me with material for a post of my own on “what is a cozy?”, and I have to acknowledge my debt to his work. I’ve actually mentioned cozies in my own reviews lately, suggesting that Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo mysteries are “proto-cozies”, as is Craig Rice’s “Home Sweet Homicide”. (“Proto-cozies” meaning books that came before the invention of the term “cozy” but which seem to fall within the boundaries of that term.) But when push came to shove, I couldn’t come up with a definition of the cozy with which I agreed unreservedly — save perhaps “I know it when I see it.” This hearkens back to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, in which he commented on pornography:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

Nevertheless, definitions can be useful tools for deciding whether one is dealing with good art or bad art. For instance, it is not legitimate to criticize hard-core pornography for being sexually arousing, since that is what it sets out to do for an audience which wants it to do that. It is certainly possible to criticize it for being bad art since, to quote another court case, pornography “appeals to the prurient interest” and lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific values”. I believe there are many similarities between pornography and cozy mysteries, strangely enough, although they seem superficially to be polar opposites.  If pornography is the display of sex without love, one might say that cozy mysteries display murder without emotional investment … one might suggest that cozies are a pornography of mystery.  I don’t think this is a particularly useful definition of the cozy, just one that appeals to me. I speak of cooking shows as being “food porn” and soap opera as “relationship porn”, so you can take it within that broad context. Most often, I merely know a cozy when I see one and have not given my understanding of the term much thought.

in the process of understanding a literary term, it’s best to find a common definition and examine it critically to see where one agrees or disagrees. I found a definition on the internet that seemed like a good place to start.

“Cozy mysteries are light mysteries, usually without strong language or graphic violence. The main character is an amateur sleuth who lives in a small town with other people you could envision having as neighbours or friends.”

Well, I can agree with this up to the word “sleuth”, in a broad-strokes way. Although the small town form is common, it is not universal; I’m sure there are urban cozies. I think what this definition is trying to get at is that the action of the book takes place in a small, closed community, but I’ll suggest this closure is more about social aspects than mere geography. For instance, a murder that takes place involving all the highly expert knitters in a large city would qualify; an expert knowledge of knitting would be the defining factor. This definition will do for a start, but there’s certainly more to investigate.

The Wikipedia entry for “Cozy mystery” is mostly useless since, unusually for Wikipedia, it relies on idiosyncratic and unprofessional writing in a single blog for most of its definitions.  (cozy-mystery.com is principally marked by enthusiasm for the sub-genre, not any kind of critical analytical skills.) It does, however, point us to a New York Times article, “Murder Least Foul”, by the intelligent if occasionally misguided Marilyn Stasio; here, she raises a number of fascinating ideas.  First she outlines some loose boundaries for the genre (I have paraphrased):

  • No gore. Violence is kept to a minimum and described discreetly.
  • Amateur status is preferred in a sleuth, who is often a woman with an interesting occupation.
  • The crime takes place close to home, or within a confined community in which the victim, suspects, and sleuth are all known to one another.
  • The settings are never sleazy; the atmosphere is designed to give pleasure and comfort.
  • The characters are driven by personal motives.
  • The hero does not get beaten up during the investigation, although romantic entanglements are permissible. Cozy sleuths have a clear mandate to get involved in complicated personal relationships, but authors are even more discreet about sex than they are about violence.

cozyAnd she then competently disposes of the “article of faith” that the cozy is an updated version of the traditional British detective story. Stasio accurately (at least as far as I’m concerned) pinpoints that Golden Age mysteries are about plots and “In the contemporary cozy … deduction takes second place. … By oversimplifying the plot through the elimination of its trickier puzzle elements, cozy authors have also reduced the complexity of the crime-solving process and diminished the detective’s intellectual role in that cognitive process.” I believe this hearkens back to a classic observation by the eminent critic Mrs. Q. E. Leavis, to the effect that the writing of Dorothy L. Sayers presented the appearance of intellectual activity to readers who would very much dislike that activity were they forced to actually undergo it. One might call this “thought porn”, to continue my earlier theme. My experience of modern cozies is that they rarely allow the reader the opportunity to think about the plot and characters in an analytical way; instead, they summarize that thought as having occurred in the mind of the detective and the reader thinks, “Oh, yes, that’s exactly the way I would have worked it out if I had bothered to think about it.” Except it isn’t, because these readers rarely would have bothered to think about it or would have been capable of the logical process had they so bothered.

What Stasio appears to be saying, in my terms, is that cozies de-emphasize the plots and punch up characterization — usually, the personal life, business life, and romantic entanglements of the protagonist — and “story-telling”, by which cozy aficionados apparently mean the purveyance about huge gouts of information about largely irrelevant topics. I agree that very little detection is actually left in the cozy mystery. The detective has an intuition, or the criminal blurts something out that only the guilty party could know, or her cat keeps miaowing whenever it passes the door to the root cellar. And John Dickson Carr spins in his grave again and again.

Modern cozies are usually “about” something. I have in the past distinguished the sub-genre of the “information mystery“, whereupon an author who knows (or has researched) a great deal about, say, glassblowing creates a book where the detective and victim and all the suspects are immersed in the milieu of glassblowing, and only a glassblowing expert will be able to solve the mystery. Superficially, many — perhaps most — cozies are information mysteries, or purport to be information mysteries. The classic such cozy is Carolyn Hart’s creation of her “Death on Demand” series, where the protagonist is the proprietor of a murder mystery bookstore.  (Since I used to do precisely that work, I have to say that Ms. Hart’s version is highly romanticized and relatively uninformed, but what the heck, it’s making her much more money for romanticizing the work than it used to make me for actually doing it and I wish her well with it.) These days, though, cozies appear to be about … well, women’s things. Handicrafts, needlework, cooking, clothing design, interior decoration, household economy, and the supervision of preternaturally intelligent dogs, preternaturally intelligent cats, and pesky children. The problem has become, for me, that the provision of information per se has largely turned to the provision either of elementary tutorials or unsubstantiated opinion. You either get something like basic knitting 101 (accompanied by a smattering of language from the higher levels to give you the idea that there is more to learn and the author knows all about it) or you get the author’s opinion on how best to run a bed-and-breakfast, nursery, or small-town newspaper (with the same smattering of higher-level language). In the same sense that cozies assume the form but not the function of the puzzle mystery, the information cozy assumes the form but not the function of the information mystery.

cozy-fireplace-lSo if it doesn’t have plot, and it doesn’t have information, what does the modern cozy have? It’s only rarely appropriate to make a sweeping generalization about an artistic topic, but I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that the modern cozy’s readers would suggest that “it’s the people. You know, you really get to care about [fill in name of spunky lovable heroine] and her chubby best friend and her Weimaraners, Agatha and Dashiell.” This is what the reader seems to think — at least, that’s what I used to hear again and again when I stood behind the counter at an equivalent to “Death on Demand”.

And in this respect I think there are two things going on here. I think there is a considerable dash of wish fulfilment going on. The typical middle-aged female reader wants to believe that, were it not for the accidents of birth, finances, geography and genetic inheritance, she would be perfectly capable of running a cunningly-decorated yarn store in a quaint rural village, trying to decide romantically between the police chief and the editor of the local newspaper while she solved volume after volume of mysteries that had some implausible relationship to yarn. And, I have to say immediately, there is nothing wrong with reading as a form of wish fulfilment. Any reader who is presently guffawing at the implied insult to middle-aged women should remember that very few middle-aged male aficionados of the private-eye novel are capable of beating someone up, or even walking around the block quickly. And mystery writers have to put food on the table the same as the rest of us. If they have found a fertile vein of ways to separate middle-aged women from $7.99 two or three times a month, who can gainsay them? (Hardcover cozies are 99% for the library market, I think.) So the reader gets to fantasize about what it’s like to run a small business without having the skill or ability or backing to actually do so. She gets to be vicariously sassy and flirty and well-spoken, perfectly dressed and coiffed, to have handsome romantic suitors, obedient intelligent and well-adjusted children, and telepathic and helpful pets. And apparently she enjoys this exercise so much that she repeats it obsessively. Cozy mysteries make up a huge volume of the approximately 11% of the new-book market labeled “Mystery” in publishers’ catalogues — perhaps as much as 50%. That’s because, as my experience tells me, middle-aged women who buy cozy mysteries buy a LOT of them.

Before I get into my second reason, let me segue for a moment. I think I have an original observation with respect to the purchasing of mysteries that is known to publishers but not articulated by readers. If you look at the cover of, say, the latest Carolyn Hart mystery, it always says clearly that this is “A Death on Demand Mystery”. Inside the volume, you will find a chronological listing of all the ‘Death on Demand” novels in the series. You will find many readers of these volumes suggest that they prefer novels in series because of the chance to get to know the characters over time, watch how they grow and change, etc. What I have never seen mentioned is the possibility that this preference is a kind of small-scale symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many, many times I have observed middle-aged book-buying customers who insist that they simply must acquire every single volume in their favourite series, seemingly for the sake of “completing the set”. I have occasionally heard them suggest that they really don’t even LIKE the particular series any more, it’s just that they’re in the habit of buying and reading the latest such-and-such, so they keep hoping they’ll get more interesting … Other publishers directly label the volumes “#6 in the blah-blah series”, or helpfully provide tick-boxes beside each volume in the interior list so that you can be sure you have all 6, or 11, or 28 volumes of the saga. I’ve known men to be like this too. I myself have a strong aspect of not wanting to rest until I’ve tracked down every, say, Perry Mason novel. But with women customers and cozies I recall it as more frequently and more distinctly OCD-like. I can’t prove it, but it’s interesting to think about.

The second thing that the modern cozy has, in a way that delineates the boundaries of the genre, is more difficult to pin down, but I may have identified an underlying factor. Commentators cited above have identified factors like the lack of on-stage violence and the “pleasure and comfort” to be obtained from the physical surroundings. Superficially these might be considered as facets of the wish-fulfillment fantasy aspect I noted above, but I think there’s a little bit more to it than that. Certainly these aspects are ways in which the reader wishes the world would revolve around her, or arrange itself for her pleasure. But I think there’s even something deeper going on.

Years ago, I read a 1975 science-fiction novel by John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider. In it, he casually tosses off in a sentence the idea that a character’s job is superficially to run an educational service, but the underlying sales concept is that the educational materials are meant to reassure middle-aged and elderly people that the world has the same values it did when they were young adults. That idea stuck with me and I think it has a broad range of validity — certainly it explains the existence of TimeNewsweek and Fox News to me.

I think this idea also explains part of the appeal of cozy mysteries; that they are meant to communicate to readers that the moral landscape is still the same as it was when they were younger. Graphic visual representations of violence on the evening news? Not in cozies. Widespread sexual diversity and rejection of traditional family structures? Not in cozies. Women’s achievements devalued, the role of domestic household manager mocked? Not in cozies. Women in traditional roles and family structures unable to predict, manage, or control events in the world around them that have strongly bad effects on themselves and their families? Not in cozies. Everything in cozies is the same way it’s always been; everything is manageable and all mysteries and problems are solved in 192 easy-to-read pages.

In cozies, the female protagonists have an implicit understanding of the rules of their world that is shared by all the “good” characters but not the bad. Most of these implicit understandings have to do with the value of women in society; specifically, the value of unmarried women with careers, the value of women as breadwinners and sole family support, and the value of women as the axis of their (traditional nuclear) families. It’s not an accident that the adventures of Kinsey Millhone are set 15 or 20 years before their publication date. And one common theme in the fairly large sub-genre of Victorian/Edwardian era cozies is a ridiculous grafting of modern feminist principles into antique contexts. “This is the thinking and courage that I would display if I were a Victorian upper-class lady,” we are meant to think, “I would FIGHT to be taken seriously by men and have a profession and treat the servants as equals,” when actually that behaviour would have had the woman in question packed off to a lunatic asylum. But it makes a good wish-fulfillment fantasy.

Marilyn Stasio suggests that (a couple of specific cozy authors) “deserve credit for opening up the domestic mystery to major social issues like child abuse, rape, and mental illness.” Those authors certainly did that, but I think Stasio here has hold of the wrong end of the stick. The authors in question used those themes, certainly, just like “straight novelists” and even earlier mystery writers did before them. It’s not unusual in the slightest to use powerful crimes as the basis of murder mysteries. Murder is a serious business. But it seems to me that cozy writers used those situations in order to tell their audience the way in which to think and, more importantly, feel about these issues — passing on the extension of traditional values to a new generation without making it seem unusual or exotic. We should feel violently angry with people who abuse children, we should feel like taking revenge upon rapists, and we should feel sorry for the victims of mental illness. White middle-class women should feel that middle-class people of colour are their complete equals. Women should feel equal to men, they should feel like competent guides of their children and feel as though they are on a level playing field in business with men. And the way in which these feelings are engendered in the reader is as sub-text. The housewife-detective who runs a yarn store has a best friend, store helper and neighbour who is Korean-American. We’re not told that the protagonist feels her to be equal, that attitude simply permeates their interaction. No one has to explain that it is crucially, vitally important to identify who in the neighbourhood murdered a neighbour — because every reader knows that anything that is potentially dangerous to the family is an absolute priority to eliminate. In the modern cozy, we don’t identify mentally ill people so that we can put them in an asylum, we get them into treatment and courses of pharmaceuticals.

I’ve remarked elsewhere that I dislike the modern cozy because it treats murder as something that happens off-stage, non-violently, and without upsetting the reader. The “light mystery”, as Stasio puts it, to me is repellent because it’s communicating that although the fact that a murder has been committed is felt to be bad and necessary to “solve”, one doesn’t need to ground one’s outrage in the mere fact that someone has been violently killed. It’s sort of understood that murders are regrettable but it’s kind of fun to investigate them. I draw the line between the “light mystery” and the “comedy mystery” — I don’t get worked up about the victims in, say, Craig Rice or Alice Tilton novels, because it’s clear that all that’s intended is humour. But I really want there to be more moral outrage expressed that someone in a modern cozy has stabbed a local gossipeuse, however repellent and morally unsound she may have been. This to me is a major flaw of the modern cozy. The sub-text is saying that it’s okay not to have to look at the dead body of a crime victim, probably because you would find it upsetting and nauseating. But I’m saying that you have to look at the body because it is precisely that act that will fill you with the moral outrage necessary to want to take an active hand in solving the crime. 99% of the time in the modern cozy, the victims are evil, wicked, morally unsound and frequently criminal. And 99% of the time in the real world, those people are punished, if at all, by the legal system. I believe we have to hate the fact that someone takes that law into their own hands, and so I think the cozy is contributing to a world in which the taking of the law into one’s own hands is overlooked or even condoned.

It would be fair to comment here that I seem to be defining the cozy mystery in terms to suit myself because it’s pretty clear that I don’t really like cozy mysteries. It’s a common practice to set up a straw-man definition and then find reasons why the thing you’ve defined is a bad thing. I admit there’s a certain part of that which must ring true, because it’s clear that I don’t really like cozy mysteries. I’ll be fair and say that they are not written for me, or even remotely like anything that I am accustomed to read for pleasure. I like lots of plot and little characterization; these are the opposite. But I think it’s also fair to say that cozy mysteries have something that underlies them that, if carried to its logical conclusion, is bad for society. It is bad for us to think that violence must take place off-stage so that we won’t be offended or revolted by it; if violence happens in front of us, we will do more to stop it. It is bad for us to absorb our moral values from the sub-text of commercial fiction without any context that makes it clear that we are doing so. It is bad for us to think that we are thinking when what is actually happening is that we are feeling.

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And quite personally, I think it is bad for society to take the useful and diverting process that is the puzzle mystery — something which trains people to think logically, solve puzzles, look beneath the surface, deduce, and punish crime even at great cost — and suck the life out of it, leaving nothing but meretricious emotional displays, an ability to pretend that reality is much more pretty than it actually is, and a complete lack of thought. So I will not accept, as Stasio also refuses to accept, that the modern cozy is the updated version of the traditional Golden Age mystery. Instead, I am more confirmed in my now-examined belief that the modern cozy is “mystery porn”.

Postscript: It used to be in the 1990s that you could unerringly spot a paperback cozy on the stands because its cover art was some sort of domestic scene that had a skull worked into the picture in some cunning way, as a trompe l’oeil piece of some sort or simply plunked in the corner. If it weren’t for the fact that tastes in artwork have changed, we could have simply pointed to “books with skulls on the cover” and I wouldn’t have had to produce 3,800 words on what is a cozy.  Drat.

Dead Ernest, as by Alice Tilton (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1944)

Dead Ernest, as by Alice Tilton (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1944)

$_3Author:

Phoebe Atwood Taylor, writing as Alice Tilton. The Alice Tilton pseudonym was reserved for the eight novels featuring amateur detective Leonidas Witherall, “The Man who looked like Shakespeare”; this is the seventh.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1944 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fourth under “L”, “Read one book with a man in the title.” The titular Ernest is the victim in this novel. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Publication Data:

The first edition is US, Norton in 1944.  First UK edition is Collins, 1945. Many editions exist; the paperback I used is depicted at the top of this post and is from Foul Play Press, 1992.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. 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. 

Leonidas Witherall is known to one and all in his small New England community as “the man who looks like Shakespeare”. He’s also well-known in civic circles, he’s the owner and headmaster of a prominent boys’ school — and, a fact known to few, he’s also the writer of radio’s Lieutenant Haseltine series. “Haseltine to the res-cue!”  (Indeed, the exploits and habits of Haseltine and the beautiful Lady Alicia are a constant theme in Witherall’s adventures. We never exactly understand any of Haseltine’s story lines, but they sound hokey, simplistic, and repetitive.) As the story begins, Witherall is in his study desperately trying to complete the latest Haseltine adventure and being pestered by his housekeeper, Mrs. Mullet, a sturdy middle-aged woman who is constantly expressing her “candied” opinion. She’s trying to tell him a number of important things that later he wishes fervently he’d understood, but he brushes her off and she leaves.

Almost immediately, two drunken deliverymen insist that Leonidas is to receive the delivery of a deep freeze (a household freezer), which they unload into his kitchen. Nearly simultaneously, a gorgeous violet-eyed blonde (named Terpsichore, but known to one and all as Terry) in an evening gown rings Leonidas’s front doorbell and insists that he is the person for whom she has been paid to sing “Happy Birthday” — which she promptly does. Leonidas then discovers that the deep freeze contains the corpse of Mr. Ernest Finger, whom he has just hired as the latest French language instructor at his boys’ school and who is related to his neighbours, the Finger family.

It’s hard to describe exactly what happens for the remainder of the novel; a bald recital of the facts of the movements of the characters would have my readers tugging at my sleeve and saying, “Um, WHY exactly would they all want to attend a policeman’s supper during such urgent and dangerous circumstances? Why exactly do the neighbours keep popping into the kitchen on errands? What combination of circumstances exactly left Mrs. Mullet tied up in Leonidas’s basement and only able to identify her assailant by the stitch that produced his hand-knit socks?” It’s pretty clear that it’s the murderer who is trying to get Leonidas in trouble and accused of the Finger murder, but what does moving the corpse around erratically have to do with it? (Accompanied by many, many jokes about the Finger family name; comments about “the moving Finger” and “I’ve had those Fingers in my hair all day” abound.)

Honestly, if I told you what happened, you wouldn’t be interested in reading the novel because you would, probably rightly, think that it was ridiculous and never bother to pick it up.  It IS ridiculous. Nearly everything that happens is ridiculous, zany, and improbable in the extreme. Essentially what happens is that Leonidas puts together a small crew of associates and they all race around like crazy people, reacting spontaneously to things that happen in the vicinity while they try to solve the murder of Mr. Finger and keep Leonidas from being arrested for it — or anyone else in the crew, many of whom have reason to have done violence to Ernest. Indeed, in all the books, this is the pattern; Leonidas assembles a crew that usually contains a beautiful young woman, a handsome young man, a ditzy but highly competent housewife, a child with no conscience, and a couple of salty-tongued members of the lower classes. This particular novel features lower-class Mrs. Mullet prominently, who here is constantly acting out the actions of the beautiful Lady Alicia as she attempts to aid the gallant lieutenant, and her daughter Gerty, who wishes to be known as Sonia. (Well, wouldn’t you?)

Finally, everyone takes a leaf from Haseltine’s adventures as Leonidas invokes the constant factor in the Haseltine stories; the principle of Cannae. “Cannae,” chant all the good guys simultaneously since they are all Haseltine devotees, “is the historic battle between the Romans and the Carthaginians, fought in Apulia in the year 216 B.C., in which the small, weak army of Hannibal cut the incomparable forces of eighty-five thousand proud Roman legionnaires to pieces.” (The action stops for a moment while they discuss whether the word is “pieces” or “shreds”. They continue …) “By means of an ingenious strategical concentration, it caught the enemy from the flank with calvary and surrounded him. Clausewitz and Schlieffen of the Prussian General Staff elaborated the idea of Cannae into a general theoretical doctrine, and then compressed the doctrine into an exact strategical system: Blitzkrieg.”  This exact speech recurs in every single Witherall novel and signals that Leonidas is about to solve the mystery, ensure the arrest of the criminal, and cause everything to end happily. Which he does and they do. “Bathed in the refulgent glow of the setting sun, Haseltine clasped the Lady Alicia to his manly bosom.” And Leonidas and Mrs. Mullet exchange a set of little jokes about what to call the next Haseltine adventure, which will be based on recent events — not “The Moving Finger” or “Deep Freeze”, but “Dead Ernest”.

6263Why is this book worth your time?

“Screwball comedy” in film pretty much began in 1934 with It Happened One Night, according to Wikipedia, but that reference also suggests that the style ended by 1942. It also says screwball comedies  “… often involve mistaken identities or other circumstances in which a character or characters try to keep some important fact a secret.” That sounds like a murder mystery to me. I’ll tentatively suggest that mystery writers who were looking around for new twists on the traditional mystery noted the success of the screwball comedy in film and decided that it would go well as the foundation of a murder mystery plot. And thus began the transmigration of the filmic screwball comedy into the novelistic comedy mystery.

I can’t say that I understand the entire history of the particular sub-genre of the “comedy mystery”. I’m not certain I know of all early examples; I’m aware of a couple of instances, including works by Marco Page (a pseudonym of Harry Kurnitz) like Fast Company that were filmed at about the same time as this book was published. But historians and analysts seem to be interested in very little in the way of comedy mystery before the work of Craig Rice, whose first novel, Eight Faces at Three (1939), began the genre, it seems. Except that if that’s the case, then Phoebe Atwood Taylor beat her to it; Taylor’s first novel as by Alice Tilton, Beginning With a Bash, was published in 1937 and the third in the series in 1939.

It’s hard to tell the impact of a particular writer at such a great distance. We know that Craig Rice was the first mystery writer to appear on the cover of Time (January 28, 1946), and a number of her works were filmed (including Having Wonderful Crime in 1945, the film for which certainly qualifies as some kind of comedy, screwball or otherwise). Phoebe Atwood Taylor doesn’t appear to have been the subject of any media interest that I can locate, and her cross-platform success was limited to a single year (1944-1945) of a radio program, The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall, starring well-known actor Walter Hampden. So I’m guessing that Craig Rice was much more impactful than Phoebe Atwood Taylor. I cannot imagine why no one tried to film any of Taylor’s Witherall adventures when lesser writers’ attempts at screwball comedy were being filmed right and left; it just didn’t happen, and now the moment has passed.

This book, and indeed the whole Leonidas Witherall series, are beautifully crafted examples of screwball comedies in novel form. They are not especially interesting as mysteries if that is your only purpose in reading. The plots are so convoluted and baroque, and move at such a careening clip, that it is impossible to suggest that you will solve the mystery in the usual sense. Usually there is one character who stands out as the only potential suspect; either that, or you take a brief moment to wonder who might have done the murder and think, “Oh, THAT person, I guess.” It’s not usually possible, in a strict and formal sense, to “solve” an Alice Tilton mystery. That requires certain kinds of facts that are not really available to the reader.

For instance, in this case, we do not “see” the actions of the murderer in the sense that we would be able to go back and trace that person’s actions throughout the day, to know where they were when and with whom as witness. Instead, and I don’t think I’m going to spoil your enjoyment of this novel by saying so before you read it, the murderer here is someone who had a reason to put Ernest Finger’s body in a deep freeze and have it delivered to Leonidas Witherall’s kitchen. That action sparks the actions of the plot, but there really is only one person who had a (barely) sane and sensible reason to do such a thing. You can imagine that that limited the list of potential murderers to a single name, which it does here. That will have to be sufficient for those of us who like to have a try at actually solving a mystery; the others will have little about which to complain. There is so much going on here, and so much of it is actually hilarious, that you won’t mind a bit that the mystery ingredient is a bit skimpy.

I’ve enjoyed this whole series and read them all a number of years ago, and they stand up well to re-reading; not all books by the writers about whom I was enthusiastic in my youth have done so. This book is funny in a way that is hard to describe; to me, the closest analogy is the work of P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse is the creator of Bertie Wooster, the quintessential “Silly Ass” in the tradition of Philo Vance, Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion. I’ve read a quotation from Wodehouse to the effect that he was being blamed for writing about the same characters, just giving them new names in each book; Wodehouse announced he was confounding his critics next time by keeping the same names. And this process is very much what happens in these eight books. They are a series of linked character trophes, like Benny Hill or the Carry On movies. There’s a smart and practical housewife whose presentation is that of a ditz. There’s a beautiful girl who is in trouble through no fault of her own. There’s a handsome young man of good family and education who is misunderstood but anxious to help solve the mystery.  And there are a couple of plucky and stupid members of the lower classes, pronouncedly comedic characters, along to do the heavy lifting and offer silly suggestions about alternatives. The author has a limited deck of characters whom she shuffles and recombines; some overlap and recur in the author’s Asey Mayo mysteries under her own name. An ineffectual middle-aged upper-class male who turns out to have a backbone. A young woman who learned competence by serving in the Armed Forces during WWII. A self-sufficient man of great age, a spoiled young wealthy woman, a preternaturally intelligent child — there are more (not all these trophes are represented in this book, I have to add).

Dead Ernest might be thought of as a kind of proto-cozy (oddly enough, this came out the same year as another possible proto-cozy, Craig Rice’s brilliant Home Sweet Homicide). It has some of the same qualities I associate with the modern cozy: violence is offstage and not indicated in any graphic way, there are strong implicit and sometimes explicit moral values, and the narrator is fallible. And that it is meant to be purchased by a female reader. To my mind, the difference is that the modern cozy lost most of the humour of a classic comedy mystery and replaced it with a kind of communication of “gentle” social values. Perhaps the premise that these two genres are related is fallacious; possibly I’ve omitted important intermediate steps. Maybe it’s just that the modern cozy is so cold-bloodedly commercial that any such relationship is possible, because commercial writing will use any cultural tradition it can to sell another book. Usually this involves the merger of the form of the “light comedy mystery” with the purveyance of a great deal of detailed information about, say, knitting; experts in knitting are easier to find than someone who can actually write comedy, so the focus changed as the cozy became more commercial, produced on assembly-line lines. I think it’s likely Taylor was writing for a female audience, but I also know many men enjoy her books (there are only a few men who can survive a regular diet of cozies). So, I’ll leave this to my readers’ speculation; I have no conclusive answers. I don’t know of any attempt that’s been made to trace this kind of literary relationship, but since there are so many doctoral students who have been forced to look at genre fiction because all the interesting work on Jane Austen has been done, perhaps we can expect such a thesis at some near future point. “Origins of the Cozy Mystery: from Craig Rice to Phoebe Atwood Taylor to Ailsa Craig to Marcia Muller, Joan Hess and beyond.” We can but hope.

Ultimately,  I think this book deserves your time because, like its seven fellows in the series, it is literate and intelligent, well-written, and fast-moving. Taylor’s work presents a detailed portrait of a certain period in American history, focused on the domestic economy of Cape Cod in the period during and immediately after WWII. She is a clever and economical constructor of characters; I suggest that the fact that she reused a group of stock characters is evidence that she understood the inherent comedy situations in class conflict (again, this echoes British bawdy humour based on repetitive trophes) and this kind of writing came naturally to her. And she is a wildly inventive and truly eccentric plotter who has the skill in writing necessary to keep her plots moving at breakneck speed without losing the reader. Best of all, you can re-read them two or three times in your lifetime at long-separated intervals and still enjoy them in the same way, for that timeless quality of inspired silliness that brings out the child in us all.

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Notes for the Collector:

The first edition (Norton, 1944) is available today from an American bookseller, Fine in a VG to NF jacket, for $65.  A slightly less crisp copy is $40 from a Canadian bookseller. The UK first is Collins, 1945. A number of editions exist; Norton reissued the Alice Tilton novels in hardcover in the 1970s or thereabouts, Foul Play Press did a uniform paper edition including the copy I have re-read (seen at the top of this post) in 1992, and Popular Library did a 1970s edition with a wacky and reasonably irrelevant cover illustration, which I have shown to the left.

Here, I think the first edition is the most collectible; the cover illustration is charming, a drawing of the two drunken deliverymen who make up part of the wacky crew inhabiting this novel. (Why those two, I have no idea; they’re nowhere near being the most important characters in the book.) There is not much of a market for Alice Tilton these days; she seems to go in and out of favour. Considering the nonsense that got made into movies at about the time of publication, I am at a loss to understand why any of these books were never filmed; perhaps because of the one-year tenure of The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall on Mutual in 1944/1945.

By way of contrast, Home Sweet Homicide mentioned above, that came out in the same year, by Craig Rice, NF in NF jacket, is $1,250 plus shipping. I have to say there is a chance the specific value would be affected by having been named a Haycraft-Queen “cornerstone”, and filmed to boot, but this is still  quite a difference from $65 for an Alice Tilton novel. I’m still not sure why the public loved Rice and was indifferent to Taylor, but this will give you a good idea of their value to posterity.

The handful of surviving episodes of the radio program are readily available on the internet for free, here and elsewhere; if you’re interested, I can’t guarantee that any of them contain Agnes Moorhead in her brief stint as Mrs. Mullet, but they’re worth a listen.

Vintage Challenge Scorecard

Three Plots for Asey Mayo, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1942)

Three Plots for Asey Mayo, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1942)

Three Plots for Asey MayoAuthor:

Phoebe Atwood Taylor, whose Wikipedia entry is found here. Mrs. Taylor wrote a series of 24 books from 1931 to 1951 about “Codfish Sherlock” Asey (Asa) Mayo, an old-timey Cape Codder who solved mysteries against the homespun background of his home location. The books usually contain humour, car chases, wickedly insightful material on personality, and the plots move at an extremely high speed.

Taylor also wrote a series of 8 mysteries about Leonidas Witherall, “The Man who Looked Like Shakespeare”, as by “Alice Tilton”, between 1937 and 1947; these are more outright farce. The Witherall character became the main character in a radio show in 1944, The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1933 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fourth under “E”, “Read a short story collection.” This may be considered a bit of a cheat, since these are technically novelettes; your mileage may vary. See the end of this post for my current progress.

Publication Data:

The three stories here seem to have been published before 1942 (one copyright date at least is 1939) and assembled for publication in 1942. I am unable to confirm this information, but it was a common practice in 1942 for authors to sell shorter works featuring their series characters to various magazines and then assemble the stories for publication in book form. 

635016309.0.lAbout this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. 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. 

Three stories make up this volume, each about 100 pages long, and I’ll deal with each in order. Incidentally, it seems likely from internal evidence that each story had a different title upon original magazine publication. 

“The Headacre Plot” concerns Colonel Tiberius “Ty” Head, whose estate, “Headacre”, contains his collection of wooden sculptures like merry-go-round horses, cigar store Indians, and other such folk art. The Colonel’s niece Lora and her husband David Arlington are on the scene, as are the Colonel’s brother Jules (not Lora’s father) and Jules’s daughter Penny, and the treasurer of the Head Company, Charles Sewall. David and Lora have been personae non grata at Headacre but they have visited at the Colonel’s request. When asked to find the missing Lora, Asey Mayo immediately discovers the body of the Colonel, shot through the forehead, lying near some of his wooden statutes, and begins to investigate. He soon discovers the presence of Fritz von Harburg, Penny’s principal beau, and an exciting chase ensues; then Jules is found dead, shot in approximately the same location. But it seems as though everyone concerned has an alibi.

Asey investigates and sets a trap for the killer — or, rather, he apparently agrees to spring the same death trap that has already accounted for the brothers Ty and Jules. I’ll omit a discussion of the trap itself, and who rigged it, in case you want to read this charming volume; however, I do recall that upon first reading this story the central clue stood out for me like a sore thumb. Someone says something that couldn’t be true, and Asey and I came to the same conclusion at about the same time.

“The Wander Bird Plot” has to do with a young woman, Cordelia Alcott, and her uncle Wilbur. They win a “Wander Bird” house trailer in a contest put on by the Tootsy-Wheetsy cereal company and go on vacation — coincidentally to the area where Nora Latimer lives, and she owns Tootsy-Wheetsy and a dozen other companies. Also present is Nora’s friend Lizzie Chatfield, whose curiosity (and the lengths that she’ll go to assuage it) are legendary; and Nora Latimer is paying for the hotel bills and lifestyle of a handsome young painter, Jere Warren, who has had a past tumultuous romantic relationship with no one other than Cordelia.

3152When a man going by the name “John Smith” is found murdered in a Wander Bird trailer — there are a couple of identical ones around to complicate the story — Asey takes a hand.  The story moves quickly and is very complex, but in exactly the same way as the first story, the murderer says something casually in explanation and then proceeds to demonstrate physically that the explanation cannot be true. In this story, however, the clueing is more precise and this really is a fair-play story; an action is described to us that makes a nonsense of the explanation, but you have to have a little common background knowledge and put two and two together to identify the lie and thus the murderer.

The final story is “The Swan Boat Plot” and this one, unusually, takes place in the city of Boston rather than Asey’s Cape Cod home. Asey is meeting his cousin Jennie Mayo in the Public Garden and discovers the body of photographer Rudi Brandt close to a public facility that he’s been using to take pictures — a swan boat that can be rented by the public. The salty and homespun Jenny (I always have a mental image of her as being played by Marjorie Main) takes a major hand in the investigation and the pair run the investigation back to the family and romantic interests of model Liss Lathrop. Barring the fast-moving action and the active participation of Jennie Mayo, there is little here to interest the reader and the average reader will be neither surprised by nor interested in the identity of the murderer.

Jennie Mayo is a fairly constant presence in the Asey Mayo series; it’s frequently Jennie whose public-spirited activities set the actions of the plot in motion. She is plain-spoken, dumpy and fairly clearly of the lower social classes; her husband Syl is a sort of handyman and quohaugger (what other areas might call an oysterman). In the stories, she’s very useful as an expositive character; Jennie always fills Asey in on the doings of their neighbours when he returns “from away”. Although Jennie is a fairly constant presence in the series, this story is really the only time that I can recall where Jennie takes an active hand in detection. Most frequently she does something idiosyncratically that impedes the investigation and Asey is forced to manoeuvre around her.

At the end of the first two stories, Asey makes note of the idea that the “story” of these events will naturally have a punning title that refers to it.  I can’t tell you the one associated with “The Headacre Plot” because it might reveal the answer to you, but the “Wander Bird” story would be referred to as “Trailer” — “trail her”, as in cherchez la femme.  I have no idea where these stories were originally published, if at all, but my sense is that the mention of these potential story titles was reflected in their original titles. Taylor did like to pun with her titles, most notably with The Tinkling Symbol and The Perennial Boarder.

Why is this book worth your time?

There is not much of interest here, barring the fact that there seem to be only six extant Asey Mayo short stories and so this will comprise half your opportunity to read a shorter Asey Mayo story. Taylor’s talents seem much better suited to the novel form; she has the knack for keeping a plot moving at blistering speed and concealing her central clues under an avalanche of information and fast-moving events. You literally have no time in her novels to think about what’s happened before the next urgency is moving into view. In the shorter form, though, the stories are (two out of three) based on a central “trick” and you are given one opportunity to spot the vital clue; if you identify the trick, you identify the murderer. I always associate this style of story with Ellery Queen, who wrote dozens of them (if you can figure out the “dying clue”, for instance, you’ve solved the mystery instantly). 

I’d say that this would be of interest to Asey Mayo completists and people interested in the historical American context; the “Swan Boat Plot” and “Headacre Plot”, for instance, both contain references to the wartime concept of the Fifth Column and it’s important as a potential motive for murder. And I must add that any Asey Mayo volume has a good deal of charm and intelligence and wit; Phoebe Atwood Taylor is always worth your time even at her least inspired.

Notes for the Collector:

I wrote this post using the 1991 paperback from Foul Play Press that is seen at the top of this post. Further down we see the U.S. first edition’s jacket in facsimile. You can get a Very Good plus copy from Abebooks for US$325 (the listing agrees with my suspicion that these stories were originally published in magazines, but gives no authority); there are also a couple of what seem to be better copies at around the US $100 mark and I suggest that this is a more reasonable price. There are a couple of cheaper reprint editions available and you can get a paperback for as little as $3. I think there are — or should be — people who are collecting the output of Foul Play Press and if you are only wanting a paperback, then I recommend the 1991 edition shown at the top of the post.  FPP did a uniform paperback edition of every single Taylor (except the scarce Murder at the World’s Fair, a non-series novel as by “Freeman Dana”) and used the same simple illustration style that I have found grows on one.

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