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.

 

 

It’s all my fellow bloggers’ fault: three lazy reviews

Women writers

My fellow mystery bloggers hard at work

It’s been a little while since I’ve been a very regular blogger, I’m sorry to say, and I’m going to take the liberty of blaming some of my recent laziness on the excellence of my fellow bloggers. Allow me to explain. Three times in the last few weeks, I’ve thought, “Oh, that particular piece would make a good blog post, because reasons.” Two books and an old mystery movie, to be precise. So I take the work and go through it a couple of more times, looking for themes, something unusual about this particular item, etc. And then I go and look on the internet and, darn it, someone by whose intelligence I have been impressed in the past has already taken the same item apart and explained it much better than I would have done, and — and this is the killing part — in fewer than a third the words it would have taken me to do it. How galling. 😉

So may I recommend you to a couple of other reviews?

The Six Iron Spiders, Phoebe Atwood TaylorThe Six Iron Spiders, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (she liked to sign herself PAT) from 1942, was well covered by the excellent (and enviably prolific!) Kate Jackson here, in her blog crossexaminingcrime in 2016. Kate notes the idea right off the bat that also made me think the book was interesting; that the civilian war effort is a crucial aspect of the plot as well as of the setting in this story.

WW2 First aid courseAsey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock”, is involved with a murder that happens in his own home at a meeting of volunteer first aid attendants being instructed in advanced techniques by Asey’s cousin Jennie. The story proceeds at PAT’s characteristic high-speed pace, with bodies that disappear and reappear and people running in all directions at high speed. The difference here is that everyone speaks through the shared lens of The War at its everyday level for the American populace. Thus high-speed chases are discouraged because tires for one’s personal vehicle are impossible to obtain, and people are constantly doing war-related things like spotting — sitting in a dark place looking for enemy aircraft/submarines — or studying first aid, or doing a kind of orienteering, where everyone agrees to meet in 90 minutes at an encoded location on a list everyone should have memorized.

As Asey remarks to himself near the end of the book,

“… it would be hard to plan a murder, and harder to commit one after you’d planned it. You couldn’t ever quite tell where your victim might be, what he might be doing, or how many other people might be watching you from a spotter’s station, or how many people might suddenly fly to the scene on a problem of one sort or another.”

Given the type of plotting that PAT is famous for, no wonder; the more confusion with people running around on secret business, the better. So that was the main point of interest for both of us. I must agree with Kate’s dislike of PAT’s less than charming observations about women in slacks; I can only add in PAT’s defence that generally she was more tolerant of difference than many of her contemporaries, and actually seemed to me to champion a specific kind of ultra-competent womanhood. There are many examples of highly competent women in PAT’s novels, Jennie Mayo herself being a prime example.

Iron spider skillet

An iron spider.

And to answer the question shared by everyone who cannot see the cover art for most editions: “iron spiders” in this case are a Cape Coddy way of referring to cast-iron frying pans. The spider appears to me to have a longer handle and a deeper bottom than similar skillets.

Atomic Renaissance, by Jeffrey MarksIf you want more information about Phoebe Atwood Taylor, this most fascinating writer of fast-moving wholesome Americana, the only reference book worth your time is by a friend of mine, Jeff Marks.  Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s is the only volume to give you the background on this madcap writer. I will forgive Jeff that his blog, The Corpse Steps Out, doesn’t get enough attention because I know that his biographies of mystery writers always take a long time to research and are just fascinating when they get to us … write faster, Jeff!

Murder by the Clock poster, 1931

MURDER BY THE CLOCK, 1931

Next I was going to have a look at an old film from my archives, Murder by the Clock from 1931, based on two works by mystery writer Rufus King. “Oh, good,” I thought idly, “there’s a book AND a movie that I can talk about, and Inspector Valcour deserves some attention.” Cliff Aliperti at his blog Immortal Ephemera, to my horror, had more to say about the movie in his excellent piece found here than I would have done, and — oh, the shame — at even greater length, because he knew about many

Murder by the Clock, Rufus King

Murder by the Clock, by Rufus King (Popular Library #31 from 1944)

filmic things I’d never heard of. Then when I found that my superbly well-read friend John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books had in 2012 done an in-depth look at the book … found here … my review was mentally being wadded into a ball and tossed away. Why bother, when these guys totally get it already? John’s assessment that this book is more like Ross MacDonald than any of King’s contemporaries is just brilliantly insightful, and I like King’s playful way with language just as much as he does. One tiny correction to a comment in John’s column; the William Boyd who plays the lead here is not the same William Boyd as became Hopalong Cassidy. The lead actor here called himself William “Stage” Boyd to distinguish himself from the man who later became Hoppy, and nearly ruined Hoppy’s film career by being involved in a scandal.  Fascinating stuff.  But the two actors had the same name, which made it very confusing.

Murder by the Clock, 1931

A lobby card from Murder by the Clock, 1931

Anyway, the movie has a creepy element injected into it that has nothing to do with the book of the same name, that I understand is taken from a stage play of Rufus King’s. An elderly woman is terrified of premature burial and has had an elaborate system installed  that sounds a booming horn outside the family mausoleum, if she should wake up in her coffin. Shades of Edgar Allan Poe, right? The horn, as you may well expect, goes off at least once during the movie and if you’ve been following along, it will make you jump when it booms. The really amazing thing about this movie, though, is the performance of Lilyan Tashman playing, apparently, She Who Must Be Obeyed. Tashman takes the ball from Theda Bara and runs with it. She is the Vamp ne plus ultra and can apparently rule every heterosexual male in sight with just a whiff of her perfume. Valcourt is made of stronger stuff, though — although the fact that Rufus King was gay may have something to do with his resistance. Lilyan Tashman is a fascinating figure who died only a few years later at age 33, probably from breast cancer, leaving only a handful of fascinating performances by which to judge her. Here, she’s really something. The movie is definitely worth a look for her alone, since the mystery plot will not occupy your mind for long. As of today, you can find it here on YouTube.

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley (Penguin #6)

After being outdone twice, I thought I’d have a look at something by a favourite author of mine, Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley (1933). (Published in the US as Dead Mrs. Stratton.) This time I looked first to save myself some time — sure enough, Kate had looked at this book six months ago. Karyn Reeves, at A Penguin a week, also had a look at this one some years back. Both bloggers have insight into what’s going on here and have given us interesting assessments; not much more for me to add. I’m going to have to start unearthing books that are far more scarce!

I agree with Kate Jackson that this is a kind of variation on The Poisoned Chocolates Case, in that Berkeley’s plot makes it clear that the truth about what happened to the completely obnoxious Mrs. Ena Stratton is entirely a function of who happens to be telling the story of her death. The story begins by … well, sort of telling you who commits the murder, but anyone familiar with Berkeley’s over-the-top cleverness knows that it can’t end there. Ena is constantly threatening to kill herself, as one of a vast range of attention-getting stratagems that have infuriated everyone around her, and when she is found hanged after a bizarre party, no one is surprised. Berkeley’s detective, the Silly Ass Roger Sheringham, traces the peculiar course of a chair upon which Mrs. Stratton did or did not stand, as various characters report having moved it here, there, and everywhere around the roof upon which her body is found. It seems as though everyone lies to the police at every opportunity and Sheringham is the only detective in a position to find out what really went on. Again, the experienced Berkeleyite will know that there is always one final twist at the end of the tale, and so it is here. I think you will be ultimately surprised when you learn who did what to Ena Stratton, and when; the final pages hold the final punch.

“Jumping Jenny” is a colloquial back-formation from Robert Louis Stevenson for a hanged woman, which practice thankfully died out some time in the 20th century nearly everywhere on earth. Its male equivalent is the “jumping jack”, the phrase Stevenson used; to my knowledge the exercises that one does in calisthenics classes are named after the jerks and spasms of a person who’s just been hanged. Perhaps your instructor will switch to more strenuous pushups, as mine did when I mentioned this cheerful fact. I need to learn to keep things to myself sometimes. 😉

The Sleeping Sphinx, John Dickson Carr

The Sleeping Sphinx, by John Dickson Carr (Bantam #996)

The reason I mention the bizarre nature of the party is that it has an echo in another great mystery by a great writer. Here, as in John Dickson Carr’s The Sleeping Sphinx (1947), there is a party at which people dress up as “a well-known murderer or his victim.” In Carr’s book, this is two days before Christmas (!). Okay, who has parties like this?

Sheringham notes that the host is a writer of detective stories and that the idea of the party

“… exactly carried out the light-handed treatment of death in his books. There were about a couple of dozen guests, certainly not more, and each one was supposed to represent a well-known murderer or his victim. The idea was not strictly original …”

This seems to me to be saying that at some point in the past someone had given such a party, and not in a fictional sense either. My online searches revealed nothing about who might have done so, but either Carr and Berkeley are referring to the same thing or else Carr is referring to Berkeley, which is likely — the idea has a certain Grand Guignolerie about it that would appeal to Carr. My first instinct is to suggest that both writers seem to be taking for granted that there is a really high standard of literacy extant about readers’ knowledge of famous murderers and what they looked like. At one point Sheringham remarks that Una Stratton had dressed up as Mrs. Pearcey and another guest as Mary Blandy. Pearcey was executed in 1890 and Mary Blandy in 1752 and I cannot imagine that the average person of 1933 would have known what they looked like, or how they dressed. Nor can I imagine going to a party dressed as a famous murderer; even less as a famous victim. It just seems in very poor taste regardless of period. Would you want to go to a party dressed as Sharon Tate or O.J. Simpson?

Cordially invited to meet death, Rex Stout

“Cordially Invited to Meet Death”, a novella by Rex Stout, this newspaper insert edition from 1943

I know from an old Nero Wolfe story, “Cordially Invited To Meet Death”, that there was such a profession as “party-arranger” that encompassed activities like that. Bess Huddleston, in the story, arranges “the Striker dwarf and giant party”, among other such extravaganzas (including an abortive attempt to hire Wolfe to attend a party and solve an imaginary crime). But enticing people to dress up like murderers or victims to have a party is just beyond me. It’s hard to prove a negative, but I hope the Carr/Berkeley reference to such a party is merely a detective writer’s way of establishing mood and not a kind of party that actually existed.

(added 12 hours later) It occurred to me that one of the characters mentions the recipe for “chicken à la Toulousaine”. It’s not difficult and quite tasty: there’s a recipe here.

***

I think the lesson is clear that I will have to look further into the recesses of Noah’s Archives to find things about which my fellow bloggers haven’t already spoken. Well, consider me as doing the literary equivalent of spitting on my hands … But it is a pleasure to recommend good work by other bloggers too. Now that I have managed to master the intricacies of the linking function at the top left of this page, I can recommend entire blogs to your attention where I merely cited individual articles before. Go through the three dozen links there and see where your fancy leads you!

 

 

 

 

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.

Miniature-Golf-Course-200x300

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.

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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