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.

 

 

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.

51kjVancsVL._SL500_AA300_

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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