Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Cape Cod Mystery: Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Cape Cod Mystery is the first book in the Asey Mayo Mystery series by Phoebe Atwood Taylor. The story begins with a strange situation. In the middle of a sweltering hot summer on Cape Cod, a man's body is discovered in a cottage. A sheriff arrests Bill Porter for murder, based on circumstantial evidence, but has no jail to put him in so first places him in a pillory (also known as the stocks), then moves him to an empty boxcar -- I kid you not -- for a weekend. I was having problems with suspension of belief from the beginning.

Bill asks his friend, Asey Mayo, to find out who really committed the crime. Asey is a man of contradictions. Obviously intelligent and full of common sense, he has worked for Bill's family for three generations. First as a carriage builder, then as auto mechanic and now he is Bill's handyman. His speech is almost unintelligible and I usually don't like dialog written in dialect.
Quoting from the book:
His speech would be impossible for a student of phonetics to record on paper. It resembled no other dialect in the world. Let it suffice to say that he never sound a final g or t. His r was the ah of New England. His a was so flat that as Betsey said, you couldn't get under it with a crowbar.
But it did not take long for me to get used to the vernacular and I began to find the hero, Asey Mayo, a very amusing fellow.  The story is told by a narrator, Prudence Whitsby, who is living in a  cottage on Cape Cod with her niece (Betsey) and a cook. Prudence and Asey work together to try to clear the accused man, Bill Porter, before the weekend is over, at which point he will be officially charged.

I found the story charming. By the time we are close to the end of this story, it appears that there are no suspects (other than the man who is accused) without alibis. Of course, appearances are deceiving. I was fooled and had no clue as to who the culprit was.

I did have some problems with this mystery. It is mostly told in conversations between Prudence and Asey, and that doesn't allow for a lot of depth of characterization. I had the basic characters who lived on Cape Cod down pretty well, but got confused trying to keep track of all the visitors who were also potential suspects.

I recently purchased an e-book, Atomic Renaissance: American Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s, by Jeffrey Marks. This contains a section on Taylor and here are some excerpts:
At a time when many mystery authors had turned to the hardboiled genre, Phoebe Atwood Taylor followed her own comedic path. Under three different names, she wrote humorous regional mysteries set in New England. Although she began her career during the first Golden Age when humor was more prevalent, her wacky tales of intrigue allowed her to continue writing long after many cozy writers had fallen away. She gave up her career in 1951 after 33 books, but her works remain in print today.
Taylor was born on May 18, 1909 in Boston, surprisingly far from the peninsula she would call home for most of her life. Taylor later recalled that she was the first member of her family to be born off Cape Cod in over 300 years. Like many established New England clans, family mattered to the Taylors. She was an avid genealogist and knew her family's history back to the settlement of the Cape.
And later in the same chapter...
It was no surprise to anyone who knew her that Taylor's mystery took place on Cape Cod, a place she knew intimately and loved. Taylor prided herself on her knowledge of the Cape and its environs, details that she included in her novels.
Thus Taylor knew Cape Cod quite well, and her depiction of it in this book is humorous and entertaining. Generally I don't lean towards humorous mysteries, but this one was just right for me. There are 24 novels in the series, and I will try a few more. I have read that later ones are different from the earlier ones. Prudence only narrates the first two.

The author is profiled at Peggy Ann's Post.

Here are two reviews with more detail about the story than I have provided.
At Classic Mysteries, posted just yesterday!
At In Reference to Murder.


Sarah said...

Interesting review Tracy (you always review such unusual books). I'm not sure it's my thing but I do like the idea of a Cape Cod setting. I love the front cover though.

Anonymous said...

Tracy - Oh, how interesting to read your post just after I read Les' at Classic Mysteries. I'm glad you found the humour to be just the right touch for you. I like Taylor's wit; I really do. And I'm glad you picked up on that.

Peggy Ann said...

I am so excited about collecting and reading this series over the next year!

carol said...

I've never heard of this author or series before. Asey Mayo does sound like an interesting character.