Category Archives: Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Some are Mathematicians, Some are Carpenters’ Wives*

OccupationsAs any crime fiction fan knows, murder can happen just about anywhere and can affect just about anyone. So in crime fiction, people in all sorts of professions can end up being sleuths – even professions you might not think are all that, well, dangerous. And the fact is, more and more often, the police rely on experts from different fields to give them background information. So it’s realistic to believe that someone who’s, say, an insurance claims adjuster could be a fictional sleuth. And after all, a talented writer can make just about any profession interesting.

In Agatha Christie’s Endless Night, we meet Michael ‘Mike’ Rogers, who drives for a car hire firm. Driving people around isn’t exactly what you’d call a glamourous profession, but Rogers is a bit restless anyway and doesn’t intend to drive cars for the rest of his life. When he meets wealthy Fenella ‘Ellie’ Guteman, he soon falls in love with her and she with him. They have what seems to be the perfect home, Gipsy’s Acre, and all seems well. But a local woman Esther Lee has already warned them that Gipsy’s Acre is cursed, and that terrible things will happen. And soon enough, death strikes. Then there’s another murder. And another. You wouldn’t expect a driver for a car hire company to be mixed up in a set of murders, but that’s exactly what happens here…

In Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover in the kind of job you wouldn’t really normally associate with murder. Copywriter Victor Dean has died suddenly from a fall down a spiral staircase at Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., where he works. At first his death is put down to an accident, but he left behind an unfinished letter in which he said that someone at the firm had been using the company’s resources for illegal purposes. Pym’s is determined to maintain its respectability, so instead of calling in the police, they want Wimsey to investigate. He finds that Dean was correct; someone in the company had been using the company’s advertisements to arrange meetings between drugs rings and local dealers. Dean blackmailed the person responsible and paid for that decision with his life. Now admittedly, Wimsey isn’t by profession a copywriter but still, you wouldn’t think a copywriter would be at the heart of a murder mystery but it happens here.

Does being a ‘man of all work’/handyman sound like the kind of job that would involve you in a lot of murders? Does it sound exciting? No? Well ask Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asa ‘Asey’ Mayo and you just might get a surprising answer. When we first meet him in The Cape Cod Mystery, he is employed by Cape Cod local Bill Porter. When Porter is arrested for the murder of visiting writer Dale Sanborn, Mayo is pretty certain that his boss isn’t guilty. So with help from Porter’s friend Prudence Whitsby, he looks into the matter more deeply. Mayo’s not on the surface of it the kind of guy you’d expect to be hot on the trail of a killer. But he knows the locals and the area, he’s an observant person and he’s quite philosophical in his way.

You wouldn’t think that people who work in finance would get involved in the kind of tension and danger that a murder investigation brings, but you’d be wrong. Just ask John Putnam Thatcher, Senior Vice President at the Sloan Guaranty Trust, and the creation of the writing team, ‘Emma Lathen.’ Thatcher may spend his share of time working over numbers, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get involved in crime. In Murder to Go, for instance, the Sloan has financially backed Chicken Tonight, a fast food enterprise that’s suddenly becoming very popular. Then, a group of people are poisoned by one of the company’s recipes, and now it looks as though the company may have real financial trouble. As if that weren’t enough, Clyde Sweeney, one of Chicken Tonight’s warehouse delivery drivers, disappears and is later killed. In order to protect its investment, the Sloan has to find out what’s going on at Chicken Tonight, so Thatcher starts asking question. In the end, he finds out that it’s all related to behind-the-scenes greed and intrigue.  What’s interesting about accountancy is that in recent years, forensic accountancy has become a respected branch of the profession, and is quite useful to the police. With today’s computer programs and expertise in accountancy, it’s possible to learn an awful lot about a victim or suspect’s financial doings and that can provide a lot of valuable information to an investigator.

Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski doesn’t exactly have the kind of profession you’d connect with murder either. He and his wife Rosie own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fly-fishing lodge in northern Saskatchewan. They live, however, in the small town of Crooked Lake, further south in the province. Sounds peaceful and certainly not glamourous or full of danger or tension, right? But danger and tension are exactly what Bart runs into in Frost Bite. Agribusiness CEO Lionel Morrison had recently spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge. Then, Bart finds him frozen to death under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. As it is Bart’s involved in the case since Morrison was staying at his lodge and since he found the body.  But since Morrison was a ‘heavy hitter,’ there’s a media ‘feeding frenzy’ and Bart’s drawn even deeper into the case. Not something you’d expect from a peace-loving fly-fishing lodge owner who’s preparing for his daughter’s upcoming wedding and facing a health issue.

See? You don’t have to be a cop, a PI, an attorney or a journalist to be a sleuth. You don’t have to be in the medical profession either. Sometimes murder involves people in professions that you’d think would be the furthest removed from violence or the suspense of a police investigation. It takes a talented author to make sleuths like that believable and interesting but when it happens, that sort of sleuth can add innovation to the genre.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Emma Lathen, Nelson Brunanski, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

‘Cause Down the Shore Everything’s All Right*

SeasideIn the Northern Hemisphere, a lot of people are getting ready for the first warm-weather holiday of the year. And in the Southern Hemisphere there are plenty of people who are planning that winter getaway to a nice seaside place. So I thought it’d be a good time to look at those seaside holiday spots. They may be a lot of fun to dream about and in real life, they can be terrific. But in crime fiction? Mmmm…maybe not so much.

Just ask the people who stay at the Jolly Roger in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall decides to take a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel with her husband Captain Kenneth Marshall and her sixteen-year-old stepdaughter Linda. It’s not long before Arlena begins a not-very-well-hidden affair with another guest Patrick Redfern. Then late one morning, Arlena is found strangled on the beach at Pixy’s Cove, not far from the hotel. At first, her husband seems the most likely suspect since he knew about her affair. But he is soon proven to be innocent, so the police have to look elsewhere for the criminal. Hercule Poirot has been staying at the same hotel, so he works with the police to find the murderer. Among other things, this novel gives a solid picture of life at a seaside hotel at the time the novel was written.

Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery also takes place during a seaside holiday. Prudence Whitsby and her niece Betsey have decided to escape the summer heat and spend some time at their seaside cottage on Cape Cod. Also on Cape Cod is famous author Dale Sanborn, who is staying in the cabin next door. One night, Prudence’s cat Ginger escapes and Prudence goes looking for him. She tracks the cat to Sanborn’s rented cabin where she finds Sanborn’s bludgeoned body. Sheriff Slough Sullivan begins the investigation and before long, he narrows down the list of suspects to one: Bill Porter, a friend of the Whitsbys. Porter was at the scene of the crime and he had a motive, so Sullivan is convinced he has his man. But Porter’s handyman and cook Asa ‘Asey’ Mayo isn’t. He tells Prudence what his views are and persuades her to help investigate. Between them, they take another look at the people in Sanborn’s life. It turns out that there are several other people who could have wanted Sanborn dead, and in the end, Mayo finds out who wanted that badly enough to kill.

A seaside holiday doesn’t prove any too restful in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. Brothers Paul and Daniel Spender and their parents are on holiday at the Dorset coast. One morning the two boys decide to go exploring. Taking their father’s expensive binoculars along, they find themselves near Chapman’s Pool. That’s where they discover the nude body of thirty-one-year-old Kate Sumner. They give the alarm and it’s not long before PC Nick Ingram is on the scene. At about the same time, Kate’s toddler daughter Hannah is found wandering alone in the streets of nearby Poole. When she is identified, the police work to find out how her mother died and how she ended up in the town. Ingram works with DI John Galbraith, WPC Sandra Griffiths and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. They find that Kate Sumner had a complicated personal life and that it’s just that complexity that got her killed. As a part of the investigation, the police interview several tourists who are in the area on boating and fishing holidays, and we get a look at what life is like near Chapman’s Pool at that time of year.

I grew up near the U.S. Mid-Atlantic coast, where summers ‘down the shore’ mean going to seaside amusement parks. Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl captures that aspect of seaside holidays really effectively. In that novel, John Ceepak joins the Sea Heaven, New Jersey police force, chiefly as a way to get some ‘down time’ after harrowing service in Iraq. After all, what can happen in quiet Sea Haven? Then one day, wealthy developer Reginald Hart is shot while he’s on a carnival ride at Sunnyside Playland, a local amusement park. Hart’s thirteen-year-old daughter Ashley was with him when he was killed, so the police try to get as much information from her as they can about the murderer. It turns out there are several suspects too, since Hart was planning to do whatever it took to get the residents of several local apartment buildings to move out so that he could buy up the properties. It turns out that this murder isn’t quite as simple as an angry apartment dweller though, and the more Ceepak and his partner Danny Boyle look into the case, the more they have to look into Hart’s history. Along with the mystery itself, this novel really evokes the seaside town/holiday/amusement park atmosphere, complete with tourist attractions, tacky souvenirs and terrible-for-you carnival food.

M.C. Beaton’s James Lacey has fond memories of seaside holidays at the Palace hotel at Snoth-on-Sea. His nostalgia has made him want to spend another holiday there, and in Love, Lies and Liquor, he asks his ex-wife Agatha Raisin to join him. Besides his desire to see the place again, he also wants to patch things up with her. Agatha is not exactly thrilled with the idea, but she is reluctantly persuaded to go. When she and Lacey get there, they find that Snoth is a dilapidated shadow of what it once was. The place hasn’t been fashionable in a long time, and it shows. The hotel itself is just as tatty and Agatha wants to leave right away. But her ex-husband persuades her to stay for at least one night so he can make other arrangements. The two go down to dinner at the hotel restaurant where Agatha has an unpleasant encounter with Geraldine Jankers, who’s there with her new (fourth) husband, her son Wayne and Wayne’s wife Chelsea. Also there is a family friend Cyril Hammond and his wife Dawn. Because of the argument that Agatha has with Geraldine, she is the most likely suspect when Geraldine is found strangled on the beach later that night. It doesn’t help matters that the murder weapon is Agatha’s own scarf. Agatha is soon able to prove that she is innocent, but now she’s interested in what happened to the victim. So she decides to stay in Snoth and find out the truth. In the end, she and her detective agency team-mates discover that Geraldine Jankers has a very shady personal history, and that there are several people who might have wanted to kill her.

See what I mean? Seaside holidays mean swimming and water sport, carnival rides, fun food, and all sorts of good times. But I wouldn’t recommend letting your guard down…

 

On Another Note…

 

This post is dedicated to the men and women who have worked non-stop for the past seven months to get the New Jersey seashore ready for the summer holidays after Superstorm Sandy. I truly admire their toughness, determination and strength of spirit. I miss the Jersey shore, too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Waits’ Jersey Girl.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, M.C. Beaton, Minette Walters, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

In The Spotlight: Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery

In The Spotlight A-LHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some sleuths reflect their settings so clearly that they almost seem a part of the landscape. One really couldn’t imagine them living and working anywhere else. Such a sleuth is Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Cape Cod sleuth Asey Mayo. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at the first in the Asey Mayo series The Cape Cod Mystery.

Prudence Whitsby and her niece Betsey have escaped from the heat to their summer cottage on Cape Cod and it’s not long before they’re inundated with telegrams from friends and acquaintances asking for invitations to join them. With only limited space (and patience) available, the two women decide to invite only Prudence’s friend Emma Manton and Betsey’s friend Dot Cram. Also there for the summer is famous writer Dale Sanborn, who’s taken the cabin next door. All starts out peacefully enough but then one night Prudence Whitsby’s cat Ginger escapes and she goes out looking for him. She traces the cat to Sanborn’s cabin and discovers that Sanborn’s been bludgeoned. Local sheriff Slough Sullivan takes over the investigation.

It’s not long before Sullivan settles on a Whitsby family friend Bill Porter as the guilty party. Porter was at the scene close to the time of the murder and he had a motive. He can’t account for his time either so he’s promptly arrested. Porter’s cook and ‘man-of-all-work’ Asey Mayo isn’t so sure his employer’s guilty though, and decides to do his own investigating. He enlists Prudence Whitsby and the two begin to look into the matter.

As it turns out, quite a few people had motives to kill Sanborn and the more that Mayo and Whitsby learn about the case, the more possible suspects there turn out to be. Sanborn was a muckraking writer and a blackmailer. He also had an unpleasant reputation with women. Even his own brother admits that Sanborn treated everyone treacherously. Bit by bit, Mayo finds out the real course of events on the night of the murder and in the end, he finds out who the killer is and what the motive was.

This is a Golden Age sort of mystery in that there’s a murder with several clues and a list of suspects, any of whom could have committed the murder. And that’s part of what adds to the interest in this story. There are several suspects who can’t reliably claim alibis although they say they’re innocent. There are also clues that could point to more than one suspect. So part of Mayo’s task is to figure out who’s lying (and by the way, just about everyone is lying about at least something). He’s also got to figure out exactly what each clue means. The solution to the mystery makes sense given the Sanborn’s history. Still, the killer isn’t obvious (well, anyway not to me the first time I read this one).

One strong element that runs through this novel is the Cape Cod setting and culture of the time (the novel was published in 1931). At the time this story was written, there was of course no air conditioning. So people with any means at all did their best to escape the swelter of New York City in the summer. This novel shows us that summer crowd as well as the group of locals who live in Cape Cod all year. We also get a look at life before everyone had refrigerators (several people in the area still have ice delivered). This is the world of small roadsters and running boards, and of unmarried women still being called ‘spinsters.’ It’s also a time when several ‘isms’ we now think of as offensive were commonplace, so readers who dislike pejorative remarks about certain groups of people may not care for that aspect of this novel. That said though, the story reflects the era in which it was written.

The Cape Cod setting is reflected in the physical descriptions of the area too:

 

‘The glaring sunrise woke me [Prudence Whitsby] early Monday morning. I could hear the faint chugging of the fisher boats as they started out to the grounds. Outside the cottage the beach grass was heavy with dew and the meadows beyond were still thick with mist.’

 

Throughout the novel it’s easy to see why Cape Cod has been so popular for summer getaways.

The character of Asey Mayo is another important element in this novel and it’s tied to the setting. He belongs there. Mayo is a practical, down-to-earth sort of person. He’s a skilled cook and quite handy at other jobs too. He’s done several things in his life including a stint at sea, so he’s got lots of experience and wisdom on which he draws. In that sense he’s a bit like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. He’s an observer of human nature although he probably wouldn’t put it quite like that. He looks at situations and people and notices how they resemble other people and situations he’s known and in fact, that’s what leads him to the criminal in this case. He’s a bit of a philosopher although he certainly doesn’t wax eloquent. Masey is a local but he’s hardly a rube (although at times he finds it expedient to have people think he is). He’s got enough skill and dignity that one can’t really see him as a laughingstock even if he is a little eccentric. And he makes a fascinating contrast to the ‘gentleman detectives’ of the Golden Age.

Because he’s a local and doesn’t have a lot of formal education, Mayo doesn’t speak in an educated way. Readers who prefer to read only standard language will probably notice this and may be disappointed. But in my opinion (do feel free to differ with me if you don’t agree), Mayo wouldn’t be as authentic if he used standard language. What’s more, his use of dialect doesn’t make it difficult for the reader (well, at least not this reader) to follow what he’s saying.

The Cape Cod Mystery is a light (I promise – no drawn-out brutal violence) mystery with an interesting Golden-Age-type problem as its focus and a group of suitably suspicious suspects. It features a unique setting and an equally unique sleuth whom I couldn’t imagine anywhere else. But what’s your view? Have you read The Cape Cod Mystery? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

ps.  Thanks to Les Blatt for the inspiration.

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 14 January/Tuesday 15 January – Ghost Money – Andrew Nette

Monday 21 January/Tuesday 22 January – Strictly Murder – Lynda Wilcox

Monday 28 January/Tuesday 29 January – Kiss and Tell – T.J. Cooke

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Filed under Phoebe Atwood Taylor, The Cape Cod Mystery