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


Filed under Phoebe Atwood Taylor, The Cape Cod Mystery

26 responses to “In The Spotlight: Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery

  1. Thanks for the mention, Margot. I do enjoy the Asey Mayo mysteries. Many of the later books are more broadly humorous, although there are some funny events in “The Cape Cod Mystery” as well. You’re quite right – you really can’t take Asey out of the Cape Cod surroundings, and the dialect is pretty much a part (paht?) of that.

    Another similarity to many “Golden Age” mysteries is that Asey Mayo follows his own sense of justice, and that may not always mean working too closely with the police – though, I think,most readers will approve of his actions. I’m glad you enjoy these books – they really do deserve a wider audience among today’s mystery lovers.

    • Les – I couldn’t agree more. It’s a great series and although it’s definitely a product of its time, I don’t think you could call it so dated as to pull the reader out of the story. And I think you’re exactly right about Mayo’s brand of justice. He doesn’t see things in black and white, so to speak, while the police do. So yes, like several other Golden Age sleuths, he does what he sees as the right thing, and no, it doesn’t always endear him to the local cops.
      And I had to chuckle at your comment about Mayo’s use of language. I honestly couldn’t see him speaking any other way or living anywhere else.

  2. What a lovely sounding book and author. I have not heard of this one and I shall now seek this title when next in the Library or online if it is still in print. The descriptions are delicious so far and the story/plot intriguing. Thanks again for opening my mind and eyes to yet another undiscovered wonder in print.

    • Jane – Oh, I hope you’ll enjoy this one; I really do. If it helps at all, it’s available on Amazon U.K. if you’re willing to accept a ‘pre-owned’ copy. Of course so much the better if your library has it.

  3. What she said! – I wanted to say exactly what Jane says above…. Will definitely seek this out.

  4. I did read and review this book in December and I found it charming. Hope to get to another book in the series sometime this year. I have a couple but don’t have the next in the series. Do you think it matters about reading them in order?

    Nice overview, I was looking forward to it.

    • Tracy – Thanks – And thanks for reminding me of your excellent review. Folks, do check it out. And it is charming isn’t it? I liked this one.
      And about reading the books in order? I don’t think it’s urgently necessary. As always, one gets a better overview that way, but I don’t think one gives up too much by not doing so.

      • Well, I am usually a stickler for reading in order, so I will probably go looking for a copy of #2, when I can afford to buy books. Bought too many at the end of 2012, have to wait awhile and read what I have. Maybe I will be able to find a reasonably priced vintage paperback.

  5. Margot, FYI, most (if not all) the Asey Mayo books are readily available through Amazon – there are also some Kindle editions, I believe, in addition to new and/or used print copies. And I would argue that it is NOT necessary to read the Asey Mayo books in any particular order – each stands alone.

    • Thanks, Les, for the information. They are indeed available on Amazon U.S.. And folks, if you can’t find them there, try libraries, used bookstores and thrift or charity shops.

  6. I haven’t read the Cape Cod mystery but I can see why you say the location and character are deeply entwined. I also love that there are many suspects with lots of motive and little alibis. Makes it more interesting for the reader.

    • Clarissa – I think it does too. What I like too is that it’s entirely possible that any of the suspects could be the guilty one. That is, you can’t eliminate them on grounds that they were too old/too young/too feeble, etc.. And yes, the location/setting just seeps through the whole story, including the character of Asey Mayo.

  7. This was one of the first mysteries I ever read. I found it at a place we stayed on vacation–but not Cape Cod. I think that was the only one of her books I ever read. Thanks for the reminder. It really made me want to go to Cape Cod.

    • Patti – Oh, trust me, it was my pleasure to spotlight it. And I know just what you mean about the book making you want to go to Cape Cod. I felt that way too.

  8. I love books that describe the setting so well that you want to go there, particularly if I’m at all familiar with that setting. I know Cape Cod somewhat and so I’m looking forward to reading this author. My husband lost his Maine/Mass. accent along the way and I miss it – maybe this will remind me of it.

    • Barbara – Oh, I’m exactly the same way. I love it when books give me such a strong sense of place that I feel I know a place I’ve never actually visited. And this series has a real sense of Cape Cod and that part of the North Atlantic. I hope that if you try the books, you’ll like them.

  9. Jerry House

    There was a time when you could not swing a cat anywhere in Cape Cod without hitting an Asey Mayo book or a book by Joseph C. Lincoln. I never got into Lincoln but Asey Mayo provided many an enjoyable afternoon for me on the Cape.

  10. Taylor is one of my favourite writers and I’ve read all but one of her Asey Mayo books. They were all reprinted some years ago but even the reprints are getting harder to find. They are well worth the effort though. As you said, a look back at a time that is rapidly receding from us.

    • Ronald – You’ve a good point about the increasing difficulty of finding some of the Asey Mayo stories. Some of them are available for the Kindle (‘though I must admit I haven’t researched to see if they all are). But for those who prefer paper books, it’s not as easy as it was to find them. It is worth the search though I agree.

  11. Petra Gödecke

    Dear Mrs. Kinberg,
    I share your opinion to the use of local/regional dialect in the Mayo novels. This is sure one important difference to other authors of the “Golden Age” like maybe Mary Roberts Rinehart, who was also from New England. Interesting is the similarity to other “Golden Agers” in the matter of “own sense of justice”, which “Les Blatt” mentioned in his comment. For example S.S. van Dine’s Gentleman Detective par excellence Philo Vance prefers to give the “bad guy” oder in the “Greene Murder Case” the “bad girl” the possibility of suicide as did Asey Mayo in “The Cape Cod Mystery” and also in “The Mystery of the Cape Cod Players”, in “The Mystery of the Cape Cod Tavern” its the variant of suicide by (corrupt) cops. Another example is Dorothy Sayers novel “The Unpleasentness at the Bellona Club”, in which Lord Peter Whimsey also gave the villain the option to commit suicide and who declares in another book (“Busman’s Honeymoon”) the deep emotional problems of her detective with governmental justice (death penalty). I wonder, if this preference for “self-justice” in form of suicide by crime writers is a phenomenon of a specific historical time or class with specific heroes – the “Private Detective” as privatier and Hobby-Sherlock – and a sign that in this time the detective had a greater freedom and less restrictions and interaction as inferior with governmental justice?
    Greetings from Germany.

    • Petra – Thanks for your visit, and for your interesting thoughts on self-justice. You’ve mentioned some really interesting examples of cases where the sleuth gives the killer the chance to take that course of action. You’ve reminded me too of Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death in which that happens as well. It’s definitely an example of the way private detectives seemed to operate during the Golden Age. We don’t see that so much in today’s PI novels. There are certainly examples in those novels and in, say, police procedurals where the culprit chooses suicide. But in those cases, it’s not because the sleuth gave the criminal that ‘way out.’ It’s really an interesting discussion, what our view of justice is and how it has changed over the years. I’ll have to think about that. You have inspired me for which thanks.

      • Petra Gödecke

        Margot – one last remark. One premise for this kind of “self-justice” in the form of the offer of suicide is the belief in shared values like for example honor. It does not function, when the culprit does not share these values, as you see in the first Gideon Fell novel from John Dickson Carr (“Hag’s Nook”) from 1933. Fell offers the option to suicide, but the culprit out of cowardice does not use this option.

        • Petra – You make a very well-taken point. Unless there is a shared value system, it’s very hard indeed for ‘self-justice’ to work. And Hag’s Nook is an excellent example of that.

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