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