A first experience of Phoebe Atwood Taylor
First two experiences, I should say. The very first came about through a coincidence, or accident, suitable to a classic mystery. I cannot fathom why a copy of the 1966 Norton edition of Taylor’s 1938 THE ANNULET OF GILT, one of her series featuring Cape Cod local hero Asey Mayo, should have swum up out of the depths of the Brooklyn Central LIbrary’s stacks and onto the not very extensive Mystery shelves of my local Carroll Gardens branch. I’d never heard of Taylor but this was definitely a Vintage Mystery, or vintage something anyway (a mere glance at the typeface would have told you so), and I snatched it up. When I couldn’t get the self-checkout kiosk to recognize the volume, I brought it to the librarians’ desk. “You’ve saved it,” said the technician, clicking some keys and releasing it to me, “it was due to be discarded.”
In the first sentence it is established that our hero, Asey Mayo, drives a roadster. A roadster! I doubt I’ve come across many literary roadsters since my Nancy Drew days (and suspect I’ve never seen one in three dimensions). And indeed the book seems to me to affiliate with kids’ adventure books as much as it does with mysteries. The three rambunctious children Asey glimpses in that first sentence are key to the story, and the light tone of their dialogue prevails throughout the book, though Bad Things including murders do happen. There’s even an elephant. On the mystery side, there are also plenty of clues (though Asey learns some things before we do) and a classic case summary.
I went back to the BkPL catalog to see if there were any more Taylor treasures lurking un-withdrawn, and found one of the mysteries she wrote under the name of Alice Tilton. (As Taylor, her real name, she wrote over 20 Cape Cod-set Asey Mayo stories; as Tilton, half a dozen mysteries featuring secret adventure novelist and Shakespeare lookalike Leonidas Witherall’s sleuthing in the Boston suburbs. She also used the pseudonym Freeman Dana.) This was 1943’s FILE FOR RECORD, reprinted in 1987 by Foul Play Press in Vermont. It too has a lighthearted air, despite quite a nice person getting brutally killed. Where ANNULET develops its Cape Cod atmosphere carefully through landscape (and seascape) descriptions and dialogue styles and accents, FILE FOR RECORD collides its Massachusetts suburb with a classic British country house mystery, including, along with a baffling and decorative (samurai sword) murder, people who say “Er” and “I say,” a gentleman’s umbrella, and a local Major. It is also a WWII home front story: key elements are shortages of gas and of young men, an air raid alarm, and two “victory swop” events. Like ANNULET, it offers us a cheerful, unflappable, modest hero and a likable gang of helpers that accumulates around him. Sample line of dialogue: “‘Turk,'” Leonidas said, ‘move over and make room for the admiral.'”
I enjoyed both novels very much and would happily read any others, in either series, that I come across. I also hope someday to find one of her Freeman Dana stories.
UPDATE: A nice report from mystery blogger Kate at Crossexamining Crime on Taylor/Tilton’s last Witherall mystery, THE IRON CLEW. I had wondered whether the mock-Aristotelian effect of the whole thing taking place in a single day were common to all the Witherall books; it is true of both of these, so I am inclined to believe it is.
Covers, potentially for the Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt: ANNULET OF GILT, a car (a roadster?) fallen off the road; FILE FOR RECORD, a stack of papers stabbed with a knife.