Category Archives: 2016 reading challenges

Vintage mysteries by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

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I went back to the BkPL catalog to see if there were any more Taylor treasures lurking un-withdrawn, and found one of the mysteries she wrote under the name of Alice Tilton.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.

 

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Books 2016 #1, January

As announced here, I have started to keep a books-read spreadsheet (without giving up scrawling returned library books in my little notebook). So I can say with assurance that I read 26 books in January (see as previously noted “too much time on hands”). Twelve of these were mysteries, due to a combination of a mood unaccepting of difficulty and anxiety with the focus provided by my mystery-blog reading and Challenge participation. Of the rest, one was a memoir, two history, ten “literature” (novels, stories, essays, and literary history), and one a cookbook. Two were translations, from Russian and from French, though both with Soviet Russian settings at least in part.

I gave quite a few books either four or five stars (including Martin Edwards’ history of the Detection Club and Sarah Vowell’s book about Lafayette), but I think my number one for the month must be Sasha Sokolov’s A SCHOOL FOR FOOLS, translated by Alexander Boguslawski and published by the wonderful New York Review Books.

CHALLENGES:

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunts

Golden Age (1959 and before): Ross MacDonald’s BLUE CITY, 1947, and Agatha Christie’s N OR M?, 1941. Sorry, puzzle-mystery fans, while there were entertaining moments, I still find AC an annoying writer overall. Even the puzzle structure was irritating in this one, maybe owing to wartime jingoism. But! I can use the sandcastle on the cover to check off a spot on my Scavenger Hunt list. BLUE CITY I enjoyed, it seemed a skillful and moody noir (though I felt that the hero ought to have been older for some of his reactions). I did not like it as well as MacDonald’s MEET ME AT THE MORGUE, which I read in the last days of 2015 and which is a more complex, more mature novel. BLUE CITY earned me another checkmark, for a telephone handset.

Silver Age: John Ball’s IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, 50th anniversary edition. Very tight, smart little book. How about checking off MORE THAN TWO PEOPLE on my Silver checklist?

Classic (before 1966); Three books, BLUE CITY, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, N or M? Thus triply covering the Classic Mystery category and also fulfilling the Woman Author category and the 20th Century category; we shall see later on where each title is needed.

Translations: One French (Andrei Makine’s A WOMAN LOVED, translated by Geoffrey Strachan), one Russian, A SCHOOL FOR FOOLS.

Challenged. (2016)

In another indication that I have too much time on my hands and am longing for order, I am considering participating in some reading challenges this year.  I don’t think they’ll change my reading habits all that much, but they will encourage me to pay attention and to write some brief reviews. Also, it means I’m participating in one of the great trends of our century, gamification.

These are the three challenges I’m thinking of (EDIT: SIGNED UP FOR ALL THREE):

  • Books in Translation at the Introverted Reader. This merely asks you to read, well, translated books, with the highest level, “linguist,” asking for ten to twelve books. But it’s too plain, so along with aiming for a dozen translated books (I’m pretty sure I read at least one translation a month), I’m going to look for at least four different languages from at least six different countries.
  • Back to the Classics at Books & Chocolate. This one has twelve categories, with opportunities to participate in a reward drawing being offered at levels of completion from six to twelve.
  • Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block. This will require some extra effort to seek out vintage mysteries. Its quirk is that it asks for Things Found on the Cover, with 75 objects in each of the Golden (to 1960) CORRECTION: THROUGH 1959 and Silver (60-89) categories. (Same list for each period.)

So does it sound like fun, or like drudgery? Both? We’ll see how long I last. I’ve made a spreadsheet to track the books, and I seldom associate spreadsheets with fun. So far: one Golden Age mystery, one object (a phone). And I’m going to decree right now that any one book may answer more than one challenge. For example, an Arsène Lupin novel (E. Gaboriau, c 1900) would count as a work in translation, a classic, and potentially the source of a scavenger hunt item (probably not a plane or a flashlight, though).

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