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I went back to the BkPL catalog to see if there were any more Taylor treasures lurking un-withdrawn, and found one of the mysteries she wrote under the name of Alice Tilton.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

 

Advertisements
Tagged ,

Overheard in Brooklyn, Prospect Park edition

elmblossomAll these within a minute or so on a single path in Prospect Park:

“‘Bunnies and Twinkies,’ she said to me, ‘bunnies and Twinkies, that’s all I want you to think about.'”

“I could do the dark road, too, another time.”

“To steal a Monet . . .”

Witch hazel, red maple, elm, and cornelian cherry are in bloom. (Photo borrowed from the City Birder.)

Tagged ,

Overheard in Brooklyn, junior scientist edition.

On Union Street in sudden warm weather. A girl of about five, pushing her scooter along, her father walking beside her. Insistently: “The SUN doesn’t move. The EARTH moves.” Geez, Dad.

Tagged

Neglected.

How can I not have known about this fantastic resource till now? Neglected Books, a work of passion from an American ex-Air Force tech guy living in Belgium and finding, just as promised, neglected (out of print, unmentioned, missing from library shelves) books. His comments are compact but (and?) thoughtful. Thank you, Twitter and the New Yorker’s Page Turner blog, for bringing the blog to my attention.

And now as I read backwards into his 2015 posts I see that it’s no coincidence all the 2016s are about women writers. In fact, he’s carrying over a project started in 2015 to read and report on women only, saying, “I can honestly say that not a single book I read during 2015 failed to challenge me and to open me up to perspectives and sensibilities I had never really taken the time to consider.” Brad Bigelow, you’re my new hero.

Cinema phile.

I went to a movie with Zach, HAIL CAESAR!, at the modest local movie house. I was happy to see that the theater, admittedly a small one, was basically full for a Saturday afternoon grownup movie. “All the grownups in Carroll Gardens are here,” said Z. (The ones not owning children: those were flocking to ZOOTOPIA, also at that theater.) So much more pleasant than the modern zilloplex up the road. Plus they are showing the National Theatre HAMLET on Wednesday. I wonder if I can find an unemployed friend to go to the 2:00 show with me.

Anyway, HAIL CAESAR. Silly but handsome and basically good-natured, kind of like George Clooney’s character, now I think of it. You do suspect that the Coen boys thought of the movie genre setpieces and stock characters they’d like to recreate and then came up with a “plot” to connect them together. I mean, kidnapped by Commie screenwriters (to a modernist cliffside gem in Malibu)? Go for: the water ballet; Scarlett Johansson’s accent; the sailors’ musical number; Josh Brolin’s sincerity; the adorable Alden Ehrenreich; Clooney’s beefy, sandal-strapped calves; and the palmiest palm trees. I even enjoyed Tilda Swinton’s double act. I will have to quit saying I can’t stand her.

Relativity in daily life.

Dressed for lunch with a lawyer, I headed first to my local library, where they are accustomed to see me in my casual, not to say shabby, neighborhood clothes. Explanation? “I’m going downtown, that is to say, Midtown, which of course from the South Brooklyn perspective is uptown.”

Some fun with hymn texts.

In case you’re curious about a thing or two in my shapenote world: I took some notes on our Midweek singing last week, with textual commentary from our two local theologians.

Tagged , ,

THE HOG’S BACK MYSTERY #1933book

pigback

pig from the back

My first entry in Crimes of the Century, really my first take on mystery blogging.

THE HOG’S BACK MYSTERY by Freeman Wills Crofts.

Freeman Wills Crofts! The very name redolent of—something or other.  I have read many mysteries in my day, but largely unscientifically, and am not an aficionado of the strict fair-play puzzle mystery so much admired by the mystery blogging community. Nonetheless, or perhaps for this very reason, I was pleased to discover that THE HOG’S BACK MYSTERY would suit the #1933book rubric for my first-ever entry in the Crime of the Century collaboration; would introduce me to the work of Crofts, by reputation one of the most exacting of fair-play authors; and was available, in the new British Library Crime Classics edition edited by Martin Edwards, at the Brooklyn Public Library.

The situation: A semi-retired doctor disappears, in the course of five minutes, from the sitting room in his home in the Surrey countryside, below the Hog’s Back ridge that names the book. Has he run off, been kidnapped — or is he dead? There’s no sign, and after a baffled week the local authorities call in the Yard, in the person of scrupulously systematic Inspector French. Borrowing the local sergeant’s bike for transport, French searches the grounds and re-interviews Dr Earle’s friends (including Dr Campion, his partner, Campion’s sisters Alice and Flo, and Ursula Stone, visiting schoolfriend of Earle’s wife; relations (wife Julia and Julia’s sister Marjorie, also visiting); and neighbors (Reginald Slade and Colonel Dagger).

It seems unlikely that Earle, if he were to have run off (perhaps with the young woman with whom Ursula spots him driving “along the east side of Seymour Street” in London when he says he’s playing golf), would have done so in his slippers and with no access to funds, but there’s no evidence of anything else either: no body.  Following the details and interviewing train ticket sellers and car park attendants, French is led to a new name and a new absence: Nurse Nankivel, evidently Earle’s London liaison, who has herself gone missing. French immediately reaches the obvious conclusion: “Earle and this nurse had gone off together. On the Thursday they had met to complete their plans, and on the Sunday they had put them into effect.”

Perhaps I need not say that French is wrong about this. It is, after all, not even the middle of the book.

Nurse Nankivel’s missing-persons case, too, is handed to French and in his interviews with Nankivel’s colleagues he discovers the original connection between Earle and Nankivel. Nankivel had been live-in nurse at a house in the Hog’s Back area a few weeks before. Campion was the chief doctor and Earle had been called in as consultant. French even tracks down a telegraph signed by Earle appointing a meeting with Nankivel just where a new road and overpass are being constructed at the Hog’s Back ridge. French will find time to enjoy watching the earth-moving and building work, reminiscing about happy times on an earlier case, that of the Whitness Widening.

Up to this point the book has been short on pace, Now, though, things perk up, in a manner of speaking. Ursula Stone, who has stayed on at the Earles’ house to support her friend Julia, disappears. This time evidence of a crime of violence is found almost at once, in the classic forms of a footprint (in a conveniently placed patch of sand, “which had evidently been thrown up by a rabbit [and which] was the only sand in the immediate neighborhood”), a few strategically placed drops of blood, and a depression in some grass (later known as Thicket No. 1). Thicket #2 is also found, confirmed by a thread from Ursula’s green sweater (furze is so very apt for snagging wool). From here on it is a veritable rain of clues: clean joints revealing a secret safe and a confidential manuscript, fingerprints, a distinctive yellow clay smeared in the footwell of Reg Slade’s car. Even a reader minimally driven to solve mystery stories will have twigged that yellow clay as matching the soil at the new road cut. A sticky and effortful night scene follows as construction workers and policemen dig up the new bank until the bodies of all three missing persons are revealed, at long last, on about page 226.

Eventually, of course, there are enough clues, and Inspector French spends enough time charting them out and pondering them, to work out Who, trickily, did What, Why, and especially When (it all comes down to close timing of alibis and car trips, fibbery and misdirection). The root of the three murders leads back to old Mr. Frazer, Dr Campion’s and Nurse Nankivel’s late patient. After everything’s wrapped up, all is explained by French to his police colleagues over drinks (“Fortified with another tot, French went on with his tale”) and smokes in the approved fashion, a narrative accompanied by time chart, diagram, and citations back to the page in this very volume where each relevant detail was observed. (If only French were active today, in the epoch of PowerPoint!) To do Crofts justice, French’s friends tease him for his deliberate and prolonged exposition.

So, on to reflection. The puzzle was certainly puzzling, and its disentangling scrupulous, to the point almost of absurdity. The tale’s strange lack of urgency, its willingness to take weekends off to go to Romney Marsh by train (express [p. 153]) and bus, to fuss with cigarettes and meals (“Breakfast was becoming quite a problem” as French searched the Earles’ house (p. 173), give it a narcotic detachment. I assume these small details are meant to give an illusion of humanness to the otherwise mostly wooden figures populating the book. There are occasional eruptions of humanity: the odd relationship between the snubbing Julia and her enamored young neighbor, for instance, though irrelevant to the mystery, is unusually startling and lifelike. Ursula Stone, from whose point of view we see the first few chapters, is another exception, but her interiority disappears long before her character.

Though the puzzle was, as the citations are meant to assure us, fair*, somehow it doesn’t feel fair, to me anyway.  Is it that the murder/cover-up plot is so precise and at the same time so flimsy? Or that the motivation, though perfectly realistic, is never shown to us in anyone’s behavior?

Clearly, this is not my favorite style of story. But I can see its virtues and enjoy them, along with the guileless exposure of Crofts’ own passions for machinery and engineering, literal and figurative. (The tools in Campion’s workshop: circular saw, planing machine, mortising machine, vertical drill, lathe — these have nothing to do with the crime, French himself takes no note of them, and yet they are lovingly enumerated and “polished till they shone” [p. 27]).  I’m not rushing to find more of Crofts’ oeuvre, but I’m glad to have read this one.

Note: Sadly, there seems to be nothing about this cover, with rolling landscape and unspooky mansion, that matches the Vintage Scavenger Hunt list.
*Although we do not hear of French’s researches at the Handcraft shop until his recapitulation.

Tagged , , ,

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.

Books of 2015 (part 1)

Finally, I’m getting around to a minimal report on the books I read in 2015. Clearly, as I have admitted before, I had too much time on my hands, as I appear to have read something like 160 books. About 20 of these, or about 12 percent, were works in translation; I suppose this is above average, but still seems low considering how I swaggered (internally) to think of myself as a big foreign-book reader.

The book I most often recommended last year was probably Sybille Bedford’s A LEGACY, a memoirish novel of a family and a childhood in the transforming, not to say collapsing, Europe of the early 20th century. Written in English as a second or third language, it almost counts as a work in translation—pre-translation, so to speak. I connected A LEGACY with Gyorgy Krudy’s ADVENTURES OF SINDBAD, also highly recommended, which apparently I read in some earlier year.  Another book I talked up was Robert Sackville-West’s THE DISINHERITED, a family memoir of the troubled and occasionally dastardly Sackville-West family (not primarily about the famous Vita). Sensing a theme here? Another in the same dying-Europe family: THE EMPEROR’S TOMB by Joseph Roth.

TO BE CONTINUED.