‘The Cape Cod Mystery’ was a pleasant surprise. Published in 1931, it’s an American Golden Age Mystery that couldn’t be more different from its English Detective Club contemporaries. I read it because it was selected as a side-read by the GoodReads Appointment With Agatha group and I has no idea what to expect.
‘The Cape Cod Mystery’ launched a series of books featuring amateur sleuth Asey Mayo, a Cape Cod native who, after travelling the world as a Merchant Seaman, now works for the powerful Porter family. Asey is dragged into his first case when his millionaire boss is arrested for the murder of a well-known and much-detested novelist. Asey has one weekend to find the real killer and stop his boss from becoming so entangled with the legal system that even his great wealth might not be enough to set him free.
The book got off to an exhaustingly fast start with dialogue so brisk and brittle it made ‘The Gilmore Girls’ look slow and naturalistic. To me, everything sounded brash until I hooked into the taken-for-granted privilege of the characters and realised that their chatter was all performative – the 1930s equivalent of cool.
Surprisingly, the pace increased about a quarter of the way through, when I first met Asey Mayo. Wow, what a whirlwind he was. And what a wonderfully refreshing contrast he was to Poirot or Wimsy. And how quintessentially late 19th Century Yankee he was. A man of broad experience, slim education, high intelligence and low cunning. He comes across as all practicality and common sense and no pretensions at all but he uses his ‘I’m just a plain-speaking Cape Cod fisherman using my common sense to muddle through’ persona as a weapon to ambush, beguile, and bully his way to the truth.
Part of what makes the story work is that it is told not through the eyes of Asey Mayo but through the eyes of Miss Wtsby, a well-respected Bostonian woman of means in her fifties. She has all the education and social graces that Asey lacks. She’s also connected to just about everyone of importance in the plot. She is calm, rational, open-minded and prone to gentle humour. She makes an excellent foil for the folksy man-of-the-people amateur detective.
It took me a while to work out the social status of Miss Witsby and her niece. This made me realise that when I read Sayers or Christie, I’m always aware of the social class that the people come from and that sets my expectations of them. With the Cape Code summer people, I found myself class-blind. It was like suddenly losing my sense of smell. I couldn’t figure out the class Miss Witsby came from or where the young people fit in the social strata. I finally figured out they must be from money because, when the maid had the evening off and the women had a ‘pick up supper’ they helped themselves to food, ate and then stacked the plates and left them for the maid to clean. Who does that? Four people at table and they make no effort to clean up after themselves and they treat that as normal. Nothing says money like taking that kind of thing for granted.
Asey and Miss Witsby work at a frenetic pace to track down what turns out to be at least half a dozen people who had both the motive and opportunity to kill the deservedly detested novelist. The investigation was heavier on humour than method but they got the job done.
To me, it felt that the author was setting out to debunk more traditional murder mystery stories by showing that diligently following clues was much less helpful than being able to read people and know when and why they were lying.
The humour mostly worked, although it was occasionally a little heavy-handed, especially when the Sheriff was involved, but it was always entertaining.
By the end of the book, I was beginning to find Asey a little wearing – there’s only so much folk-wisdom I can enjoy – then the author came up with an ending that was clever and touching (and a little improbable) which put Asey in a much better light.
This was a high-energy piece of entertainment that rollicked along with more pace than grace but which made me smile and kept me interested.
Phoebe Atwood Taylor was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents were natives of Cape Cod and descended from Pilgrims. She graduated from Barnard College in New York City in 1930, and returned to Boston. She married a surgeon also named Taylor and lived in the Boston suburbs of Newton Highlands and Weston. The couple also had a summer home in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. Boston and Cape Cod served as the locales for many of her mystery novels.
She published under her own name as well as under the pen names Freeman Dana and Alice Tilton. Her first novel, The Cape Cod Mystery (1931), introduced Asey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock,” a handyman and amateur sleuth who appeared in 24 novels. These novels were full of humor and the local culture of Cape Cod in the 1930s and 1940s.
Another series featured Leonidas Witherall, a teacher, and author of detective novels.