Phoebe Atwood Taylor Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Phoebe Atwood Taylor has been described as the “essential New England mystery writer,” and from her first novel, The Cape Cod Mystery, she earned such acclaim. Taylor’s novels betray her New England roots in numerous ways. Many of the settings are in Cape Cod towns, usually described as resort areas, such as Wellfleet and Weesit. In the Asey Mayo novels, tourists must constantly be kept away from the scene of the crime. Yet the principal characters are not tourists at all: They are genuine New Englanders, who populate the towns beyond the tourist season. Taylor does not delve intimately into the lives of these individuals; instead, she reveals an intimate knowledge of general life on the Cape. Her characters all speak with a broad a (a point she endlessly emphasizes), and they often have Pilgrim or Puritan ancestors. Yet few of her characters boast of “old money”—most either have just managed to survive the Depression or have ingeniously grown rich despite the odds of the time.

The Mystery of the Cape Cod Players

The Depression is but one of the historical interests in Taylor’s mystery novels. While she never mentions the Depression directly, she candidly reveals its consequences. In The Mystery of the Cape Cod Players (1933), Taylor writes of a troupe composed of actors, a magician, and a puppeteer. This group of rather odd characters have chosen their current roles only because they lost their previous jobs. Taylor never directly mentions the Depression as the cause of their hard luck, but the many intimations of the current difficulties allow the reader to link the poor state of these strolling players to the Depression. In the same novel, a wealthy widow is also affected by the near collapse of the company that her husband left her. The company was all that remained of what must have been a much greater fortune.

Taylor never seems to leave any of her characters untouched by the current state of the country. The best example of this is with the work of her favorite detective, Asa Alden “Asey” Mayo. Asey was involved in both world wars. Although he often says that he spent World War I peeling potatoes on a ship, it is revealed that Asey worked on secret tank plans for the Porter Motors Company. Although the tanks never went into production during World War I, they were later produced during World War II. When Asey was not solving a case during World War II, he spent all of his time living at the Porter plant, developing the tanks. Taylor ultimately reveals to her readers that Asey won a medal for his work on the Porter miracle tank, the Mark XX. Other characters in Taylor’s novels contribute to the war effort as well. For example, in The Perennial Boarder (1941), Jennie Mayo, the wife of Asey’s cousin Sylvanus “Syl” Mayo, busied herself with jujitsu, a commando training course, and target practice with the Women’s Defense Corps. Also, Syl joins the navy during World War II.

The narrow focus of many of Taylor’s novels heightens their geographic and historical verisimilitude. Xenophobia is a common element throughout Taylor’s works, as many of the Cape natives sorely distrust outsiders. In The Mystery of the Cape Cod Players, an old hermit, Harm, welcomes to his house only those whom he knows and trusts. When Asey and Syl drive up to Harm’s shack, Harm allows only Asey to get out of the car, and he speaks only to him. Syl notes, “Harm’d have made for me if I’d stepped out of this car, but he likes Asey.”

The Crimson Patch

The Crimson Patch (1936) focuses on a problem with outsiders. The natives of Skaket do their best to run a new family out of town by accusing them of being immoral. For the natives, the word “immoral” takes on an unmistakable Puritanical connotation. Taylor’s novels also tell of Yankees’ occasional racism.

Of all the New England elements in Taylor’s novels the most significant are the characterizations of her detectives. Asey Mayo is described through the eyes of an outsider in The Crimson Patch as “tall, lean faced, blue eyed, he looked exactly as Myles had fondly imagined all Cape Codders would look, and as, to his intense disappointment, they had not.” Indeed, Asey Mayo is the consummate Cape native, with his broad a and his New England r (pronounced “ah”). Although it is not mentioned in the earlier novels, Asey owns a two-story house on the beach, with its own wharf. His knowledge of the sea is remarkable, and he had spent many years as a sailor before he began his business of solving mysteries.

Asey Mayo is originally introduced by Taylor as what the critics dubbed “the hayseed Sherlock.” In the first few novels, Asey is simply Bill Porter’s hired hand, a man who can, seemingly, do anything. By Death Lights a Candle (1932), Taylor reveals that Porter has left Asey a large sum of money, even though his appearance speaks otherwise (he was known for his corduroys, flannel shirt, and Stetson hat cocked sideways on his head). By Taylor’s last novel, Diplomatic...

(The entire section is 2103 words.)