The Iron Clew (1947) by Alice Tilton (Phoebe Atwood Taylor)

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Blood stains

The Iron Clew

This is my first foray into the work of Phoebe Atwood Taylor, an American writer who also wrote as Alice Tilton and The Iron Clew (1947), is her final novel published under this name. I am also submitting this for Past Offence’s Crimes of the Century Challenge as this month’s chosen year is 1947. Her serial amateur sleuth under this name was Leonidas Witherall, who is involved with the running of a local school for boys and seems to have done some teaching in the past there. He is also the author of the Lieutenant Haseltine series, with Haseltine being a larger than life hero who saves the world and Lady Alicia from various world destroying hazards, aided by his sidekick faithful Frank.

The novel begins with Witherall struggling to write his next Haseltine story finding that all the usual spy/thriller tropes such as atomic bombs and ‘world hungry dictators’ are all ‘passé’ and ‘moth-eaten.’ His cleaning lady Mrs Mullet is a comically brilliant character with her down to earth creative writing suggestions and her blunt opinions. She is quite happy telling Witherall that his Haseltine novels are not her ‘favourite books’ and she suggests instead writing a mystery/thriller novel which concern a set of mysterious brown paper packages. This idea is inspired by the fact that a young woman has just dropped one off for Witherall. Merely assuming it is the bank report he gets for being a director of the local bank Witherall is suitably unexcited, but he is so intrigued by Mrs Mullet’s brown package plot device that he begins planning out a plot involving it. Later that evening he gets ready for dinner with Fenwick who owns the bank he is a director of, at Balderston Hall. It is then that he realises that his brown package has disappeared, an event he had planned in his upcoming novel:

‘That old octopus of fate… had obviously slithered out from his printed words and into his own personal and private life.’

But the ‘old octopus of fate’ has a lot in store for Witherall this evening, beginning with a hue and cry being raised after him when he removes from a woman a package he believes to be his own. A run in with an old pupil he taught though provides him with a quick getaway, arriving at Balderston Hall only slightly later than planned. With brilliant comic timing and understatement Taylor tells us of the moment Witherall finds Fenwick:

‘Fenwick was, as usual, in the library.

Fenwick was lying on the Bokhara, his head in a pool of blood.’

Witherall is taken aback by this as again the plot of his new book seems to be reflected in the events of his own life. In his book he planned that a ‘distinguished’ person should be murdered and that Haseltine would come heavily under suspicion due to mounting circumstantial evidence, which is exactly what happens to Witherall, with one of his own paperweights being the murder weapon and Fenwick’s servants being convinced that it was he who locked them in the wine closet, an idea that a new and very suspicious guest, Dr Fell, is keen to support. It is therefore inevitable that another chase is given in pursuit of Witherall, this time by the police and that once more another well timed individual helps him to escape – this time the person being Philip Shaver, who works at Fenwick’s bank and is convinced he is being framed for embezzlement by one of the cashiers. An interesting element Shaver brings to the mystery is that having spotted the body of Fenwick earlier he also saw in the hall near it a woman’s mink coat and a monkey in a red coat eating an apple and some ice cream, which were definitely not there when Witherall arrived. The opportunity for explaining his situation to the police has definitely past by this point and like his own fictional hero, Witherall decides to solve the mysterious events outside of the law. But with the police on his trail and the snow fall increasing by the minute he is going to need a band of trusty helpers to help him prove his innocence. This band contains a wide range of different characters such as a redhead waitress (who also happens to be Mrs Mullet’s niece) and her boyfriend and even an old flame of Witherall’s.

The Iron Clew is a superb comic take on the innocent fugitive novel, with the chapters ending with suitably dramatic cliff hangers. The plot involves a high amount of coincidences, which the narrative is conscious of, but because of this deliberateness these coincidences work perfectly, adding to the humour of the story. Of course it goes without saying that there is more than one brown package, three in fact, which through the course of events accidently and deliberately get swapped between the different characters. The number of puzzles and connections between the characters escalate through the story, making you wonder if Witherall will ever be able to unravel the mystery at all, let alone before the end of the night. Yet that is exactly what he does do and in my opinion the final solution (though certain bits do get untangled earlier in the book) is a thing of beauty with every element interconnected and seamlessly sewn up, which is quite an achievement considering the number of bizarre aspects that are involved in the case.

Overall I really enjoyed this book and I liked the connection between Witherall’s real life and the fiction he writes as throughout the story comments are made by characters which draw attention to the parallels. The opening chapter in particular helps set this up for the rest of the novel as Witherall and Mrs Mullet have an amusing metafictional discussion about the genre he writes in. For example, in the Haseltine novels there is a character called faithful Frank who aids Haseltine and both of Witherall’s “getaway drivers” to differing extents take on this role. One in fact says, ‘if you must play Haseltine, you’d better let me play Frank’. The humour in this novel is brilliant as Taylor uses a variety of forms but is careful to make her narrative style humorous without being over the top. Moreover, the characters themselves were not particularly exaggerated and their ordinariness enhanced the humour of the tale. Not everyone is in agreement with me though as a critic called Dilys Winn said that ‘these books don’t make all that much sense, but they go a long way in proving that making sense is immaterial – a guffaw is more vital.’ I massively disagree with this comment as it does a big injustice to Taylor’s work. In terms of plausibility yes this book is not that realistic, but then a lot of crime fiction is not and I don’t think Taylor ever planned for this book to be so. However, this does not mean that the plot itself doesn’t make sense, for that you need to read Harry Stephen Keeler’s work such as The Riddle of the Traveling Skull (1934). There was no point in this novel where I was confused or unsure of what was happening and I loved seeing Witherall react to the different obstacles he comes up against. Winn goes on to suggest that Taylor’s Witherall books do not have plots but move from incident to incident, which again I found to be an erroneous statement as having read truly episodic novels The Iron Clew does not fit this category.

So with a top rating from me I would definitely recommend this book and I look forward to reading other novels by Taylor.

Rating: 5/5


  1. Readers unfamiliar with the Witherall novels may be forgiven for thinking that Kate must have totally garbled the plot – there couldn’t be that many seemingly unrelated lunatic events going on simultaneously. This is incorrect. Kate is absolutely right. As a matter of fact, ALL of the Witherall novels are like this. And if that makes the writing “formulaic,” be advised that it is a highly entertaining formula, and that there is nothing wrong with hearty guffaws. Unless you’re reading it in public transit and other passengers start edging away from the person laughing hysterically…

    By the way,the series Taylor wrote under her own name, which feature the “codfish Sherlock,” Asey Mayo, are less zany, with plenty of humorous elements, but not nearly as much slapstick as the Witherall ones by “Alice Tilton.” I think you’ll enjoy both series, Kate!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like Asey but I certainly prefer Witherall. Nor would I use the term formula to describe them. Rather I would say they are done in a style, the style being that of a screwball comedy. It is amazing how PAT is able to juggle all the plot points and bring everything to a proper resolution. It reminds me of another great comedic writer, P G Woodehouse. That is pretty exalted company.


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