Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hint Item: Green object
Last month I had my first experience of Phoebe Atwood Taylor, but under another of her pen names, Alice Tilton and I thoroughly loved her novel The Iron Clew (1947), featuring series’ amateur sleuth Leonidas Witherall. Reviewing this book led to some commenters suggesting they much preferred Taylor’s work when she was writing as Tilton. Consequently alongside reviewing Punch with Care (1946), which is my first look at Taylor’s Asey Mayo series I will comparing the two series and deciding which one I liked the best (based on a one book taster of each).
Punch With Care
The novel is set in Cape Cod and Asey Mayo after an aborted clam catching trip, ends up getting persuaded to provide his friend, Doc Cummings, with moral support when he goes to the Douglasses’ house to meet Carolyn Barton Boone, a politically active senator’s wife who he greatly admires. Already unusual events are occurring as Sylvester, who is in charge of sounding the Bull Moose siren, (an air raid signal used during the war) at 1pm, which in turn causes people to tune into a radio quiz show beginning at that time, is late. Another unusual occurrence is that Mayo receives a call from Louise Douglasse saying Boone is missing and then he misses another call from her, which his cousin and housekeeper Jennie Mayo takes, where it is suggested that Boone is not missing but murdered.
This turns out to be the case when Mayo and Cummings come across Boone dead in one of the carriages of the railway Harold Douglasse built on his property, (which he loved making people take rides on and even gave and punched their train tickets). Her head has been smashed in with a vase. Excessive force is suggested, being described like a ‘rabbit punch’ and throughout the novel the word punch is played with, alluding to the title in a different way each time. Since Boone has a train ticket in her hand, Cummings and Mayo’s attention is drawn to finding Harold who they find inside his house, though it seems his attention is on his wife who has seemingly fainted. This incident immediately makes Cummings suspicious, thinking both the Douglasses are stalling for time and gets Mayo to decoy Harold away while he probes Louise and phones for the police.
However from this point things go badly awry for Mayo as when he goes with Harold to get the decoy prescription his truck is stolen and Harold vanishes. Yet before doing so reveals that he and his wife have more than enough reasons for hating Boone who in the past got them fired from their jobs, leading to a period of privation and who also now has their daughter, Layne in her thrall. Mayo’s journey to find his truck again leads to bumping into students and staff from the college Boone was president of, as there is a college student town government project taking place. Mayo’s interactions with these college characters reveals a further plethora of reasons for Boone’s murder. Even worse aside from his truck being missing, Boone’s body has also disappeared and neither Doc Cummings nor Louise are at the house. Where has everybody gone? When finally he finds Louise she seems unconcerned by what has past, assuming Cummings has left to find Mayo and she also blithely states that her aunt received a phone call from Boone’s second in common, Miss Shearing saying Boone is with her – thereby presuming that what she thought she saw in train carriage was all in her imagination. But is her story the truth? Mayo is more than sceptical with her explanations.
With all the obstacles Mayo has to face in trying to discover the truth it is not surprising that he feels like he is in a radio thriller serial, a feeling which is emphasised when it seems other characters have gone missing, clues have been planted and there is the mention of a secret room. But is all this smoke and mirrors? Will Mayo find Cumming and Boone for that matter? To find out the excellent final twist you’ll have to tune in next time or in this case grab a copy of the book and get reading!
A theme I found interesting, which cropped up in the opening of the novel was the way peace (WW2 having ended) was perceived by the characters. For example, Jennie says that:
‘Whenever I thought about peace, during the war, I forgot all the things that went along with it. You know, like tourists, and strikes, and sky high prices, and the roads so packed you hardly dare drive on ‘em…’
Whilst Doctor Cummings says that:
‘I’ve been too busy with the toys of peace… Asey, was peace always like this?… during the war years, I had a distinct mental picture of peace…’
This ‘mental picture’ involved him retiring and having plenty of leisure time, whilst in contrast he has to deal with many tourist and new comer related injuries, which have often happened due to their lack of knowledge of or respect for the surrounding landscape. The landscape and locale will remind readers of Murder She Wrote and I’m not the first person to suggest that this TV series borrows a lot from the Mayo series. Nehr (1999) in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999), comments that in Taylor’s Mayo novels the ‘emphasis is on humour and character rather than plot, and her sense of atmosphere and locale is superb’ (Nehr, 1999: 445). Based on my one novel experience I can agree that Taylor sets up her locale well and her characters are deftly drawn and I can easily visualise them. However, I disagree that the plot is not emphasised as I think Taylor includes a number of unusual and interesting plot features such as the railway and the disappearing characters. Moreover, as I will explain further below, I don’t think humour is such a big or successful aspect of this novel.
Taylor vs. Tilton
Reading this novel was a rollercoaster reading experience, not because it was exhilarating, but my own opinions of it mirrored such an experience. At the start I was disappointed by the lack of pace, especially in comparison to how The Iron Clew began. My opinion perked up a bit when the body was discovered and then lost, yet took a dip when Mayo’s early questionings of suspects were a bit slow due to his lack of direct questioning and his suspect’s talents for prevaricating. However, the plot picked up a lot in the final half and the surprise at the end was a good one. Comparing the humour in both novels I think I preferred the Tilton novel as it was much more effective and made me laugh out loud. I also think Taylor’s style was smoother in The Iron Clew, as there were a couple of clunky moments in Punch with Care. Although The Iron Clew is a screwball comedy full of bizarre events and misunderstandings and Punch with Care is a more linear murder mystery, I still think both novel’s plots have a reactive quality wherein the characters plan less and react to situations as they arise, as although Mayo does try to plan his investigation, things inevitably get in the way. Moreover, like The Iron Clew, the case in Punch with Care has a number of odd features (though they are less zany perhaps), yet Taylor is adept at wrapping up all the loose ends at the story’s denouement within one solution. But all in all I think currently I much prefer the Witherall series written as Tilton, as opposed to the Mayo series written as Taylor, as although Punch with Care had a number of promising features and had a brilliant twist, I think the plot and style overall needed to flow better. However, I have two other Mayo novels to try so hopefully I may have a better experience next time.