Last week I reviewed one of Asey Mayo’s later cases, Punch with Care (1946), which I then compared with The Iron Clew (1947), which Phoebe Atwood Taylor wrote under the penname, Alice Tilton. This week though I am focusing on just the character of Mayo himself, based on a provocative quote I read in The Cambridge Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999) about him. Ellen A. Nehr in her entry for Phoebe Atwood Taylor makes the claim that Mayo was ‘the prototype for the shrewd, homespun detective who uses his wits and knowledge of the locale and inhabitants to solve’ (Nehr, 1999: 445) crimes.
I felt this was quite a bold claim to make as if anything I found Mayo to be a descendent of other fictional characters rather than the ‘prototype,’ although I can see how his series is a significant model for the TV show, Murder She Wrote. The type of detective being referred to in the phrase ‘homespun detective who uses his wits and knowledge of the locale and inhabitants to solve’ crimes, I think, is an amateur sleuth whose detecting skills have been developed through life experiences rather than professional training. I also think such a detective needs to be a long term resident of the area they are solving crimes in, in order to gain their knowledge about their surroundings and neighbours.
Of course this train of thought lead to me thinking about Miss Marple, who by the time of Mayo’s first case in The Cape Cod Mystery (1931), had already appeared in 13 short stories (being printed in various magazines between 1927 and 1931) and in the novel, The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). Although Mayo may solve more crimes in one specific town, Cape Cod, I still think Miss Marple is the earlier prototype for the fictional sleuth Nehr describes. For as Merja Makinen (2010) writes, Miss Marple, in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) ‘is the villager insider, conversant with all the community’ (Makinen, 2010: 421) in St Mary Mead. This is supported by various characters within the novel such as the vicar’s wife, Griselda, who says that ‘she always know every single thing that happens.’ This is corroborated by the vicar, who is also the narrator, who says that ‘Miss Marple always sees everything. Gardening is as good as a smoke screen, and the habit of observing birds through powerful glasses can always be turned to account.’ Furthermore he also says that Miss Marple ‘knew practically everything that went on in St Mary Mead.’ It is therefore not surprising when she solves the case ahead of the police.
Returning back to Mayo though, I actually think a number of parallels can be made between the two amateur detectives. For example both of them use conversation and gossip to find out information and they are on sufficiently friendly terms with others in the community to do this successfully. Mayo particularly uses gossip to find out information about the possibility of a secret room in the Douglasses’ house in Punch with Care. Likewise, Miss Marple acknowledges the role of conversation in her detective work in A Caribbean Mystery (1964) saying that ‘she had one weapon and one weapon only, and that was conversation.’ In fact Mayo’s use of gossip is arguably one of his distinguishing features as Makinen (2010) suggests that understanding the value of gossip is something male detectives often fail to do. Christie’s Hercule Poirot would be another exception to the rule, but his past working life in the police prevents him from being characterised as a ‘homespun detective.’ The unusualness of Mayo’s desire for conversation, confidences and gossip is highlighted in some of the responses he receives from female characters who suggest he could not possibly understand their situation or behaviour because he is not a woman. Of course he shows this is not the case, but it is interesting to see how his gender makes it harder for him to do detective work in this way, in comparison to his female counterpart, Miss Marple. Furthermore, also like Miss Marple, Mayo also focuses on little details, often domestic ones such as towels in a bathroom, or objects which do not fit into their surrounding locale such as a stethoscope in a tree or a cigarette lighter not in the hands of its’ owner.
Moreover, in regards to their working relationship with the police I think they also both have a tendency to not always immediately involve the police, often because without their further investigative work there would not be a substantial enough case for the police to act on. For example in Punch with Care, when the body disappears from the train carriage, Mayo decides not to involve the police, because without the body, the only proof there was a murder was his word. Equally with Miss Marple in some of her cases the police are not involved at the outset such in Sleeping Murder (1976) or in Nemesis (1971), where the police are not working directly on proving Michael Rafiel’s innocence. However though, once Mayo and Marple have enough of a case and require police action, they are trusted enough by the police that they comply with the actions the amateurs propose.
However, an important difference I noticed between Mayo and Miss Marple is in their use of local knowledge (‘locale and inhabitants’). For Mayo (correct me if I am wrong) this knowledge is applied only to his geographical area e.g. Cape Cod. However, Miss Marple’s knowledge of St Mary Mead is applied more globally, beyond the realms of the village, helping Miss Marple to solve cases elsewhere based on her understanding of that village. This is because of the idea found in Miss Marple novels that human behaviour is similar wherever you go and Miss Marple says in ‘The Thumb Mark of St Peters’ (1928) that ‘human nature is much the same everywhere, and, of course, one has opportunities of observing it at close quarters in a village.’ Although amusingly in The Body in the Library (1942) the police initially suggest that Miss Marple won’t be so successful in solving the case, as it is not in St Mary Mead:
‘Miss Marple’s quite the local sleuth. Put it over us properly once, didn’t she, Slack?’
‘That was a local case, that was, sir. The old lady knows everything that goes on in the village, that’s true enough. But she’ll be out of her depth here.’
But as the novel goes on to show, DI Slack is wrong.
However, when it came to thinking of other fictional sleuths (prior to Mayo) who also fit the detective type Nehr alludes to, I did begin to feel a little bit stumped. Anna Katharine Green’s Amelia Butterworth in That Affair Next Door (1897) is arguably a much earlier prototype as she too through observation knows a lot of inside information about her neighbours, though probably finds this information more through peeping through her curtains than actually talking to her neighbours. There is also of course Anthony Wynne’s Dr. Eustace Hailey who in Murder of a Lady (1931), uses his insider status and his knowledge of the area and its inhabitants to solve the series of baffling murders, in contrast to the policeman who just annoys all the locals. But having read only this novel, I can’t say whether any of his earlier forays into amateur sleuthing are similar or whether he is an outsider to the cases he investigates. If you widen the definition of ‘locale and inhabitants’ and remove the criteria of the sleuth being required to be living there at the time of the crime, I think a case could also be made for Dorothy L Sayer’s Cloud of Witnesses (1926), as the case revolves around Lord Peter Wimsey’s family and the family home, so therefore although Lord Peter is not living there at the time of the murder, he still has valuable knowledge concerning the area and his family members.
I don’t know how weighty a case I have made against Asey Mayo being the ‘prototype’ for the amateur sleuth who uses local knowledge to solve crimes, but when reading Punch with Care, he just didn’t come across as that original. Consequently I would be interested to know if readers can think of any other fictional sleuths who fit this criteria and were published prior to 1931.
Makinen, M. (2010). Agatha Christie (1890-1976). In: Rzepka, C. and Horsley, L. A Companion to Crime Fiction. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 415-426.